In her 27 February essay, “Not humane to make a mockery of death”, Christine Flowers argued that it was inexcusable that some celebrated Rush Limbaugh’s recent death. She asked “Can’t we just … say that there is hatred on both sides of the aisle and be done with it?” Well, duh. People are passionate about their governance – of course, hate exists on all sides.
But she simplistically (and perhaps disingenuously) skirts the thornier, more consequential issue of whether some forms of hate are more defensible than others. Is the hatred many Americans have for Limbaugh really comparable to the hatred he promulgated?
Merriam-Webster says hate is “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury”. Given that fear, anger, and injury are ubiquitous (and sometimes intense) human experiences, it’s hardly surprising that hate is common in many contexts, including politics. I imagine that even the saints among us suffer hateful moments now and then.
Unfortunately, because many people love to hate, selling hatred can be popular and lucrative. Limbaugh, a caustic self-promoting know-it-all, knew this well and openly relished the hatred many held for him. He cultivated a distinctive brand of malice and hostility toward people unlike him, exemplified by his joking about the many deaths of AIDS victims during the 1980s and his calling feminists “feminazis”.
Worse, by setting the stage for other vitriolic commentators such as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, Limbaugh was a key catalyst in producing the contemptuous rhetoric and hyper-partisanship of current American politics. Limbaugh’s family and friends surely deserve our sympathy for their private loss but the death of the public Limbaugh is no loss to an America aspiring to equality for all.
From the invidious social climate crafted by Limbaugh, we saw Donald Trump’s indomitable political ascent. Trump used his bully pulpit to crank up the volume of the hate chorus by calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists, frequently disparaging women’s physical features, and eventually inciting a murderous mob to attack the Capitol. This is not the America most of us idealize.
Unlike people, all hate is not created equal. Hating someone for his purposefully destructive behavior is not the same sin as hating a group – whom we mostly don’t even know – for their mere existence. Americans openly hated Osama bin Laden, who happened to be Muslim, for orchestrating the 9/11 attack. But his actions do not justify hating all Muslims. I surmise that the hatred aimed at Limbaugh and Trump is for them personally, not for all those who happen to look like them. Although not admirable, such person-wise hate is far more morally defensible than the group-wise hate these men have fomented for decades.
Hatred is not categorically un-American but aiming invectives at categories of people simply because of their gender, color, or culture is. Venomous speech is protected by our Constitution but the First Amendment does not imply one won’t be despised for saying hateful things. All rights, including free speech, come bound with responsibilities to respect others’ rights and dignity. Individuals who abuse this principle by promoting group-wise hate justly deserve our moral and political wrath – and perhaps our hatred. If group-wise hatred becomes widely acceptable, other American ideals also are in peril.
Political figures like Limbaugh and Trump harm America because they advance a narrative in which ideology, personal insults, and scapegoating are more valued by their partisan “base” than facts, public good, or nuanced solutions to complex issues. Their take-home messages contradict the very first principle asserted in the Declaration of Independence, the self-evident truth that “all [people] are created equal.” Persistent efforts to subvert this principle do more to fray the fabric of American democracy than the occasional terrorist attack ever could.
It’s quite understandable why some hate the likes of Limbaugh or Trump. A person raised in ignorance or oppression might be excused for being hostile toward people unlike himself. However, these are men of exceptional opportunity, wealth, and privilege. They have no legitimate claim to victimhood, and deserve no free pass for hatemongering. They built and defined their political personas by proud, unrelenting repetition of malicious messages. Messenger and message are inextricable.
If I claim to love American ideals, how could I not hate such tireless attackers of those ideals?
Angermeier lives, loves and occasionally hates in Blacksburg.