On Friday night, Andrew Breitbart, a conservative media mastermind, lost control and began screaming at Occupy-affiliated protesters who were picketing at CPAC. He yelled, “Behave yourself” repeatedly at the crowd and called them “filthy animals.” At one point he even said the protesters were “murderers.” Breitbart was referring to the sexual harassment charges that have cropped up at various OWS locations, but the people protesting weren't really sure what was happening, and as the video ends, one of them asks quizzically “What is he talking about, I've never raped anyone?”
Minutes later, Breitbart was inside CPAC, giving his address to the event. He prefaced his speech by saying that his speech was his “war cry for 2012” and asked participants to joint him “in a war against the institutional left.” The speech went on to take jabs at academia and other institutions, and to proclaim that “there is no such thing as a moderate Democrat.” The dividing “with us or against us” rhetoric could not have been stronger.
I thought his behavior was pretty shameful, and after watching this video, I thought about writing a standard piece on outbursts like these. Such a piece would respectfully note that people and ideas are different. Bad people may have good ideas and good people may have bad ones. Therefore, trying to discredit a group (the Left) by pointing to what some of its standard bearers do and say is a hopeless exercise. It's logically impossible to impugn an idea by the people associated with it; just as impossible as it for my shirt to be both black and not black. I would prefer, as I always have, that the debate be focused about what we should do, which is hard enough to figure out.
Instead, I want to talk about how writing that article would have been a waste of time and how the best response to events like these is much more difficult and more urgent. The best response is not to be more careful with arguments or even more persuasive with words. Rather, the best response is the hardest, which is to just ignore these events. To not exert mental or emotional energy to the endless game of gotcha that both political parties wage daily on all types of media. In essence, I'm counseling media zen. Or alternatively, media-Alyosha-ism.
In the Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha claims that everyone in the world is responsible for every bad thing that happens. I don't think it's helpful to interpret this literally, but in the context of Breitbart's outburst, I think it's relevant because it highlights the way that our automatic response to bombastic and insulting behavior from the left and the right is to get angry, and to become indignant. But who started it all? The protesters were there protesting CPAC, at one point chanting “racist-sexist-anti-gay, right-wing bigots go away.” This is the same fallacy that Breitbart gives in to – slurring a whole group at once. What about GOProud? Are gay Republicans anti-gay? Does Clarence Thomas not count as black because he's conservative? Don't laugh, these debates have been had.
The trick though is by becoming angry at these outbursts or trying to condemn them, either in a level-headed way or with extreme counter-ideological anger, we re-start the cycle again, creating feelings of victimhood and retaliation. The end result is that both sides become further embittered and embattled. This is evident in Breitbart's speech – he talks to CPACers about how rational discussion is possible because of the intolerance of the Left. That's why he's at war. Many on the Left feel the same way. They feel that the hegemony of capitalists, white people, or men, makes democratic discussion useless. The result, then, is anger and more games of gotcha. If you doubt me, take a look at this woman's useless but emotionally satisfying defense of CPAC.
It all comes back to Alyosha. We are all to blame when we indulge our very natural and very understanable feelings of anger. We have moral commitments, and when we see them shamelessly insulted, the desire is for revenge. We have to break this cycle, and it's not easy. Just me writing this article, in a sense, plays into the hands of endless political gamesmanship, because I feel compelled to respond to Breitbart's outburst. It would have been better to just not have written anything at all and to have read a book about economic policy, or had a conversation with someone about what they want for this country. This would be media-zen; fighting poison through inaction.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore