This is by necessity going to be a two-parter because no one needs to hear me ramble this long.
This guy is Andrew Sullivan. He blogs at The Atlantic, among other things. I love him the way I love a crazy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner – he’s always worked up about something, not always right, and not always easy to get along with. He’s a contradiction in terms: a gay HIV-positive British conservative intellectual who supported Bush and then went all in gung-ho for Obama. Despite his many contradictions, he is unfailingly honest in his writing and in his beliefs. He’s not spinning anything to us, he is not policing anything, and he certainly isn’t pushing us to believe anything. He is not a “flip-flopper”, that inane term that pundits and politicians lob back and forth at each other, just because he supported the war in Afghanistan in 2002 and now, in 2010, does not.
Maybe you’ve noticed on this blog that I’m far too cynical. That’s probably true. The trouble is, we get lied to a lot on a day to day basis – whether it’s by the media, the government, the corporations, etc. So it is only on rare occasions that a voice comes out of the din, a strong voice that says I will not lie to you.
These are the voices that I want to hear.
Andrew Sullivan is one of these voices, one of the strongest in fact. Not long ago he was accused by the editor of The New Republic, a publication he used to edit, of being an anti-semite. The accusation was part of a rather nasty article that consisted of a series of personal attacks against Sullivan. Sullivan responded to it with grace, intelligence, and just plain great writing:
To ask that Israel freeze all its settlement construction as a way to help facilitate peace is not declaring war on Netanyahu’s government. It is simply assuming the US is capable of determining its own foreign policy in the region without a foreign government’s advance permission. And notice that Wieseltier, in a convoluted fashion, does not exactly disagree on Netanyahu’s intransigence. But all of this is always Obama’s failure because it can never be Israel’s fault because to say that anything is Israel’s fault is anti-Semitic. Lovely piece of circular logic there, innit? Unless and until the president of the US recognizes that policy toward the Middle East must always be subject to Israel’s interests and sensitivities before anything else, it is the American president’s failure. Israel can never be blamed. I’m sorry but I disagree. I think Israel can be blamed and its intransigence should be exposed and criticized forthrightly – or, of course, defended – in Washington without this looming threat of the anti-Semite card being hauled out.
And this, it seems to me, must be the occasion for this rather sad attempt at character assassination. All those who dissent one iota from whatever excruciatingly arcane position Wieseltier carves out for himself at any given moment must be set up for character assassination. The first card to be used is the anti-Semitic card. It is, apparently, the responsibility of every non-Jewish or even Jewish writer who is not Leon Wieseltier to tread an extremely careful linguistic path, to walk delicately through a minefield of traps, to remain permanently fearful of being tarred as a bigot if he or she dares question the line that alone Wieseltier polices.
Look, I am not one to dismiss any notion of anti-Semitism in me or anyone else. I believe it is such a toxic theme in human history and such a grave strain in the human soul that no one should be sublimely confident that he or she is free of it entirely. I take the moral demand to guard against it very seriously. And I have indeed searched my conscience these past few years to take stock if anything like this is unconsciously entering my soul, as I try to guard against my many other sins. I certainly think I have written and thought some things about Muslims and Arabs over the years that are not always carefully parsed, conditioned or measured. I’m not immune to homophobia either. Our psyches are complex. As I said, Irish blood and a Catholic conscience are not easy bedfellows. And I can parry a little hard in the cut and thrust of debate sometimes.
At his most generous, Wieseltier accuses me of moronic insensitivity. Well, I do not think Leon thinks I am a moron. Am I insensitive? At times, I’m sure I am. I’m a writer who doesn’t much care for political correctness, of policing discourse for every single possible trope or code that someone somewhere will pounce on as evidence of bigotry. I’ve gone out of my way as an editor and writer to stir things up – on race and gender and culture and sex – and I have never been one to worry excessively about the sensitivity of others. I think I have offended and enraged far far more gay men and evangelicals than I ever have Jewish-Americans, for example. I’m a South Park devotee, for Pete’s sake.
I appreciate this post to no end, because it’s a higher level of discourse than we’re currently seeing anywhere else. Now, you guys all know about my love for Ta-nehisi Coates, another writer I came to through The Atlantic. He elevates the discourse with his excellent commentary and high-level feature length journalism. He is a master at looking at images, language and memes and pulling out what other people do not want to see, hear or acknowledge. He is also nothing but honest with us at all times. An example from right before the election in 2008:
There is some language that I’ve intentionally avoided when talking about Sarah Palin. You won’t ever hear me say “I feel sorry for her.” You won’t hear me say “I have sympathy for her.” and you won’t won’t hear me say “I feel bad for her.” I don’t feel sorry for her and I don’t feel bad for her. I do have sympathy for her–the same sympathy that’s required whenever you try to write honestly and engagingly about people you don’t know.
I want to be clear–please don’t ever confuse my quest to understand those whose core beliefs are different from mine with a wavering of my own. Do not think that because I am attempting to look at the world from someone else’s perspective that I believe that that invalidates my own perspective. Writing is fighting, as the great Ishmael Reed once said. Any serious combatant in this piece better be doing his homework, and trying to get a thorough understanding of his opponents. On one level, he may have to concede that his opponents are right–but even in that there are tactics; the combatant coops his opponents moves and makes them his own. But on the straight-up pugilist level, there is simply the point of knowing your opponent. When you ridicule them and are dismissive of them, when you condescend to them and offer them your pity, you underestimate them.
I, on some level, relate to Sarah Palin. On another level, I relate to McCain. But I’m not interested in the false choice of either you hate them, or your coddling them. There are plenty of places on the web where we can go to unleash our rage and vent at the opposition.
Ta-nehisi Coates does not play into anyone’s hands. He rises above the fray and maintains his integrity as a writer, which isn’t easy to do in the big leagues. Everybody wants you to be Wolf Blitzer or Maureen Dowd or Sean Hannity and it seems to be harder than ever to resist.
TBC… Coming up David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer… and trust me, I know that it’s deeply unpopular to like Norman Mailer, but I do.