Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic:
“Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of The New Republic is not easy.” On June 2, 1944, W.H. Auden penned that sentence in a letter to Ursula Niebuhr. On January 26, 2010, Andrew Sullivan posted it as the “quote for the day” on his blog. Displaced and unglossed quotations are always in some way mordant, and bristle smugly with implications. Let us see what this one implies.
Auden was at Swarthmore when he wrote his letter to his friend. He began by thanking her for her admiration of a piece about Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that he had recently published in The New Republic, and then reported that he had just finished, “after writing it four times,” a review for the magazine of Charles Norris Cochrane’s book Christianity and Classical Culture, which had in fact appeared four years earlier. His trouble in completing the piece to his satisfaction was what prompted the remark that Sullivan finds so pleasing and repercussive. Auden’s intense and idiosyncratic theology was flourishing in those years, not least owing to the impact upon his thinking of the friendship and the teaching of Reinhold Niebuhr, Ursula’s very remarkable husband. The Cochrane piece, which barely mentions Cochrane at all, is a fine example of Auden at his most philosophically grandiose and amateurish. “The distinctive mark of classical thought is that it gives no positive value to freedom and identifies the divine with the necessary or the legal.” “A monolithic monotheism is always a doctrine of God as either manic-depressive Power or schizophrenic Truth.” And so on. On metaphysical themes, Auden’s original formulations could sometimes be very obscure. Perhaps that was why my predecessor at this magazine held the article for many months, until late September. “At last, The New Republic has printed my now months’ old piece on Cochrane’s book,” Auden wrote to Ursula in October, “—they’ve cut it about a bit but I’m really quite pleased with it.”
When Auden joked to Niebuhr that the Trinity could hardly be understood in The New Republic, he was lightly lamenting the spiritual shallowness of the liberalism of his day. He was not alone in this lament, to be sure. The 1940s were the years of the inner deepening of American liberalism, under the influence of Niebuhr, and Schlesinger, and Trilling. Perhaps Sullivan is posting his “quote for the day” to make the same point–except that in his present incarnation he is himself a bizarre kind of liberal, and The New Republic today, a liberal magazine, is not known only, or in some quarters mainly, for its liberalism. It is hard to escape the impression that Sullivan is not liberal-baiting here. No, when he piously implies that the orbit of The New Republic is immune, or hostile, to the eternal verities of Christianity, he is baiting another class of people, and operating in the vicinity of a different canard.
Consider some squibs that Sullivan recently posted on his blog. “Most American Jews, of course, retain a respect for learning, compassion for the other, and support for minorities (Jews, for example, are the ethnic group most sympathetic to gay rights),” he declared on January 13. “But the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing–that celebrates and believes in government torture, endorses the pulverization of Gazans with glee, and wants to attack Iran–is something else. Something much darker.” Michael Goldfarb is the former online editor of The Weekly Standard, about whom the less said, the better. Charles Krauthammer is Charles Krauthammer. I was not aware that they comprise a “wing” of American Jewry, or that American Jewry has “wings.” What sets them apart from their more enlightened brethren is the unacceptability of their politics to Sullivan. That is his criterion for dividing the American Jewish community into good Jews and bad Jews–a practice with a sordid history.
As far as I can tell, Krauthammer’s position on torture is owed to a deep and sometimes frantic concern for American security, and his position on the war in Gaza to a deep and sometimes frantic concern for Israeli security, and his position on Iran to a deep and sometime frantic concern for American and Israeli security. Whatever the merits of his views, I do not see that his motives are despicable. Moreover, Krauthammer argues for his views; the premises of his analysis are coldly clear, and may be engaged analytically, and when necessary refuted. Unlike Sullivan, he does not present feelings as ideas. Most important, the grounds of Krauthammer’s opinions are no more to be found in, or reduced to, his Jewishness than the grounds of the contrary opinions–the contentions of dovish Jews who denounce torture, and oppose Israeli abuses in the Gaza war, and insist upon a diplomatic solution to the threat of an Iranian nuclear capability–are to be found in, or reduced to, their Jewishness. All these “wings” are fervent Jews and friends of Israel. There are many “Jewish” answers to these questions. We all want the Torah on our side. And the truth is that the Torah has almost nothing to do with it.
