Friday, February 12, 2010

Sullivan's Song of Myself

Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic's cultural editor, has stirred up a hurtful brouhaha with a broadside against Andrew Sullivan implying that Sullivan's sometimes intemperate criticism of Israel and AIPAC is antisemitic. To be more precise, since Wieseltier prides himself on precision of argument, he accuses Sullivan of indulging in tropes and patterns of association that are favored by antisemites. He avoids a straight charge of antisemitism, protesting, "it is impossible to know what is in a man’s heart; but on the basis of what Sullivan has written, I would urge him to search his heart." But his assertion that "Sullivan looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left" pretty much seals the deal.

Wieseltier's attack reads almost like a parody of an accusation of antisemitism, so slender are the alleged taproots from Sullivan's comments into the classic antisemitic tropes Wieseltier identifies in them. Sullivan often shoots from the hip, and some of his accusations and judgmental pronouncements are unsupported; recently he has turned his ire against Israel's actions in Lebanon, Gaza, and the settlements. Drained of the poison of the antisemitism charge, Wieseltier's complaints about the emotionalism, the lack of editorial superego in Sullivan's blogging (some of it), might have some force. Jeffrey Goldberg has called out Sullivan's indiscipline in denouncing recent Israeli conduct more temperately and more effectively than Wieseltier. Wieseltier's attempted takedowns even of Sullivan's logic fail on their own terms.

Wieseltier begins by taking Sullivan to task for putting up as an unglossed "Quote of the Day" a crack by W.H. Auden:  “Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of The New Republic is not easy.”

Wieseltier's own response to this decontextualized little joke boils down to, "Auden shouldn't be snotty about anyone's 'failure' to understand the Trinity, because the Trinity is a logical monstrosity and the Jewish monotheistic concept is superior."  As Charlie Brown used to say, "now that I know that, what do I do?" This proclamation of monotheochauvinism is so bizarre, so proud, so unabashedly "stiff-necked" (as Wieseltier dubs its with defiant self-congratulation) that were Sullivan not the subject, probably 90% of readers would tune out here.

Wieseltier's opening complaint about "displaced and unglossed quotations" which "are always in some way mordant, and bristle smugly with implications" presages his later attacks on the alleged self-indulgence of blogging itself. In the absence of context for Auden's words, Wieseltier supplies his own, and we are off to the races:
It is hard to escape the impression that Sullivan is not liberal-baiting here. No, when he piously implies that the orbit of The New Republic is immune, or hostile, to the eternal verities of Christianity, he is baiting another class of people, and operating in the vicinity of a different canard.

Sullivan, in his first response to Wieseltier's attack, provides the actual context, documented through an email exchange with current TNR editor Franklin Foer. The citation was an inside joke, thoroughly in keeping with Sullivan's past position as 'house goy' at TNR, and fully appreciated by Foer.  So much for innuendo #1.

Wieseltier's first substantive finding of alleged antisemitism in Sullivan's writing gives his essay its title (boldfaced below; my emphasis):
Consider some squibs that Sullivan recently posted on his blog. “Most American Jews, of course, retain a respect for learning, compassion for the other, and support for minorities (Jews, for example, are the ethnic group most sympathetic to gay rights),” he declared on January 13. “But the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing–that celebrates and believes in government torture, endorses the pulverization of Gazans with glee, and wants to attack Iran–is something else. Something much darker.” Michael Goldfarb is the former online editor of The Weekly Standard, about whom the less said, the better. Charles Krauthammer is Charles Krauthammer. I was not aware that they comprise a “wing” of American Jewry, or that American Jewry has “wings.” What sets them apart from their more enlightened brethren is the unacceptability of their politics to Sullivan. That is his criterion for dividing the American Jewish community into good Jews and bad Jews–a practice with a sordid history.

As far as I can tell, Krauthammer’s position on torture is owed to a deep and sometimes frantic concern for American security, and his position on the war in Gaza to a deep and sometimes frantic concern for Israeli security, and his position on Iran to a deep and sometime frantic concern for American and Israeli security. Whatever the merits of his views, I do not see that his motives are despicable. Moreover, Krauthammer argues for his views; the premises of his analysis are coldly clear, and may be engaged analytically, and when necessary refuted. Unlike Sullivan, he does not present feelings as ideas. Most important, the grounds of Krauthammer’s opinions are no more to be found in, or reduced to, his Jewishness than the grounds of the contrary opinions–the contentions of dovish Jews who denounce torture, and oppose Israeli abuses in the Gaza war, and insist upon a diplomatic solution to the threat of an Iranian nuclear capability–are to be found in, or reduced to, their Jewishness. All these “wings” are fervent Jews and friends of Israel. There are many “Jewish” answers to these questions. We all want the Torah on our side. And the truth is that the Torah has almost nothing to do with it.

