It’s all about the provocations

Via Lou Doench and Craig Stiles, a piece about Andrew Sullivan that the excellent Eric Alterman wrote for The Nation in January 2013. I think I once knew some of this and buried it, but a lot of it I didn’t know.

The fact that few individuals can be shown to have demonstrated worse judgment over the course of the past two decades, and risen higher as a result, is yet another example of the changes that Sullivan-style “journalism” has helped to bring about.

He first made a splash as the young conservative editor of The New Republic, where he championed a lot of terrible people.

It’s no easy matter to determine which of these charlatans did the most damage to the magazine’s reputation. (Indeed, it’s a measure of just how abysmally TNR’s editorial filter functioned under Sullivan that Camille Paglia calling the then–first lady “Hillary the man-woman and bitch goddess” doesn’t even make the top five.)

Jeezis god. That makes me want to put Paglia and Sullivan in a cell with Christina Hoff Sommers and Rush Limbaugh, and let them duke it out for eternity.

As a freelance journalist, Sullivan made waves by outing public figures without their consent and making medically unsustainable claims for the drug treatments he was taking (in The New York Times Magazine, no less). His recklessness reached a kind of weird apogee after 9/11, when his own personal panic led him to describe the tens of millions of Americans who voted for Al Gore as “the decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts,” who “may well mount a fifth column.” He specifically named yours truly as an alleged fifth columnist and suggested that others read my work “and you’ll see that I’m not exaggerating.” Alas, Sullivan did not take his own advice, as I supported the US attack on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and never said or wrote differently. (Sullivan also used the occasion to slander the late Susan Sontag in the same sentence, insanely inventing what he called a “constant attraction” to the “acolytes of Bin Laden”—and, later, Katha Pollitt, whose position on Afghanistan he compared to someone who leaves a rape victim lying in the gutter due to her short skirt.)

And he’s not good at combining his changes of mind with admission that he got things wrong in the past. I know from experience that the one entails the other. I’ve changed my mind about various things, and that means I have come to think I was wrong about them in the past. That’s how that works.

Sullivan has moved steadily leftward over time but argues, like the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade, that he was right to be wrong. As recently as 2007, when The New Republic lamented its role in publishing McCaughey’s dishonest attack on the Clinton healthcare plan, Sullivan bragged: “I was aware of the piece’s flaws but nonetheless was comfortable running it as a provocation.” And he still calls his support of Murray’s racist, eugenicist-based arguments “one of my proudest moments in journalism.”

So Sullivan takes publishing a dishonest piece as “a provocation.” Interesting.

Were Sullivan a great reporter with some screwy opinions, one could conceivably embrace the one and ignore the other. But speedy snap judgments are really all he’s selling. Yet if one reads the breathless coverage of his decision to launch an independent blog—to say nothing of the promotional copy from the publications that have hired him over the past two decades—one will find precious little discussion of the accuracy of the information in which he traffics. In this sense, Sullivan resembles his fellow British performance artist and celebrity scribe, Christopher Hitchens. Though a far more stylish writer than Sullivan, Hitchens, too, repudiated the balance of his life’s work without ever admitting having done so, much less explaining how he had come to be one of the people he’d spent a career eviscerating. Both of these charming British imports put their talent in the service of a journalism of “provocation,” as Sullivan terms it, untethered to traditional conceptions of evidence or even honesty.

Well, possibly, but Hitchens did do a lot more in the way of substantive or useful journalism than Sullivan ever has.


  1. says

    Here online, when someone posts a comment or article to provoke a reaction, it’s called “trolling,” which is how I’m starting to think of Sullivan. Just as when the slymepit does it, it doesn’t achieve anything positive. This is not how society advances.

  2. Al Dente says

    The more I read Sullivan’s writing and what others have written about him, the more I get the idea he’s like a small child at a grown-up party yelling, “Here I am, pay attention to me, PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” He isn’t even saying “please.”

  3. Crimson Clupeidae says

    So Sullivan takes publishing a dishonest piece as “a provocation.” Interesting.

    Interesting as in not so much because it’s the same Sullivan who, as DrVanNostrand put it in the ‘Dissent of the Day’ thread:

    He thinks you should try to try to convince people that they’re wrong when they want to deny your basic human rights, but it would be terribly rude to suggest that it makes them a bigot. You should have civil discussions about whether black people are intellectually inferior, or whether women should be treated like people instead of walking baby incubators.

    Hobgoblins, small minds, and all that.

  4. johnthedrunkard says

    Hitchens was stingy with the mea culpas he’d earned. But he did acknowledge them. A recurrent point was his commitment to progressive values even when it led to a break with ‘conventional’ progressives. I still gag over his willingness to tolerate Bush, even for a second.

  5. says

    Sullivan is likely to believe (quite reasonably imho) that if he ever actually admits that he was wrong in the past he would be cutting his careers throat. Because to admit that a position that he held in the past was wrong he would have to admit that liberals were right in the first place. And as soon he admits that liberals have been right about most things in the realm of public policy and social progress over the last 30 years, then he has to face the reality that his tribe… conservatives, have been horrifyingly wrong about all of these things. And if he does THAT, in public, then he loses his cache as a gay conservative, and becomes just another liberal who doesn’t get invited on TV.

    And this ends the reading from the book of Driftglass (

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