Why Andrew Sullivan Continues to Piss Me Off…little things edition

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.

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11 Comments on “Why Andrew Sullivan Continues to Piss Me Off…little things edition”

  1. Ted K Says:

    I understood your most recent complaints against Andrew Sullivan which I sympathize with, but I think you’re reaching a little on this one. If I were you I would have focused more on his grudge holding habits. When someone pisses him off, he will mention that person but withhold direct web links to them. Leon Wieseltier would be a recent example. Which is fine, that’s his right. But it’s kind of like those compliments in between women that both women know is a cutting insult. He thinks we’re all so damn dumb we don’t notice his little “covert” jabs at people he doesn’t like.

    • Tom Says:

      I don’t care who or how he connects with on his blog — that’s truly his business from start to finish.

      I do think the way he thinks is worth commenting on, the more so because he is quite possibly the most influential individual blogger out there, and he is certainly one of those most committed to experimenting with blogging as a form. So what he does do well or ill matters.

  2. Ted K Says:

    Also, I don’t know how this one slipped me while I was on the topic. Sullivan used to rain down friendly links galore on Jeffrey Goldberg. Now Goldberg’s lucky if he gets 2 links in a week. I think I’ve mentioned to you before I’m a bit of a Jew-phile (I have extremely high respect for Jews intelligence and Jewish culture even I am a non-Jew). But Jeffrey Goldberg strikes me as one of the more dull Jewish writers out there, and I just think it’s interesting the sudden change in the amount of links Sullivan is giving him compared to say a year or 18 months ago. I haven’t actually charted that but it would be interesting I think if you could.

  3. Tom Says:

    If it were up to me the notion of being a “Jew-phile” would kind of ebb away for you. I’m the writer I am as Tom Levenson, not as a representative of Jewry.

    As for Goldberg — there have been plenty of links; it’s just that Sullivan is, correctly, imho, highly critical of Goldberg’s take on criticism of the Israeli government/policy.

    • Ted K Says:

      I’m kind of proud to label myself a “jew-phile” to tell the truth, although I suppose one could say “reverse racism” is a type of racism, I don’t view it that way myself, I just view it as seeing a GENERAL level of high quality people and people who are above average intelligence compared to the general population. And I believe I can claim some objectivity as I am not Jewish myself. And no, I don’t read you because of that. I read you ’cause you’re a good writer and state your true emotions on things.

      This is one thing I would STAUNCHLY defend Sullivan on (although other things I strongly dislike about Sullivan). I think Sullivan is a good friend of Jewish people and a good friend to Israel, but when he sees Arabs in East Jerusalem who did nothing bad thrown out of their homes, it bothers him. Then Wieseltier attacks him, and Goldberg gives a very limp and half-hearted defense of Sullivan. I think it bothers Sullivan because he feels in his mind (And I think he sincerely and legitimately is a friend of both Jews and Israel) he is being attacked for having the nerve to defend Arabs living in their homes against a random seizure by the Netanyahu government.

      Throwing people out of their homes randomly, Israel being the eternal home of Jews, and the Iran threat are all separate issues ideologically. Some people don’t get that. I think YOU get it (although I don’t want to misrepresent your views). But Wieseltier and Goldberg don’t.

      • wds Says:

        Asserting that one people is, on average, superior to an other still makes you a bigot at the very least. Even if that people in particular is a minority.

  4. Nick S. Says:

    Hey – thanks for the post. I share your frustration with some of Sullivan’s traits. I found quite fitting that right after reading this post I went to Sullivan’s blog and read a post where he – literally – calls Obama a Tory! It’s the flip side, I guess, of getting to pick and choose who he deems a true “conservative” (by claiming the Republicans aren’t conservatives) to claim someone like Obama is a true conservative. Obama’s obviously no radical, but I think he should do a bit more explaining if he’s going to call him a Tory…

  5. AJ Hill Says:

    Remaining firmly in the spirit of “little things”, I too find the sentence that you’ve singled out jarringly inapt. However, I usually try to avoid the passive voice altogether, whenever I can, viz:

    “I remain somewhat skeptical of Media Matters, but the data … .”

    Imagine, if everyone adopted this policy, we might eventually be spared the self descriptive abomination, “I’m someone who … .”

    • Ian Preston Says:

      If we are allowing grammatical pedantry, then I would say that I don’t see the passive voice used anywhere in either of the sentences. “Remain” in both the original adjectival clause and Tom’s reformulation seems to me to be used in the active voice. Wouldn’t a passive construction need a transitive verb so as to be something like: “Media Matters is a group which is somewhat mistrusted by me …”?

      • AJ Hill Says:

        Thanks, Ian. I stand corrected. As you obviously recognized, intransitive verbs can’t be used in the passive voice. This leaves me at a loss to describe the construction I wish to avoid. Maybe gratuitous use of the verb “to be” would fit, or superfluous insertion of a subordinate clause. In either case my suggestion becomes more stylistic than grammatical, but I still think it’s a better resolution of Sullivan’s awkward sentence.
        Before mentioning Churchill’s well worn remark about fronting prepositions I decided to do a little fact checking. Turns out, like so many of the best quotations, this one is probably apocryphal.
        Nevertheless I found an instructive analysis
        of it.

  6. Ian Preston Says:

    I’d question whether you’re right to suggest conservatism has to appeal to “eternal truths” articulated in an ” idealised past”. That moderate pragmatic strand that bases itself on denying the reliability of human reason as a way to engineer improvements on the imperfect present, arguably dominant in British Toryism (at least before Thatcher), turns away instinctively, I would think, from that sort of perspective. I think the distinction Sullivan draws is a genuine one even if his view that one type of conservatism is more authentic than the other is unpersuasive.

    You can understand why conservatives of his type ally naturally with those who wish to defend the positions of the currently powerful. What is less easy to take is their frequent unwillingness to disally themselves from those you rightly describe as radicals, those willing to push reforms which destroy consensus in pursuit of retrenching privilege or prejudice, when gradualist progressive reformers threaten social unity less. I actually give him a lot of credit for intellectual and moral consistency for his willingness to break ranks so decisively with the radical right in the US.


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