In this instance, Sullivan's pronouncement did not lack for context -- but Wieseltier cut it off, perhaps because he does not respect the milieu in which it appeared.  At the heart of his polemic is an attack on blogging as Sullivan understands and practices it. He derides posts as "squibs" and decries their emotionalism, their lack of context and rigor. At the same time, he ignores the context peculiar to blogging -- the borrowed variety, carried on through linking. This particular post was in a response to a take-down by David Corn of an essay by Jennifer Rubin in Commentary arguing that American Jews have a visceral dislike for Sarah Palin because they're "largely urban, clustered in Blue States, culturally sophisticated" snobs who "have not warmed to politicians who do not project intellectual sophistication" and can't appreciate "a more instinctual skill set."   Rubin sets up this assertion of implied Jewish lack of authenticity with a dollop of statistical information about Jews' liberal propensities. 

Sullivan's full response is complex and emotionally charged:
I worry about elements of proto-fascism becoming mainstream in the GOP.

But there is something particularly disturbing about the way in which neoconservatives, in their alliance with the Christianist heartland, increasingly argue for a strong and unchecked charismatic leader in the Palin/Bush mold, a disdain for reason in political life and a yearning for what Rubin calls an "instinctual skill set" in a leader. You can see why Leo Strauss, the neocon mentor, backed Mussolini at the beginning.

Most American Jews, of course, retain a respect for learning, compassion for the other, and support for minorities (Jews, for example, are the ethnic group most sympathetic to gay rights.) But the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing - that celebrates and believes in government torture, endorses the pulverization of Gazans with glee, and wants to attack Iran - is something else.

Something much darker.

The charge here is, shall we say, a bit free-floating. Sullivan alludes to the GOP, neoconservatives, the Christianist heartland, American Jews, and a "Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing."  Wing of what? Of the GOP, of neoconservatism, of the allegedly mostly healthy American Jewish community? Proximity does imply the last. But there are all kinds of slippage here. The allusion to the "good" qualities of "most American Jews" that's so offensive to Wieseltier seems to bleed in from Jennifer Rubin's piece, which notes American Jews' political secularism, cultural sophistication, pursuit of education, and voting patterns closely matched to minorities'. Rubin casts these qualities not as virtues (she pairs them with Jews' alleged aversion to contact sports, the military, and bearing disabled children) but as a disabling mechanism blocking Jews' ability to appreciate Palin's supposed blue-collar backwoods authenticity.  By citing Podheretz's Why are Jews Liberals?, moreover, Rubin invokes a "wing" of U.S. Jewry that has rejected the political and cultural propensities of the main body. I believe that that's what Sullivan was reacting to.

Pace Wieseltier, Sullivan does not parse the motives behind Godlfarb's or Krauthammer's relentless defense of brutality perceived to advance U.S. and Israeli security. He does imply, through his "wing" construction, that their neoconservatism is informed by their Jewish identity. But Wieseltier himself concedes as much about Krauthammer:  his "position on torture is owed to a deep and sometimes frantic concern for American security, and his position on the war in Gaza to a deep and sometimes frantic concern for Israeli security, and his position on Iran to a deep and sometime frantic concern for American and Israeli security." That's a pretty lyrical fusion of a man's imagined American and Jewish identity. Are such fused anxieties not shared by a portion of American Jewry with a recognizably common outlook?   If Wieseltier thinks that there is not such a subset whose contempt of the Muslim world as a body, support for U.S. military adventurism and embrace of  torture are linked to a visceral, knee-jerk support of every action any Israeli government takes in its pursuit of security and territorial expansion, he must be living entirely among goyim. True, "the Torah has nothing to do with it" for most neocons. But intense identification with Israel's military prowess does -- and figures largely for many American Jews, as surely as intense opposition to abortion shapes the politics of an identifiable subset of U.S. Catholics.

