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Defending Andrew Sullivan

Three cheers for Sully, who is sometimes wrong, but admirably refuses to surrender to leftist orthodoxy
Political Columnist Andrew Sullivan

Headline on media critic Ben Smith’s long piece in today’s New York Times:

Well, I still read Andrew Sullivan, and I will defend him. I’m going to do so in this post. I do it as someone who has spend the last twenty years sparring with him over homosexuality and Christianity, and who has been the target of some of his most poisonous barbs. But he is a friend, and a writer I admire, and I am going to take this opportunity to stand with him against those who tried but failed to cancel him.

Smith writes that Sully has more than doubled his income — from less than $200,000 a year to $500,000 a year — after being pushed out of New York magazine, and going to a personal subscription model at Substack (I’m a subscriber). He also writes in some detail about how incredibly influential Sully was in getting the gay marriage cause into the mainstream. I remember back in 2015 or 2016, having coffee with Andrew in Boston, and learning from him that even though he is one of a handful of gay Americans most responsible for making gay marriage a fact, he could not at that time speak at many colleges. Why? He was thought too conservative, especially by the gay left.

It is hard to overstate the role Andrew Sullivan had in shifting elite opinion to the pro-marriage side. I know this because I argued with him publicly about it for over a decade, and lost. He was often my opponent, but never my enemy. He changed history, but now he is considered radioactive. Back then, as I recall, Andrew was considered radioactive for defending the religious liberty of the people he defeated — this, because he is a principled classical liberal. Today he is considered radioactive because of race. Here’s Smith:

The flap reminded his colleagues and critics of Mr. Sullivan’s original sin, his decision to put on the cover of the Oct. 31, 1994, New Republic a package titled “Race and I.Q.” The package led with an excerpt from the book “The Bell Curve” by the political scientist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard Herrnstein. They claimed that I.Q. test results are in large part hereditary and reveal differences among races; it produced piles of scientific debunkings. Many — including contributors whom Mr. Sullivan invited to object — saw the piece as a thinly veiled successor to the junk science used to justify American and European racism for decades. Politically, it offered elites an explanation for racial inequality that wasn’t the legacy of slavery, or class, or racism, or even culture, and thus absolved them of the responsibility to fix it. The authors “found a way for racists to rationalize their racism without losing sleep over it,” the political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote in a response in The New Republic.


The new editor of New York, David Haskell, didn’t push him out because of any new controversy or organized staff revolt, the two New York employees said. Instead, the shift in culture had effectively made his publishing of “The Bell Curve” excerpt — and the fact that he never disavowed it — a firing offense, and Mr. Haskell showed Mr. Sullivan the door before the magazine experienced a blowup over race of the sort that have erupted at other publications.

So what does Mr. Sullivan believe about race? On his back porch looking over the bay, Mr. Sullivan said he was frustrated by the most extreme claims that biology has no connection to our lives. He believes, for instance, that Freudian theories that early childhood may push people toward homosexuality could have some merit, combined with genetics.

“Everything is environmental for the left except gays, where it’s totally genetic; and everything is genetic for the right, except for gays,” he said sarcastically.

I tried out my most charitable interpretation of his view on race and I.Q. (though I question the underpinnings of the whole intellectual project): that he is most frustrated by the notion that you can’t talk about the influence of biology and genetics on humanity. But that he’s not actually saying he thinks Black people as a group are less intelligent. He’d be equally open to the view, I suggested, that data exploring genetics and its connection to intelligence would find that Black people are on average smarter than other groups.

“It could be, although the evidence is not trending in that direction as far as I pay attention to it. But I don’t much,” he said. (He later told me he’s “open-minded” on the issue and thinks it’s “premature” to weigh the data.)

“I barely write about this,” he went on. “It’s not something I’m obsessed with.”

Ah, but being absolutely on side on racial issues is something that the left is obsessed with. Hence Andrew’s exile from decent company. Ben Smith recognizes how significant Andrew has been in journalism, and even on Smith’s own career, and he seems to like him. But:

I wish Mr. Sullivan would accept that the project of trying to link the biological fiction of race with the science of genetics ought, in fact, to be over.

Sullivan can’t say that, because he doesn’t believe it. It is remarkable that a journalist would bring up an editorial project from 25 years ago as a way to brain Andrew Sullivan today — especially because he almost never writes about race and genetics. It would be the easiest thing in the world for Andrew to disavow the Bell Curve issue of The New Republic, but he doesn’t do it because that’s not what he believes. I admire that. I mean, he might be quite wrong about the argument — I don’t know; more on this in a moment — but I admire the hell out of somebody who refuses to say what he doesn’t believe, just to keep the crowd off his back.

