I had forgotten that Andrew Sullivan has a new book coming out—a collection of selected essays written over the last 32 years. The official date of release is Tuesday, and you can order the book from Amazon by clicking on the screenshot below (the Simon & Schuster website for the book is here).
There’s a review of the book in today’s New York Times (click on screenshot below), and it’s surprisingly positive. I say “suprisingly” because, after four years as a writer for the NYT Magazine, Sullivan was fired in 2002. (He was also let go from New York Magazine last year, presumably because they deep-sixed one of his columns condemning the violence associated with racial-justice demonstrations.) And he’s also seen as a “conservative”, though my reading of his positions shows him all over the map. It’s also surprising because their choice of a reviewer is David French, identified in the column as “a senior editor of The Dispatch, a columnist at Time and the author of Divided We Fall”, but also self-identified in the column as an “evangelical conservative”—not the kind of reviewer you’d think the paper would pick.
French’s review is a good one in both senses, though: it’s thorough and well written, and it’s positive about the book. It makes a good case for why Sullivan is, as French calls him, “one of America’s most important public intellectuals,” and surely one of its most readable and thoughtful journalists as well.
Except for his Catholicism, to which Sullivan clings resolutely in the face of reason, I read Sullivan weekly, and subscribe to his Substack website—for several reasons. First, he’s an excellent writer. Like Orwell, he eschews cant, writes simply but eloquently, and is always engaged with politics. (A journalist who writes with leaden words is hard to read!) I like the fact that he’s fearless, going against the Zeitgeist on issues like Critical Race Theory and wokeness. And I like the fact that, unlike almost every journalist working, he admits when he’s wrong, as he did when he initially supported the Iraq war.
His writing on gay marriage was of immense importance in helping turn America around on this important issue, and, on other issues, Sullivan is constantly re-examining and re-asssessing his previous views. He was a big supporter of Biden and a big hater of Trump, and although he still rightly despises the Orange Man, he’s beginning to find flaws in Biden and his administration. His latest column is called “Biden’s Not-So-Great New Normal“, in which, though he praises Uncle Joe for his pandemic response, he faults him for his administration’s failure to do anything about the immigration crisis—yes, it is a crisis—and for the rising murder rate, which disproportionately affects African Americans.
Is Sullivan a conservative? I don’t really care. On some issues he’s taken conservative stands, on others liberal ones. What I like about him is that he makes me think, which is the job of a good journalist. (Don’t ask me about his enthusiasm for Herrnstein and Murray’s book The Bell Curve. I haven’t read the book nor followed Sullivan’s coverage of it.)
Click to read the piece: I’ll give just a few quotes from the review. Note, though, the somewhat snarky description of Sullivan in the picture caption. “Andrew Sullivan looking concerned.” Did they need to write anything there? It undercuts the seriousness of Sullivan’s views.
Some praise from French:
When he is right, he is right with the same intensity. In 2009, he could see the strategy and incentives of the modern Republican Party: “If you have safe Republican seats in a party dominated intellectually by rigid ideologues, then your path of least resistance is total political warfare.” Substitute “rigid commitment to Trump” for “rigid ideologues,” and you have the same dynamic today.
It’s hard for anyone to read Sullivan’s words and not feel provoked. However, he is no troll. He does not write for the purpose of inflicting pain. And even his most passionate arguments are thoughtfully delivered, deeply rooted in his philosophy and faith.
That seems to be a pretty accurate characterization, although I could do without the reliance on “faith”(see below).
And the final assessment:
When I reached the end of his book, I felt a sense of gratitude. I disagreed with Sullivan on many points (and I do wish he had reproduced one of his essays in support of the Iraq war), but for 32 years a thoughtful man has demonstrated the courage of his convictions and challenged his readers time and again.
This world is almost impossibly complex. Conventional wisdom is frequently wrong. No partisan side has a monopoly on truth. In these circumstances, a nation needs writers and thinkers who will say hard things, whose fearlessness gives you confidence that you’re hearing their true thoughts.
