The New Laocoon
Andrew Sullivan and Public Debate
The mountain of words and pictures last week mirrored the piles of rubble in New York. Like the rescue workers there, one waded in trying to find something that was alive, that would illuminate and explain what had happened. Noticeable was the reluctance throughout the media to contemplate the Israeli factor — the undeniable and central fact behind the disaster that Israel is now and has been for some time an American colony, sustained by billions of American dollars and armed with American missiles, helicopters and tanks.
Such has been the pressure from the Israeli lobby in this country that many, even normally outspoken journalists, are reluctant even to refer to such matters. Nor would you find anywhere in last week’s coverage, any reference whatever to things I have mentioned here in recent issues of The Observer: the fact, for example, that Mr Blair’s adviser on the Middle East is an unelected, unknown Jewish businessman, Lord Levy, now installed in the Foreign Office; the fact that this same Lord Levy is the chief fundraiser for the Labour Party; unmentioned also would be the close business links with Israel of two of our most powerful press magnates, Rupert Murdoch and the newly ennobled owner of the Telegraph newspapers, Lord Conrad Black.
So wrote the English journalist Richard Ingrams five days after the 9/11 attacks. “Who will dare damn Israel?” he asked. An outraged Andrew Sullivan answered.
We should be grateful, I suppose, that those who seek the extinction of the Jewish state still feel somewhat hesitant to say so outright. But like all anti-Semites, Ingrams thinks he and the West are somehow victims of the Jewish people… After an event like last week, Ingrams wants to “damn” a country that has long been the victim of such horror. Dare? Oh, the bravery of Ingrams’ prejudice! And then further in the piece, he casts the usual ugly slur of dual loyalty on Lord Lever [sic], a British citizen of impeccable patriotism… One phrase stands out: “unelected, unknown Jewish businessman.” These are the code words of the worst kind of anti-Semitism…
Also five days after 9/11, Sullivan wrote a piece in The Sunday Times which identified a comparable force in America: “The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead — and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.” Sullivan celebrated the arousal by 9/11 of a “squeamish” and “appeasement”-oriented United States, that if not for the horror of that day might have “[abandoned] Israel to the barbarians who would annihilate every Jew on the planet.” As much as his charge remains true of fringe figures and is redolent of some thought on the Left, it complemented Ingrams’ mean paranoia. There is nothing he’s written that he’s walked back more emphatically, but that line stands as a measure of the public intellect of Andrew Sullivan.
Like TED and Time Magazine, Sullivan is middlebrow. His blog is a piano roll of middle class amusements — “Mental Health Breaks,” views from our windows, faces of the day, surface encounters with science that make us “go hmmm.” This is the mortar into which quick takes on weighty issues are pressed. Sometimes he writes his own; other times he features excerpts by one-off commentators or a gallery of go-to guys. This is by careful design — Sullivan is enamored of what he considers his key role in the digital democratization of media, which is itself of course a middlebrow concern. He designs his blog to make information easily accessible and emotionally evocative. He uses it to “think out loud.”
The china starts rattling when he tackles sensitive topics. An intellectual tic guides Andrew Sullivan as a journalist: judging the importance of an issue and the value of its spokespeople by how much outrage they generate. Perhaps the most lurid example is the amount of time and space he donated to amplifying rumors that Bristol Palin was Trig Palin’s mother. And if Sullivan detects that a debate is taboo, he doubles down and his hallmark hysteria becomes a kind of keening. That is what has led him to obsess over race and intelligence and to champion Charles Murray. As Editor of the New Republic in 1994, Sullivan shanghaied the center-Left magazine into serializing parts of The Bell Curve. Its whole editorial staff nearly quit. More recently, in meretricious penitence for his support of the Iraq war, he has focused on what he calls the “Greater Israel Lobby” and the work of Walt and Mearsheimer.
Sullivan’s self-perception as a maverick fostering the discussion of uncomfortable truths has a stylistic corollary. It gives him a penchant for sounding dogwhistles — using language that is designed to be disparaging, invidious, provocative, which cunningly conjures from a distance themes that are thought over the line. Christian fundamentalists are termed “Christianists” in order to evoke images of Islamists executing people in football stadiums. Jews and Muslims persist in the “barbarism” of “Male Genital Mutilation,” which likens them to primitives who hack away at girls’ clitorises with tin can lids. And it comes to pass that “many Jews” participating in our democracy make up the “Greater Israel lobby,” which “has actively damaged the interests of the United States on behalf of… a foreign country.”
One effect is to draw more attention than he would otherwise get. Another, of course, is to summon the “smears” and silencing he laments in the first place, which has the tautologous use of reinforcing his narrative: Andrew Sullivan is a maverick opposing debate-squelching prigs. “I will not be intimidated,” he warns.
Better if he thought out loud less. Native to the middlebrow milieu are Sullivan’s capacities for conventionality and enthusiasm. Long after Obama-mania peaked, he maintains a feudal devotion to the President that has led political scientists to ridicule him as an exemplar of unscientific analysis. And on other matters, Sullivan sometimes overshares. That was the thing about Laocoon — they might have listened to him if he hadn’t diddled his wife in front of the statue of Apollo.
Andrew Sullivan is zeitgeist Silly Putty. After 9/11 he became a strident neocon, and after Bush he became a neo-realist with Paulite undertones — skepticism of intervention and distrust of Israel. This has kept him busy for several years, but when his middlebrow intelligence is no longer able to digest what he perceives to be an epochal issue, his hysteria becomes wholly unleashed, and when this emotional process reaches its apex, he identifies a “Fifth Column” threatening to tip us over the edge into perdition.
Eleven years after 9/11, this is what Andrew Sullivan has found:
For many fanatically pro-Israel Jewish-Americans I know, it all comes down in the end to tribalism.
I am not a tribal gay; I am a person before I am a gay person. I have attacked HRC in the past in a way that would simply be inconceivable for many Jewish Americans and AIPAC. I oppose hate crime laws; I challenged the priority for employment discrimination laws. I backed the Boy Scouts in their freedom. For the vast bulk of the American Jewish Establishment, this is simply incomprehensible. Why would I betray “your people” as one TNR colleague used to ironically call my fellow gays when talking to me. “My people?” It tells you so much about a mindset. The mindset affects all vulnerable minorities, of course, gays included. But the enforcement of it on Israel questions in Washington is striking. And it is profoundly illiberal. It reflexively and even at this point unconsciously puts tribal loyalty before any argument of any kind. It is why the Middle East is so fucked up. And why on the Israel question, Washington is so fucked up as well.
Postscript: This is a minimally-edited adaptation of an analysis I wrote in late 2012.