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October 29, 2004

Losing the Tangible in the Impossible

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As one might expect from a thinker uber alles, Ramesh Ponnuru takes a circumspect approach to Andrew Sullivan's reasons for coming out for Kerry. He disagrees with Sullivan, to be sure, suggesting that a better way to spur Democrats toward adopting the War on Terror as their own would be to defeat them, this year, and hope that they put up a more palatable candidate next time around. But then he adds a paragraph on behalf of single-issue voters:

A number of critics have raised the question whether Sullivan is being a "one-issue voter," who is letting his strong opposition to the FMA determine his positions on other issues. He denies it. Perhaps the same-sex marriage debate has colored his view of Bush and Kerry: Can any of us really say with 100 percent confidence why we believe all the things we do? To be Breyer-like for a moment: I can't say with 100 percent confidence that I wouldn't cut Kerry more slack in other areas if he were pro-life.

I'll frankly confess that I've had isolated moments when the ebbs and flows of the political year have made me wonder whether I could support President Bush if he were more Arnold Schwarzenegger than Mel Gibson. But in the final analysis, Ponnuru's appeal to the natural tendency to struggle in our own measuring of issues overlooks four decisive points in the case of Sullivan and Kerry.

First is the naked transparency of the whole thing. Andrew Sullivan is — or was — a formidable political analyst. How is it, then, that he can swallow the huge pill of Kerry's campaign-year rhetoric about strength in the War on Terror, despite all historical evidence to the contrary, and still know to wink at Kerry's campaign-year rhetoric about his same-sex marriage position's being "the same as" President Bush's?

We need only look to Sullivan's record for illustration of how he swallows the "reporting for duty" nonsense. Allow me to quote an "outrageous argument" from March 1 that, based purely on his sudden anti-Bush (and anti-Mel) turn, I predicted that Sullivan would make:

A lot of the initial gutsy moves required to kick off the War on Terror have already been made. Once in office, Kerry wouldn't pull back on that progress, and what we need now is a President who will refocus international cooperation toward the group effort of the more-subtle work that lays ahead.

Before March was over, I'd traced that argument on Sullivan's part here and here. Now, here's a bit of Sullivan's recent New Republic piece:

Bush's comparative advantage--the ability to pull the trigger when others might balk--will be largely irrelevant. That doesn't mean it hasn't come in handy. Without Bush, Saddam would still be in power. But just because the president was suited to fight the war for the last four years doesn't mean he is suited to succeed at the more complicated and nuanced tasks of the next four.

My second point in response to Ponnuru relates to the first: if President Bush had changed his tune to support, say, abortion on demand, while Kerry was less so, I'm confident that both Ramesh and I would more honestly incorporate that consideration in our expressed reasoning. It isn't difficult to imagine making the argument that, as necessary as the War on Terror might be, it is more important that Western society be worth saving. It is the degree to which Sullivan has endeavored to make the War on Terror issue a plus for Kerry, rather than an unfortunate side effect that grates. Which relates to:

Third, Sullivan was never ambivalent about the War on Terror, or even about the Battle of Iraq. Indeed, the TNR piece is evidence that he still is not. But that's what makes the underlying single-issue-voter mentality that some perceive so objectionable. If one believes that the entire WoT argument on Kerry's behalf is contrived — and poorly, at that — then Sullivan is palpably risking catastrophic failure on a matter of life and death for the sake of the mere prospect of an obstacle in his rush for same-sex marriage.

For the final point, I'll return to Ponnuru's hypothetical shift in Kerry's platform. The fact of the matter is that the Democrats generally, and Kerry specifically, incorporate both the pro-abortion and anti-war perspectives. One can argue that this reality is merely a result of circumstances and how each party has coalesced, or one can sense that there's an underlying worldview that merges the two stands. I lean toward the latter. It is impossible to imagine one's reaction to a pro-life/anti-war Democrat presidential candidate, because it is impossible to imagine a pro-life Democrat of any sort becoming a presidential candidate. There is something that ties its devotion to abortion with the party's approach to foreign affairs.

For his part, Sullivan has a career invested in falling in a midway niche — as a conservatively inclined libertine. In that context, most of those who've been critical of Sullivan have been so not because he's a "single-issue voter," but because they feel that they've seen which aspect of his personality, when push comes to shove, rules over the other. When he finds he must lie down with one of two groups that he finds undesirable, which does he choose?

We all know now. And so dramatically was it revealed that one wonders whether it was ever a struggle, really. Conservatives certainly ought to be suspicious of Sullivan's attempts to drag an issue of remaining agreement with him as he wriggles away.

Well, I see Mr. Sullivan has kudized me with his first-ever (direct) link to Dust in the Light. I won't reply at length, because we seem to be largely in agreement except where agreement is impossible. Writes Sullivan, "This notion that writers somehow exist in a purely rational world outside of human emotion, passion, sensibility and bias is a silly one." Exactly.

