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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 16, 2012

On the death of Andrew Breitbart (and others)

by Michael De Dora

As you have probably already heard, the controversial public figure Andrew Breitbart died on March 1 of a heart attack. He was 43 years old.

The main line of business for Breitbart was news, in particular, web news. Early in his career, he helped Arianna Huffington start The Huffington Post. He then proceeded to found the web sites Breitbart TV, Big Hollywood, Big Government, Big Journalism, and Big Peace. Yet he is perhaps best well known for being an advocate and commentator who supported the Tea Party movement, railed against the Occupy movement, harshly criticized liberals, and was a major force behind several public stunts — most notably the ACORN video controversy and the resignation of U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod. You can read more about Breitbart’s exploits here.

You might recall that I wrote about the last of those exploits, Sherrod’s resignation, on this blog. To refresh your memory: Breitbart posted on his website an edited clip of a longer speech by Sherrod that, without context located elsewhere in the talk, made her look racist. This led to her forced resignation by then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In my article, published August 2, 2010, I argued that while Breitbart was responsible for Sherrod’s downfall, a host of other actors — conservative pundits, lawmakers such as Vilsack, and the American public — were also to blame for blindly accepting the claims or bowing to the commands of a man who, for all intents and purposes, had made a career out of smearing his opponents and enemies.

So, it surprised a couple of my friends to learn that I think America — if not the world — will be better off without Breitbart. Given the arguments laid out in my previous article, outlining that Breitbart wasn’t nearly as bad as many liberals made him out to be, how could I possibly believe that? Allow me to explain.

One of the first things I read after Breitbart’s death was an article in the Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi, titled “Death of a Douche.” As you can imagine, the article was not entirely kind to Breitbart. I say “not entirely” because Taibbi does give Breitbart some credit. Then again, Breitbart would have expected, and perhaps accepted, nothing less than Taibbi’s treatment. Remember that this was the man who called the late Sen. Ted Kennedy a “villain,” “big ass motherf@#$er,” “a duplicitous bastard, “a prick,” and “a special pile of human excrement” — all in the just three hours following his death.

In the days following Breitbart’s death, I posted Taibbi’s article on a couple of social media web sites, and passed it along to friends. As I said, I received pushback, which came in three kinds:

1. “You and others are giving Breitbart too much credit. He didn’t have that much power to do harm. He didn’t get Sherrod fired.”

2. “The guy had a wife and four kids. I heard he was a good father and husband, and a nice guy. Lay off.”

3. “How could you have rooted for anyone’s death? Or even be happy that he’s dead? Are you sick?”

Whether or not my friends had read my previous article on Breitbart’s exploits — some had, most hadn’t — they were throwing my own arguments back in my face. For reference, let’s go back and read what I wrote in that August 2010 essay:

“Let me be clear: this essay is neither pardoning the behavior of Breitbart … Rather, this essay argues that while people often find it convenient to blame the media, in this case Breitbart and FOX News, for social problems, they ought to realize that it is a social problem that feeds the media. That is, Breitbart and media outlets cannot be understood apart from the social and political context in which they exist. Why does Breitbart have the power he has? Why do people listen to Breitbart? Because they agree with him.”

I continued:

“By blaming social problems on one man or one organization, we thus ignore the social reality that these men and organizations are backed by millions of Americans, and make the problem out to be much simpler than it really is. They would not exist in such powerful roles without the support of a sizable number of people.”

Here is where things get sticky:

“Contrary to what many would tell you, Breitbart and FOX News did not create the Tea Party and the extreme Right which wants to disable Obama and his administration in any and every way possible. Instead of blaming them for creating social problems, we ought to consider the complex and numerous factors that influence what we see represented and supported in the media, and ponder how much of an effort we’ve made in the battle against that with which we disagree. Anything less would wrongly simplify our problems and let everyone off the hook too easily.”

In hindsight, I admit that I used poor wording. In no way was I trying to excuse Breitbart and others for their actions. In many cases — certainly in the Sherrod case — Breitbart lied to or intentionally misled people to achieve his own goals. Without Breitbart’s actions, Shirley Sherrod would probably still have her job.

My central point was that Breitbart was not the only person responsible. He can’t create a controversy, or for that matter an entire movement, without some help. Many sections of the public were willing to be misled, perhaps because of their lack of skepticism or their prior beliefs about racism, big government, etc. This does not absolve Breitbart of his sins, it merely spreads the blame around. I hope this is now clear.

The other two points are not necessarily related to my previous article, but they are worth considering for a moment.

Regarding the second point: is there a rule written somewhere regarding how soon after a person’s death the public can discuss his or her merits (and demerits)? Is there a rule that only neutral things, or even good things are to be said, because that person’s family members or friends might be reading or watching? I certainly don’t recall these rules being in effect for the worst dictators of human history. I don’t recall them being in effect for even lesser evils, such as convicted mass murderers and terrorists. Do you recall hearing anything like: “Hey, why are you saying so many bad things about Timothy McVeigh?! He just died! And he had a family … and friends. Give it a couple of years. Stop being so mean.” I am going to guess not.

If McVeigh doesn’t work for you, try substituting Osama Bin Laden or Joseph Stalin (I’ve purposely not mentioned you know who). I hope you see my point. Sure, the people in question might have treated their significant others and friends well, and even been nice guys in private. But their actions had disastrous — or, rather, deadly — consequences for hundreds, thousands, even millions of people.

I am not comparing Breitbart to McVeigh, Stalin, or Bin Laden, who were explicitly murderous, but the facts are clear: Breitbart made a living by issuing intentionally misleading and/or inflammatory statements and behaving in a provocative manner, with the goal of destroying those who disagreed with him. He succeeded often. His statements and actions were public, and as such are perfectly fit for debate and criticism. No one knocked on his family’s door, or sent them personal letters (in fact, I extend sympathy to his family). Taibbi’s article was written in Rolling Stone, a magazine that often features public debate. It did not criticize his personal life. It criticized the (I would say radical) beliefs and actions he placed in the public square for all to see and feel. And it did this in retrospect, given his death. So, where’s the problem?

