In 2010, he posted two videos excerpting a speech by Shirley Sherrod, then Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the USDA, at an NAACP event. The videos were edited together in a way that made it appear Sherrod was saying things she never said or meant, but the result was Sherrod being fired. Once the entire speech was made available, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was compelled to apologize to Sherrod and offer her a new job. Last year Sherrod sued Breitbart for defamation.
Breitbart was centrally involved in the 2009 ACORN manufactroversy. You have probably heard the fiction that the media and Congress were suckered into buying, but sadly the press gave almost zero play to “subsequent criminal investigations by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and the California Attorney General,” which “found the videos were heavily edited in an attempt to make ACORN’s responses ‘appear more sinister.’” (See summary and links for more information on both cases. For a very good analysis of what actually happened with ACORN, Paul Rosenberg’s review, embedded in a take on the Komen controversy, is essential.)
And there, in two bullet points, you have more truth than Andrew Breitbart spoke in his entire life. It isn’t that I disagree with his politics, although I obviously do. Lots of people disagree with my politics and still manage to be intelligent, thoughtful, decent human beings. We might disagree vehemently about the means for accomplishing certain goals, but underneath those differences we might well share certain values.
Politics is often like this – agree on the ends, fight over the means. In this spirit, there are plenty of people on the right for whom I bear no ill will, men and women whose intellect and energy I envy. I also believe there are those who don’t share my politics who nonetheless respect me because they know I want a better, safer, healthier, more prosperous world for all Americans. This is all as it should be in a society that values the free exchange of ideas.
The Breitbart legacy will not be defined by his beliefs. It will be defined by the spitefulness of his tactics and by his willingness to inflict tangible, lasting damage on the lives of the innocent in his lust for influence and power. ACORN was an organization with a rich history of helping the people at the very bottom of our socio-economic food chain. These were people with no money, no resources, no influence, no power, and damned few friends. Andrew Breitbart and his henchmen kicked the chair out from under them, like so many affluent suburban punks wilding through downtown late on a Saturday night looking for a homeless drunk to beat up.
It is obvious enough to say that there are good people and bad people in the world. There are those whose lives are devoted to improving the human condition, to leaving their corner of the world a little better place than they found it. Likewise, there are those whose only care is for themselves, men and women who find nothing wrong with trampling others to get to the top. It is the difference between self-interest and what de Tocqueville called “self-interest, rightly understood,” which was the quality that he thought set the young America apart and made it great. Sadly, there are also those who seem to take self-satisfied glee in the misfortune of others. Ayn Rand, the patron saint of the sociopathic modern right and the role model for a generation of Breitbarts, was just such a case. I hate grave-dancing. I’ve always felt that our human potential was somehow diminished when we found satisfaction in the death of another, even if that person was a bin Laden or a Saddam Hussein or a Stalin or a Hitler or a Pol Pot. Perhaps it’s because, growing up Southern Baptist, I was taught that there was always hope for a soul, no matter how evil it was, but once death arrives there’s nothing left but an eternity of torment for someone who could, perhaps, have been saved.
I don’t believe any of that anymore, but I still avoid celebrating the deaths of even our worst fellow humans if I can. And no, I don’t think Andrew Breitbart was as bad as any of those I mention above (even as I’m aware that he and his people, were they to decide that I needed to be destroyed, would have no compunction about decontextualizing, re-editing and generally cheating my words to make it appear that I did).
No, it’s much simpler than that, as simple as the objective fact of this morning’s news. Andrew Breitbart is dead, and there’s one less noise merchant, one less liar, one less empathy-challenged activist willing to stomp the last hope of the poor. Some people are saying that the world is a better place because of it, but the truth is that the world is a worse place today because, for these past few years, all of Andrew Breitbart’s considerable energy and talent was harnessed to the task of harming instead of helping.