The taboo against rejoicing at another’s death is, of course, part of the frisson of shocking jokes, which work because of the first, aghast instant. The rationale for telling such jokes is easily understood. Those who celebrate the death of public figures invariably point to their malign influence. And while people are still in the public arena and able to fight back, ridiculing their ideas can be an important weapon. Humor has punctured many totalitarians more effectively than argument.
But there is a difference between condemning someone at or after their death—and certainly, there is much to condemn in Limbaugh’s periodic rhetoric of cruelty—and celebrating the death itself. The tone of our public sphere will not be elevated by the way we talk about those we like or treasure. The test will be how we talk about those we oppose or even detest. Ridicule rallies the troops; it does not open avenues of dialogue. Limbaugh’s signature monologues were fusillades of facts, confabulations, and insults in prose and song, in the service of a relentlessly partisan agenda. To celebrate his death is to emulate his methods.
We should have learned by now that a public figure is a person. The character onstage, performing for an audience, is not everything, and a public person does not die. A human being dies, an individual with connections and fears and a history and a soul.