Two years ago, a late night conversation that I had on Twitter with a Tulane graduate made national news the following afternoon. We had been exchanging tweets for a couple of days about the attempt to hack the phone lines of Senator Mary Landrieu’s office in New Orleans. But he wasn’t bantering with me simply because, as a Tulane grad, he was interested in Louisiana politics. James O’Keefe, the young man behind the failed phone hack, was generally considered to be his protege.
Forty minutes after he sent a message to me, apologizing for previously calling me “a putz,” in the early morning of March 1, 2012, Andrew Breitbart collapsed and died. I was the last person with whom he publicly corresponded.
As news broke of his death, I suddenly became an important footnote in the story. ABC News referred to me as “Andrew Breitbart’s last public insult.” I fielded calls and e-mails from reporters with Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. Several national online publications reposted screen captures of our entire conversation. There were more than a couple of “famous last words” stories.
Although Andrew Breitbart’s politics were the polar opposite of mine and although I had serious concerns about the integrity and the responsibility of his journalistic enterprise, his death, at 43, was an undeniable tragedy, particularly for his young family.
That afternoon, I had a golden opportunity, in front of a large national audience, to audition for the role of Brash and Impassioned Political Pundit and Blogger. After all, that’s how Breitbart himself responded to the news of Senator Edward Kennedy’s death. But I kept thinking of my father, who died at the age of 41, and what it was like for me, as an 18 year old kid and two years before the birth of Facebook and the advent of social media, to read some of the hateful and ignorant drivel posted about him on the online forum of the local talk radio station.
So, instead of insulting the politics of a man who had kept me entertained and who had engaged with me for the previous two or three days, right up until the hour of his unexpected death, I crafted a simple two paragraph statement. I praised Andrew Breitbart for his “verve and panache;” I recognized him for his willingness to engage with people who don’t share his beliefs; I expressed my sympathies to his family, and I explained that I had also lost my father when he was in his early 40s. I sent it out to every media outlet that asked me for a comment, and most of them carried at least a couple of my lines.
During the next day, dozens of Breitbart’s friends, colleagues, former classmates, and neighbors reached out to me, personally, to thank me for being gracious and kind. Some shared with me their own short stories about his life. They wanted me to know that beneath his cankerous, outrageous, and often incendiary public persona, there was a decent and loving husband, father, and friend.
Something else happened the next day. I also received a flood of hate mail, and although most of it was relatively benign and juvenile, some of it was threatening and personal. During his career, Andrew Breitbart cultivated a rabid and loyal audience through excoriating and often demonizing his opponents on the political left, marketing scandals, and then repackaging those scandals as elaborate conspiracy theories.
I’m not sure he really believed in what he was peddling all of the time.
After all, during the final hours of his life, he was arguing with me about the important distinction between James O’Keefe’s conviction- a misdemeanor with the intent to commit a felony- and reports suggesting that O’Keefe had been convicted of an actual felony offense. It’s not a distinction without a difference, to be sure, but it’s also not the best way to defend a man who dressed up in a costume, walked into a federal office building, and attempted to hack the telephone system of a senior United States Senator. To me, Breitbart wasn’t being clever or honest; he was just being blindingly loyal to a stupid, reckless kid whose idea of journalism exclusively relies on entrapment, deception, and criminality.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of his fans were reflexively, instinctively hateful to me, while, at the same time, so many of his actual friends were extraordinarily kind.
Maybe it’s just a symptom of our new digital world, a world in which it is completely possible and even socially acceptable for a single human being to simultaneously maintain multiple, conflicting personalities: The lovable grandfather by day and the prolific hate-monger by night, the brilliant teacher in the classroom and the racist in the chatroom, the harmless “good ol’ boy” to his closest friends and the unhinged sociopath to perfect strangers. The Internet as the depository for the collective Id.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard friends of mine say something like, “Trust me, Lamar, he’s a nice guy in real life.” And I know, for certain, that many of my friends are also guilty of telling others, “Trust me, Lamar’s a nice guy in real life.”