Also missing the mark is Wieseltier's contemptuous denunciation of Sullivan's assertion that Israel's ongoing conflict with Palestinians is making the struggle of the U.S. and allies against worldwide jihadism more difficult and dangerous.  He offers up this Sullivan tidbit, garnished with ridicule:
Jihadism has many causes,” he reflectively began. Then he remembered himself and continued: “But the idea that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and pulverization of Gaza can be bracketed entirely out of that dynamic is loopy. … It’s clear that taking the Israel-Palestine question off the table would help us tackle Jihadism immensely.
And unloads:
Jihadism is a violent political theology determined by ideas and fantasies that do not come from America or Israel, and its abhorrence of freedom, materialism, democracy, modernity, and the West exceeds even its abhorrence of Jews. We do not determine who Muslims are, and they are more than their reaction to us. What does Sullivan really know about the origins and the writings of the jihadist tradition? Yet he has an even more brilliant theory of the origins of Muslim anti-Americanism. He accounts for it not only in terms of Israel’s policies, but also in terms of “those who want to brandish Gitmo, embrace torture, and accelerate Israel settlements.” The neocons, once more. They are what stand between America and Muslim adulation. Bad Jews are making bad Muslims

Well, yes, hardened jihadists' enmity toward the U.S. and Israel is unappeasable. Israelis and Palestinians could be as good neighbors as Swedes and Danes and jihadist hatred would not relent. But the question is not what moves confirmed jihadists but what moves angry young men into hardened jihadism, and what moves millions of people who would never pick up a gun or strap on a bomb to varying degrees of sympathy with preachers of hatred. Throughout the Muslim world, the entrenched antisemitism and attendant assumption that the US is largely controlled by Israel are powerful stimulants.  Evidence that the U.S. meaningfully opposes some Israeli actions would drain some of that poison. A two-state settlement would drain more -- as Wieseltier acknowledges. As for the impact of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib on Muslim perceptions of the U.S. -- the evidence is everywhere that U.S. detainee abuse has shaped and dominated perceptions of the U.S. throughout most of the Muslim world  The fact that committed jihadists will never be appeased by U.S. or Israeli actions is beside the point. In fact they relish and try to provoke U.S. actions that feed their "crusader" narrative.  Neocons also try to provoke such actions. By their rhetoric and by their late influence in the Bush Administration they play into jihadists' hands.

Wieseltier ridicules Sullivan's impulsivity and emotionalism. But his own more tightly-wound invective substitutes precision of expression for factual support or logical consistency. To anyone who reads Sullivan regularly, or knows him, the charge of antisemitism is preposterous on its face. As Conor Friedersdorf has noted:
I’m heartened to see so many bloggers defending Andrew Sullivan against the insinuation that he is anti-Semitic. It is an impressive feat to levy a charge so wrongheaded that Daniel Larison, David Frum, Matthew Yglesias, James Joyner, Brad DeLong, Alex Pareene, and Robert Stacy McCain all agree with one another in finding it ridiculous. Is there any other instance of those folks all writing on the same side of a single issue?
Sullivan's own more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response to Wieseltier provides convincing evidence, from his private life, from his voluminous writings, and from analysis of passages Wieseltier attacks, of his lack of prejudice or animus.

The original locus of Wieseltier's hostility may not be Sullivan's recent pronouncements about Israel but the license he allows himself as a blogger. He returns to this over and over:
he prefers not to dive deep into the substance of anything. It is less immediately satisfying than cursing and linking.

Sullivan posted whatever was in his head about “Jihadism and The Israel Question"

He is the master, and the prisoner, of the technology of sickly obsession: blogging–and the divine right of bloggers to exempt themselves from the interrogations of editors–is also a method of hounding
Sullivan has written at length about the differences between blogging as he understands it and print journalism. Blogging is "the spontaneous expression of instant thought—impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism." When he first happened on the form, he found it "intoxicatingly free in comparison" to print journalism.  He lauds the immediacy and lack of inhibition, the intimacy and self-revelation.

In his response to Wieseltier, the nature of blogging as he defines it figures prominently. Defending his writing in the wake of Israel's recent assault on Gaza, Sullivan quotes Wieseltier himself lamenting the carnage and asserting  some Israeli culpability a few weeks after the fact, then defends his own blogging of the event:
Now Leon used those words weeks after the onslaught, and I am a blogger writing in real time, reacting to the horrifying scenes of suffering, of the heads of children buried in rubble. Whatever the context, watching largely defenseless, densely packed urban areas being pummeled with missiles is traumatizing. I don't see how a human being can watch it and not feel for those innocents trapped in terror below. I have Irish blood and a Catholic conscience. Seeing this happen in real time was as vivid for me as it was watching the people of Iran last June. There will be times in which the emotion of the moment overwhelms me. Leon despises blogging, but I see its merits as long as it is seen in proper context as provisional truth, not considered analysis. Read my Sunday Times columns or Atlantic essays to see the difference. So maybe my reaction was over-wrought. But it was certainly not over-wrought because of some kind of anti-Semitism. To be honest, I was also shocked. This was not the Israel I thought I knew.

