Andrew Sullivan, as I and many have noted, is a true pain in the ass. He’s sometimes brilliant, more or less always deeply committed, capable of howling error and, in the one great strength that any opinionated journalist needs, completely unfazed by that fact.
But he’s also beset by the one true sin of someone who would both know and interpret the world (which is a fancy way of saying a journalist of and with opinions): he is selectively incurious.
That is there are certain assumptions that just don’t get their spring and fall airing out — and they manifest themselves as seemingly permanent thumbs on the scale.
I’m onto this because, while procrastinating yet again in submitting expense reports for the four-trips-in-three weeks stint just past, I sauntered over to his blog just now to find in a post about Mark Thiessen’s serial lies, this:
Media Matters is a group I remain somewhat skeptical of, but the data they have assembled on “Courting Disaster” is truly impressive.
This annoys because of its magisterial dismissal of his source, Media Matters. There is the matter of tone — I bridle at his “We are not amused” affect. There is the awakening of the grammar nazi in me: the clause is better written (IMHO, of course) “Media Matters is a group about which I remain somewhat skeptical…”
But most of all there is the assumption not in evidence, the argument not made. Sullivan distrusts Media Matters, despite their seemingly admirable work in this instance, because?….
We must infer, and I do: I’m going to guess that Sullivan’s residual distaste comes, for all that Sullivan has moved a lot from his naive Bush-and-war worshipping days as a callow blogger, Media Matters has consistently documented sins by many of Sullivan’s friends, former or otherwise.
It galled then, I’d imagine, and it galls now.* But this is weak sauce, to steal TNC’s epithet: if you are going to undercut your authority you need to explain why (a) they merit general distrust and (b) how the work you praise is different. Sullivan doesn’t, ruling instead ex cathedra, which, as we have all recently been reminded, is a perilous place from which to opine.
And there there’s this, in a post on the presumed greater conservatism of Hilary Clinton (compared to Obama):
I think Bruce needs a qualifier: “ideological conservatives.”
This is another one of those asides that turn up fairly often on his blog, in which Sullivan again tries to defend his general claim that he is an arbiter of authenticity. I wrote recently about his Christians vs. Christianists trope — and his chiding of Bruce Bartlett is more of the same. There are real conservatives — those whom Sullivan recognizes as fellow heirs of a lineage that includes the inevitable Burke and the locally omnipresent Oakeshott…and then there are all those who have followed false prophets, and become merely “ideological” conservatives.
Sullivan is, of course, absolutely entitled to construct his own typology. I have an unsolicited suggestion for him, in fact:
I agree with him that those using the term “Conservative” in contemporary American politics are not — in either the political-historical sense of the term, its philosophical sense, nor in any reasonable reading of its plain meaning. Rather, they are, to dredge up a term from British politics, Radicals. If he’d start using that to describe the Palins and the Kristols of the world and all the rest, with an account of the Anglo-American roots of the word as used in politics, that would be great.
But for now, some attention must be paid to the way the word is actually understood in current usage. Movement conservatives, self-identified American conservatives, the folks who love torture and hate health care reform assert, as conservatives have often done, that there specific stands are derived from a more global commitment to some established base of eternal truths articulated most clearly in some idealized past — and there is not reasonable understanding of conservatism as a political trope that doesn’t recognize such claims as a broadly shared element in the definition of of what it means to be conservative.
That Sullivan deeply dislikes the form in which this commitment takes in our politics today, and that he sees it as mostly or entirely a fiction (i.e. — there is no reading of history that yields the “truths” that Palin says she sees as foundational, a view with which I entirely agree), doesn’t mean that he gets to decide who stays in the conservative club and who gets booted out.
Again, I’d trace this back to Sullivan’s still incomplete grasp of the contradictions within his worldview and experience — conflicts which he has been more open than most about expressing. He’s someone who thinks deductively, from axioms he believes or accepts to be true. He is sensitive enough to experience to recognize at least some of the times when those axioms turn out to be falsified by daily reality — hence, among much else, his passionate battle against the perpetuation of the American torture state. But old habits of mind don’t simply undo themselves…and here, in two casual asides, you see how they dull thought.
Which, I suppose, if I’m honest, would be most useful as a warning to self. There is no such thing as herd immunity in the thinking-and-writing biz.
*There may even be a hint here, to my perhaps oversensitive ears, of a kind of class disdain: Media Matters may be just a bit too grubby to be taken seriously. (I could be detecting phantoms here. There’s nothing like being a member of an Anglo-Jewish upper-ish family to give one perhaps a too-finely-tuned sensor for English class distinctions, as a recent conversation with a friend who happened to be an old-Harrovian (sic?) classmate of a cousin of mine reminded me. With just two Jews at Harrow at that time, the tension within an identity of same-and-other was constant.)
Image: Titian, “Portrait of Cardina Pietro Bembo” before 1547. Bembo is a favorite of mine for many reasons, not least that he had an affair with Lucrezia Borgia before he being made a cardinal.