The Morning Jolt


Why We’re Taught to Not Speak Ill of the Dead

Rush Limbaugh speaks at the 2019 Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Fla., December 21, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum

“Of the dead, say nothing but good”

We used to widely honor the instruction to not speak ill of the dead, at least in media and public communications. But in our modern era of social media, the instinct is largely the opposite. When a prominent political figure passes away, those who loathed the figure jump online and instantly proclaim how happy they are that the person has died, how terrible the figure was, how they hope that figure is burning in hell, etc.

You can find a lot of hackneyed columns disputing the old edict to not speak ill of the dead, particularly after the death of a prominent conservative, with all the columnists convinced they’ve discovered the amazing truth that indisputable villains of life die too, and no one would object to speaking ill of Adolf Hitler.

The aphorism dates back to Greece in 600 b.c., and the modern advocates for speaking ill of the dead seem oddly confident that the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare and everyone else before them could not possibly have grasped the moral nuances of this uniquely modern circumstance of a controversial figure dying.

Or they contend that holding one’s tongue about the recently departed represents a compromise of the truth or an instruction to lie. But the aphorism bars one action; it does not compel other actions. It is not an instruction or requirement to praise the dead and certainly not one to bear false witness in praising the departed. Nor does the instruction forbid silence in response to the passing of a life. The American version of the custom really only asks people to refrain from expressing their disdain for the departed in public for a short period of time after the death. No one really cares if you privately get grim satisfaction out of someone departing this earth, and there will be few complaints if you uncork your long-simmering denunciatory diatribe about the departed a month later.

And yet, for many figures obscure and better known, the edict is just too much to ask.

The first argument put forth in defense of holding one’s criticism of the recently departed is that the figure’s loved ones are in mourning. That’s true, but we have no way of knowing if our words will reach the ears or eyes of mourning family or friends, and that cannot be our sole or deciding concern. Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Qasem Soleimani, Timothy McVeigh, and Samuel Little had loved ones who mourned their deaths.

I suspect the saying is driven by a sense of universal empathy. The public figures you love and adore will die. The public figures you hate and detest will die. In their final moments, the differences between them will become quite insignificant. Few of us are likely to feel “ready” to die when our time comes. Few of us will believe, in our final days, that we lived with no regrets. In our final moments, we are likely to feel vulnerable, frightened, and perhaps pained. Even the most powerful dictator looks frail and weak and sad on his deathbed. Death humbles us all, and death comes for us all.

We have a hard enough time grappling with our own mortality as is. It gets even tougher when a beloved or iconic figure who seemed likely to be around forever — say, Alex Trebek — shuffles off this mortal coil. Recognizing that the public figures we can’t stand are human beings means recognizing that they are mortal, and that they are as vulnerable to age and cancer or heart disease other health problems as anyone else. That is one more stark reminder that our days are numbered as well. The powerful and wealthy and famous may have the resources and good doctors to delay the grim reaper’s arrival for a bit, but not to deny him.

I liked the observation in this editorial of the U.K.’s Reform magazine, written after Margaret Thatcher passed away in 2013:

It seems to me, that if we rail against someone while they live and change our tone when they die, we show respect not for them, but for death.

This powerful and divisive figure, the enemy within, can’t be voted out or overthrown, and even medicine and technology can offer no lasting alternative to its regime. Despite the colossal changes to our moral landscape over the last 50 years, and the death of deference towards traditional authorities and mores, our profound and ancient deference towards death is as alive as ever — presumably because it has as much power over us as it ever did.

The sadness and grief of Rush Limbaugh’s loved ones today is indistinguishable from the sadness and grief of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s loved ones in September or John Lewis’s loved ones or Herman Cain’s loved ones in July. No matter how much we may think that we are different from those we vehemently oppose, they are as human and mortal as we are, and we are all going to end up in the same grave; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Finally, there is the fact that the dead cannot speak for themselves, and castigating the departed will often seem like an unfair attack — and not just immediately after their passing. You may recall that in The Last Dance, the documentary about the glory years of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was consistently portrayed as a bumbling, arrogant, fuming fool. The documentary featured recent interviews with Michael Jordan and almost all of his teammates and coaches . . . but Krause passed away in 2017.

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski pointed out that Krause did make a lot of good decisions in the draft and free agency, and observed, “Aside from a token compliment here or there from Kerr or Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, no one is standing up for Krause in the documentary: no family member, no colleague, no one. There is something cheap, unseemly, and quite telling about the inclination to continue bullying a man who isn’t around to defend himself.”

