Why Andrew Sullivan matters

The proprietor of The Dish represented the intellectual unbound

(Image credit: (Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Images courtesy Getty Images, iStock))

It’s telling, I think, that Andrew Sullivan’s announcement on Wednesday that he’s retiring his enormously popular blog — The Dish — has inspired tweets, Facebook posts, and longer tributes (and denunciations) that read an awful lot like obituaries.

Even though Sullivan is still very much alive.

Even though his announcement of the blog’s demise spoke very clearly and movingly about a desire to move on to other things.

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The question is why the end of The Dish feels a little bit like the termination of a life.

And the answer can be found in the distinctive form of intensely personal thinking and writing that appeared on Sullivan’s blog day in and day out for 15 years.

How can I tell that a critic has failed to grasp this distinctiveness? When he writes something like the following (which is adapted from dozens of snarky comments circulating around Facebook and Twitter in the hours following Sullivan’s announcement): “I remember reading a Sullivan post expressing his opinion on the details of military counterinsurgency tactics and thinking, ‘This is nuts. He’s not a specialist in this subject. How would he know anything about it?’ So I stopped reading him.”

This misses the point entirely.

Our culture valorizes specialists, and for good reason. They are the people who dig deep into a subject, learn everything there is to know about it, become experts, and then push knowledge forward into new areas. This is the model of thinking that governs academic life. In the hard sciences, it goes even further, striving not just for specialized knowledge but for complete objectivity — understood as a standpoint cut off from the peculiarities of subjectivity, including emotions, passions, quirks of historical perspective, bias, prejudice, and any other idiosyncrasy, with all of them cordoned off by rigorous scientific methods.

The gold standard for knowledge on the academic-scientific model is replication: the idea that any other researcher looking at the same facts, sifting through the same data, or conducting the same experiment could reproduce the results and come to identical conclusions. The author of the original study might get the lion’s share of the credit for contributing to the advancement of knowledge, but the achievement is entirely a function of having gotten there first — the presumption being that some other scientist or researcher would have eventually reached the same point. The peculiarities of the person don’t matter; what matters are the results, the findings, the knowledge acquired, disseminated, and verified by fellow (and largely interchangeable) scientists and researchers around the world.

Andrew Sullivan is no one’s idea of an academic. There’s nothing scientific about him. He doesn’t have a dispassionate bone in his body.

He is, instead, an intellectual. Which means, first and foremost, that he’s a “specialist in generalizations” (to employ Daniel Bell’s shorthand definition). Rather than burrowing into a single topic and learning everything there is to know about it, an intellectual reads and thinks widely, learning a modest amount about a broad range of subjects and synthesizing them all into a singular outlook and style of judging the world.

If the author of a scientific study is ultimately beside the point, the author of an intellectual or literary essay is the whole point. The outlook, the unique perspective, the individual subjectivity is what counts. We read an intellectual because we want to know what and how that particular person thinks about a given issue or controversy and what it means, and how it fits into the larger picture.

For fifteen years The Dish served as a platform for one of the most impressive intellectuals of his generation — but with a difference. The difference was the speed, the velocity, the instantaneousness made possible by the internet. Sullivan used the blog to do everything intellectuals have always done — comment on current affairs, praise and denounce public figures, discuss books, movies, and music, muse on broader political and cultural trends — but without any time for considered reflection, and with no editor to slow him down, act as a gatekeeper, or provide feedback or a sounding board. The Dish showed us the intellectual unbound. We got to glimpse a mind at work, in all of its brilliantly odd-ball eccentricity.

And what eccentricity! Sullivan was the gay-Catholic-conservative blogger with a man-crush on Barack Obama. The one-time Iraq War True Believer turned neocon-hating, Likud-bashing foreign policy realist. The scourge of “Christianists” and drug warriors. The anti-torture crusader. The tireless gay-marriage advocate. The Trig Truther conspiracy nut. The left-bashing libertarian champion of absolute rights to free speech and religious freedom. The committed opponent of male genital mutilation (aka circumcision). The goofball lover of porn and pot and beards and bears and drag queens and beagles and Oakeshott and Larkin and Montaigne and the Pet Shop Boys.

This was something new, and it never stopped feeling fresh — because there was always something new going on in the world, something else for Sullivan to respond to, and for readers to experience and evaluate with him, sometimes (as when he live-blogged major political events) in real time.

When critics praise him, they usually point to the sheer volume of prose he produced. It is impressive. But not nearly as remarkable as what the prose conveyed, which was opinions, positions, judgments by the boatload. Always an on-the-spot evaluation at the ready — and far more often than not, an interesting one. One worth sharing. One worth pondering. One provocative and distinctive and irritating and quirky enough to inspire readers to come back the next day. And the next.

It could be exhilarating, but also acutely embarrassing. Sullivan learned early on that in this new medium, glibness had become an intellectual virtue. Just look — and judge. Immediately. Where the academic-scientific ideal seeks to bracket emotions and other non-rational aspects of subjectivity, the blogger-intellectual trusts his emotions, follows them, permitting a gut reaction to events. Sullivan practiced passionate thinking, right before our eyes.

Did his intense, emotion-driven judgments sometimes lead him astray? You bet they did. Repeatedly. But they also made him readable. And spiritually deep. And addictive. And infuriating. And addictively infuriating. And a beacon of intellectual honesty and humility, as on countless occasions he re-evaluated his own opinions in full view, revising and sometimes reversing them in response to savage criticism from other writers and his own readers.

If we are to believe Sullivan’s note about his motivations for retiring the blog, all of it finally became too much for him — the constant opining, the stress of living a life immersed in a news cycle that now never ends. Who can’t sympathize with and understand the desire to read a book, or write one, instead of dashing off yet another blog post?

With any luck, he’ll write that book. And maybe more than one. And long-form essays that gestate for longer than an hour or an afternoon.

Those of us who read The Dish every day will be grateful for these books and essays. But they cannot substitute for or take the place of the blog.

An obituary is premature. But there is no denying the loss.

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