When Andrew Breitbart suddenly died, political blogs were filled with the news. This makes sense: he was an important figure in contemporary political life.
But, importantly, many if not most of the comments I saw made quick mention of their decision and/or belief that any comments about Breitbart ought to acknowledge that he was a human being with family and friends who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect—despite, the blogs either said or implied, the fact that Breitbart himself treated no one with dignity and respect.
Which, if you think about it, is a hell of a thing. The best thing even Breitbart’s defenders could say about him was that his wife and children loved him. Which is great and all, but really speaks to a profound change in the way our society seems to work.
See, for much of world history one’s legacy mattered. People wanted to be thought of well by the generations that followed. At one extreme, this led conquering monarchs to slaughter untold masses in grabs for glory, or cruel kings to enslave thousands to build monuments to the king’s wonderfulness. (Think the Pyramids of Giza as one obvious example.)
But far more commonly the desire to be remembered well led people to try to lead good lives based on helping their family and/or their community be a better place. This kind of concern for legacy is reflected when a bench in a park gets named for someone who took extra time every day to feed the ducks in cold snaps, or when a school takes the name of an honored graduate. It is why life in the places we live gets better … if it does.
Unfortunately, many of us have lost this sense of living for one’s legacy. All that matters is the now: the most expressive, most profitable, most dramatic presentation of self possible. In a choice between being the quiet person who takes time to clean up litter in the park everyday, or being Snooki, whose only talent seems to be an unashamed willingness to be filmed while behaving badly, many—too many—people take the Snooki way.
This was Andrew Breitbart’s way. He did not care if something was true or not. He did not care if innocent, good people got crushed as he pursued his agenda. All he cared about—at least in his public persona—was advancing his cause.
Now I know that he would say he had to do it: that the left is so vile and so hateful that he had no choice. I know he would say that in such a world “facts” are fungible in the service of “good” as he defines it.
But I don’t buy it. We all have choices. Breitbart chose to pursue a politics that was nasty and mean—not just in the policies he advocated, but also in the ways he pursued them.
Whatever his personal legacy, Andrew Breitbart’s political legacy is having made American politics worse. His is the legacy of a man who, at the end of a significant public life, has to be remembered in spite of what he did, not because of what he did.
Let the rest of us do better.
Just read Dreams from My Father. Not only is the writing fantastic, the President is pretty damn upfront about the boozing and weed-smoking he did in college. Unless the video was of him secretly fronting Columbia’s College Republicans, no one in his base would have been phased by it.
wow…this took all of 12 hours to become a conspiracy connected to Obama
I have a general policy of not dancing on the graves of the dead. Andrew Breitbart was a lot of things: a terrible journalist, intellectually dishonest, politically misguided, and mean-spirited to name a few. Ideologically speaking, he was a walking, talking manifestation of the epistemic closure thesis. And as TheNoobYorker ably points out, Breitbart did a lot of damage to other peoples’ lives through his work. He also regularly committed journalistic sins in order to make his points. Breitbart turned the “lie-by-omission” into an art form.
And yet there is always more to a person than their public persona. Andrew Sullivan recounted an interesting exchange he had with Breitbart while traveling on a plane back from Los Angeles to the East Coast back in November:
On the way back, I kid you not, Andrew Breitbart was in the seat next to me. We’ve never met, but we’ve emailed over the years. He’s hot-headed and a bundle of bearish energy and nerves. But we had a blast on the plane, with him sharing his latest pop music obsessions on his iPod with me.
Breitbart is actually a kind of straight gay: loves pop music, hates rock n roll, lost interest in radio music around the time of grunge (as did I) and now believes there’s a revival of joyous pop going on. Oh, and, yes, we talked Trig a little. How could we not?
Anyway, I happen to personally like him…and am touched [he doesn’t] take my public debating personally. I don’t. I consider this blog to be the House of Commons. We can hammer away at each other but have a beer afterwards. Or an iPod share (yes, I made him listen to some new PSB classics).
