Thursday, July 08, 2010

I really need a hobby.....

According to this New Yorker profile, 2.4 million people read Andrew Breitbart's blog every month. That would be about half the population of Houston, or not enough people to keep a syndicated radio program on the air nationwide, or even a basic cable program ("The Daily Show" got a reported 1.4 million a night back in 2009., just for comparison's sake). I can't think of 10 people I know in real life who've heard of Andrew Breitbart. Actually, I can't think of one. And what does he traffic in?

No battle is too petty for Breitbart, no target too small or pathetic. He once showed me a series of messages that he had received from an apparently unhinged visitor to his Web sites. One missive concluded with a postscript: “You drank human urine three times—how did it taste?” Breitbart recalled, “That is when I said, O.K., I am not going to ignore him anymore—I want to create a level of pain for him that makes him realize this is not worth this.” He published the messages, as well as the sender’s name and photograph, on Big Journalism, along with a scathing editorial saying that the sender’s “stylings deserve a far greater public platform.” Breitbart told me, “I am sure if you talk to shrinks, or prosecutors, who are experts in these types of people, it is best to avoid them. But that’s not how my brain works.”
Pretty much what anybody blogging about politics traffics in, in other words. Outrage. Outrage and argument. In fact, here's political blogging in a nutshell:

He does not pretend to be an expert in policy, or to be particularly interested in it. “Just because I am paying attention to politics and culture doesn’t mean that I should be talking about the health-care bill, talking about the minutiae,” he told me. Instead, Breitbart is obsessed with wresting control of the political narrative from the established media organizations. If the wire services that Breitbart aggregates, and the bloggers he recruits, serve as his content providers, then Breitbart might be called a malcontent provider—giving seething, sneering voice to what he characterizes as a silenced majority.
Will the real America please log into the internet and stand up?

But it reaches further than that; Breitbart's response to John Lewis claiming the tea party members shouted racial slurs at him outside the Capitol several months ago goes a bit beyond the level of politics blogging going on:

The editorial was a typical Breitbart gesture: a brazen, blustering provocation disorientingly couched as a reasoned response to a brazen, blustering provocation. If his logic was weak (the absence of documentary evidence of an incident does not prove that the incident did not occur), his rhetoric was effective, repositioning the congressmen not as victims of racism but as perpetrators of it.
Now we're into Christopher Hitchens territory.

A place I promised myself I wouldn't go, but maybe it's just as well I did. Hitchens, much in the manner of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, sets up a straw man of his own imagining and proceeds to set it on fire. He does this in front of an audience as ignorant as he is, and his eloquence (such as it is) passes for intelligence, and wins him crowds anxious to have his book signed, which is, after all, what he's really there for. There was a reason Plato had Socrates condemn the Sophists, and when I regard people like Hitchens, my sympathies for Socrates go up just a bit. It's a problem of language games, in the Wittgenstein sense: Hitchens disparages experiences he doesn't accept, accepts experiences he does, and the whole thing runs on wheels. It is essential, in Hitchens world-view, that everyone think as he does, so we must all accept the reality of quarks and mesons, even though the evidence for them is simply that physicists have declared they have a reality, and their particle accelerators and equations prove it. I don't doubt they do, but I have to take it on faith, since I'm not a physicist. It has nothing to do with my life, of course. Quantum physics may affect computing, but it will never effect how the electrician wires my house, or how the plumber fixes my toilet, the mechanic repairs my car. Yes, yes, at some level it is important (I don't deny it), but does it affect my daily life? Do I have an experience of quantum mechanics? No. It may explain questions I haven't asked, and don't need to ask; but that doesn't prove it essential to my life, or even true. Truth, as Kierkegaard pointed out, is subjective. Quantum mechanics may well be "true." But what does that mean to me?

Nothing. Not really.

So I don't discard quantum mechanics, but I accept it as valid. It fits, I am told, with the same science that makes this computer and the internet possible, the same science that makes my lights come on, my refrigerator hum, my car run reliably. Good enough. But none of these things are truth to me, either. They may be valid facts; but they are not "truth." What is truth? Ah, that's not really the realm of science.

It's not the exclusive realm of religion, either, or the only realm of religion. But to speak of matters relevant to religion is not to speak of anything Christopher Hitchens has publicly espoused as valid for discussion. So why should I try to converse with him? He wants me to accept the reality of quarks because physics says so, when he knows no more than I how such things can be, or even if they are. He accepts what the physicists say; he trusts. And "faith," as that word is translated from the koine Greek of the New Testament, is most commonly rendered into modern English as "faith." But for Hitchens, faith means "believin' what ain't so." And Hitchens doesn't have the good grace to so much as read William James and reconsider that assertion.* He doesn't need to; he has his eloquence.

And Andrew Breitbart has his outrage. Per that New Yorker profile, he provokes a lot of thoughtful people, people whom I admire and respect for their opinions. But arguing with Breitbart, or Hitchens, is like wrestling with a pig: you get muddy, and the pig likes it. In the meantime, Breitbart and his friends are keeping the dream alive:

Mike Silver, a businessman who is Breitbart’s neighbor, remembers being at Breitbart’s house for the 2004 Super Bowl, when Janet Jackson had what her co-performer, Justin Timberlake, characterized as a “wardrobe malfunction.” Silver recalls, “He immediately grabs his laptop—he has all these disciples who send him things—and the phone starts ringing off the hook. He wrote the story, calling what Jackson was wearing a ‘solar nipple medallion,’ and then for the next couple of hours you could see that phrase popping up on all the broadcasts. I couldn’t believe how quickly they could influence the Zeitgeist of the world.”
I had never heard that description before. I guess my Zeitgeist is not the world's Zeitgeist.

*I.e.: "The freedom to ' believe what we will ' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider."


  1. Small quibble: you use computers, you experience quantum mechanics.

    Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a ham radio operator. Nothing solid state. The tubes glowed; you could practically see the electrons traversing them, the grid's charge modulating the flow. You could look at the circuitry and figure it out.

  2. Puts me in mind of a wonderful phrase from Livy:

    "ad haec tempora quibus nec uitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus perventum est."

    ...a time in which we can neither tolerate our vices, nor tolerate what must be done to remedy them.

  3. Small quibble: you use computers, you experience quantum mechanics.

    Actually, I don't experience it at all. Anymore than I experience electrical theory when I turn on a light in a dark room.

    Kinda the point, if you see what I mean.

  4. I suppose; perhaps I experience quantum mechanics when using solid state electronics after the fact of my training. But on some level, doesn't everyone wind up, eventually, with a black box, as the man in Searle's Chinese room, doing the best he can with what he's got without really knowing anything?