It is of vital importance that we live not by lies. In the opening chapter of my forthcoming book (out on 9/29; pre-order here), I write:

After the publication of his Gulag Archipelago exposed the rottenness of Soviet totalitarianism and made Solzhenitsyn a global hero, Moscow finally expelled him to the West. On the eve of his forced exile, Solzhenitsyn published a final message to the Soviet people, titled, “Live Not by Lies!” In the essay, Solzhenitsyn challenged the claim that the totalitarian system was so powerful that the ordinary man and woman cannot change it.
Nonsense, he said. The foundation of totalitarianism is an ideology made of lies. The system depends for its existence on a people’s fear of challenging the lies. Said the writer, “Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies!” You may not have the strength to stand up in public and say what you really believe, but you can at least refuse to affirm what you do not believe. You may not be able to overthrow totalitarianism, but you can find within yourself and your community the means to live in the dignity of truth. If we must live under the dictatorship of lies, the writer said, then our response must be: “Let their rule hold not through me!”
Understand what I’m saying: as far as I know, Andrew Sullivan could be 100 percent wrong about the Bell Curve argument. The point is, he’s standing by what he believes, even though it costs him something — and that is damned admirable in this day and age.
As longtime readers know, I try to keep discussion of race and genetics off of the comments section here. I have not read The Bell Curve, and am not interested in the discussions of race and genetics. Eugenics terrifies me. In a scientific, meritocratic culture like ours, it is far too easy for people to accept that someone who is genetically “inferior” is somehow also morally inferior. This was at the core of white supremacy. I am, in general, extremely anxious about genetics and society, given the history of the 20th century, and given that we are living in a post-Christian era.
But — and this is quite a “but” — I freely concede that my fears and concerns come from the possibility that what the geneticists are saying might be true. Not just about race, but about everything. I believe that there is a such thing as forbidden knowledge. In 2012, I posted this about it, and quoted Auden:
In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. The gossip column is one side of the medal; the cobalt bomb is the other. We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, “What can I know?” we ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?” — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.
I do not trust humanity to handle genetic knowledge responsibly. I don’t think we can live up to it. I also recognize that my opinion is very much in the minority, and that nothing is stopping scientists. I do not believe that intelligent people talking openly about what genetic science implies for society should be forbidden, though that is not a conversation I want to have any part of, because it makes me extremely squeamish. If things are scientifically true, then suppressing them is not going to work. As Andrew tweeted, he and Ta-Nehisi Coates had a public exchange about it in 2011. Here is Sully’s final message to TNC. Back then, this is what I had to say about it:

Sullivan understands that just because the Nazis made bad use of this stuff doesn’t make it untrue, or unimportant. I get that. But I keep coming back to a point that seems to be the one TNC is making: of what use is this field of study, anyway? Where do we propose to go with it? Andrew’s view is that it’s worth knowing for the reason all truth is worth knowing, and pursuing. In an abstract world, that makes sense. But we don’t live in a world of pure disinterestedness. If I were a geneticist, I doubt I would want to work in this field, only because the experience of the 20th century, especially the Holocaust, makes me deeply mistrustful of what human beings will do with the scientific knowledge that this race is intellectually inferior to that race, and we can prove it genetically.

The only possible good I can see coming out of it is to knock down affirmative action programs as unjust — but you don’t need genetics to do that. The possible evils coming out of it? Legion.

Though I came down somewhere between Sully and TNC in that exchange from nine years ago, and though I am still quite divided in my thinking about the topic, in that final message Sully wrote to TNC, you can see how interesting Sully’s mind is, and why almost anything he writes is more interesting than 90 percent of what you’ll read on the Times op-ed page, with its grim, dull progressive orthodoxies.

Here’s the important thing about this Times attempted hit job on Andrew Sullivan: he refused to say what they wanted him to say, and for that, he deserves the support of all of us who value free thought and free expression, even if we think he’s wrong about this issue.

I mean, think about it: Sullivan is one of the most interesting and (because of his role in the gay marriage issue) influential journalists of his generation, and now he is once again pioneering new paths in journalism with his substack — but the Times dispatched a writer to interview him, who made the center of his piece Sullivan’s refusal to repent for an issue of a magazine he edited twenty-five years ago. Times media columnist Ben Smith declares him not worth defending because of something published when Ben Smith (b. 1976) was eighteen years old.

What a chickensh*t move. I hope this gets Sully 50,000 more subscribers (you can become one here). The left media mafia is going to do whatever they can to silence, smear, and otherwise discredit anyone who violates its orthodoxies — and that often means the most interesting and provocative writers.

I don’t subscribe to Andrew Sullivan’s weekly newsletter because I want to be told something I already agree with. I subscribe because he’s an interesting writer who often makes me cheer, sometimes makes me angry, and always makes me think. He also has a gift for pissing off the right people.