Andrew Sullivan's Political Transformation: Bravery or Spineless Populism?

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Ben Cohen
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Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan

Mark Ames savagely took down Andrew Sullivan last week in a piece that revealed the star blogger's temperamental political leanings that appear to coincide very much with the moment rather than any steadfast moral compass. Ames argued that if Sullivan, who recently left The Daily Beast to go it alone, is the savior of new journalism, the industry is in his words, 'f**cked'. It's difficult to argue with Ames's logic after reading his piece - Sullivan has had a very public metamorphosis that has largely coincided with popular opinion on a variety of core issues. Ames's piece attacks Sullivan for complicity in a vast array of offenses, ranging from support of racial eugenics theories (Sullivan published a large excerpt the monstrously offensive and widely debunked 'The Bell Curve' book in The New Republic in 1994), to his hounding of anti war journalists in the wake of 9/11 and Bush's 'War on Terror'. Writes Ames:

Like a lot of imbeciles, Andrew Sullivan reacted to September 11 as if it was a test of Andrew Sullivan’s mettle, starring Andrew Sullivan as the protagonist in an epic battle between good and evil, with the fate of mankind hanging in the balance: Red Dawn meets Revelations by way of [NAME OF TOM CLANCY BOOK POPULAR AMONG BELTWAY WAFFENDWEEBS]… Lots of pompous cliches, and flapping flags in the wind… Writing in The New York Times (his new home after he lay waste to The New Republic), just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Sullivan declared:

"This coming conflict is indeed as momentous and as grave as the last major conflicts against Nazism and Communism…The difference is that this conflict is against a more formidable enemy than Nazism or Communism."

Over the next couple of years, between the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Sullivan filled op-ed pages with screeds denouncing leftists as traitors:

“The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.”

“…the enemy within the West itself—a paralyzing, pseudo-clever, morally nihilist fifth column that will surely ramp up its hatred in the days and months ahead.”

After listing another series of particularly loathsome quotes from Sullivan in support of the Iraq war (this one stood out to me: “So deal with this: The antiwar movement wittingly and uwittingly played a central part in extending Saddam’s regime”), Ames concludes:

…it goes on and on. I thought it would be funny, in a loathsome sort of way — but it’s not. It’s just disgusting, flat and endless disgusting. And it never resolves itself, it just repeats, rolls on and on, opportunistic, smug, catastrophic.

I don't mind admitting that I'm a fan of Andrew's, regardless of his political leanings or transformation. His excellent writing skills brilliantly convey complex political events, and his willingness to open himself to harsh criticism on his blog (he regularly posts withering reader criticism without responding to it) is highly commendable. Sullivan's perspective on American politics as a gay, British, Catholic conservative is fascinating to say the least, and his writing so powerful it helps frame mainstream debate in America.

In his defense, his political transformation didn't happen over night, and he has painstakingly decoded his own rationale for turning against the Republican Party. In an open letter to George Bush asking the former President to acknowledge some of his egregious mistakes, Sullivan wrote: "Some of my praise of your leadership at the time actually makes me blush in retrospect." And in an interview with Salon, Sullivan went further in taking responsibility for the part he played in the lead up to the disastrous invasion:

I feel a deep sense of responsibility for not being more skeptical about the Bush people and what they were telling us before the war. I think I was way too gullible. I wanted, in a time of war, to give the president every benefit of the doubt. I was dumb to do so. And I certainly also feel, as a supporter of the war, extreme anguish about the lives that are currently being lost in that country by innocent people, as well as the horrible betrayal of American values.....

It really shook me, that I had bought hook, line and sinker this entire certain ideology. I realized if I had stuck to my principles I would have been more skeptical, and I regret that.

But there is also much truth in Ames's piece that must be acknowledged when assessing Sullivan's writing and credibility.

I started reading Sullivan's columns in the Sunday Times over 10 years ago when Sullivan was a hardcore conservative and ardent Bush supporter who would regularly put forward well written arguments as to why Al Gore would be a disastrous President, and Bush a refreshing antidote to the immoral Clinton years. I didn't agree with Sullivan in the slightest, but I remember being mightily impressed with his writing. I often find conservative writing simplistic and narrow minded, but Sullivan's nuance and clarity, while ideologically dogmatic, was refreshing and different. I made a point to follow his writing from then on, and have witnessed his evolution from a rigid neo conservative, to a flexible centrist much in the tradition of liberal British Toryism. Having read him almost daily, it is difficult to square in my mind Ame's depiction of him as a spineless purveyor of conventional wisdom, but perhaps it is a case of not being able to see the forest through the trees. Maybe I have been too close to Sullivan's writing to accurately judge how sincere his evolution on political issues really was, and Ames's piece presents a more accurate depiction of his about turn on some very fundamental issues.

It is true that Sullivan's voice helped build support for the incredibly damaging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - wars he now believes to be massive mistakes. It is also true that his political U turn happened as the majority country was beginning to shift radically against the Bush Administration and support for the Iraq war was dwindling by the second. Looking at the timeline, Sullivan's moral posturing on these issues is laughable. Sullivan said nothing when journalists were being fired for denouncing the war, and his hectoring actively helped purge them from the mainstream media. Sullivan's acknowledgment of his mistakes should be commended, but he did so only when there were no serious threats to his career.

I will say this though; Sullivan's current writing is far more self critical than it has ever been, and I believe his complicity in all the above has genuinely shaken him. Gone is the moral posturing and ideological certainty. His blogging now reflects the thoughts of a man who understands his own imperfection and seeks to understand better rather than lecture others on their own failings. Whereas Sullivan's colleague and friend Christopher Hitchens sought to deflect his shameful war mongering by changing the subject (Hitchens started a monumental war against religion when his politics became unfashionable), Sullivan at least took it on the chin and opened himself up to some savage criticism.

More than anything though, Sullivan's ability to articulate himself and willingness to engage with debate from all sides of the political spectrum makes him eminently readable and an important voice. He has spoken out eloquently against Israel's brutalization of the Palestinian people, and slammed Obama repeatedly on issues pertaining to civil liberties and torture. These were not popular topics as the Left lined up behind the President giving him a pass on pretty much everything, and denouncing Israel could still threaten your career. It doesn't make up for his sins during the Bush years, but his voice lends a helping hand to causes that are still ignored by most mainstream outlets.

Sullivan will never be an Edward R. Murrow or a Daniel Ellsberg, a fact he now probably understands. And because of that, he deserves a bit of latitude when it comes to the historical assessment of his reputation.