I’ve been writing about politics for the better part of the last nine years, and I am fully aware of the occupational hazards. For several years, a popular blogger in my hometown frequently referred to me as a “gimp;” he photoshopped pictures of me as Hitler, Napoleon, and Chairman Mao. It was hateful, delusional, and bizarre stuff, particularly considering that this blogger, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, had never once met me “in real life.” Another blogger, who hid behind an anonymous name, published a series of articles that called me “Fetal Freddy” (Frederick is my first name), suggesting that my disability- cerebral palsy- was caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, an accusation that brought me to tears because it viciously attacked my mother, a woman who cared for me more than anyone else in my life.
… And, look, that’s just what folks said about me in my own hometown, population 48,426.
I am not suggesting that the hatred I have personally encountered is entirely motivated by partisan politics. The blogger who called me “Fetal Freddy,” for example, was an operative for the vanity campaign of mayoral candidate Von Jennings, an African-American Democrat I personally recommended for a job with Mayor Jacques Roy. And there are plenty of other examples of Democrats being hateful and nasty to anyone and everyone who disagrees with them or who dares to challenge them.
However, it is impossible to deny the corrosive influence that more than two decades of paranoiac, mean-spirited, xenophobic, bigoted, and far right conservative talk radio has had on our political discourse. Today, the typical amateur conservative political pundit has been brought up on a steady and unhealthy diet of Rush Limbaugh in the morning and Fox News at night.
No one has a monopoly on the truth, but study after study proves that Limbaugh listeners and Fox News viewers are significantly less informed than people who consume news from almost every other source in the country. And perhaps this is because many of us are not as interested in learning the news as we are in having our preconceptions and our biases reinforced and validated by strong personalities who command big audiences.
I was born and raised in a small, majority African-American city in the Deep South and in the heart of Louisiana. 150 years after my hometown was burned to the ground during the Civil War, the battles over civil rights are still being fought; it still suffers from racial distrust and mistrust, both black and white.
My hometown has made incredible strides, particularly during the last ten years, in healing those wounds. I suppose it’d be easy to be a relativist on the issue, to suggest that the white folks who listen to the self-aggrandizing garbage, gold, and disaster preparation gear that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck sell them every day are no worse or no better than the black folks who cheapen history and sully the sacrifices and the bravery of so many of our ancestors and neighbors who were sold into slavery by recklessly throwing out terms like “slave master” or “Uncle Tom” as political dynamite.
Both are bad, both are toxic, both are divisive, and both are unproductive.
But, to me, the rhetoric from the right is ultimately more destructive, particularly in the American South, because it is principally being informed by a white guy from Washington State (who now lives in suburban Dallas), a white guy from Missouri (who now lives in sunny Florida), and a couple of other white guys from New York City.
I’ll put it another way: If you are a white boy or a white man born and raised in the Deep South, you’ll never understand the everyday realities of white privilege (and yes, it is real) by listening to mega-millionaires who have never spent a day down here. And you listen long enough, you suddenly begin imagining yourself as the victim of your own success and your own ambitions.
At some point though, in the not so distant future, people will need to decide what community they actually want to live in; they will need to decide what community means to them. To me, it is an issue of basic human decency; we should aspire to be country that provides every child with the best education in the world, no matter the appraised value of their family home or the location of their mother’s or father’s apartment, and we should continue to aspire to provide health insurance coverage to any and all Americans.
It is imperative that we listen to one another, seriously and earnestly, and it is even more crucial that, in listening, we treat one another as fellow human beings. Not neighbors prepared to take the heat from a half-informed bigoted bloviator, like your crazy Uncle who blames everything on Obama, the guy who sent those chain e-mails about his birth certificates. Or maybe you’re friends with Scott McKay of The Hayride (more on him in another post):
In case you missed it, I had a crazy week last week. I’ll try to tie it all together in my upcoming post “Meditations from a Slidable Chair” within the next two days.