Andrew Sullivan and the Anatomy of False Equivalence

Here’s one more attempt to learn how to blog short, made glorious summer by that son of Surrey (not quite the same ring, is it?), Andrew Sullivan.

Instead of doing the full John Foster Dulles at every opportunity, I want to try picking on the one moment that illustrates the larger problem.

Here it is Sullivan’s inability to escape both the tropes of a failed journalistic conceit he himself often condemns…and the fact that he simply cannot free himself from the fetters of both identity politics and the claim of faith over experience.

Here’s the relevant passage in his post from yesterday (April 23, 2010) on yet one more bit of David Brooks’ maundering:

I can see how easy it was for the FNC-RNC to wheel out their exhausted tropes of anti-government rhetoric and for Paul Krugman, say, to wheel out his own pro-government radicalism.

Of course, to any unbiased observer — hell to just about any biased one, it must be obvious that a major propaganda network and the national committee of one of two American political parties are institutionally equivalent to one biweekly newspaper columnist.

Or not.

And of course, there is the question of the empirical issue:  who was right.  The weird thing here is that Sullivan actually knows the answer, for a little further down in his post, he writes,

“I happen to think that Krugman has much more of a case right now, because the circumstances almost require the drastic measures he favors.”

Which is to say, of course, that Krugman is not radical, and his work is not “pro-government,” whatever the hell that cliche masquerading as a thought might actually mean.  Rather, he proposed a series of extraordinarily conventional, mainstream economist’s responses to a classic financial crisis, and both his proposals and his criticisms of the actions actually undertaken have turned out to be well matched to the actual events and clearly derived from a long-standing and often-tested body of economic thought.

And, not to belabor what I think is obvious, this is where, for all of Sullivan’s obvious accomplishments, he still allows the habits born of his roots in polemic, not to mention his tortured identity politics, to limit his grasp of his circumstances.

Fox News and the modern Republican party are radical, by any reasonable definition of the term.  They are committed to creating a false reality to replace the actual body of knowledge and experience that describes the world most of us actually inhabit (and yes, I’m getting ready to ridicule you too, Rod Dreher, you pietistic and scientifically illiterate purveyor of false intellectual modesty).  And most important, they lie a lot.  All the time.  About big stuff and small.

And there is nothing in that record that is equivalent to anything in Krugman’s.  Again:  Krugman was right and Krugman was wholly conventional, neither seeking an expansion of government for its own sake nor any radical transformation of the relationship of government to the economy.  The pairing simply makes no sense as an actual statement about the world — and it only does in the context of Sullivan’s angst about the fact that the person he believes himself to be is one that his world now clearly says he’s not.

That is:  he wants to continue calling himself a conservative, despite the fact that most of the people in this country who claim that label, at least in the public arena, disdain his views, a favor he readily returns.  At the same time, he wants to appropriate any act he approves of as “genuine” conservativism — notably the many accomplishments he and I both admire to President Obama’s credit.  It’s an endlessly fluid concept, Sullivan’s political theory:  what is truly conservative is that which satisfies his sense of self-image and or necessity at any moment.

And that, of course, is the danger one faces when reading him:  you need to continuously filter out his reflex to utter and perhaps even in some deep way believe “conservative” tropes that should have been mugged out of him by the history of the last two decades.  That he still cannot do so on a regular basis (and there is a lot more of this kind of nonsense in just this one post…really I’m trying to restrain myself here) is a measure of how hard it is to abandon epistemic closure (to coin a phrase…or not) even when you warn against it.

Image: Ambroise Paré “Portrait of a Chameleon” 1585.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, Republican knavery, words mattter

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4 Comments on “Andrew Sullivan and the Anatomy of False Equivalence”

  1. Unfortunately none of these pundits like Sullivan can be trusted just for the reasons you mention. Sullivan sees himself as an authoritarian leader, not bound by the rules of his group. He makes the rules, the followers follow the rules. Therefore he can reject their authoritarian rules about gays and criticize other conservatives, and still be considered (and consider himself) a member of the conservative tribe. Many conservative followers might hate him with a passion, but the followers don’t choose the elite.

    Sullivan is able to dissent on gay bigotry and some other issues like torture because he has been forced by circumstances to have some empathy for scapegoats. But he will still side with the elite on matters that, as you say, meet his needs. He needs to believe that conservatives are statesmen, national leaders, the sober, educated, intelligent party. The debasement of his party into a rapacious, exploitative few and a large, ignorant, noisy, venomous rabble must be painful to endure, especially as there is no place in it for the intellectual elite.

  2. Jim Bales Says:


    Didn’t you know that Krugman is the Shrill One, whose name must always be put forth in false equivalence to any raving conservative lunatic else the Great Old Ones will rise once more and there shall the human race will once more be “free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy”

    I didn’t understand this at first. I could not fathom the twisted logic that underpins the elder gods. But then … ah, then. Then, I followed your link to Rod Dreher. I read that post, and a couple more, but found his writing cryptic and confused, with nary a simple declarative statement of his position to be found. I studied it day and night, forgoing food and sleep as I desperately tried to make sense of his words.

    And suddenly, in my fevered brain, something snapped …

    Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Krugman R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn!

    Yours in shrill, unholy madness,

  3. Kalloch Says:

    How goes it, well put together web-site you have got there.

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