Breitbart's Death and the Arms Race of Invective

Breitbart's Death and the Arms Race of Invective

By Carl M. Cannon - March 2, 2012

Lamenting the inherent tragedy of civil war -- namely, that it pits friends and countrymen against one another -- Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address acknowledged the incongruity of asking the Almighty’s assistance “in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces.”

Lincoln said nothing about dancing on graves, or besmirching the dead before their widows and children have had a chance to bury them. That’s because those are features of the Uncivil Wars, the rude and relentless feud that is more or less a permanent feature of our own polarized political age.

With each snarky tweet, mean-spirited cable rant, and ugly blog post, the standards of civility descend apace. The latest event underscoring this trend came after the sudden death of 43-year-old media provocateur Andrew Breitbart, who died of what is presumed to be a heart attack while taking a nighttime stroll in his Southern California neighborhood the other night.

Breitbart leaves behind four young children, none of whom got the opportunity to tell him, “I love you, Dad. I’ll miss you,” and a wife who wasn’t afforded the comfort of whispering into his ear, “See you on the other side, honey.”

But gallant cultural warriors Matt Taibbi and Matt Yglesias volunteered their farewells -- for all the world to hear. Yglesias, who opines for Slate magazine, offered this nugget on Twitter: “Conventions around dead people are ridiculous. The world outlook is slightly improved with @AndrewBrietbart dead.”

Taibbi, who blogs for Rolling Stone, went further. In a screed headlined “Death of a Douchebag,” he wrote: “Good! I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.” Taibbi continued in this vein at some length, in coarse language, which he justified on grounds that Breitbart had tweeted nasty insults about Sen. Edward M. Kennedy when the last of the Kennedy brothers passed away in 2009.

Those comments were beyond the pale, and Breitbart undoubtedly rationalized away his own incivility by recalling insults hurled from lefties when Ronald Reagan and Tony Snow passed away. That’s how each side, the right and the left, excuse the inexcusable, the upshot being an ever-escalating arms race of invective. 

There is no Geneva Convention governing the rules of combat in the Uncivil Wars -- hence the name -- and in the Internet Age who could enforce it anyway? Taibbi has previously tested even the limits of the alternative press, once getting his own editor fired for gloating in print over the impending death of Pope John Paul II. (It was a preternaturally unfunny piece called “52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope.” Sample: “Pope pisses himself just before the end; gets all over nurse.” You’ll forgive me if I don’t provide a link.)

Contempt for those with whom you disagree turns out to be a gateway drug -- to hate. Hating members of the other political party, especially over issues like whether the top marginal tax should be 28 percent or 33 percent, is not an intellectual response. It’s a tribal one. Nor is it progressive, as today’s liberals like to be called. It’s an instinct of the Old Left, the hard left, and brings to mind the Joseph Stalin of “Children of the Arbat,” Anatoly Rybakov’s long-suppressed novel. Stalin’s mantra: “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem.”

Stalin murdered millions of his countrymen. And except for a pie Matt Taibbi once threw in the face of a New York Times reporter, there’s no evidence that Andrew Breitbart’s posthumous tormentors have violence in their hearts. Still, if recent world history has demonstrated anything, it’s that lack of empathy is a perilous trait to let loose in a pluralistic society.

What are the logical ramifications when the warm-up speaker for a Chicago-area Democratic congressman suggests that the Democratic congresswoman running against him is in league with “Satanic forces”? Or when a Democratic congresswoman from California shrieks at a political rally that the Republican speaker of the House and Republican majority leader are “demons”?

How does one deal with Satanic-inspired demons? By hoping they die, one assumes. Or worse.

Let’s do a thought experiment: It’s late on a warm California night, after a political fundraiser in an affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. Maxine Waters is walking to her car -- or perhaps one of the Matts, Taibbi or Yglesias (or anyone who declaimed how ecstatic they were to hear of their opponent’s demise), and one of these people happen upon Andrew Breitbart lying there, fighting for his life. It’s dark. They are alone with an unconscious man. No one will ever know what they decide to do.

Would they administer CPR while quickly calling 911 on their cellphones? That’s how most of us would react, whether or not we had ever given much thought to what Lincoln meant when he talked about how Americans on either side of the Civil War were not enemies, but friends, who would one day reconnect with the “better angels of our nature.”

Instead, however, our mythical passerby could smirk to himself that this is one less jerk who will go on television and say things I dislike … and keep walking. Or, as Matt Taibbi suggested in Rolling Stone, he could really go for it, and give the dying man “one last kick in the balls.” That would show him. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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