Why I Respect Andrew Sullivan

I am a daily reader (and now subscriber) to Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish blog and I quote him often. He has quoted me from time to time as well. Some of my readers have suggested that Sullivan is, for some reason, beyond the pale and should not be taken seriously. This post, however, shows why I think he absolutely should.

This month, the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, I’ve decided to re-publish some of my posts from March 2003. Call it masochism or basic journalistic accountability or the Internet’s revenge. But I was wrong. I was wrong in good faith. But I was wrong. And it’s worth, ten years’ later, to show just how wrong I was in order to understand better my massive error of judgment (let alone of tone).

Sullivan here displays a pretty rare level of intellectual honesty and a willingness to put his own past errors on display for all to see. That’s not only admirable, it’s essential for someone who strives to live life in anything like a rational manner. Sully may be hopelessly stuck in his Catholic beliefs even while rejecting much that the church teaches, but this kind of intellectual integrity is rare even among those of us who consider ourselves rationalists and spend a good deal of time criticizing theists for their lack of it.

25 comments on this post.
  1. jamessweet:

    Yeah, Sullivan’s an interesting case for me, sometimes he says stuff that makes me want to stand up and cheer, other times he says stuff that makes me go, “How the fuck could anybody even think that?” :D I have no trouble with the dichotomy, though; there are areas I just kinda know he is full of shit and I ignore what he has to say about that, while taking him seriously (even if I disagree with him) in most other areas.

  2. rabokarabekian:

    Ed, I’m still waiting on his apology for calling everyone who opposed the Iraq War “5th columnists.” Comparing those who were correct to terrorists is pretty appalling in my book.

  3. tbp1:

    I know what you mean about Sullivan.

    But honestly I just CANNOT understand why a non-closeted, not-in-denial gay person would want to have anything whatsoever to do with the Roman Catholic church, on any level, ever.

    Aside from the fact that, like all religions, it is founded on false premises, the RCC has a history of evildoing—by no means restricted to oppressing gays—that all the glorious art, architecture and music that it paid for, or all the great literature that it inspired, or all the universities it founded, can never completely atone for.

  4. otrame:

    Yes, it is good to see some one able to say, “I was massively wrong.”. I’ve been wrong about many things and I hope that I have been able to be as honest about them as that.

    But I wasn’t wrong about the war. As I sat watching the news that it had started, I was crying. I cried for a solid hour. I told my sister “This is going to screw up this country so bad. We’ll still be fighting this war ten years from now. So many young people will be hurt and dead so that Bush (and all the other warmongers whose kids won’t be fighting) can feel like he has a pair of testicles. Damn them. Damn them”

    This was long before I knew how much it was going to affect people I knew. Friends dead, children of friends dead. This was long before my youngest son joined the army and went on two tours and came back damaged–not destroyed, but damaged, both physically and (especially) emotionally.

    Sorry. This is an emotional subject for me.

  5. Michael Heath:

    tbp1 writes:

    But honestly I just CANNOT understand why a non-closeted, not-in-denial gay person [Andrew Sullivan] would want to have anything whatsoever to do with the Roman Catholic church, on any level, ever.

    Have you considered Mr. Sullivan’s arguments on this matter prior to coming to your conclusion? I think his argument easily meets the standard of arguable.

    I’ve belonged to two organizations which I held in complete contempt in spite of being a member of each. One was conservative Christianity and the other was the Republican party. While the indoctrinal efforts of the church foisted upon me prior to my eighteenth birthday never took (I left permanently the year I turned 18), I spent my later teen-age years struggling with my responsibility to my fellow humans; should I remain and seek reform or quit?

    My contempt for conservatism was always there, but in the late-1970s to late-1980s, I held the Democratic party with contempt as well where during that time the GOP was bigger tent who welcomed moderates. So I actively engaged within the party to reform it. I left in the Autumn of 2008 with no hope the GOP was capable of reform and was bound to get far worse when the GOP national convention unanimously approved of Sen. McCain’s nomination, Sarah Palin, as his VP candidate. (I had been voting for Democratic candidates since the late-1980s, so I wasn’t very loyal in my voting patterns for 20+ years.)

    I hold those who seek reform in higher regard than those who quit if if they publically and vociferously seek authentic reform for the obvious defects of the organization to which they belong. This conclusion is not a passing fancy; it took decades for me to develop this position with confidence.

    So from this perspective I hold Mr. Sullivan in far higher regard for fighting for reform within the RCC church than I do myself for quitting the GOP given that his faith and belief in the congregants remains steadfast. I left the GOP, in spite of my maintaining many positions which were once thought of as Republican ones, until populist Christianist conservatism came to dominate the party and the party’s business interests are no longer representative of business in general but instead a few business sectors. So from my own standard I did not take the high-ground that Sullivan did. I think my leaving the GOP is justified, but not heroic as Sullivan’s position is.

