When Andrew Breitbart suddenly died, political blogs were filled with the news. This makes sense: he was an important figure in contemporary political life.
But, importantly, many if not most of the comments I saw made quick mention of their decision and/or belief that any comments about Breitbart ought to acknowledge that he was a human being with family and friends who deserved to be treated with dignity and respect—despite, the blogs either said or implied, the fact that Breitbart himself treated no one with dignity and respect.
Which, if you think about it, is a hell of a thing. The best thing even Breitbart’s defenders could say about him was that his wife and children loved him. Which is great and all, but really speaks to a profound change in the way our society seems to work.
See, for much of world history one’s legacy mattered. People wanted to be thought of well by the generations that followed. At one extreme, this led conquering monarchs to slaughter untold masses in grabs for glory, or cruel kings to enslave thousands to build monuments to the king’s wonderfulness. (Think the Pyramids of Giza as one obvious example.)
But far more commonly the desire to be remembered well led people to try to lead good lives based on helping their family and/or their community be a better place. This kind of concern for legacy is reflected when a bench in a park gets named for someone who took extra time every day to feed the ducks in cold snaps, or when a school takes the name of an honored graduate. It is why life in the places we live gets better … if it does.
Unfortunately, many of us have lost this sense of living for one’s legacy. All that matters is the now: the most expressive, most profitable, most dramatic presentation of self possible. In a choice between being the quiet person who takes time to clean up litter in the park everyday, or being Snooki, whose only talent seems to be an unashamed willingness to be filmed while behaving badly, many—too many—people take the Snooki way.
This was Andrew Breitbart’s way. He did not care if something was true or not. He did not care if innocent, good people got crushed as he pursued his agenda. All he cared about—at least in his public persona—was advancing his cause.
Now I know that he would say he had to do it: that the left is so vile and so hateful that he had no choice. I know he would say that in such a world “facts” are fungible in the service of “good” as he defines it.
But I don’t buy it. We all have choices. Breitbart chose to pursue a politics that was nasty and mean—not just in the policies he advocated, but also in the ways he pursued them.
Whatever his personal legacy, Andrew Breitbart’s political legacy is having made American politics worse. His is the legacy of a man who, at the end of a significant public life, has to be remembered in spite of what he did, not because of what he did.
Let the rest of us do better.
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