The Unsound Judgment of Andrew Sullivan

by A. Jay Adler on February 11, 2010
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Earlier in the day I wrote the following email to Jeffrey Goldberg about the current eruption between Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic and ex NR editor, blogger Andrew Sullivan, in which Wieseltier accuses Sullivan of anti-Semitism

I may or may not comment on Wieseltier-Sullivan on my own blog (that’s certainly what we all need right now – a thousandth blogger opinion), but I do want to tell you that that I think you’ve got the balance quite right. Wieseltier went too far (we are all witness to what is significantly an interpersonal psycho-drama being enacted), but Sullivan is blind to the implications and potential contextualization of his language and positions. I warned on this score as far back as April of last year. All of the defenses of Sullivan so far are quite commonplace and can only dream of the incisiveness of Wieseltier’s insights: Sullivan’s own defense is the most effective, because, of course, it is heartfelt. But there is the problem. He says himself, “I have Irish blood and a Catholic conscience.” None of us needs political analysis based assertively in either, or in any ethnic or religious variation on them. You write, “I remember one exchange in the run-up to the Iraq War in which he told me that seeing the movie “The Pianist” made him even ‘more pro-war.’” Really? One of the foremost political voices of the day was influenced in his policy analysis by an emotional response to yet another film about the Holocaust? He didn’t yet fully realize?

Some people have foolishly called Sullivan a hater. He is not. But for all his intellectual and professional background, he is emotionally driven and frequently and dramatically changeable. Consequently, his judgment is unsound. Rely on it today and a few years from now you will find it notably changed and yourself disinclined to read him anymore.

Obviously, I did decide to comment, in part because of a later post by Goldberg, but I want to say a little more about Sullivan before I talk about that later post. I don’t think Sullivan is an anti-Semite. I think he is a far better person than that, indeed, a good person. I even stand with him in some of his commitments, against rationalized torture policies (for what should be obvious reasons) and in wishing to fully expose Sarah Palin, who is a truly dangerous development in the American polity. But as I wrote to Goldberg, Sullivan, for all his true virtues, is a man of strikingly unsound judgment. He swings, he swings frequently, he swings with emotion from one impassioned response to another, a kind of journalistic Thaïs transforming regularly from the life of a courtesan to the devotions of ascetic convert, and always extreme in his commitment, whatever it is. On the ridiculous level, this results in his campaign against male circumcision (a fair enough position to take) by mischaracterizing it as “male genital mutilation.” His infatuation with Ron Paul, before succumbing to Obama, was typical on a more important level. Paul’s libertarianism has a quintessentially American appeal for some (and Sullivan’s Americanism is another of his impassioned conversions), but from his fiscal ideas to his 30s-era isolationism to his documented history of prejudices and conspiracy mongering, the shallow American individualism is a primer coat covering a totally cracked pot. And it was like Sullivan to inhale the steam without ever detecting the leaks.

Goldberg’s later post offered praise of Blake Hounshell arguing

Sullivan’s criticism of Israel ought to worry defenders of the Jewish state, then, because he is a bellwether for a broader shift in American media and society that has happened over the last few years. Israel is using up a lot of the goodwill it had built up in the 1990s, when eminent statesmen like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres made good-faith efforts toward peace with the Palestinians. Since then, the country has been governed by a series of unimaginative right-wing leaders who have pandered constantly to their settler base and chosen to solve political problems through the use of force.

The error in this reasoning is that the 1990s became the 2000s not because of what Israel did, but because of what the Palestinians and others did. The 90s culminated with two dramatic proposals for peace by Israel (with another, in fact, coming in 2008). What were the Palestinian offers during that time? The 2000’s were ushered in, as a response to those offers, by the Intifada and an unprecedented wave of terror against Israeli citizens (and still there was the 2008 offer). The Intifada and Hamas and Hezbollah terror were and are not a “political” problem. Any nation but those that suspiciously expect Israel to live for decades in a perpetual state of low-level conflict that they themselves would never tolerate will recognize this. To assign blame for this turnabout to Israel is to accept the perverse Pallywood and extreme left narrative that so turns truth inside out. The way to overturn it is not to accede to it but to do the hard work to expose it, as Richard Landes and organizations such as CAMERA do.

Which brings me back to Sullivan. He may well be a bellwether, but of what? That the Pallywood-colonialist-JewLobby narrative is retailed increasingly at discount prices in the era of delegitimization and BDS villainization? Of course, Israel can be rightly criticized (fairly, about as much as Sri Lanka was regarding the Tamils, and China on Tibet, and Russia on Chechnya), but, as that April 2008 post I mentioned to Goldberg argued, by a true friend of Israel, as Sullivan claims he is, not with language and arguments and kudos to others that promote the anti-Israel storyline. That sends a message, and supports an argument and forces, that belies the profession of support. That is not sound judgment.


