You can learn a lot about a man by the tenor of the tributes he receives. When conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart suffered a fatal heart attack yesterday, aged just 43, he was predictably lionised as a feisty patriot by the GOP, but Ann Coulter praised him for annoying liberals (“I think he enjoyed it even more than I do”) and James Delingpole, who regards the likes of Breitbart with the moony-eyed adoration of a One Direction fan, gushed on the Telegraph blog: “Breitbart’s greatest speciality was lefty-baiting.”
Breitbart would doubtless have enjoyed the emphasis because throughout his career he regarded politics as a game in which angering your opponents mattered more than championing your own ideals. He was a mediocre intellect but a showman of genius. The word troll is often misapplied but Breitbart fitted the definition to a tee: “One who posts a deliberately provocative message… with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”
This is not a simple question of right v left. When you read Melanie Phillips on the right or Seumas Milne on the left, their tone may be humourless, scornful and dogmatic but it is in the service of sincere moral principle. Breitbart’s rhetoric and stunts were, above all, entertainment. Stoking hatred and misunderstanding was his idea of fun. That’s why obits that celebrate his gusto and sense of humour make me like him even less. Given how much damage he caused I’d rather he’d been a fanatical moralist than a dangerous clown. As level-headed conservative David Frum puts it:
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. Hence his intense focus on President Obama: only by hating a particular political man could Breitbart bring any order to his fundamentally apolitical emotions.
The internet was his playground, just as radio is Rush Limbaugh’s. On a bad day the internet can seem like a 24-hour rage machine, forever sacrificing nuance and empathy for the exhilarating spewing of venom. Breitbart had a gift for marshalling the worst aspects of the medium —minute-by-minute opinionating, fickle viral buzz, false information, conspiracy theories and flamboyant abuse — to extend his own influence and celebrity. Rage is natural and sometimes justifiable but he treated it as a commodity which he delivered with assembly-line efficiency. In her 2010 New Yorker profile of Breitbart Rebecca Mead wrote: “No battle is too petty for Breitbart, no target too small or pathetic.”
As an illustration, let’s compare Delingpole’s glowing assessment of Breitbart’s “speciality” — “One of his favourite techniques was simply to turn up at lefty rallies with a camera crew, film all the snarling abuse he got and then put it up on his website by way of demonstration of just how snarlingly vile, sanctimonious and devoid of intelligent argument the liberal-left tends to be most of the time” — with this clip of the man addressing Occupy protesters. See if you can spot the snarling abuser.
No wonder Delingpole worshipped him. The Telegraph blogger and writer of unreadable books is a conservative troll in the American mould, whose website bio ends, rather pathetically, with a bid to join their club: “If any right-wing US think tanks want to offer a visiting fellowship or any presenters’ slots fall available on Fox News you know where to go.” It’s a lucrative business. The politics shelves of American airport bookstores are overwhelmed by shrill, paranoid screeds with titles such as Coulter’s latest: Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America. The conservative troll can make a comfortable living banging the war drums on Fox News and speaking tours, where the familiar rhetorical tricks and rituals of outrage are as artfully choreographed as 1970s wrestling. In Britain, sadly for him, Delingpole has to make do with appearing on the BBC in order to say what an awful Marxist conspiracy the BBC is. You can find the same cynical showbiz approach in the work of superannuated bad boy Rod Liddle and the preposterous Brendan O’Neill, who maintains that he’s left-wing even as he sticks unfailingly to the standard Telegraph blog line. “What do I believe?” is always second to “What will annoy the lefty chattering classes?”
It’s all jolly fun for the professional trolls but this game has consequences, especially in the US. “It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous,” writes Frum. Breitbart’s cavalier disregard for facts (witness his loathsome treatment of Shirley Sherrod) and tolerance of conspiracy theories (which sprang anew after his death) has helped to debase internet discourse. His polarising language has contributed to the dysfunctional paralysis of a US political system that was designed on the assumption that bipartisan consensus was occasionally possible and can barely operate if politics is reduced to hating and crushing and winning at every turn. The White House and Congress are distracted from addressing serious, long-term issues by ridiculous manufactured showdowns like the one over the debt ceiling last summer.
Breitbart didn’t invent these problems but he gleefully exacerbated them with a reckless disregard for the consequences. People who consumed Breitbart’s venom and misinformation without realising the rules of the game became ever more paranoid and vengeful, prepared to believe that Obama was not just a Kenyan muslim but a murderer of political opponents. Frum has written about US conservatism’s alternative reality, where uncomfortable facts are not allowed to intrude, and people like Breitbart and Limbaugh are partly responsible for sustaining it. They have helped to turn American political debate into a giant internet comment thread, where fairness, empathy and ambiguity are for losers and only the angriest and most unyielding prevail.
Just as depressing is the idea that he was a pioneer of online journalism. Yes, he worked on the Drudge Report and co-founded the Huffington Post but he died with just one notable piece of journalism to his name: the 2009 undercover sting on ACORN. The rest is the kind of furious white noise that the internet has never lacked. All that energy and opportunity on the new digital frontier and he reduced it to snark, smears and shrieking belligerence. What a waste.
One thing you could say for Breitbart is that he could take it as well as dish it out. Unlike the pitiful Delingpole, who gloats about annoying “libtards” but stonewalls and blocks anybody on Twitter who responds in kind, Breitbart was up for a scrap. So the conservatives who wring their hands about “vile” lefties who don’t respect the fallen (and let’s see how they react when, say, Michael Moore dies) do their hero a disservice. An obnoxious and merciless attack dog (revisit his response to Ted Kennedy’s death) invites an obnoxious and merciless obit like this one from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi (“Good! Fuck him”). One can feel sorry for Breitbart’s family while still being glad that his relentless flow of toxic bullshit has finally ceased. Journalism and politics are better off without him.
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