  6. Gretchen:

    No need to be sorry, otrame. You were exactly right then, and you were exactly right then.

    I had a hard time understanding the mindset of anyone who thought that invasion and occupation was a good idea then, let alone now. I don’t get how otherwise decent, intelligent people didn’t comprehend what would happen. I didn’t get how everybody wasn’t joining the massive demonstrations of protest in the US, the UK, and Australia. Remember those? Remember when people thought this was something to protest about?

    Now it’s like even that mindset has lost. People no longer approve of the war, but they also no longer seem to care.

  7. Michael Heath:

    Me earlier:

    I had been voting for Democratic candidates since the late-1980s, so I wasn’t very loyal in my voting patterns for 20+ years.

    I should clarify this. I wasn’t voting only for Democrats from the late-1980s to 2008 in spite of being a member of the GOP; I instead voted for the candidate, which frequently had me voting for the Democrats, especially at the national level and to a lesser degree, the state level. A primary motivation for voting Dem is my desire to see liberal and moderate appellate court judges/justices; I hold nearly all conservative constitutionalists in complete contempt.

  8. Gretchen:

    Sorry. That was supposed to read “You are exactly right now, and you were exactly right then.”

  9. uncephalized:

    tbp1:

    But honestly I just CANNOT understand why a non-closeted, not-in-denial gay person would want to have anything whatsoever to do with the Roman Catholic church, on any level, ever.

    Have you considered that he actually BELIEVES that the Catholic God is the one true God and that the Catholic Church is the One True Church, and that he thus has a holy and irrefusable DUTY to the Church, despite any worldly evils or corruptions, which he sees as a problem of human sinfulness getting between the Light of God, salvation of all mankind, and the people of the church? Because that’s what he seems to believe.

    I’m quite as certain as you are that he’s wrong, but it’s not hard to understand if you just suspend your disbelief of his premises for a moment. We non-theists often forget that theists really belief the incredible junk they profess.

  10. slc1:

    Re Michael Heath @ #5

    The problem with this hypothesis is that the Raping Children Church is not a democratic institution which, at least in theory, could be reformed by the laity. Instead, it is a totally top down autocratic institution run by a small number of self appointed leaders called priests, monsignors, bishops, cardinals, and the pope. If Mr. Sullivan thinks that, as a layman, he has a hope of reforming this institution, he is whistling Dixie.

    The attitude of the just retired pope was that the church should encourage those who can’t accept the churches’ teachings to leave, leaving behind the true believers. It is my information that the just retired pope appointed many of not most of the existing cardinals so the notion that the college of cardinals is going to elect someone other then one who reflects his position is piffle.

    The fact is that Mr. Sullivan must be a self-hating gay man, otherwise he would not belong to an institution that considers homosexuals to be subhuman. It’s like an Afro-American belonging to the KKK.

    Having said that, I do agree with MH that Sullivan is worth reading because, with the exception of his views on religion, he is a quite sensible person, even when on disagrees with him, and I strongly disagree with him about the situation in the Middle East. Even here, I don’t think that his ire is so much with the State of Israel as it is with the current prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, an ire that I to some extent share.

  11. Chris Hall:

    He still hasn’t apologized for publishing and legitimizing that racist piece of claptrap, The Bell Curve, nor has he apologized for slut-shaming gays whose sexualities were less conventional than his. Still waiting. Until then, he’s an asshole.

  12. tbp1:

    @#9: (Sorry I’ve never gotten the block quotes to work)

    “Have you considered that he actually BELIEVES that the Catholic God is the one true God and that the Catholic Church is the One True Church, and that he thus has a holy and irrefusable DUTY to the Church, despite any worldly evils or corruptions, which he sees as a problem of human sinfulness getting between the Light of God, salvation of all mankind, and the people of the church? Because that’s what he seems to believe.”

    I’m sure he does; what I don’t get is how a gay person could possibly believe this. (Well, anyone, really, but…) The Bible, their alleged foundational document, is clearly anti-gay, to the point of condemning gays to death. I’m not a Hebrew scholar so I could be wrong, but I don’t buy the attempts to rationalize the anti-gay sentiment as really being about male prostitution or some such. Gays (men, at least, since women are not explicitly mentioned) who have homosexual relationships are to be killed. It’s that simple.

