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Good riddance

February 18, 2021

It often grates on me when people look to justify someone’s death from the behavior that led to it. We all do things that put our health at some risk, in the pursuit of career or comfort or pleasure or social connection. Addictions and habits are not easily changed. Smoking poses health risks. It doesn’t make you a bad person. I have friends who smoke. I sympathize with someone who dying from emphysema, even if they were a lifetime smoker. And with someone dying from cirrhosis, even if they were a lifetime drinker. 

My sympathy evaporates when people intentionally bullshit about such issues. Rush Limbaugh died from lung cancer after touting his smoking with lies: “There is no conclusive proof that nicotine’s addictive… And the same thing with cigarettes causing emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease.” While championing tobacco, and even when himself addicted to pain pills, he damned drug addicts. AIDS was the new disease when he was starting out. And he made fun of those who died from it. His ability to cheerfully feed people’s cultural hates and fears turned him into a popular talk radio personality on the right. The most lasting and most harmful consequence was to expand that branch of the right that thrives on conspiracy theories. No bad intention ascribed to his political targets was too ridiculous: “Feminism was created to force popular culture to accept ugly women.” There was no fact that couldn’t be ignored, and few lies too insane to credit. Though he was sly in doing so, often referencing or spinning against those defamed, while giving a nod to the stories. 

Adam Kinzinger, along with some honest colleagues, are fighting today for a conservatism that doesn’t look like a cult running on conspiracy theories. That difference is enough to split families who otherwise share quite similar religious and political views. That split makes sense to me. It’s one thing to differ on, say, corporate tax rates. There is considerable complexity and a variety of legitimate arguments around that. And most policy issues likewise. It’s something else entirely to propagate conspiracy theories about everything from Vince Foster’s suicide to the results of Georgia’s election in 2020. Rush Limbaugh was one of the driving forces in moving such conspiracies from the edges of the conservative movement to its heart. He has been followed in that by a second generation who studied his work, from Tucker Carlson to Laura Ingraham. Conservatives like Kinzinger who want to lessen the craziness and deceit in their movement need to face such pundits head on.  

Everyone recognizes that the Marlboro man was just a role. When David McLaren was dying of lung cancer, he spoke the truth about his most famous work. For Limbaugh, facing the lies he peddled would undermine his entire life. So he continued his role to the end. Good riddance to bad rubbish. I still don’t believe in karma. I am glad he lived just long enough to see the president who rode his movement to power disgraced and defeated, and that movement at war with the rest of the political party he supported. 

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