Sullivan is hunting for motives, not reasons; for conspiracies, which is the surest sign of a mind’s bankruptcy. These days the self-congratulatory motto above his blog is “Of No Party or Clique,” but in fact Sullivan belongs to the party of Mearsheimer and the clique of Walt (whom he cites frequently and deferentially), to the herd of fearless dissidents who proclaim in all seriousness, without in any way being haunted by the history of such an idea, that Jews control Washington. Sullivan might have a look at the domestic pressures–in lobbies and other forms–upon American diplomacy toward China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Cuba, and give a thought or two to the elaborate and sometimes exasperating nature of foreign-policy-making in a democracy; but he prefers not to dive deep into the substance of anything. It is less immediately satisfying than cursing and linking. Does Sullivan think that Obama’s engagement with Iran–which, accurately described, is an engagement with the Iranian dictatorship and not with the Iranian people–is paying off? Does he believe that the Israeli war against Hamas was an unjust war, or that Israel should have continued to absorb Hamas’s rocket attacks–which were indisputably criminal–and not acted with force against them? His answers may be inferred from his various ejaculations–“the pulverization of Gazans,” for example, is a phrase that is calculatedly indifferent to the wrenching moral and strategic perplexities that are contained in the awful reality of asymmetrical warfare–but they are not so much answers as bar-room retorts; moody explosions of verbal violence; more invective from another American crank. Worst of all, the explanation that Sullivan adopts for almost everything that he does not like about America’s foreign policy, and America’s wars, and America’s role in the world–that it is all the result of the clandestine and cunningly organized power of a single and small ethnic group–has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people.
And this is not all that is disgusting about Sullivan’s approach. His assumption, in his outburst about “the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing,” that every thought that a Jew thinks is a Jewish thought is an anti-Semitic assumption, and a rather classical one. Bigotry has always made representatives of individuals, and discerned the voice of the group in the voice of every one of its members. Is everything that every gay man says a gay statement? I will give an example. On October 15, 2001, when the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldered, Sullivan published a piece in the Times of London called “A British View of the US Post-September 11.” In this piece he accused Bill Clinton of “appeasement,” and praised George W. Bush for assembling “the ideal team” for a “task” that “cannot be done by airpower alone,” and had kind words for America’s “world hegemony”–the politics changes, the fever remains the same–and also included this unforgettable sentence: “The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead – and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.” A fifth column! It is a genuinely sinister sentence. I wish to emphasize two features of Sullivan’s comment. The first is that it is an exercise in demonization: it divides the American people into good Americans and bad Americans. The second is that it is in no way an expression of Sullivan’s homosexuality. It must never be said that when Sullivan lauded the bellicosity of Cheney and Rumsfeld–which wing of American Christianity, by the way, shall we blame for them? –he exchanged the company of the good gays for the company of the bad gays. To say that would be homophobic. Here is what such homophobia would look like: Most American homosexuals, of course, retain a respect for art, and compassion for the other, and support for minorities. But the Sullivan-Shmullivan wing of American homosexuality–that celebrates and believes in torture and war, and endorses the pulverization of Afghan villages with glee, and wants to attack any country where Al Qaeda may be found–is something else. Something much darker. Get it?
Andrew Sullivan’s first response:
It’s been fourteen years since I left TNR and Leon Wieseltier is still obsessed with his long-standing and at this point tedious personal vendetta against me. I will try and defend myself from these dark insinuations of anti-Semitism one by one in due course (allow me a little time to respond to a 4,300 word ad hominem). But just for the record, let me grapple with Leon’s first claim that my citation of W H Auden’s letter to Ursula Niebuhr represented some dark and ugly attempt to convey anti-Semitic tropes and code.
