I quite enjoy a good Sullivan-bashing, but…

Please do tear into Andrew Sullivan. This review of one of his books in The Baffler does a fine job of highlighting his shallow and contradictory thinking. Everything Sullivan does is a mess, and I have no idea how he continues to be published.

Three decades and four hundred pages later he’s still at it. “Transgenderist ideology,” he writes in “The Nature of Sex,” “is indeed a threat to homosexuality, because it is a threat to biological sex as a concept.” “Native Americans had been the first to discover this continent, and, with it, their own sort of American dream—thousands of years before Europeans imagined theirs,” he declares in an essay about the coronavirus pandemic, as if he actually believes the interpolation of a not particularly clever anachronism creates an equivalence between Stone Age nomads wandering into an unpopulated land and the gun-toting, disease-carrying invaders who stole that land from them ten thousand years later. Writing about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Dominican-born professor of classics who “came to see the white supremacists’ cooptation of the classics as inextricable from the classics themselves,” Sullivan tells readers that Padilla “refuses to ‘praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.’”

This was one of a dozen times my margin note read “Physician, heal thyself.” But there can be no healing when there’s no ability to recognize one’s plight in others, and Sullivan remains resolutely uninterested in any losses but his own. In his mea culpa on the Iraq War, the final note isn’t “the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed.” That was “bad enough,” sure, “but what was done to America—and the meaning of America—was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself.” That’s right, folks: as many as a million people were killed in a pointless war that Andrew Sullivan hawked like a fishwife for no other reason than his need to punish as many Muslims as possible for 9/11, but what’s important to remember is that he feels really bad about it. When I read this, I was reminded of Edmund Wilson’s reaction to Brideshead Revisited: “The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not—painful to say—meant quite seriously.”

But, the author of the review, a gay man, also constantly undercuts himself by sexualizing Sullivan, and the review keeps bring me up short.

The subsequent twenty-five years have proven Sullivan a dependable shill for reactionary causes célèbres, whether it’s defending racism and sexism in the name of “science” (“It may be no accident that testosterone-soaked ghettos foster both high levels of crime and high levels of illegitimacy”), opposing hate-crime laws on the grounds that calling someone a “gook” or “n*gg*r” “allows natural tensions to express themselves incrementally,” or undercutting radical LGBTQ activism by insisting that only a $35 marriage license provides “a sense of normality, of human potential, of self-worth—something that my generation never had and that previous generations would have found unimaginable.”

But that was still a few years off. At the time I was less interested in a bangers-and-mash Roy Cohn than in whether or not Maer and Andrew had fucked. I hope they did. No, really, I do. At least then there’d be something about Sullivan I could take pleasure in, if only vicariously.

If a book reviewer were a heterosexual man who kept bringing up his fantasies about the sex life of the female author of the book, would we be fine with that? Sullivan’s sexuality is an OK topic to discuss since Sullivan brings it up all the time, but please, don’t make it about your sexual interests, reviewer. Do discuss Sullivan’s hypocrisy on the subject. I do like that he quotes Sullivan’s own words at length, which is the best way to expose a fool.

I suspect that the way Sullivan continues to be published is by being such an obnoxious contrarian that his fellow obnoxious contrarians think they’re being clever by putting his ideas out there — not because they’re good, but because they are so wildly wrong. That’s why Maher continues to bring him on as a guest, because he’s not favoring ideas, he just wants noise.


  1. says

    Can’t help but note that Political Lesbianism, which is a TERF-y, Second-Wave-Non-Intersectional-White-Feminist thing, also hates transgender people on the grounds that the existence of trans men reduces the number of lesbians. Down with the traditional little boxes the patriarchy insisted on! Up with the new little boxes that we, the true arbiters of sexuality, have decided upon!

  2. says

    Why are so many Americans concerned with “illegitimacy”? That’s how it’s always been, and its not as though some cryptoreligious ceremony somehow affects the child.

  3. raven says

    “Transgenderist ideology,” he writes in “The Nature of Sex,” “is indeed a threat to homosexuality, because it is a threat to biological sex as a concept.

    The first sentence is just gibbberish. It’s an assertion without proof or data and may be dismissed without proof or data. It’s also just wrong.

    And what is “Transgenderist ideology” anyway?
    I’ve never heard of it.
    It looks like a strawperson Sullivan set up so he can torch it.

  4. kathleenzielinski says

    Marcus, No. 2, I don’t think it’s illegitimacy per se that’s the problem; it’s that children born out of wedlock are statistically more likely to grow up with inadequate resources, and there’s a whole boatload of social science data that boys who grow up without fathers are more likely to have problems later in life. Plus marriage brings stability to family relationships and that’s a good thing. Teenage illegitimacy is especially more likely to result in poverty.

    Some of those things could be fixed with a total revamp of our economic system, but realistically that’s not going to happen any time soon, so for the time being, we have the system that we have. I’m one who thinks that walls should not be torn down unless you know why they were put up in the first place. In my view, this is a wall that, while far from perfect, has served a useful purpose.

