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.


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