The Flaws of Breitbartism

The first chapter of Andrew Breitbart's newly released book - and the wrongheaded world-view it sketches

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In the opening chapter of Righteous Indignation, Los Angeles-based culture warrior Andrew Breitbart explains that his life's work is spurred by his grudge against Hollywood celebrities. "If America's pop-cultural ambassadors like Alec Baldwin and Janeane Garofalo didn't come back from their foreign trips to tell us how much they hate us," he writes, "if my pay cable didn't highlight a comedy show every week that called me a racist for embracing constitutional principles and limited government, I wouldn't be at Tea Parties screaming my love for this great, charitable, and benevolent country." He concludes by insisting that "the left made me do it! I swear!"

It must be strange, for readers unfamiliar with Breitbart, to see an adult man publicly admit that his worldview hinges significantly on the pronouncements of a B-list actress and a Baldwin brother. Or that his convictions about public affairs and love of country are so shallow that he'd stop touting them but for some unnamed comedy show. "If the college campus weren't filled with tenured professors like 9/11 apologist Ward Churchill and bullshit departments like Queer Studies," he writes, "and if the academic framework weren't being planned out by domestic terrorists like Bill Ayers, I wouldn't be expanding my Internet media empire to include Big Education."

And it's hard not to pity the man. It isn't just that he is misinformed about Ward Churchill being typical of tenured professors - it's that he has built his whole professional life around opposing what in reality is a paranoid delusion. Unfortunately, Breitbart inspires a lot of people to let umbrage and misinformation shape their political attitudes. And that's a problem for all of us - conservative and liberal - who understand that anger at Hollywood celebrities and radical academics is an imprudent foundation for any worldview, and would remain so even in the face of insults from all four Baldwin brothers.

There are a lot of ironies lost on Breitbart. The most glaring is his righteous indignation at celebrities who trash people for their political beliefs. It isn't that he doesn't have a point. Using mass media to insult half the country is idiotic. There's just one problem. Breitbart is himself a minor celebrity. How does he treat people with whom he has political disagreements? "I would not be in your life," he writes, "if the political left weren't so joyless, humorless, intrusive, taxing, anarchistic, controlling, rudderless, chaos-prone, pedantic, unrealistic, hypocritical, clueless, politically correct, angry, cruel, sanctimonious, retributive, redistributive, intolerant..." In a single paragraph, he gives us the precise behavior he claims to abhor in a form far more concentrated and extreme than any single statement ever uttered by the people he criticizes. Elsewhere, he goes so far as to call the American left "a ruthless, relentless, shameless enemy."

This brings us to Breitbart's master narrative of American politics and culture. The man possesses media savvy, so I'd hoped that at least some of his critique would be on point, if wrapped in his usual bombast and factual inaccuracies. Nope. Despite long experience with the author's arguments, I found myself surprised by an iteration less grounded in reality than anything I'd previously encountered:

America is in a media war. It is an extension of the Cold War that never ended but simply shifted to an electronic front. The war between freedom and statism ended geographically when the Berlin Wall fell. But the existential battle never ceased. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the battle simply took a different form. Instead of missiles the new weapon was language and education, and the international left had successfully constructed a global infrastructure to get its message out.
Schools. Newspapers. Network news. Art. Music. Film. Television. For decades the left understood the importance of education, art, and messaging. Oprah Winfrey gets it. David Geffen gets it. President Barack Obama gets it. Bono gets it. Even Corey Feldman gets it. But the right doesn't. For decades the right felt the Pentagon and the political class and simple common sense could win the day. They were wrong.

So Breitbart thinks that there is no substantive distinction - just a difference of form! - between the Cold War battle against the Soviets, on one hand, and the ideological battle pitting Breitbart against Oprah Winfrey. (He also thinks Oprah, Bono, and President Barack Obama agree with this analysis.) Do folks in the conservative movement find it discomfiting that an influential ally's core analytic foundation is transparently idiotic? Surely even the most dedicated propagandists can agree that it's unhealthy for the base to be that disconnected from reality, if only because understanding the left helps in opposing it.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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