5 comments

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sid February 12, 2010 at 5:50 pm

I agree mostly with Andrew Sullivan. Jews should be aware that more and more Americans are getting fed-up with their uncontested influence over America’s Middle East policy.

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copithorne February 11, 2010 at 11:26 pm

You say that “other people expect Israel to live for decades in a perpetual state of low level conflict that they themselves would never tolerate.”

I have a strong preference for Israel and the whole region to live in peace. Is it not possible to believe that there are policies that Israel could pursue that would lead to a better prospect of that outcome? Currently, Israel is not on any path to peace.

It seems as though it is the contemporary Israeli political system that has resigned itself to endless war. The frustration and discouragement is understandable and yet it would be more productive to find a way to keep hope alive that peace is possible.

To me, your reasoning here seems different from the reasoning I see you apply to other questions. It seems as though you are identified with the political team of Israel and you the political prospects for that team as precarious. So, any criticism of Israeli policies is perceived as betrayal of the political team.

Even though I identify as a Zionist, I don’t share that perspective. Perhaps because I perceive Israel’s political status as secure.

A pair of minor reactions: you say the 90s became the 00s not because of what Israel did. I reacted that this idea overlooked the assasination of Yitzhak Rabin. From the shadow of that event, we might infer that there are political forces within the Israeli polity that are violent.

Also, I perceive Ron Paul to have a coherent philosophy of public policy. I don’t agree with it. But I find him to be less of a cracked pot than any given Republican leader who I perceive to be rehearsing a set of incoherent slogans to mask an agenda that has little to do with public policy.

On a minor note, I perceive Ron Paul to have an actual coherent conservative political philosophy. I don’t agree with it. But he actually seems capable of thinking about pubic policy. He seems altogether

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A. Jay Adler February 13, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Copithorne, I know that in large measure we agree on this subject. You’re right, of course, that Rabin’s assassination demonstrated the presence of an ugly segment of Israeli society. However, all nations have them, the U.S. itself in spades. But we saw in the Gaza withdrawal how much power that sector ultimately has in Israel. And what followed from the Rabin assassination? A lost commitment to peace? No, two dramatic peace proposals from Ehud Barak, who staked his political career on a profound and genuine effort at final peace. Again, as I wrote, there were no Palestinian counters but the second Intifada. And again, after nearly a decade of terror from all sides, who tables a peace proposal? The Israeli PM. The ultimate Palestinian Authority response? Neglecting to call back. Other than an endless PR campaign of suffering and victimization, where is even a meager – which is hardly to conceive a comparable – Palestinian record of proposals and initiatives? You write, ” It seems as though it is the contemporary Israeli political system that has resigned itself to endless war.” First, I wonder what it is in the Palestinian record that leads you not to make that observation about the Palestinian frame of mind. Next, I wonder why it isn’t reasonable to perceive that the current Israeli state of mind is based in just that perception of the Palestinians. Finally, this whole discussion emanates from a truly peculiar and broad perception that the Palestinians are like the weather. One can’t curse the snow, only the mayor who can never get it plowed well enough. Why is this discussion so constantly about what Israel, as actor or reactor, does or does not do – especially given its actual record in pursuit of peace – and very close to never about what the Palestinians do, or, actually, what they fail to do?

It would be disingenuous or blind of me to reject any influence of my personal identifications on this subject. However, I think my arguments themselves can be engaged on their own merits. Historically, my political sympathies in Israel have been with Labor, and decidedly anti-Likud. There are reasons, though, that the formation of Kadima was possible, and that such a historic Labor figure as Shimon Peres felt comfortable in it. There are reasons why Ehud Barak could align with Ehud Olmert on Gaza in 2008. One prejudicial explanation, offered by Andrew Sullivan, in response to Wieseltier, is some “moral slide” by Israel. (Glad all of the other nations of the world are upholding their moral character sufficiently to warrant no special attention and mention in his list of policy passions – one of, in fact, Wieseltier’s points.) Another explanation is to cease conceiving Palestinian behavior as meteorology. It isn’t a question of being critical of Israel: it’s a matter of how one is critical: the nature of the rhetoric and emphasis, the nature of the company and the cited authorities, the forces and movements aligned with by virtue of those first two considerations.

As to Ron Paul, just when I thought I had a sense of where you are politically, I see I’m back to the political calculator. ;-)

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Judeosphere February 11, 2010 at 4:34 pm

You raise an excellent question. But I wouldn’t identify Sullivan as a bellwether for precisely the reason you identify: “he swings frequently, he swings with emotion from one impassioned response to another”

The fact is, ever since the United States became engaged in the Middle East after World War II, Israel has time and again been singled out as a threat to U.S. interests.

Here are just a few examples over the last 20 years of when Israel was declared to be a “strategic liability”:

http://www.thejudeosphere.com/?p=498

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