Now it’s impossible to refute mere insinuations about my true motives for posting a random quote. But really: does Leon really believe I was making a swipe at the Jewish faith? To give just one of countless examples of my own passionate defense of the Jewish people from Catholic bigotry, see my review here. But as luck would have it, I have the email trail that gives the full context of this one-line post, so you can make your mind up yourself.
Joseph Lawler at The American Spectator:
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t stop myself from posting a rebuttal of some argument Sullivan’s made or some falsehood that he’s promoted. And that’s true of everyone here at TAS: if you didn’t hold back, the blog would devolve into a catalogue of his errors and misstatements. Especially when Sullivan writes about the pope or Catholicism, I, as someone who knows the first thing about it, am always shocked by his craziness. Wieseltier’s topic is Sullivan’s treatment of Israel and American Jews, and it’s pretty damning.
LEON WIESELTIER: Andrew Sullivan has a serious problem. “Sullivan is hunting for motives, not reasons; for conspiracies, which is the surest sign of a mind’s bankruptcy. These days the self-congratulatory motto above his blog is ‘Of No Party or Clique,’ but in fact Sullivan belongs to the party of Mearsheimer and the clique of Walt (whom he cites frequently and deferentially), to the herd of fearless dissidents who proclaim in all seriousness, without in any way being haunted by the history of such an idea, that Jews control Washington. . . . And this is not all that is disgusting about Sullivan’s approach. His assumption, in his outburst about ‘the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing,’ that every thought that a Jew thinks is a Jewish thought is an anti-Semitic assumption, and a rather classical one. Bigotry has always made representatives of individuals, and discerned the voice of the group in the voice of every one of its members. . . . Having demanded that the Jews behave apologetically in America, Sullivan now demands that the United States behave apologetically in the world–that it adjust its relationship with Israel to the preferences of the Muslim peoples. This is a little like decrying the election of a black president because it will inflame white racists. . . . To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left.” Read the whole thing.
UPDATE: On consideration, I don’t think this gets it quite right. Andrew certainly has a lot of hate, but unlike Buchanan he seems less . . . fixed in exactly who he hates at any given moment. I think it’s more of a frog-and-scorpion kind of thing and not a traditional idee fixee hatred like anti-semitism.
For all it’s depth and artfulness, ultimately, Leon Wieseltier’s critique of Andrew Sullivan is myopic. Certainly, all the signs of anti-semitism are there with Sullivan. But that’s because he hates, first and foremost, and simply disagrees.
Via Google, the words hater and Andrew Sullivan go hand in hand and have throughout his various political transmutations. He’s capable of hating almost anything, or anyone. Right now, Sullivan hates everything from a single uterus, to the Christian faith and Zionism, among other things. Two years from now, he may be hating something else because, to know whatSullivan hates at any particular time, is only to know that which he opposes, not which he truly loathes.
My understanding is that Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan have some kind of personal beef dating back to when Sullivan was editor of the New Republic. Wieseltier basically runs the back-of-the-book autonomously, which is a setup that often leads to friction with the nominal editor of the magazine, and in the case of the Wieseltier/Sullivan situation it was especially bad for some reason. That’s the backdrop for this bizarre Wieseltier hit-piece on Sullivan.
Like most of TNR’s very worst work, it suffers deeply from schizophrenia about the idea of flinging around baseless charges of anti-semitism. On the one hand, the charges are baseless so the writer hesitates to fling them around. On the other hand, flinging baseless charges of anti-semitism is the essence of the magazine’s commentary on Israel. For the purposes of intimidation, after all, baseless charges work better than well-grounded ones. Nikolai Krylenko, Bolshevik Minister of Justice, said “we must execute not only the guilty, execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more.” And it’s much the same here. If you call anti-semites anti-semites, then people who aren’t motivated by anti-Jewish racism will figure “hey, since my political opinions aren’t motivated by anti-Jewish racism, then I’m safe.” The idea is to put everyone on notice that mere innocence will be no defense. But relatively few people are actually goonish enough to execute the strategy properly, so instead Wieseltier’s piece beats around the bush and doesn’t really come out and say what it’s saying.