Regarding the final point, I didn’t see anyone rooting for Breitbart’s death, although I wouldn’t be surprised to learn some had. That seems disturbing. I considered Breitbart toxic, but not so much as a murderous dictator. He wasn’t killing people; he just knew how to unethically manipulate public opinion.

That said, I still think the world is slightly better off without Andrew Breitbart and his work. I wanted him to be exposed and less valued in our society - not dead. But I am not going to miss him. Are you?


  1. The world is better off without him. Don't worry that anyone might disagree. His business was not the betterment of the world or even a small part of it. His business was not profitable to the world and indeed can be shown to have caused ill. There is no reason to give special respect to the dead. He was a douche. So the world is better off. We don't have to listen to his crap, put up with his meddling, and we can now give his food and water to someone else that more richly deserves it. Fuck him, and good riddance.

  2. Massimo raises an interesting point. These media phonoms don't exist in a vacuum.

    To MyAtheistLife,
    I also think the world benefits from the death of Andrew Breitbart. See below, a part of a multiple choice test that illustrates the ideas of Albert Ellis and Rational Emotive Theory. It provides a counterpoint to the last sentence of message you posted about Breitbart.

    3. When people act to hurt others,

    a) They must not. Their acts are awful or wicked, and the people who perform such acts should be severely damned as bad, wicked.
    b) Certain acts are self-defeating or antisocial, and the people who perform such acts are behaving stupidly, ignorantly, or neurotically, and would be better helped to change. People's poor behaviors do not make them rotten individuals.

  3. Why is it important to decide whether the world is better off without someone who has just died? How can we know what that person might have gone on to do had they not died?

  4. >[I]s there a rule written somewhere regarding how soon after a person’s death the public can discuss his or her merits (and demerits)?

    Ha. As if a written rule would persuade you.

    I think the "common sense" intuitive rule that is operative in US culture in this kind of circumstance probably plays out something like:

    Ideal: De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. Loosely, "Speak no ill of the dead." (It has a canonical resonance that identifies it as one of our moral foci - meaning, if you don't recognize it as such, something must serve in its stead or you will be seen as amoral in this regard.)

    In practice: Speak no ill of the recently deceased, at least in public.

    Exception: If the dead person is known to have actually killed or through malice or unrepentant, gross negligence brought about deaths besides his/her own.

    (Additional exceptions may apply in particular cases, but should not be encouraged, because we should be polite and civil and set a good example, goddamn it!)

    In short, for "Is the world better off?" to be an acceptable question in the immediate aftermath of the death of an individual, two conditions must be met: (a) animus/callousness on the part of the recently deceased, and (b) death that resulted thereby.

    The animus and/or lack of regret must have been characteristic of the deceased to act as counterbalance to the "in kind" attitude that one would have to feel toward the individual in order to broach the question at all. (Don't play coy about this. Nobody who favored him would ask the question.) In other words, it's morally palatable if the dead person "started it".

    The deceased's actions resulting in the death of another is a necessary element to protect against the sense of imminent smackdown due to hubris/tempting-of-fate that is an inherent hazard of presuming oneself qualified to weigh the worth of any person's life in absolute terms. In other words, a human mustn’t judge the value of another’s life except in relation to the value of one that was already forfeit by the action of the judged one. Think of it as a grounding rod, lest ye be stricken down by a bolt from the blue.

    Understand, this exposition on my part is not intended to be part of a moral philosophy. It's just one person's imperfect parsing of how default moral "reasoning" generally works in US culture. We feel more comfortable with our grasp of a thing when we have a sense of balance and symmetry about it. Such sensibilities needn't be particularly meaningful. The important thing is that relevant considerations must appear to arrange themselves like iron filings around a moral lodestone for us to feel confident of our judgments. To assess the quality of the lodestone, we sprinkle the considerations about it and assess the pattern that emerges.

    If I were to advance a moral philosophy, it would be more of a mathematical model. For example, I'd posit that the attenuation of the rule, "Speak no ill of the recently deceased in public" follows, roughly, y = e^-(t/(7s*m)), where t is time (in days) from the event, s and m are both positive numbers representing one's sympathy and empathy for the deceased, with 1 as the baseline value for a human with whom one has no direct connection (representing, therefore, one's basic human respect), and y is one's predicted moral constraint against speaking ill, expressed as a percentage. Thus, a person with whom the rule resonates begins with a resolve of 1 (or 100%), by default, but the value immediately starts declining. When sympathy or empathy is higher than baseline, this flattens the curve and prolongs the constraint, while a lower value emphasizes the curve’s concavity and erodes the constraint.

    Note that anybody who exhibits a complete lack of either sympathy or empathy breaks the formula, which is indicative of severe mental illness.

    You poor, sorry, sick bastards.

  5. Michael, don't apologize. I'm reminded of what Glenn Greenwald said after Hitchens' death -- you live in public in part by feeding off other people, you have no right to a grace period when you die. (And I told this to people who complained about the Hitch obit I wrote on my blog.)

  6. @Gadfly and others: But that is not the point of the grace period - it is to allow the deceased's loved ones to mourn and come to terms with their loss, and not be further aggravated by the negative aspects of the public discourse, which if you think about it, they endured every day the person was alive and in the public eye.

    That's what its about.

    1. @DaveS Ahh, well, in that case, Hitch left himself open to self-inflicted posthumous wrong-footing, as did Breitbart. Golden Rule and all that, you know.


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