Andrew Breitbart left behind a wife and kids, who no doubt relied on him for economic and emotional support, as all families do with one another. And there’s no telling what the political views of all his family members are. Obviously Brietbart made a living off of Conservative activism, and I’m sure that many of those close to him remained so because they were sympathetic to his cause. But as I’ve said in the past, a person’s sins must co-exist with their virtues. I do not believe there is such a thing as someone who is “fundamentally good” or “evil.” We all contain Whitmanite multitudes, and the capacity for both. And as awful as Andrew Breitbart could be, I have no doubt that he was kind and dedicated to the people close to him. It doesn’t excuse his sins. But it does mean that he had some quantifiable good in him. That’s got to count for something. It does to me. And to the extent that his loved ones may not share his political views, I’m sure that it hurts for them to see the death of their father/brother/son etc. celebrated in the media.
At the risk of wearing out my Churchill quota, I think it is important to remember that it befits us to have “unfailing faith, that there is treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every man.” Therein lies the impetus for not celebrating the death of any but the most morally putrefactive sort of person. I’ll fight the good fight against anyone who advocates for policies that I think do real and unnecessary harm to society. But at some point, you’ve got to leave it on the field. And while Breitbart may not have practiced this sort of grace with respect to his own ideological adversaries (see TheNoobYorker above recounting Breitbart’s reaction to Ted Kennedy’s death, which was especially irreverent), I don’t think it makes sense to bring myself down to his level. What he said after Kennedy’s death was deplorable precisely because it was ethically derelict. It seems inconsistent to commit the same offense that I’m condemning when Breitbart is the one wearing the burial shroud.
It will be difficult for many to have any sympathy for Breitbart at all. But people are complex things. My own father is pro-life, unsympathetic to illegal immigrants, and is generally not a fan of gay marriage or universal healthcare. I’ve devoted a lot of space on this blog to cataloging the human suffering that occurs as a result of these ideological stances. But that doesn’t change the fact that my father has shown me and my siblings unconditional, selfless loyalty and love. Time and again he’s shown a willingness to go to incredible lengths for his family. And all this despite coming from humble beginnings, a troubled childhood, and overcoming addiction to save my parents’ marriage before I was born. I credit my success, professionally and academically, to my father’s moral guidance, which I can boil down to three maxims:
1) “You know right from wrong? Do the right thing.”
2) “You have to be willing to work more than 40 hours a week to succeed.”
3) “The only two things more important than school are God and your family.”
While I eventually abandoned the first premise of no. 3, I came to learn later in life that my father’s religious beliefs are actually quite complicated, and that he is anything but an orthodox believer. Needless to say, my love for and dedication to my family stuck. And while no. 1 is essentially a vague and meaningless platitude, for a young child, it provides an orienting framework for analyzing moral problems. And I would learn later that my father’s vague platitude was actually a brilliantly condensed layman’s version of my father’s surprisingly coherent hybrid moral philosophy: seek the Form of the Good through Right Action. My father wasn’t taking the easy way out. He was boiling down his first principles into terms a 5-year old could understand. He did it perfectly.
Obviously my father and I disagree vigorously on what it means to seek the Form of the Good, and what constitutes Right Action. But that is precisely the nature of the disagreement that I and many other people had with Andrew Breitbart. That I found many (perhaps even all) of his views repugnant and harmful doesn’t change the fact that he was undoubtedly sincere. And any disagreement I had with Andrew Breitbart’s political philosophy is essentially a disagreement over my father’s first principle: how to seek the Form of the Good through Right Action. In that sense, it is a disagreement that should be argued vigorously and without reservation. But that argument extends to the question of how we treat an ideological adversary after they’ve died. And here again, I disagree with Breitbart. He hated Ted Kennedy and spit on his grave because he was unable to let himself consider, for even a moment, that Ted Kennedy, despite his many flaws, had done some good in his life. I refuse to make the same mistake with Breitbart.
Clearly I am unable to comprehend how folks like Breitbart can believe or advocate some of the things they do. But in not celebrating his death, I can demonstrate that Breitbart was in fact wrong when he cast aspersions on Ted Kennedy after his death. By extending my heartfelt sympathy to his family for their loss, I can demonstrate that the consequences of my worldview are demonstrably positive compared to Breitbart’s appeal to posthumous vindictiveness. I can celebrate what he got right even while criticizing what he got wrong.
Andrew Breitbart was often an intemperate and divisive man. But we all contain multitudes. I am certain Breitbart did as well. And my heart goes out to his family. May you find peace soon enough.