On Andrew Sullivan

Based on his recent columns in New York Magazine and the reactions to them, I’m sure that when liberals look at Andrew Sullivan’s latest piece, with the self-explanatory title “The Gay Rights Movement Is Undoing Its Best Work” they will accuse him of overreacting in such a way as to be an even bigger overreaction.

Not that Sullivan is above criticism. I think he protests too much when he says that the gay rights movement of his day succeeded by being “not leftist.” This would be news to a lot of people. Indeed, it was mainly Sullivan’s argument that cast gay marriage rights as a conservative position. But that was back when that was still possible. Ironically the very success of the gay rights movement in mainstreaming the community may be why the (non-libertarian) Right is so extreme now. When your movement is not based on ideas so much as grievance against “the establishment”, anti-wokeness is a badge of honor. In any event when Sullivan says: “We emphasized those things that united gays and straights, and we celebrated institutions of integration — such as marriage rights and open military service. We portrayed ourselves as average citizens seeking merely the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else”, that agenda was in common with the previous strain of mainstream liberalism that focused on civil rights for racial minorities. In this regard someone like Martin Luther King was “not-leftist” only in the relative sense of not being Malcolm X.

But Sullivan does have a point. The previous concept of liberalism was something that the average person could relate to. It created empathy for people who had previously been “othered.” This is where a not-leftist like myself would point out that King wanted people to focus not on the color of one’s skin but on the content of one’s character. In that respect, liberal reform advocated not just a government responsibility but a moral aspiration. Insofar as there was anything conservative about this sentiment, it was when Ronald Reagan applied his “morning in America” rhetoric. This optimism worked because it brought Americans together and won a majority for the party in charge, regardless of which party that was. Now of course, Donald Trump says “America First” and “Make America Great Again” but with the implication that it was only great before all those foreigners showed up. He won only because he got just enough votes in just enough states to win the Electoral College. The goal for him, and Republicans in general, is to divide and not unite. And the Left is doing much the same thing. Sullivan says that the advocates for gays and other sexual minorities are “rhetorically as much about race and gender as it is about sexual orientation (“intersectionality”), prefers alternatives to marriage to marriage equality, sees white men as ‘problematic,’ masculinity as toxic, gender as fluid, and race as fundamental. They have no desire to seem ‘virtually normal’; they are contemptuous of ‘respectability politics’ — which means most politics outside the left. … ‘Live and let live’ became: ‘If you don’t believe gender is nonbinary, you’re a bigot.”

This ties into where Sullivan changes subject to bring up a BBC interview between journalist Cathy Newman and right-wing Canadian professor (apparently they do exist) Jordan Peterson. The interview was dissected that much more thoroughly by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. The part of the dialogue that cuts to the chase went like this:

Newman: Is gender equality desirable?

Peterson: If it means equality of outcome then it is almost certainly undesirable. That’s already been demonstrated in Scandinavia. Men and women won’t sort themselves into the same categories if you leave them to do it of their own accord. It’s 20 to 1 female nurses to male, something like that. And approximately the same male engineers to female engineers. That’s a consequence of the free choice of men and women in the societies that have gone farther than any other societies to make gender equality the purpose of the law. Those are ineradicable differences––you can eradicate them with tremendous social pressure, and tyranny, but if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcomes.

Newman: So you’re saying that anyone who believes in equality, whether you call them feminists or whatever you want to call them, should basically give up because it ain’t going to happen.

Peterson: Only if they’re aiming at equality of outcome.

Newman: So you’re saying give people equality of opportunity, that’s fine.

Peterson: It’s not only fine, it’s eminently desirable for everyone, for individuals as well as societies.

Newman: But still women aren’t going to make it. That’s what you’re really saying.

In this case and others, Peterson went into very detailed examples for why certain social inequities occur (as he puts it, on the standard that ‘equality of outcome’ is more important than equal opportunity) and gave a multifaceted explanation for why different results occur, indeed why they are more likely in a social-democrat policy where the government gives women more benefits and opportunities. And at least once Newman reduces his response to the assumption that things can only be a certain way, and telegraphs that her conclusion is based on her predecided opinion of his position instead of what he actually said. This is… I believe the word I’m looking for is “essentialist.”