Perhaps we say we should not speak ill of the dead because the finality of death should also mark the end of our disagreement with the departed. If you read this newsletter, there’s a good chance that you vehemently differed with Ginsburg or John Conyers or Ted Kennedy or John Paul Stevens, or any other figure on the left side of the political spectrum who passed away in recent years. But they’ve gone to meet their Creator now; our argument with them is finished. (There would be something absurd about continuing an argument with a dead man; one could envision a Monty Python or Saturday Night Live sketch where a candidate dies during a debate and his opponent absurdly insists that the debate continue, because he thinks he has a better chance of winning now.)

Our deceased political foes can do no more, and they can say no more, so we have no need to say any more, beyond rest in peace.

One last thought: The snarky philosophy students at the video series Wisecrack sometimes discuss Ernest Becker and his work The Denial of Death. Becker contended that just about everything that human beings do is consciously or subconsciously an effort to avoid death. Becker observes that hatred and violence can be a convenient way of suppressing or sublimating the fear of death: “Only scapegoats can relieve one of his own stark death fear: ‘I am threatened with death — let us kill plentifully.’” Being able to inflict death upon other people can give people a sense that they can control death; because they can decide who else lives and dies, they can “decide” that they themselves will never die. This never works, of course, but the easiest person to fool is yourself.

Thankfully, few people turn to homicide to cope with their fear of death. But perhaps a variation of that impulse can be found in the compulsion to feel and express glee in response to the death of an opposing political figure, to treat it as a personal “win.” The hideous and hateful little troll who jumps on social media to celebrate Rush Limbaugh’s passing as a victory is inadvertently revealing the lack of genuine victories and joy in his life. He controls nothing on the grand stage of American politics and can exercise no true influence over the course of events, so he must take the inevitable — the death of an elderly figure revered by the political opposition who was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer — as some sort of shocking and earned triumph, one that allows him to bask in shared glory.

As for Rush himself, you can read tributes from The Editors, Jack Fowler, Dan McLaughlin, Michael Brendan Dougherty, John Fund, Kathryn Jean Lopez, and yesterday on the Three Martini Lunch, podcast Greg and I scrapped our traditional format and just discussed Rush and how he shaped us, modern conservatism, and modern radio. NR has also reposted James Bowman’s 1993 cover story on Rush, declaring him “The Leader of the Opposition.

America has many powerful and famous celebrities with devoted fan bases, but it has very few who more or less single-handedly created the industry that made them famous. The AM-radio dial was utterly transformed, permanently, by Rush Limbaugh; an entire industry and format grew and thrived for decades and shaped our system of politics because of what he started on KFBK in Sacramento, Calif., in 1984. You can argue he is among the top ten or fewer of the most influential Americans of the post–Cold-War era.

I didn’t always agree with everything Rush Limbaugh said, but I didn’t have to. In 2004, Rush reached out and told me was a fan of the Kerry Spot, and I felt like I had walked on the moon. He offered a blurb for Voting to Kill — now available at fine remainder bins everywhere — and had me on his program in 2006 when I was promoting the book and he had absolutely no reason to help out. He was the biggest figure in the conservative movement, but never too big to demonstrate the smallest kindness. He will be sorely missed.

ADDENDUM: One year ago today, Bernie Sanders was leading the Democratic primaries, people wondered how big a deal Michael Bloomberg was going to be in the upcoming debate, and I was warning people that the virus from over in China was a big deal that was much worse than the flu, despite what most mainstream-media institutions were reporting at the time.

For several weeks, we’ve been getting coverage with headlines such as, “The flu is a far bigger threat to most people in the US than the Wuhan coronavirus.” And while that was statistically true enough, the coronavirus was just getting started. Besides that, most Americans know to get their flu shots and those that do get the flu get through it just fine with fluids and bed rest.

This morning, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention offered a new analysis of data:

An analysis of 44,672 coronavirus patients in China whose diagnoses were confirmed by laboratory testing has found that 1,023 had died by Feb. 11. That’s a fatality rate of 2.3 percent. Figures released on a daily basis suggest the rate has further increased in recent days.

That is far higher than the mortality rate of the seasonal flu, with which the new coronavirus has sometimes been compared. In the United States, flu fatality rates hover around 0.1 percent.

Yes, if you live in the United States, you’re much more likely to get “regular” flu, but if you do catch it, the odds of it killing you are 1 in 1,000. If, God forbid, you catch the coronavirus, the chances of it killing you are 23 in 1,000, based upon what we know now.

The current number of total diagnosed cases in the U.S. is 27.9 million; the death toll is now above 490,000, according to Johns Hopkins University. (Worldometers has the U.S. past a half-million deaths now.)

That comes out to a roughly 1.7 percent death rate — obviously much higher among the elderly and immunocompromised, and much lower among younger and healthier people.


The Latest