It’s not difficult to be a partisan bomb-thrower. Attacking the hated opposition to the roar of the home crowd can be lucrative and rewarding. Partisans who gird for cultural battle don’t want to have second thoughts. They don’t want to look in the mirror and ponder the sin on their own side. Yet in essay after essay, for decade after decade, Sullivan has been the man with the mirror. He’s held it up to a nation and culture that increasingly yield to authoritarian temptations and shouted: “Look at yourself. Look at what you’re becoming.”
Read “Out on a Limb” for the snapshots of recent history. Read it to better understand the many journeys of one of America’s most important public intellectuals. But most of all read this book to see what it looks like when a thoughtful man tries his best to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.
The last paragraph could be just one of many blurbs from the review that could go on the book cover.
As I said, my one abiding disagreement with Sullivan is his rather pious Catholicism, though he’s notably reluctant to say explicitly what part of Catholic dogma he accepts. Surely he believes that Jesus existed as a divine being, and saved us through his crucifixion and resurrection, but you’ll never hear it from his mouth. (Or at least I never have.) Does he belief in the afterlife, or in the transubstantiation? You got me. For a writer grounded in facts, he’s been eager to inhabit a warehouse full of mythology. Now that could have some good effects (perhaps Sullivan’s humility comes from his faith), but in the main his harping on religion only serves to justify a belief system based not on evidence but on wish-thinking.
One plaint in this area. A while back Sullivan wrote a column, “Religion and the decline of democracy: We may miss it when it’s gone“, asserting that liberal democracy depends on Christianity and, should atheism prevail, America will go to ground. I was incensed enough not only to write a critical post about this thesis, but also forwarded an email to Sullivan’s site as a “dissent” (he regularly publishes readers’ criticism). My dissent, however, was ignored. Perhaps it was too long, but I think it countered Sullivan’s points well. I thought I’d posted it on this site, but couldn’t find it (it may be somewhere), so I reproduce it again (I added the supporting links in my email):
I wanted to challenge you on a statement you made in last Friday’s Dish. In response to a reader’s question about whether you thought that “a resurgence of small ‘L’ liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic west”, and how it could be promoted, you said this:
. . . . the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.
I agree about the objective reality part—after all, modern liberalism and its program are closely wedded to real facts, not fake ones—but I don’t agree that liberalism needs a “transcendent divinity”. In fact, objective reality suggests the opposite: liberalism needs to reject the idea of gods.
I’ll leave aside the contradiction between believing there’s an objective reality and the assertion that there’s a “transcendent divinity”, much less a Christian one— claims about reality that have no empirical support. And I’ll only mention that many nonliberal positions, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay views, are often seen and supported as God’s will.
Instead, I want to emphasize that the objective reality of the world is that the less religious a country or a state is, the more liberal it seems to be. Not only that, but the inhabitants are better off and happier.
There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations. Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.
Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.
This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.
Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.
While the reason for these correlations aren’t clear, it’s not likely that religion itself promotes poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. Rather, it’s probable that, when the people of a country or state are not well off, and don’t feel cared for by their societies, they turn to religion as a palliative: the assurance that Someone Above will take care of things, now or after death. Although I’m not a Marxist, Marx may have gotten it right when he said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Whatever the cause, objective reality doesn’t support your claim that embracing transcendent divinities leads to more liberal societies. Rather, worse societies seem to become more religious, or retain more religion.
Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism, and is the basis for all the happiest, most secure, and best-off societies in the world.
All the best,
I thought that wasn’t bad, but it’s in the circular file. Still, it doesn’t diminish my desire to keep reading Sullivan (I’ve just asked our library to order his new book), nor even the affection I feel for him—an affection, I think, born of his sensitivity, his willingness to reveal a lot about himself as a person, and, above all, his willingness to re-examine his views and admit when he’s wrong—traits that appeal to a scientist.