    Presumably he believes that the Bible, and hence the Church, are wrong on that count. To me it’s a pretty clear step from there to grasping that the whole structure is built on sand. I’m an all-or-nothing guy on some issues, and this is one of them. IF there were an all-powerful, all-knowing being, and he created a book, the book would be right about everything, history, morals, science, you name it. It wouldn’t be wrong on such an important topic as human sexuality. When it was dealing in metaphor, it would be clear from the beginning what was metaphor and what wasn’t; people wouldn’t think a given passage was literally true for thousands of years and then suddenly discover it was a metaphor all along. All of this is clearly not true, ergo the Bible is not the creation of such a being.

    IF this being created a church, that was his one true church, it would be right about everything, and obviously right about everything. Not only would everyone know that it was the one true church, there wouldn’t BE any other churches. No one would ever have even thought of having another church. I honestly don’t see how you can escape that conclusion.

    As someone else pointed out, for a gay to try and reform the RCC is very much like a black person trying to reform the KKK. It’s not possible without changing the fundamental nature of the organization.

    Doubtless I have some cognitive dissonance in my psyche that other people are puzzled about. I am but human, after all, but I don’t cast my lot with an organization that despises me, that regards me as subhuman, that tries to restrict or even eliminate my human rights, and that for thousands of years actually killed people like me.

  13. wscott:

    But honestly I just CANNOT understand why a non-closeted, not-in-denial gay person would want to have anything whatsoever to do with the Roman Catholic church, on any level, ever.

    Simpy put, because he’s able to separate the message from the messenger. Arguing that the message of Catholicism must be false because the church is corrupt & criminal is something of an ad hominem, at least from the believer’s viewpoint. Personally I think message & messenger are both bs, but the two aren’t necessarily directly linked.
    .
    To me the weirder dichotomy with Sully is: if you hear him talk about what he actually believes – as in his recent posts transcribing a conversation with Hitchens – he comes across as more of a theistic rationalist (to use Ed’s favorite term). He agrees it’s impossible to really know anything about God, then in the same breath defends church doctrines based on what God supposedly wants.

  14. tbp1:

    @13: I sort of get the idea of separating the message from the messenger, but not when the messenger claims to be the sole earthly representative of the all-perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe. It seems self-evident to me that any institution created by such a being WOULD NOT AND COULD NOT be corrupt and criminal. The fact that all such institutions have been corrupt and criminal to a greater or lesser extent, is, to me, pretty good prima facie evidence that no such being exists, and that no church is actually divine. I don’t see why someone as smart as Sullivan doesn’t see that, particularly when considering an institution that has many leaders who would, literally, condemn him to death, given the opportunity.

    I know plenty of people, including very bright people, people that I like and admire tremendously, disagree with me on this, or at least don’t follow through to, what to me, is the perfectly obvious conclusion. I realize that this is going to sound a bit arrogant on my part, but this just adds to the puzzlement.

  15. uncephalized:

    @tbp1 No one is immune to irrationality. Andrew Sullivan is not an exception. Smarter people are simply able to construct more elaborate mental defenses around their contradictory beliefs than stupider people are.

  16. akkonor:

    Have you ever heard of The Bell Curve Brayton?

    Or “5th columnist”

    Or Betsy McCaughey

    3 very good reasons to dislike Andrew Sullivan.

  17. slc1:

    Re akkkonor @ #16

    1. I would note that Mr. Sullivan supported Obamacare, which was in opposition to the position taken by Ms. McCaughey.

    2. I’m not sure what the term 5th columnist means here.

    3. I am quite familiar with the Bell Curve book which was eviscerated by the late Stephen Jay Gould. I wasn’t following Sullivan during that particular controversy but it is my understanding that he took it seriously and may still take it seriously.

    Bottom line is that Sullivan is not a perfect human being. Who amongst us are? I maintain that he’s still worth reading.

  18. Synfandel:

    tbp1, here’s how you enter block quotes:


    <blockquote>
    Something someone else said.
    </blockquote>

    And it looks like this:

    Something someone else said.

  19. rabokarabekian:

    re: SLC1

    akkkonor is referring to this quote by Sullivan basically calling everyone who opposed the Iraq War traitors and possible terrorists.

    “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 a fifth column.”

    And if you don’t understand what a fifth column means here you go. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_column

    The only liberal issues Andrew Sullivan cares deeply about are the ones that directly affect him. He’s still mildly interesting to read, but I wouldn’t take his views seriously unless you’re wondering what the current beltway thinking on any given subject is.

  20. PatrickG:

    Ed, I’m still waiting on his apology for calling everyone who opposed the Iraq War “5th columnists.” Comparing those who were correct to terrorists is pretty appalling in my book.

    Well, he says he’s doing a series. Maybe that’s coming soon. I still feel seething rage when I recall being called not just a terrorist sympathizer, but an enabler of attacks on US soil. So yeah, count me in with the “yo, an apology would be nice” crowd. Plus, we still have his retraction after he went too far, quoted there in a post in 2010.