"Well, the great thing about a blog is that if you really care that much, you can see all the evidence splayed out in front of you." Yup, and as it happens, I've read Sullivan's writing on same-sex marriage (and related topics) from the past fifteen years carefully and with a reasonable degree of thoroughness. He may disagree with my conclusion, but I hold it honestly and derived it fairly. In fact, when I finished reading his book Love Undetectable — which I continue to recommend highly to anybody interested in him or issues around homosexuality — I questioned whether the thesis with which I'd begun wasn't uncharitable and wrong.

Going back through his blog archives, however, renewed my conviction, perhaps for the very reason that Sullivan now notes:

And the point of a blog like this is not to persuade everyone I'm right; but simply to show how one person can grapple with a variety of factors - personal, intellectual, historical, political - in coming to a simple conclusion.

Leaving aside the question of the Daily Dish's "point," Sullivan's plea skirts an important distinction. The piece in support of Kerry wasn't on the blog; it was on TNR. And my central complaint is that many of those who "really care that much" about his formative grappling see underlying agendas that aren't clearly acknowledged, either on the blog or in more polished pieces.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 29, 2004 8:29 PM

Spot on, Dustin. In fact (pace National Review), Sullivan has already gone "wobbly" once before. He accused National Review of not being (get this) supportive enough of the War on Terror (this was after the debacle of Fallujah), at the very same time as NR's cover showed "Whatever It Takes." At that time, NR was being a bit critical of the Administration, and Sullivan opined that they had basically not backed the President/the effort ENOUGH!

Then, after Rich Lowry called Sullivan on it in The Corner, it was SULLIVAN who, inexplicably (and, he never referenced his OWN flip-flop) then became a vocal critic of the President on the WAR, all-the-while simultaneously, and steadily (this timeline is KEY) making a covert case against George Bush's "competence" (the one he had previously defended from NR's "criticism," which was manifestly less strident, and far less common, than his, subsequently).

The competence issue is an issue, but, I think, in Sullivan's case, it's also a convenient cover to be for John Kerry (and, thus, eventual gay "marriage") after a bad first debate by the President. The "competence" issue is really a smokescreen for this simple fact.

It's as simple as that, whether Sullivan admits it or not (trust me, he won't), or even if anyone blogworthy outside of yourself will call him on it (outside of NR, Kurtz or you, trust me, no one will).

Posted by: Aaron at October 30, 2004 12:06 AM


Thanks for the comment. I should note, though, that others who are arguably more "blogworthy" than myself have made noises about Sullivan on this matter. Back in March, Kathryn Jean Lopez prodded him on it in the Corner. (Others there are more subdued in their responses, but they know what's what.)

More recently, John Hawkins has had a couple of posts. I'm sure there are more, but honestly, I think a good number of people who would take up the argument have simply stopped reading Sullivan altogether. That TNR piece was kind of hard to miss, though, and it provoked even Lileks to bleat about him.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 30, 2004 12:25 AM

I've only been reading Andrew Sullivan for a year or so, but I had felt a strong integrity from the guy until his hyperbolic anti-Mel Gibson thing started. His arguments were so flippant and aggressive I realized there was something else going on (not that I knew what that was, but I knew it was something). When K-Jo wrote that he should spare us and just come out against the President I was hoping she was wrong, but she recognized whatever that "something" was pretty early. It is almost disturbing (or "disturbed") the way he immediately grabbed onto the UN/NYT/CBS October Surprise stolen ammo story like he was a left-wing or wacko. He moved so quickly to throw the President under the bus and refuses to acknowledge the crater-sized holes in the story and obvious end-of-election stunt that it is; I think his credibility with many is going to take some serious damage the more this story is proven a fraud. His clarity of thought and line of reasoning took a dramatic shift at some point and, although it makes most sense to point to the FMA backing by the President, I noticed it first when he began attacking the Passion of the Christ (long before he even saw the movie). I certainly hope he can address whatever personal issues he has that has taken him from being one of the clearest minds and coolest dudes on the Internet and has turned him into such an obvious shill.

Posted by: Dennis Castle at October 30, 2004 10:31 AM

I see he's linked to this post. Is this the first time he has ever linked to you?

Posted by: Jon Rowe, Esq. at October 30, 2004 2:27 PM

Disagreement is a clear sign of mental illness. Got it!

Posted by: plunge at October 30, 2004 2:56 PM

This is the second time that I know of that Sullivan has linked to Justin. The other time was when Justin made the very bizarre claim that same-sex marriage leads to higher abortion rates.