This sort of thing is why a lot of men hear the phrase “mansplaining” and think of it very ironically. Because mansplaining, like “white privilege”, is referring to a real thing but in a very counterproductive way. Mansplaining is a gender-specific example of a universal vice: namely, interrupting, acting like you know better, and presenting the other person’s argument to them without listening to what it actually is. When you see this interview, you can see that it’s possible for a woman to do the same thing to a man. It’s happened to me lots of times. But when someone cops this attitude with me in a political debate, I don’t call it “mansplaining,” I call it “arguing with the imaginary libertarian in your head.”

Like when such people tell me, “there’s no point in voting third-party because of our first-past-the-post system.” As if I, and all the other people working to change the system, aren’t already aware of this. I’m sure that in 19th Century Russia, there were “liberals” telling their friends, “yes, we all want reforms, but the Czar is an absolute monarch of an autocratic government. Whaddya gonna do?

In the Atlantic piece, Friedersdorf goes to another exchange:

Newman: Aren’t you just whipping people up into a state of anger?

Peterson: Not at all.

Newman: Divisions between men and women. You’re stirring things up.

“Actually, one of the most important things this interview illustrates—one reason it is worth noting at length—is how Newman repeatedly poses as if she is holding a controversialist accountable, when in fact, for the duration of the interview, it is she that is ‘stirring things up’ and ‘whipping people into a state of anger”, Friedersdorf says.

Where this ties into Sullivan’s post is the rejection of the very concept of common ground or good-faith argument. Neither is there a possibility of arriving at the truth beyond “my truth” or my position. Friedersdorf points out that Newman’s style of confrontation is common not only on social media platforms but also on Fox News, and elsewhere in his column, Sullivan goes back to his recent theme on the destructiveness of social media like Facebook and Twitter. The reason that this attitude is a problem for the Left is the same reason that it is embraced by the Trumpniks and Fox News: While various disenfranchised groups have greater numbers and influence than ever, this is still a white-majority country that is still broadly right-of-center, and while “identity politics” may be necessary in a lot of cases, it encourages the feeling that whites and conservatives need identity politics too. You can win – barely – by dividing people when you already have a majority. When you’re the minority, dividing people keeps you a minority.

Where I disagree with Sullivan’s piece this week is where he says: “The Trump era is, I fear, not just about this hideous embarrassment of a president. It’s also fueled by a reaction of many ordinary people to the excesses of the social-justice left — on immigration, race, gender, and sexual orientation. ” This is true up to a point. But he fails to stress that if the Left is pushing the Right to radicalism, the reverse is also true. I am pretty sure that we would not be so wrapped up in the #metoo moment if Hillary Clinton were president, for instance. But then, that would be largely because liberals would assume they’d cured sexism the way President Obama cured racism.

I may have said this before, but what liberals need to figure out is that if the only thing that mattered about the 2016 election was making liberals cry, Donald Trump would have won the popular vote. What conservatives need to figure out is that Trump did not win the popular vote because making liberals cry was not the only thing that mattered. And if one can concede that the side you hate has aspects that are objectively awful, you still have a moral responsibility in how you react to that. A hint: You do not improve the system by citing the awfulness of Them and then making Us that much worse.

We don’t have a cycle of Thesis and Antithesis reaching a higher Synthesis. We just have a cycle where Thesis and Antithesis continue to make each other worse. At best, the situation is where the US is like a sailboat, and Left and Right are constantly fighting each other for control of the mast, and every so often, this struggle causes the boom to swing around and whack one of them silly.

In my About page, I’d mentioned that Andrew Sullivan’s blog was my primary influence in starting this site. This was not because I’d always agreed with him. Indeed, on The Daily Dish he had said quite a few things that attracted a lot of dispute and rebuttal, and to his credit he was able to post and respond to a lot of these comments (without actually having a comments section). Sullivan was able to admit, in real time over a course of years, where he had been wrong (for example, in supporting the Iraq invasion) and where he needed to take responsibility for that. That is far more than most conservatives have ever been willing to do. It seems to be more than a lot of liberals are willing to do. I gravitated to Sullivan’s blog because his willingness to question things and still present a civil platform was something the culture needed. It still is. Especially now.


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