    I have absolutely nothing against the countless patriots in the blue zone, as my tribute to New Yorkers and the rest of the essay shows. I was talking about a few intellectuals and their cohorts who clearly do feel ambivalence about America fighting and winning this war. But these broad categories of “blue” and “red zones” can be misleading and unhelpful. I won’t use this shorthand again. Ditto the shorthand of “fifth column.” I have no reason to believe that even those sharp critics of this war would actually aid and abet the enemy in any more tangible ways than they have done already. And that dissent is part of what we’re fighting for.

    By fifth column, I meant simply their ambivalence about the outcome of a war on which I believe the future of liberty hangs. Again, I retract nothing. But I am sorry that one sentence was not written more clearly to dispel any and all such doubts about its meaning. Writing 6,000 words under deadline in the heat of war can lead to occasional sentences whose meaning is open to misinterpretation.

    What ambivalence? Opponents of the war weren’t ambivalent. We were right. “Fifth column” isn’t shorthand for anything, it’s a direct accusation of aiding an enemy during warfare via internal subversion. He says he’s wrong, but he needs to be a lot more specific about what he was wrong about. Was it the war? The reconstruction effort? The mishandling by BushCo? “I was wrong” could cover a whole lot of topics. For emphasis, one more time and so forth:

    I have no reason to believe that even those sharp critics of this war actually aid and abet the enemy in any more tangible ways than they have done already

    This is Sullivan apologizing at the time. If he’s sorry for the “heat of war”, he might want to make that more explicit. Not to mention he conveniently omits that he called a lot of people members of “decadent left enclaves on the coasts [that] may well mount a fifth column.” Oh yeah, that still irks me.

    So I’ll need a bit more, being that dirty hippie living in Berkeley in 2001 who was clearly waiting for the Islamist hordes to come install communism or something. *facepalm*

    All that said, he does sometimes write some really interesting material, and I certainly don’t put him in the category of David Brooks or Thomas Friedman (“*ALERT* *STOP* Your brain is in immediate danger of puerile and useless argument. If you wish to continue, you voluntarily forfeit your right to gastrointestinal control. If you continue, we advise reading the following near a toilet.”). A half-assed apology and an acknowledgement that he was wrong — but sort of right re: KSM — isn’t quite enough for me. He was a willing part of a media circus that enabled a colossal failure costing hundreds of thousands of lives for …. nothing.

    Post ended up angrier than I intended it, but partly that’s probably because I do like a lot of Sullivan’s work. If a regular at Fox News says this kind of thing, I’d shrug it off with a laugh. But I did — and do — expect better from him, and if he’s apologized in a more meaningful way, I’ve certainly missed it.

    @ otrame: I’m so very sorry for the impact this war had on you and those close to you.

  21. regexp:

    I respect Sullivan as so far that he admits when he is wrong and issues corrections. However – he is wrong more than he is right and although he writes the odd interesting opinion at times its not enough for me to read him on any regular basis.

    Also – I never got over his hypocrisy of being an HIV positive man and advertising for unprotected gay sex. To me that was the deal breaker.

  22. Michael Heath:

    regexp writes:

    [Andrew Sullivan] is wrong more than he is right and although he writes the odd interesting opinion at times its not enough for me to read him on any regular basis.

    If this were true conservative Christians and the Republican party would both be greatly benefiting humanity and incredibly competent in the quality of their positions, arguments, and ability to govern. Of course this isn’t what’s happened, which is why you’re so wrong.

    From someone who actually reads Sullivan every day and therefore knows how often he’s wrong vs. right.

  23. Michael Heath:

    Re my response @ 22:

    The value I get from reading Sullivan blog daily isn’t is his personal positions, but instead his aggregation of a variety of compelling arguments about certain topics while also aggregating the continuum of arguments being made by the powerful. Unfortunately these two groups are rarely conjoined.

  24. democommie:

    I think Sullivan is an asshole and a hypocrite. It doesn’t mean I don’t think that he’s smart and has occassional flashes of brilliance.

  25. artdekko:

    Maybe the best reason to respect–and to read–Sullivan’s blog, is his willingness to print the opinions of the readers who disagree with him, and not just in some interminable, troll-filled and little read comments section–he doesn’t have one. Instead, after he’s printed one of his sometimes assholeish and hypocritical pieces, the next day it is followed by long excerpts from emails detailing exactly how his readers think he’s completely wrong. If the controversy goes on for several days, then so do the quotes from his detractors. In the blogging business, every word costs money, just as every visitor costs money. So in a very real sense, Sullivan puts his money where his mouth is, every day. How many columnists, pundits and self-appointed experts out there will gladly handpick the most cogent and eloquent criticisms of themselves, and spend time, money and column-space on publishing opposing opinions?

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