It’s Andrew Sullivan, says Ross Douthat. Ross says it’s not just about gay marriage, and makes the case for how Sullivan embodied the Zeitgeist in many ways, for better and for worse. But on gay marriage, which has wrought the most profound and far-reaching social changes since the Civil Rights movement, Sullivan has made a profound and undeniable difference. Excerpt:
I think the case of his work on gay marriage is distinctive. No doubt there would have been a major push for same-sex wedlock without Sullivan: Deep trends favored its adoption, other eloquent writers made the case, and other countries and cultures have taken different routes to a similar destination. But no writer of comparable gifts was on the issue earlier, pushed harder against what seemed at the time like an unassailable consensus, engaged as many critics (left and right, gay and straight) and addressed himself to as many audiences as Sullivan. No intellectual did as much to weave together the mix of arguments and intuitions that defines today’s emerging consensus on the issue — in which gay marriage is simultaneously an expression of bourgeois conservatism and the fulfillment of the 1960s’ liberative promise, the civil rights revolution of our time and a natural, Burkean outgrowth of the way that straights already live. And no intellectual that I can think of, writing on a fraught and controversial topic, has seen their once-crankish, outlandish-seeming idea becomes the conventional wisdom so quickly, and be instantantiated so rapidly in law and custom.
Again, it’s awfully hard to separate ideas from tectonic shifts in culture and economics, and I have enough of a determinist streak to doubt John Maynard Keynes’s famous maxim that “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.” But just as Keynes heard clear echoes of “academic scribblers” and “defunct economists” in the rhetoric of his era’s politicians, so I hear echoes of arguments that Andrew Sullivan, and often Andrew Sullivan alone, was making thirty years ago in almost every conversation and argument I’ve had about gay marriage in the last ten years. There’s no other issue and no other writer where the connection between things I read as a teenager and lines I hear today is as clear and direct and obvious. And if that isn’t evidence of distinctive, far-reaching influence then I don’t know what is.
I agree with this, and note well that I’m somebody who, like Ross, disagrees with Andrew’s position on gay marriage, and on other things too. And I call Andrew my friend, and mean it, even though I think he’s tragically and consequentially wrong on gay marriage. That said, for all his many faults and failings (some of which I share, along with other sins particular to myself), there can be no denying that Andrew Sullivan, with the power of his words, his ideas, and his tireless advocacy, more than any other led a successful revolution against the ancien régime. Credit him or blame him, but you have to recognize him.
I think he’s something of a Danton figure. Now, I fear, come the Robespierres.
Or maybe the Danton comparison is too imprecise to be of any use in understanding Sullivan’s historical role in these events. As I’ve written here recently, the gay-rights revolution is the capstone of the Sexual Revolution, and is inconceivable without it. What Sullivan did — and he wasn’t alone, but as Douthat says, he was there first, and most effectively — was build off the ground cleared by the Sexual Revolution — the bourgeoisification of what were, within living memory, outlaw sexual values — and claim it for the ultimate outlaws in the traditional Christian vision of sex and sexuality: gays and lesbians. What Sullivan and those he helped lead did was radical — and he achieved it by making a kind of conservative case for a revolution, by forcing what people in the post-Christian West already believed about sex, religion, and individual liberty to its natural conclusion. That’s something. That’s something huge.
Fifty years from now, he may be seen as a hero, or he may be seen as a villain. But he will be seen, and that’s Douthat’s point.