As the political world now knows, culture warrior Andrew Breitbart died a few days ago. He was only 43-years-old. That was the average life expectancy in 1893, but in 2012, actuarial tables suggest that he might reasonably have expected to live another 35 years. No man knows his hour. He nonetheless built a remarkable reputation as a conservative activist who gleefully skewered the liberal cultural elites at whom he aimed the news aggregation websites he called BreitbartTV, BigHollywood, BigGovernment, BigJournalism, and BigPeace. He was very good at “scattering the mud,” an old Irish expression that refers to “a kind of rough and ungentlemanly travel.” He was also eccentric enough to have helped found both the right-of-center Drudge Report and the left-of-left HuffingtonPost. It seems his political philosophy evolved over time and, as is often the case with adoptees, he was outspokenly anti-abortion — and a major asset to the pro-life movement.
Breitbart was actually of Irish ethnic extraction (as am I), but he was adopted as a baby by Jewish parents. His formidable intellect may have been the product of this exotic amalgam of Celtic genes and Jewish culture. Throughout much of Europe’s recorded history, Continental monarchs sought Irish and Jewish intellectuals to advise their courts. In keeping with this heady heritage, Breitbart compulsively counseled everyone in sight, high-born and low, whether they liked it or not.
Byron York, at washingtonexaminer.com, said in his eulogy, March1, 2012, titled “In politics fight, Breitbart knew culture is key,” that if you “Change the culture … you’ll change politics.” I admired Breitbart for that insight, not least because CBR was founded to change the culture regarding abortion, as a predicate to changing the law. Breitbart understood the criticality of this sequential progression and he also grasped the importance of focusing on young people. It was in that same spirit that CBR has transformed the way in which abortion is discussed on America’s college campuses (and on countless campuses abroad).
Wiki cites a Slate Magazine article headlined “Big Breitbart: Andrew Breitbart Is Messing With You, “Retrieved March 17, 2010,” for the related fact that Breitbart “… explained that his birth certificate indicated his biological father was a folk singer.” His performance art DNA may help explain the origins of Breitbart’s own showmanship. York also notes that “Breitbart knew instinctively, as people in Washington and most other places did not, that movies, television programs, and popular music send out deeply political messages every hour of every day. They shape the culture, and then the culture shapes politics. Influence those films and TV shows and songs, and you’ll eventually influence politics.”
CBR doesn’t make pictures and then wait for the culture to come view them. We make pictures which we take to a society which will never come to us. We can’t force voters to look, but most do, and there is value in forcing the rest to look away. It requires at least a glance to decide whether to avert one’s gaze, and a glance is all we need to imbed an image which no viewer can ever forget. The confrontational use of graphic of graphic imagery is as effective today as it has proved to be during centuries of struggle to reform child labor abuses and civil rights violations and countless other injustices.
I never met Andrew Breitbart but we did have mutual friends. CBR collaborator Lila Rose was one of them. Mediabistro.com described her as “Breitbart protégé” in an article posted February 2, 2011, and the story criticizes Lila’s exposes’ of Planned Parenthood corruption – just the sort of project Breitbart loved. Apparently through one of these shared acquaintances I was invited by Michael Walsh, Breitbart’s cofounder in BigJournalism.com, to become a writer for the site in early 2010. I skeptically accepted this unlikely offer but my association with the Breitbart brand was predictably short-lived.
Walsh wanted me to write something on the media’s criticism of the supposedly (but actually only vaguely) anti-abortion ad which Focus on the Family had produced to air during the Super Bowl, featuring Tim Tebow and his mother. I argued that that topic had already received more journalistic attention than it deserved and I proposed, instead, a broader essay on news media hypocrisy in publishing and broadcasting all manner of disturbing imagery while censoring even slightly graphic content related to abortion. He bit and I wrote.
In reviewing our email exchanges I now recall that Breitbart associate Alexander Marlow referred to this article as my “debut piece,” and Walsh characterized my first draft as “a strong, scholarly work and deserves a longer display to give its moral argument the display it deserves.” He added that “it really will make a great weekend piece.”
The deal fell apart, however, when I proposed the inclusion of an abortion photo. Walsh said no (offering to insert only a link to the photo but refusing to publish the photo of itself). I grudgingly agreed but said that in writing the final draft of the story, I intended to comment on the irony (I was thinking hypocrisy) of a Breitbart article on big media censorship of abortion photos which itself censored abortion photos. That sent Walsh into a dead-on impersonation of Ariana Huffington in deva mode and he spiked my story and tore up my contract. I had become Breitbart’s Breitbart and Breitbart apparently didn’t like it.
The aspect of this episode which I found to be most disillusioning, however, was that I had Breitbart’s email address and I was copying him on every message, naively expecting him to intercede and overrule Walsh. Of course, he never did. The virtue most commonly attributed to Breitbart in the avalanche of accolades triggered by his death was his “absolute fearlessness.” There is, no doubt, an element of truth to this tribute. But lest his obituary be twisted into hagiography, the record should also reflect that on the important issue of abortion photos, Andrew Breitbart apparently lost his vaunted nerve (or, rather less plausibly, this hyper-wired guy missed multiple email messages detailing my fight with Walsh over the issue). It would seem the guy who made his living arguing that “the emperor has no clothes,” on at least this one occasion, got caught with his own pants down.
I nonetheless ended my last message to Walsh by declaring that “I remain a big fan of Andrew Breitbart’s work.” I meant it. If some leaders truly are irreplaceable, Andrew Breitbart must surely be numbered among them. But for all that he was, it is what, perhaps, he wasn’t that we should grieve most. James Kirchick, a longtime Breitbart media colleague, posted a send up atTabletMag.com, March 1, 2012, titled “The Audacity of Breitbart,” in which he claims that Breitbart “… was in no sense a religious man, [but] he had a respect for religion and religious people.” Respect for religion may be admirable, but it can never be redemptive. It may seem wishful thinking, but for Andrew Breitbart, I am praying Matthew 20:1-16.
The Center For Bio-Ethical Reform
PO Box 219
Lake Forest, CA 92609