Andrew Breitbart, Your Bell is Tolling

“. . . . it has become an understood thing that no one can live by his talents or knowledge who is not ready to prostitute those talents and that knowledge to betray his species, and prey upon his fellowman.” — William Hazlitt, “On the Pleasure of Hating”

Andrew Breitbart is dead at the age of 43. A warrior for conservative causes, he became a self-styled scourge of political and social liberals through his websites and videos. You might say, with Thomas Hobbes, that his public life was nasty, brutish, and short. 

Just last week he was in Washington, DC screaming obscenities at Occupy Washington and calling them freaks and animals. It’s hard not to think that he simply blew up, all that bile and red-hot anger just incinerating his heart. 

Upon his death many of the right-wing elite weighed in. Sarah Palin vowed to fight on in the endless battle against liberal corruption that Breitbart so valiantly waged. Even Romney released a generic condolence note, while Limbaugh called for “a thousand more Breitbart’s” in America. One of his fans, writing at the Fox Nation website, quoted at length from Ecclesiastes, comparing him to the wise man and reminding all readers that America was built by people like Breitbart. “This is not about politics—an aggressively corrupt vocation, at best—but rather the active living out of one’s faith in God and country; fully recognizing that this country was founded by men of faith. . . . on the principles of the Judao-Christian (sic) Gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

And so the lionization begins of a man who vilified Ted Kennedy after his death, calling him “a special pile of excrement,” among other things, and who assassinated the character of Shirley Sherrod, a United States Department of Agriculture official. Breitbart edited a videotape of Sherrod speaking at a conference so that it appears she made racist remarks about white farmers, when she was really describing how her attitudes had changed over the years. Breitbart lied, distorted evidence, and rejoiced when she was falsely accused and fired. Unrepentant to the last he vowed never to apologize to her. That was how he made his living—and apparently he loved his work. 

As David Frum, a conservative writer and columnist—and a man who knew Breitbart well—said recently, “Just as all is fair in a shooting war, so manipulation and deception are legitimate tools in a culture war. Breitbart used those tools without qualm or regret, and he inspired a cohort of young conservative journalists to do likewise.”

That’s his legacy—giving a generation of conservative young journalists license to stab the body politic, trash-talk their way through column inches and video moments, and write the kind of drivel that not even a mother could love. 

I couldn’t stand the things he did, I didn’t think he was funny, and I found his values abhorrent. If he served as a catalyst for people’s hatred toward those he chose to crucify, then the world is fractionally better off now that he’s dead. Because he constantly thrust himself into the hot lights of arcade journalism, we only have his public persona to decipher. If there was a kinder, gentler Andrew behind his sneer he certainly kept it on a short chain.

Yet, he’s a fascinating case study for a political culture that has become both poisonous and ludicrous. No society with a majority of people like him could survive. But the very values he excoriated of tolerance, fairness, equality of justice, thinking before you speak and perceiving the world from multiple perspectives, allowed him the freedom to be himself. 

It’s possible that Breitbart might have moderated his style as he matured. With time, some personal pain and loss, and at least a hint of humility, he might have become a powerful and eloquent voice for conservative issues. But I doubt it. His consistency lay in his ability to disregard any viewpoint but his own. With the notoriety he gained and the money he was paid he had no incentive to stop and think before he flew into a rage. 

A lot of people admired him, no doubt for some of the same reasons we venerate Mafia bosses, thuggish musicians, and arrogant athletes: they do what they like and stand over against the crowd. 

I don’t hate the man because I don’t want to be seduced by the very weapons he used to hack his way through the world. If he were drowning I’d hope I’d have the presence of mind to do what I could to save him simply because he was in need. In that regard, he stands for all of us, one of the family of humanity in all its twisted, fallen, and forgivable potential. And his death reminds us that our freedoms, stretched at times to the breaking point when extended to people like him, must be preserved in the particular case in order that all of us may enjoy them.

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