It is impossible to cancel Andrew Sullivan. He is, as Ben Smith wrote in his latest New York Times column, “one of the most influential journalists of the last three decades.” For the majority of that time, he’s occupied positions of influence or lucrative columnist roles on the mastheads of half the major magazines in New York. Now, after voluntarily parting ways with New York, he is on Substack, where his blog has over 75,000 subscribers.
If you aren’t intimately familiar with who Andrew Sullivan is and what he represents, this piece is probably not for you. On the off chance that you’re still interested, the most pertinent anecdote is this. In 1994, Sullivan, then editor of The New Republic, published an excerpt from Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, a widely debunked sociological text that argued that Black people were genetically dumber than white people. As Sullivan has pointed out, again and again, he also published a wide variety of rebuttals to The Bell Curve’s argument in the same magazine, largely because his entire staff threatened to quit.
In Sullivan’s mind, this compromise means that he was doing his journalistic due diligence to “hear both sides” of a complex issue. In his latest post, he frames himself as an “agnostic” on the issue of whether Black people are genetically dumber than white people, while touting the credentials of all of the people who he published that disagreed with him. He then couches his argument — that it’s possible that Black people are dumber than white people — in long paragraphs of intellectually dense throat-clearing that amount to “human nature is complicated and both genes and environment affect it.” What this ignores, of course, is the real critique of Sullivan’s work: that presenting bad science like The Bell Curve as plausible does not signal good-faith agnosticism in a complicated issue but instead implies that you think Black people are dumber than white people.
Sullivan would be a remarkably obnoxious writer even without this track record on race. His previous column was punctuated with an exhausting, borderline authoritarian focus on law and order, and he is on the forefront of the anti-diversity “leftist critique is anti-free speech” brigade. What distinguishes Sullivan from some of his contemporaries in the wider community of established media dudes who love “just asking questions” about marginalized groups is his place in the history of digital media, and the admiration that some people, Smith included, still hold for him.
Generally, for example, I do not concern myself with whatever garbage the Jonah Goldberg and David Frenches of this world are writing. Their world does not intersect much with mine, and their point of view represents a garden-variety boot-licking conservatism that is incredibly boring to anyone who isn’t part of the Beltway private dork sector they cater to. Sullivan, however, has both reach and just enough quirks (he’s gay and British and broadly disapproving of Trump) complicating his larger sympathies toward racist authoritarianism to make him interesting and seductive to people vulnerable to oppressive ideas dressed up in the right blend of intelligentsia and flair.
This, to me, is what really shines through Smith’s piece. To his credit, he fully rejects Sullivan’s views on race, but it is clear that Sullivan has meant a lot to him nonetheless. He is not alone. For a certain Type of Guy, say, a late 30s to 40s single-track media careerist who has been ensconced in the toxic cycles of Online since the Birth of Blogs (the Type of Guy I myself am maybe 5-10 years of shitposting away from), Sullivan is a flawed but indelible personality whose opinions still deserve public consideration. Part of this, Smith admits, is that their own careers were heavily influenced by Sullivan’s writing. These two anecdotes, I think, put into more perspective the role he played in late 90s and early 00s public discourse. From Smith’s column:
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose blog Mr. Sullivan once promoted when they were both at The Atlantic, wrote that more than any other writer, “Andrew Sullivan taught me how to think publicly,” but also that he didn’t see “me completely as a human being” because of his race.
Top-down media influence can be hard to measure, but I know I felt it: As a local news reporter in the early 2000s, I learned about the [gay] marriage issue from Mr. Sullivan’s blog. And I pushed New York politicians to take a stand on it, in part because his writing persuaded me it was important, and in part because I wanted one of the biggest bloggers in the country to link to my stories.
As Smith also notes, Sullivan’s views have not changed much from their vaguely libertarian roots, while our general understanding of social and political morality has drastically developed. What this means in practice is that many of the issues Sullivan is still hung up on, like intellectual equality between races and the importance of empathy toward identity politics in public discourse, are largely recognized by good-faith actors as settled questions—uncontroversial in the way that, say, same-sex marriage is.
Unfortunately, it is hard for anyone to kill off their heroes. I was a young, angry atheist in a heavily evangelical community growing up; I thought the world of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. But then I grew up and realized that their particular brand of atheism was largely used as an excuse to be super racist toward Muslims. Still, their writing on some topics contributed to how I and millions of others see the world, just as Sullivan’s early crusade for marriage equality informed Smith’s time as a young reporter, and as his firey online persona informed the format and style that this own blog follows. The mistake, I think, is believing that those innovations give Sullivan a permanent license to intellectual relevancy. His time has come and passed. You do not have to put up with his shit anymore.
Smith’s headline, I think, says everything you need to know: “I’m Still Reading Andrew Sullivan. But I Can’t Defend Him.” I agree with half of it. Defending Sullivan, in this day and age, is incredibly embarrassing. In an ideal world, reading him would be too.