For his evidence, such as it is, Wieseltier first establishes that Andrew does not agree with and does not care for Michael Goldfarb and Charles Krauthammer. Even though Andew stipulated that these people are in no way representative of American Jewish opinion, he made clear that he loathed the ideology these individuals have embraced. Who wouldn’t? They cheered and defended all the worst aspects of the previous administration, and they routinely endorse destructive, inhumane policies. Andrew is not “hunting for motives” when he describes their appalling views; he is stating his opposition to those views. Unlike Wieseltier, he does not speculate about someone’s supposed undisclosed animus against an entire group of people on the basis of a few quotes and fragments.
As far as I know, Andrew does not subscribe to Walt and Mearsheimer’s actual arguments contained in their writings on the Israel lobby. Imagine how much less he agrees with the completely distorted, despicable misrepresentation of those views that Wieseltier presents! If he agreed with Walt and Mearsheimer’s actual arguments, that would mean that he supports Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself, and he would believe that the U.S. should guarantee its security. In fact, Andrew is arguably much more of a Zionist than this, and this comes through in numerous posts in which he, like many other Western Zionists, expresses his sorrow at what certain political forces inside Israel, especially Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, have been doing to the country and its reputation abroad. My impression is that it is his sympathy for Israel that makes him so critical of the mistakes he believes its government has been making.
Andrew will sometimes overstate things, and he has an Obama loyalist’s tendency to attack Obama’s opponents in very harsh terms. One post that Wieseltier cites is one that I criticized at the time, not because Andrew was all that wrong on the substance of the state of U.S.-Israel relations or Israel’s fraying relationship with Turkey, but because he did not set recent events against the background of the last several years. No reasonable person could conclude that Andrew’s statement was anything more than a strong criticism of another government that he correctly saw as an opponent of Obama’s policies. As for his remarks about jihadism, Andrew was commenting on a discussion begun by Marc Lynch, who made the argument with which Andrew was agreeing.
Alex Pareene at Gawker:
The crime is not that Sullivan is a conspiracist who thinks a cabal of Jews controls American foreign policy—that is insane. The crime is that Sullivan fucking criticizes Israel at all, without being a Jew. (Wieseltier is allowed to say mildly critical things about Netanyahu and call the settlers fascists because he is a member of the Tribe and he writes for The New Republic, which will only criticize Israel in occasional asides in the middle of articles on Those Terrible Liberal Antisemites or Those Terrible Muslims.) And you can accuse Andrew Sullivan of being emotional, inconsistent, and generally goofy (and you can complain about his hysterical post-9/11 writings, which Leon brings up purely to find something actually objectionable to object to, or the egregiously racist bullshit he published as editor of The New Republic, which Leon does not bring up), but to say that because he thinks the settlements should be dismantled and he finds Charles fucking Krauthammer objectionable that he is an antisemite is bullshit of the highest order. (Not that we’re surprised! Leon Wieseltier is a first-class bullshit artist! He consistently provides totally quality zingers slathered in the finest aged bullshit.)
Meanwhile, TNR publisher and on-again, off-again owner Marty Peretz posts something racist enough to make Tom Tancredo blush almost weekly. Like, explicitly so. You don’t actually need deep readings of his extensive archives to find evidence of implicit racist motives. He just lets it all hang loose.
UPDATE: Reihan Salam
Jonathan Chait at TNR
UPDATE #2: Andrew Sullivan responds
Heather Horn at The Atlantic has 19 pundit responses
Mike Potemra at The Corner
UPDATE #3: Leon Wieseltier responds to Sullivan
Eric Alterman at The Nation
DiA at The Economist
UPDATE #8: Matthew Yglesias and Glenn Loury at Bloggingheads
Andrew Sullivan responds to Chait
UPDATE #9: Chait responds to Sullivan
Sullivan responds to Chair