Please read David Frum’s judicious assessment of Andrew Breitbart’s legacy. My objection earlier was not to people critically analyzing Breitbart’s public work and his legacy. That is completely fair, even if one takes a dim view of what he did, and what he stood for. What I objected to was people like Matt Yglesias taking pleasure in the man’s death (and yes, it was just as foul when Breitbart took public pleasure in Ted Kennedy’s passing). In his essay, Frum avoids that, but also does not allow sentiment to prevent him from making a negative — and, to my way of thinking, accurate and justified — assessment of Breitbart’s work. Excerpt:
Yet perhaps Breitbart’s most consequential innovation was his invention of a new kind of culture war. Until recently, the phrase “culture war” mainly described the political struggle over religion and sexuality. When Pat Buchanan declared a “culture war” from the rostrum of the Republican convention in 1992, he specifically cited abortion, gay rights, pornography, prayer in schools, and women in combat as the outstanding issues.
Those were not the issues that much interested Andrew Breitbart. On gay rights, he held almost the polar opposite view of Buchanan’s in 1992.
In fact, it’s hard even to use the word “issues” in connection with Andrew Breitbart. He may have used the words “left” and “right,” but it’s hard to imagine what he ever meant by those words. He waged a culture war minus the “culture,” as a pure struggle between personalities. [For Breitbart, the] attack was everything, the details nothing.
It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous. When one of the leading media figures of the day achieves his success by his giddy disdain for truth and fairness—when one of our leading political figures offers to his admirers a politics inflamed by rage and devoid of ideas—how to withhold a profoundly negative judgment on his life and career?
Especially when that career was so representative of his times?
True, this — and do not miss the crucial point: Breitbart was not so much representative of the Right as he was representative of the times in which he lives. Breitbart was an exceptionally effective practitioner of a poisonous form of polemics that are as widespread on the left as on the right. Of course one of the defining characteristics of this dark art is the genuine conviction that when They do it, they’re evil, but when We do it, we are justified because We Are Good And They Are Evil, And Anyway, They Started It.
I do not understand people who run on hatred of the Other. I mean, I understand why they do what they do, and how fulfilling pure hate can be; every one of us, at some point in our lives, have tasted the narcotic pleasure of pure hatred. What makes it pure is believing that it is just, that the object of our hatred deserves our undiluted contempt; in that sense, the purity of our hatred absolves us, at least in our own minds.
When I was in college, we had on campus twin brothers who were students, fundamentalist Christians and self-appointed campus evangelists. They made a point of presenting the Gospel in such provocative and antagonistic terms that most people found them repugnant. If you watched them, you could see that they took apparent pleasure in being hated, as if the spite they brought out of others was proof of their own righteousness. True, the hatred of bad men can be the price a good man pays for doing and saying the right thing. But provoking the hatred of others is not a sign of one’s own righteousness.
Anyway, I thought about those campus evangelists today when I read that Breitbart once said that he “enjoyed making enemies.” Look, anybody who takes a controversial stand on anything, political and otherwise, in today’s culture risks drawing the hatred of others. It can’t be helped. You want everyone to love you? Then don’t do anything controversial — and even then, there’s no guarantee (see the case of Hitchens vs. Mother Teresa). What is perverse is delighting in making people hate you.
UPDATE: The people who knew Breitbart personally speak with conviction, and in detail, about how lovable he was in person (e.g., here and here). I did not know Breitbart, and can’t say one way or another, but I do think their testimony is worth considering.
UPDATE.2: Lovely remembrance by Conor Friedersdorf, who was often a strong critic of Breitbart’s work. Excerpt:
I dissent from the proposition that exposing hate by provoking the worst in people is the part of the man’s legacy to celebrate. Better to glean wisdom from the evident love he had for his family, the energy with which he conducted his work, the personal generosity he showed friends, and his passion. To take seriously his life’s work is to debate its impact in coming days. For now, there is much more to life and death than the political arena, and evidence even for folks who found his public persona vile that beneath it lurked a man with many admirable qualities to mournfully remember. For today, condolences to all those who loved Andrew Breitbart, especially his wife and children; and condolences as well to those media consumers who found special value in his voice.