Loving and Hating Andrew Sullivan

Loving and Hating Andrew Sullivan

I have written adoringly and critically about Andrew Sullivan before. Today it’s critical. I start off by admitting I am over my head and doomed to fail. Sullivan towers god-like over the blog community, and to many he can do no wrong. I’m a dilettante blogger in far-away China, small potatoes in extremis, in possession of neither the literary skills nor the labyrinthine intelligence of Mr. Sullivan. But I at least want to express myself.

Sullivan did not reach his current stature as King of the Blogs without good reason. He was/is a motivating force behind the whole blog phenomenon (he got me into this) and a damned good writer, blessed with the ability to see through the clutter straight to the heart of the most complex issues. Like many columnists, he can also be bullying, one-sided, mocking and unfair. Luckily, he tends to balance these traits well enough to be a pundit of formidable skill and persuasive power.

I’ve commented earlier on his cloying adoration of President Bush, which at times, like Peggy Noonan’s, borders on self-parody, as well as his predictability: each day you can expect a wry, often ironic attack on the likes of Paul Krugman or Bill Clinton or anyone he deems Sontagesque. These can be quite brutal, and sometimes Sullivan’s penchant for bullying can appear to go overboard. Earlier this week the victim of Sullivan’s wrath was author-columnist Joan Didion. After first reading Sullivan’s eloquent attack, I was totally won over to his argument. Then, I stumbled onto Didion’s article via a link from another site. I was somewhat amazed.

I found the article, while certainly “to the left” (as Sullivan’s articles on this and similar topics are, often, “to the right”), to be fair and intelligent and worth reading. Her key point is simply that after September 11, anyone displaying the temerity to seek to frame the event in an historical context has been labeled a part of the “Blame America First crowd.” (Didion provides interesting evidence of this, which Sullivan ignores or treats with what can only be described as contempt.)

Sullivan starts off swinging with both fists: “Reading Joan Didion’s recent essay-cum-speech in the New York Review of Books is an enlightening exercise. It’s enlightening not because it persuades. There is no argument in it, no prescription for American foreign policy now, no alternative proposed for countering the murderous terrorism that has already killed thousands of Americans. In this, Didion perfectly represents a certain type of decay in the intellectual left.” Dems fightin’ words.

But Andrew, can you please take just a teensy step back? She is writing an essay about one aspect of the calamity, namely the marginalizing (real or imagined) of those who ask why it happened in the first place. She may well be off base, making a bad point, but to categorically damn her as you do is uncalled for; her article is not about what we should do about terrorism. Period. Full stop. So right away, a sizeable chunk of your premise is built on sand.

But wait. That’s not all. Here’s another quote from Sullivan’s article that popped out at me (parentheses are Sullivan’s): “She approvingly quotes a Berkeley professor (yes, there are self-parodic moments in her essay) to the effect that ‘On September 12, the shelves were emptied of books on Islam, on American foreign policy, on Iraq, on Afghanistan.'”

Why did this sentence irk me? I guess it’s because Andrew Sullivan, of all people, should (and does) know the inherent dangers of stereotyping. The fact that Didion quotes a Berkeley professor is enough to mock Didion for being “self-parodying.” This is one of those sins that I call “heartbreaking,” because Sullivan has often been so scrupulous in pointing out the dangers of lumping people into unfairly/ill-defined stereotyped groups, as he did so nobly last month when Ann Coulter, in his words, “tarred all liberals with the Sontagian brush.” Isn’t that what you are doing now? The professor taught at Berkeley, ergo he is a radical Sontagian liberal fruitcake.

Actually, there are two dimensions to Sullivan’s sin in this instance, but you would only know it if you had read the article. Sullivan didn’t exactly lie, but he told a half-truth by not giving all the information. Here’s Didion’s complete sentence from which Sullivan selectively picks his information:

California Monthly, the alumni magazine for the University of California at Berkeley, published in its November 2002 issue an interview with a member of the university’s political science faculty, Steven Weber, who is the director of the MacArthur Program on Multilateral Governance at Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies and a consultant on risk analysis to both the State Department and such private- sector firms as Shell Oil.” That sort of sheds a different light on the fruitcake professor, don’t you think?

Sorry, but to conceal this from his readers and give a very distinct impression that Weber is some radical leftie is simply unfair. Maybe it was because Sullivan was unhappy with the article’s reference to himself: “There was Andrew Sullivan, warning on his Web site that while the American heartland was ready for war, the ‘decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts’ could well mount ‘what amounts to a fifth column.'” I don’t know. What I do know, again, is that Sullivan knows better.

My last quote of Sullivan’s is repeated here because I looked for it, or at least a reflection of it, in Didion’s article. Maybe she has said similar things elsewhere, I honestly don’t know. But in this instance, they are a big streeeeetch from anything she actually writes in the article. Yet again, Sullivan should know better:

“Still, you can glean a few hints from Didion’s prose about what she actually proposes for our current predicament. Among them: allow Saddam Hussein to get nuclear, biological and chemical weapons; abandon Israel to its fate; withdraw from Afghanistan; have a national discussion about how America is the real source of the world’s current problems. I don’t want to put words into her mouth; but since she won’t explicitly state what she thinks – a style of hers that seems far more appropriate when observing pop culture than foreign policy – I don’t have much of a choice.”

Doesn’t want to put words in her mouth? He can certainly fool me. These are very strong statements, damning and awful. Only problem is, Didion didn’t say them, at least not here. If Sullivan thought the article posed clear enough “hints” to draw such monstrous accusations, he has an ethical right to present them to his readers with quotes. Again, maybe Didion does stand for all these dubious causes. But that’s not what the article says.

Basta. I realize that really good Web copy should be pithy, concise, clear and crisp, and that I have violated most of these rules tonight. Still, I had to get that off my chest. Maybe, somewhere, somehow, it will make a touch of a difference. It already did, for me at least; now I can go to bed!

The Discussion: 2 Comments

Question… Where did you ever get the idea that Andrew Sullivan is “King of Blogs”? Most of us just ignore him. His reasoning ability is impaired as a result of his extreme ideology. He’s just another shouting head in the right wing media echo chamber, even though his fancy intellectual style may fool some into thinking he’s above all that.

Furthermore, I’d say from reading your post that your intelligence towers over his. The level of intellectualism shown in your posting is far beyond what people who read Sullivan are capable of understanding, in my opinion. People over here aren’t nearly as intellectual as you seem to believe, when it comes to politics. I appreciate the way you pick apart the fallacies in his writing. But over here, nobody pays much attention to such sophisticated analysis. The person who scores the points is more likely to be the most audacious hit-and-run artist.

Andrew Sullivan is a clever conservative propagandist, but what he advocates doesn’t have a lot of merit in an enlightened society. He merely regurgitates the sorry ideas of the right.

July 24, 2004 @ 6:01 am | Comment

Take a look at Sullivan’s more recent posts (and see my post about him yesterday). He has turned against Bush and is strongly veering toward the Democrats. I admire his courage to break away and criticize, unlike his friends at NRO and Fox News.

I call him “King of the Blogs” because more than anyone else Sullivan sparked the blog phenomenon a couple of years ago by publicizing what blogs are and how people can start their own, and he also predicted before anyone else what effect they’d have on the mass media. His own blog isn’t what makes him king, but rather his influence in getting people like me to start our own blogs.

July 24, 2004 @ 11:01 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.