Posted by: arturo fernandez at October 30, 2004 3:07 PM


I'd forgotten about that (if I ever was aware of it). Sullivan actually linked to a post at Marriage Debate Blog that quoted from another post at Amptoons that addressed an argument of mine. I searched for and traced that tangled thread to confirm for myself that I did not, in fact, make the argument that you're saying I did.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 30, 2004 3:28 PM

I admit, I am biased. Andrew Sullivan can do no wrong by me. I have my own reasons, none relevant here.

I think what Andrew said in his follow up to you here makes perfect sense. I found his words interesting in his reply for some reason about "sausage-making".

I am not a writer or a political junkie, so please don‘t judge my views and the words that follow as someone with great knowledge of politics, let alone writing.

Hey, I’m just a computer guy for a living, but sometimes us little people with simple minds make sense. I’ve seen it happen before.

Granted, certainly taken out of context here, relative to what he said no doubt, I'll go with my own analogy of sausage-making:

I love sausage. Why? Because it has so many ingredients. Sausage is not just one piece of meat. Sausage has spices, special ingredients, and lots of things that make it great. And each sausage maker does their own a bit differently. They may listen to ten different customers with ten different requests for each customer’s own special ingredients to be added to their product. The sausage maker trusts that his customers are indeed quite intelligent, and like his product , and he listens to them all, and then makes the final decision of what the final product will be. The sausage maker get’s his continuing education from his customers.

I think Sullivan listens to others, and quite often trusts their judgment over his to see what he deems is a better answer sometimes.

Does the whole FMA thing make Sullivan that con- President Bush? I can’t say. I’m not him.

It seems from what I read that everyone wants to catch Mr. Sullivan in some sort of trap, regarding what he says one minute, and what he says the next as to what his views are, and why they change.

What the heck is that all about? I change my mind all the time.

To listen and to change one’s mind, is to learn . Listening, at least to me, is the mark of a truly wise person. Andrew Sullivan does and is.

Posted by: Phil Sadler at October 30, 2004 5:02 PM

Oh wait I get it. As soon as someone starts sayin things you don't agree with, they're "an obvious shill", "wobbly" and a "single-issue voter". Could it be *gasp* he's changed his opinions as new information becomes available? SCANDALOUS.

Posted by: Phil Epstein at October 30, 2004 7:32 PM


As effective as that stylistic application of snark may have heretofore been, I think overuse has sapped it of its potency. Obviously, disagreement, of itself, doesn't prove inadmirable motives, but neither does it disprove them. There's a whole lot of reading and consideration in between.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 30, 2004 7:53 PM

All this talk about Kerry's record is hogwash, if you ask me. In the same circumstances, who would ever have thought George W. was capable of a decent response to terror before he actually had to DO it?

Posted by: FrankPtown at October 30, 2004 8:22 PM


Posted by: BIG at October 30, 2004 10:20 PM

If Sullivan were the only conservative endorsing Kerry I might be suspicious, but after seeing the Ecconomist - a magazine that has unwaveringly defended the Iraq war - endorse Kerry, along with a number of other conservatives, Sullivan's endorsement should not be surprising.

Posted by: Chris Hallquist at October 30, 2004 10:21 PM

Right, Sullivan's endorsement of Kerry was not surprising. But not for the same reasons that it was unsurprising for The Economist to not endorse W. Justin has made a fair assessment of Sullivan's promise to his readers to assess, and reassess, his choice for president.

Posted by: Chairm at October 30, 2004 10:44 PM


I just came in tonight from a few drinks. Like I said before, I am just a computer programmer, and I don't read much, except documentation when I have to. To be quite honest, I don't even know what the word "snark" means. I go from the gut. (like the outer intestines of sausage). N.P.I.

Thanks for the response. I do appreciate it. By the way, nice blogsite !


Posted by: Phil Sadler at October 31, 2004 1:35 AM

It beats me how a computer programmer - a profession that requires strong logical thinking to do good work - could "go from the gut" when it comes to something which ought to require some sort of thought process.

Posted by: smmtheory at October 31, 2004 9:46 AM

Well, did I hear someone say something about a computer programmer? Yeah, I guess that's me. Think logically? Shit no ! I am A.D.D. bigtime. It's a wonder I'm able to hold a job, ain't it? Dunno. Been doin' it for 26 years and still cookin! Forget about Andrew. Wanna know my view of "computers"? Well, Bill Gates knows something about 'em, but he don't seem to care much about logic..just money. Give me an IBM MVS mainframe any day. Hey, Andrew be cool. Get off the guy's back. Email Bill Gates instead and tell him to go f*** himself. And by the way, I am, and always will be, a Democrat. Seeeeyyaaaaa!!!

Posted by: Phil Sadler at October 31, 2004 4:02 PM

A.D.D. doesn't preclude you from logical thought. I don't mind your not being logical though, since guys like you keep me in business fixing your mistakes.

Posted by: smmtheory at October 31, 2004 5:29 PM