Note that here as elsewhere in his response, Sullivan defends his "real" thinking in large part by alluding to his more formal, published-in-print writing. Another instance:
Leon then drags out some of my more hysterical and emotional posts during and immediately after the 9/11 attack. He does not refer to my considered takes on what it all meant in the NYT Magazine here or my essay, "This Is A Religious War.

In my view, Andrew does allow himself too much license in blogging.  He shoots from the hip often -- glossing a quoted text block with a one-line judgmental zinger, or piling up comma-separated judgmental phrases in series in sloppy long-sentence indictments. The Dish, with its 40-odd posts per day, is a target-rich environment for someone with a vendetta, and Wieseltier does find some doozies, e.g.":
“My own view is moving toward supporting a direct American military imposition of a two-state solution,” he wildly announces, “with NATO troops on the borders of the new states of Palestine and Israel.”
I also had no idea what Sullivan meant by this when I read it last December. It makes no sense, given Sullivan's acquired aversion to U.S. military engagement. Jeffrey Goldberg called him out  with taut understatement:
I was previously under the impression that Andrew was opposed to further military interventions in the Middle East.

Dish readers familiar Sullivan's impassioned scepticism about the prospects for a decent outcome in Iraq, his advocacy for a radical scaling back of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, his fury at those who speak blithely of bombing Iran, needed no more than that.

Sullivan is a different writer in his Sunday Times column, his longer print essays and his books. Addicted as I am to the Dish for information and entertainment (he must link to about 30 outside sources a day), if I were Andrew I would want to be remembered more for my print oeuvre. Well, maybe not. There's an awful lot of Dish to choose from, and Sullivan's long war against torture and other Bush Administration assaults on civil liberties is a badge of honor.  Still, the Dish could use a dash of the print writer's superego.

Like many of Sullivan's readers, I email him often. One of the great virtues of the Dish is Sullivan's receptivity to readers and amateur bloggers. That is a genuine benefit of the real-time response to events that Andrew treasures -- it's a two-way street, and he regards being schooled by readers as part of the drama. Once, after he had received and posted a flood of cautionary reader responses to one of his outbursts, and expressed satisfaction with that aspect of blogging, I wrote, "there's much to be said for the restraint that 2500 years of writing conventions imposes."

Andrew lauds the liberation from such conventions that blogging allows. Rightly, perhaps. But as Wieseltier might perhaps have said in the days of their friendship, "couldn't you be just a little liberated?" Or liberated just a little less?

Maybe not. Of blogging Andrew wrote, "You end up writing about yourself, since you are a relatively fixed point in this constant interaction with the ideas and facts of the exterior world. And in this sense, the historic form closest to blogs is the diary."  The Dish is a Song of Myself. Andrew demands as much freedom to contradict himself as Whitman.  And with its myriad links and reader responses -- never mind the periodic authorial about-faces and the massive input of sous bloggers Patrick and Chris -- the Dish really does contains multitudes.


  1. I would imagine that Andrew's substantive views on Israel overlap Weseltier's by at least 80%, if not in the upper 90's. But, to Weseltier, 80-95% overlap is not enough; it's like a pass fail test where you're required to answer 50 out of 50 answers correctly or fail. That's kind of weird when you think of it - why wouldn't Weseltier want as many allies as possible on his side, instead of taking potential allies and slurring them unconscionably for not agreeing with him 100%? I don't have an answer, and I fear that if I try to come up with one, I'll hit a tripwire and find myself wearing the anti-Semite label.

    All I can figure, and it relates to a post at the top of the Dish as I type this, is that Weseltier (and others who freely toss around the anti-Semitism card, some of whom have their own sections of TNR) believe that Israel can't be criticized as long as it acts more morally than its enemies. This is a similar mentality to the one that justifies torture on the basis that the worst treatment we dole out is not as bad as what our enemies would do to us (and have done to us) if they have the chance, therefore it's acceptable.

    Israel is the good guy in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but that doesn't mean it can never do wrong, nor does it mean that it can't be criticized for falling short of standards that most of its enemies will never, ever achieve. That's the whole point - moral actors have to act morally, even in the face of immorality, otherwise they cannot claim to be moral in the first place.

  2. London's - The Times- and London's -The Sunday Times- are different papers.

  3. Wow, I'm a fan of yours, Andrew, but very surprised to hear so much negative judgment of AS's posts. I

    n my view, the fault lies with you and others for being oversensitive to certain topics and (with respect to those topics) for failing really to give yourself over to the medium (i.e., its "liberated", unedited, etc., nature -- ironic, since you yourself are a blogger.

    There's absolutely no resolving this issue, I realize: it's purely a judgment call. Me, I draw the line much more in favor of AS, not at all excluding the examples you cite.