Friday, March 02, 2012

On Andrew Breitbart

I've had a few hours to think it over and so I feel I can write something about Andrew Breitbart and his death that is no longer an immediate gut-level reaction.

First of all, it seems to me that he was one of the first people to die by Twitter, or at least one of the first famous people to do so. Not directly, but suicidally -- sort of like "suicide by cop." Twitter has already claimed some careers and reputations -- think Anthony Wiener. It seems bizarre to talk about the profound importance of Twitter, but for protest movements, politics, and organizing, it is extremely important. It was pretty clearly his addiction, and he was tweeting, it seemed, as he went for a late-night walk near his home. The autopsy report is not available yet but it seems likely to me that he was a man who was professionally angry. Not just angry, but enraged. With Twitter he was never forced to return to the embrace of his family life and decompress. He could carry his rage with him and carry on arguments around the clock. Social media became a sort of positive-biofeedback-loop of rage for him. We aren't really designed to behave this way. It's a terrible strain on our bodies and brains. He was a year younger than I am, and it strikes me as a notable warning about social media that we should all take seriously.

Second, having read a bit about his career and exploits, it strikes me that as he is just a year shy of my age he must have had a fairly long and largely unrecognized life and career prior to the last few years when he became wealthy and famous. He has been promoted as an inventor of social media, one of the founders of the Huffington Post, and of course he didn't invent social media, but he did seem to exploit it in new and revelatory and disturbing ways. Revelatory because it revealed just what we've become -- how vicious, how tribal, how corrupt. And he was celebrated for this. I can only imagine that he understood this, at some level, like Stephen Colbert putting on his conservative pundit character, except in Breitbart's case, the self-conscious fury took him over and stuck to him and wouldn't come off, like Jim Carrey's character in The Mask.

Third, sadness. I do feel sad for him, and for his family. He has four young children; I have five. His death is currently being attributed to natural causes, but I don't think it's natural, exactly, for a 43-year-old man to die of a heart attack. This didn't need to go down as it did.

He was a bright and energetic man who came to believe, or at least to pretend to believe until he believed, that we are somehow very different, and that these differences are important, and not just important, but important enough to lie, cheat, and steal over, to attack by any means necessary. Because that is what he did -- he was the right's attack dog, and not just the right but the rabid right, on issues that under scrutiny turn out to be vapor; shibboleths; talking points and fabrications. He used means that were so beneath the term "journalism" that actual conservatives were repulsed and the only possible thing that neoconservatives could say in his defense was "well, whatever it takes."

His supporters probably would not be comfortable with Malcolm X's "by any means necessary," but seemed to be comfortable with Breitbart's comments calling for "capital punishment" for his critics. He wasn't winning converts, and wasn't winning for his cause, but was in it for, it appeared, fame and money, which makes this the saddest of all. One wonders if he suffered from bipolar disorder, and if so what his family suffered with him. Because after destroying ACORN, had he won some sort of victory worth winning? After getting a certain Mrs. Sherrod fired, based on a lie, had he achieved something worth achieving? Eyeballs, page counts, ad clicks; a legacy of dishonesty and vicious attacks. That's it. History may eventually judge him kindly, but unfortunately "the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones" (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar).

It is unfortunately true that some people seem to exist only as a counter-example, as an object lesson in how not to live one's life. It's as if in recent years he rediscovered himself as an attack dog; he found a talent for attacking, and after being carried around on the shoulders of his party and celebrated for it, it became addictive, and earned him a lot of money -- and became a ride he couldn't get off. I am sure that he was not, for his whole 43 years, this object lesson, but he certainly became it. Some good will come out of it, I believe; already, many institutions of journalism (The New York Times, NPR) are starting to publicly and humbly consider their responsibility not just to give face times to "both" sides of an issue, but to the truth.

I read that he was a nice guy in person, and that in college he wrote really funny and slightly surreal things and I have a feeling I would have liked to have known that guy. But Vader was seduced by the dark side of the force; and it's a harsh mistress, and Karma's a stone bitch. It was no way for a decent, talented family man to live, and no way for him to die, and I do pity him, even though he, or at least his persona, would would have had nothing but contempt for my compassion for him.

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