The conservative culture warrior shares stories from his privileged childhood, debauched college days, and formative political years
What did Andrew Breitbart do before he became a Web publisher and culture warrior? In the second chapter of his book, Righteous Indignation, we're given the early part of his biography, including his high school years in a wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood, college at Tulane University, and his subsequent return to Southern California.
His father ran a successful restaurant. His mother worked in a bank. They were Republicans, but seldom talked about it. "Their attitude towards the people around them living the Hollywood liberal lifestyle were grounded in a reality and a normalcy and a decency," he writes. They didn't care about celebrity, or that their comfortably upper-middle-class lifestyle still left them with less money than their neighbors. "While many of my friends' parents were gallivanting off to Europe and leaving their kids at home - for some reason, my parents considered this a form of child abuse - my parents opted to buy a thirty-three foot motor home, the Executive, and took my sister and me on a formative cross-country trip," Breitbart remembers. "...While my parents' house had a pool and four bedrooms and a scenic canyon view of West Los Angeles, it couldn't compete with the beachfront Malibu property that two of my friends at school occupied."
In some ways, this childhood sounds a lot like my own. My parents are decent, hardworking people who tend to vote Republican. Raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood - far less ritzy than Brentwood, but no less safe or comfortable - I always had everything that I needed. Still, the single-story, three bedroom house where I grew up couldn't compete with the pricey estates and beach houses where some of my classmates lived. Like Andrew Breitbart, I sometimes look back on my youth as if I'm Nick Carraway, marveling at the seductive but ultimately bankrupt subculture of extreme wealth that I occasionally observed up close. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful rich families, of course. But at my high school, the extreme troublemakers always seemed to come from the richest families, where they were raised by hired help.
There is one seemingly small difference in our experiences. In Orange County, where I grew up, it wasn't just my parents who were more or less political conservatives - so were the subset of very rich families who seemed to live their lives according to a completely different value system. But Andrew Breitbart is from a community where the very rich folks with seductive lifestyles and blinkered values were mostly liberals. When I look back on childhood, and my worst behaved, most morally suspect classmates, I see quite clearly that it was neither partisan nor ideological affiliation that shaped their pathologies. Reflecting on his upbringing, Andrew Breitbart sees the decent conservatism of his parents, the inferior values of rich families who were liberal, and attributes the difference to their politics. This misunderstands the relationship between moral failings and ideology. And simply watching The Real Housewives Of Orange County and then The Real Housewives of New York City is enough to grasp what I learned by experience.
Breitbart isn't good at understanding ideology even on its own. Take the anecdote about his onetime friend Mike, a guy he meets while working as a pizza deliver boy in high school. They bonded over British alt-rock. Then Mike began turning Breitbart onto "the highbrow literary and philosophical tracts of obscure philosophers," and other liberal publications like The Utne Reader and LA Weekly.
Here's a telling passage:
Mike gave me a CliffsNotes version of the leftist point of view, a romanticized, James Dean-ish, moral-relativist, everything-is-pointless crash course on how thinking people should, in fact, think. I imbibed it without question. So when it came time for college, it was as if the professors in my freshman classes were speaking the exact same language I was. Through some form of osmosis, I considered myself a liberal. As a result, there would be no culture shock when I entered Tulane.
Assertions like this one ought to embarrass conservative authors. Do guys like Mike exist? Yes. That Breitbart cites his attitudes as a Cliffs Notes version of "the" leftist point of view - it's monolithic, you see - betrays ignorance of the very thing he has dedicated his career to attacking.