  5. says

    @#2, Marcus Ranum:

    Greed, backed with patriarchy: worries about who is the heir to Your Stuff after you’re gone (don’t want any cuckoos in the nest displacing your actual offspring), plus of course women are also property and no proper patriarch wants anybody else to touch His Stuff. It’s all kind of gross and sad, when you get down to it — if you raise the kid, they’re your kid much more than if you were merely a sperm donor, and who cares about what happens to your stuff after you’re not around any more? (And, for that matter, these days fewer and fewer people have significant Stuff to pass on anyway.)

    From what various Europeans have said, white Americans tend also to attach a lot more importance to bloodlines than is usual. Within Europe, caring really seriously where your great-great-grandparents immigrated from when you were born and are a lifelong resident here is a far-right thing, whereas over here you get people 6 generations removed from immigration who are perfectly normal but will cheerfully declare that they are Italian! (Or French, Scottish, German, Polish, Swedish, Danish, or whatever.) They can’t speak a practical sentence of the language, they don’t eat the food (except for a few dishes Nana used to make once a year) or follow the politics or have any native friends or know much of anything about what happened there since World War II, and their idea of what the country is like may be based on a sort of Disney caricature of the country in the 19th century, but they still somehow consider themselves to have an intimate connection with the region, bedeck themselves with its flags, and fill their houses with dubious kitsch. (Oh, and if the country is Ireland or Scotland, they also get drunk a lot on the strength of their ancestry.) With that kind of mindset as a backdrop, why wouldn’t there be a lot of concern over legitimacy? Why, the poor babies won’t even know which culture-they-never-participated-in to fixate upon! (When talking about this, we don’t tend to think very hard about the fact that black Americans had their native cultures torn from them and often can’t know where their ancestry came from. Reminders of collective guilt make our stomachs hurt.)

  6. cartomancer says

    I read the sexualising parts as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek strategy to mock Sullivan’s narcissistic habit of making everything about his own sexual hang-ups and problems. A kind of “yes, other gay male writers like me can be as eye-wateringly explicit as you are, do you think you’re somehow special in that regard?” combined with “well if you insist on making everything about your own neuroses, fine, see how it feels when other people do that too”. There also seems to be a good deal of refuge in audacity humour. “I hope they fucked because then there would be something to like in the man” seems less a projection of actual sexual inclinations than a reductio ad absurdum intended to emphasise Sullivan’s total vacuity (while itself being a mocking send-up of the kind of sex-obsessed vacuity expected of younger gay men).

    I can’t say I care for the style very much myself. It skewers the man’s pretensions very well, but in casting them in the light of what are very real cultural and psychological problems experienced by many (most?) gay men, it invites a deeper analysis of the cultural landscape of the last few decades that it doesn’t quite give.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    In Britain, there is not such a stigma about being a single mother anymore….so the Nasty Party has been drastically cutting down on social spending for more than a decade in a successful effort to make life more miserable for the proles.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    Is there any chance an investigation will reveal Sullivan is a customer of Rentboy.com ?
    He seems suspiciously obsessed with non-traditional sex stuff.

  9. seachange says

    Sullivan is a gonzo-style journalist, or at least he wishes he was. As such the personal is the news as much as the news is the news. It is an intentional part of the style that there is no such thing as unbiased neutral news.

    (the scientific method cannot be neutral and it is inherently biased by who is doing the science, a theme that PZ brings up repeatedly in this blog)

    It is part of gay culture to talk about who is fucking whom and how. It is part of gay culture to ignore cultural norms, because we get told we ourselves are “other” even though we don’t really feel like it.

    Because of both of these things, the style of the review is legit in my eyes.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    From this brief excerpt, he has a way to go before he becomes Hunter S Thomson.

  11. rrhain says

    @#4, kathleenzielinski

    there’s a whole boatload of social science data that boys who grow up without fathers are more likely to have problems later in life

    No, not really. It isn’t the “absent father” that is the point. It’s that raising a child is difficult for one person to do. Not impossible, for there are any number of examples of single parents who are successful at it. But, it is easier when there are two parents.

    The data for this is trivially shown: Gay parents. Boys raised by two women do not have any worse outcomes as boys raised by a mixed-sex couple. In fact, children raised by gay parents have slightly better outcomes. It isn’t the gender of the parents that is involved.

    It’s the difficulty of raising a child on your own. Let us not pretend that children need some sort of exposure to the magic rays of a “father.”

  12. rrhain says

    calling someone a “gook” or “n*gg*r”

    If you can’t bring yourself to say one racial slur, you don’t get to use others.

    And by extension, if you can’t bring yourself to use slurs based upon race, you don’t get to use slurs based upon sex, gender, sexual orientation, mental or physical normativity, etc.

    They all mean the same thing. Every person who is part of the group that those slurs target can remember being beaten up with those words coming along for the ride. That you figured out that slurs against Black people are bad is good.

    Keep going. They’re all bad.