See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Reading (and Paying) the Two Andrew Sullivans

Considering I live in a world where 5 dollar cups of coffee factor into my household budget (or soon will, once the Starbucks in my wife’s office building opens up) a 20 dollar year long subscription to the Dish shouldn’t an issue. Yet, my inner bean-counter is pretty unimpressed by the absurdity of coffee, and demanded an accounting. For those of you who don’t know, the Dish is the blogazine headed by Andrew Sullivan. The Dish relies on two sources of content: a carefully curated stream of the best reading on the web chosen by Sullivan and his team, and original opinion writing by Sullivan.

At the opening of 2008, Alan Jacobs described two Sullivans: a kindly, reasonable and fair-minded Dr. Jekyll, and a ravenous Mr. Hyde, with no patience, tolerance or human decency (my words) for those who disagree with him. I think it’s more useful to think of two Sullivans in the two roles he plays at the Dish: the Jekyll-like editor, a fair-minded thinker with impeccable taste and 50 years of life experience and the Hyde-like writer, an obsessively passionate advocate pounding the table, exactly as he did when he a young man at the New Republic.

My admiration for the editorial side of the Dish is boundless. The Dish is a window into best of the web. As far as I can tell, the team behind the Dish reads anything published in the English language on the web that they can get their hands on, across a huge range of subjects. Of those, the most interesting are carefully curated and posted, with well chosen snippets to help the reader understand the point. Sometimes, multiple posts from several authors will be distilled down and put into context. Sullivan will sometimes add a short comment, his own takes on each piece. Each of these pieces is transparently sourced, allowing me to independently follow up on the original and take it in for myself.1 In addition to the best of the web, Sullivan publishes the best of his reader letters. Whether they are supporting anecdotes or dissents, Sullivan publishes them, keeping a sense of discussion without the chaos of high profile comment sections. The broad coverage of the Dish means I get to read the best writing available, including and especially best pieces written by the writers I don’t bother keeping up with. Writers whose passions and interests are not my own, whose writing style sets my teeth on edge, or partisan glee I find distasteful. Writers like Andrew Sullivan.

As a writer, Sullivan’s credentials are impressive. Sullivan is famous for his early (1989!) and long advocacy2 in favor of same-sex marriage (from conservative principles) and pioneering the political blog. He’s written extensively and passionately in his Sisyphean quest to rescue conservationism from the Republican party. He’s written early and passionately in support of President Obama, marijuana legalization, and bear culture. To his lasting shame, he wrote early and passionately in favor of the Iraq invasion, and has been flagellating himself publicly since, in-between savagely attacking Dick Cheney for all of the wretched things Cheney manages to say and do on a consistent basis.

Despite that impressive track record, I really don’t care much for Sullivan’s writing. Contra Alan Jacobs, I don’t find his writing to be “reasonable and fair-minded towards his opponents”.3 Sullivan writes quickly, passionately and without reserve, but my objection is not with his style. If anything, I find it courageous that he is willing to push his writing into areas of controversy, outside of his expertise, and face challenges head on. Of course, it doesn’t require courage to do that – you can just be an asshole – but to publish your writing is to expose yourself to all sorts of (accurate!) criticism, and Sullivan addresses those criticisms directly. No, Sullivan’s weakness as a writer does not come from facing criticism, but his lack of charity in making criticisms.

Of all the lessons I learned in college, charitable construction was probably the most important. In my secondary school years, I was a somewhat smart kid surrounded by geniuses4. I liked to play nerdy games at lunch and joined the forensics program in sixth grad which added up to more or less mastering the varying methods used to outsmart people who were far more intelligent than I by the end of my senior year of high school. One of the core methods is similar to, but not exactly the same as, being an asshole: pouncing on inconsistencies, overwhelming your opponents with citations and citation requests, obfuscating, using emotionally charged language, and otherwise picking apart anything but the substance of what your opponent was saying.5 I learned to stop doing that in my first class in introductory logic when our professor, the late Ned Garvin, made it vary clear that step one of a evaluating an argument is to interpret it fairly: to give it the best, most reasonable interpretation while freely granting the benefit of the doubt and ignoring irrelevancies. Then, and only then, should you attempt to defeat that argument. I call this charitable construction but it is an attitude more than a rule. To my continual disappointment, I find that many professional writers never learned or forgot this lesson, and Sullivan is among the worst offenders.

I imagine Sullivan as the archetypal young writer, a talented but undisciplined iconoclast just slightly too smart to realize when he knows just enough to get him in trouble. He is quick to recognize the idiocy of others, and seems to think that recognizing the danger of idiocy within himself and airing dissents is enough prophylaxis. If his troublesome love of takedowns is any indication, he seems to think that criticism is all the service the writer owes the world.6 Frankly, I worry that reading too much Sullivan makes me stupider.7

My subscription to the Dish runs in two days, and I’m happy to continue subscribing. Despite my many disagreements with Sullivan the writer, he helped pioneer the same writing space I occupy now, and reading the Dish makes me smarter every day. I don’t have a need to regularly read Andrew Sullivan, writer, but I simply cannot do without Andrew Sullivan, editor. I only hope my check will help give the financial breathing room for the Dish to succeed, and that the editor can nurture that brash writer they’ve got on staff.

Footnotes

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