Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The New Republic Lumps Andrew Sullivan in with the Anti-Semites

and lo did Leon Wieseltier smite Andrew Sullivan, sending him forth to lament among the anti-semites ...
The New Republic's long-time literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, has penned (maybe in a digital age, he keyed?) a harsh attack on former TNR editor Andrew Sullivan, taking him to task for Sullivan's writings about Israel, American Jews, and Israeli-Palestinian relations. Read the article yourself via the above link; there's no way to do it justice here, merely to point out its significance.

Wieseltier writes in his conclusion: "About the Jews, is Sullivan a bigot, or is he just moronically insensitive? To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left." That's taken out of context, but only so much. After reading the article, one does not need to be a defender or fan of Sullivan (and I am definitely neither; I find him tiresome and as ardent in his positions when he's laughably wrong as when I think he's correct) to conclude that William F. Buckley Jr. (again, I'm neither a Buckley defender or fan) did a better job tagging Buchanan as an anti-semite than Wieseltier's longwinded article does with Sullivan.

Sullivan was editor of TNR in the early 1990s, around the time I lost interest in the magazine that had once been my political bible. A family friend, knowing my precocious interest in politics, had bought me a birthday subscription to the magazine. I would subscribe almost uninterrupted for nearly a decade. (The first issue to arrive in my mailbox featured a cover story on KAL Flight 007, the Korean airliner shot down by the Soviets in 1983.) I was hooked immediately by the magazine's smart writing, sometimes snarky takes on serious subjects, and its editors' apparent deep wells of knowledge on topics.

But TNR's weaknesses get to you after a while. The closed-circle of Friends of the Editors who write for the magazine (or are endorsed for president, but that's another, longer story). The ethical shabbiness (part of what made me lose respect for the magazine was the way it mishandled complaints about alleged plagiarism by one of its writers). The buck-raking by its editors. I could go on with the list, but why bother?

Even as a former reader, I've followed the adventures and misadventures of the mag out of a corner of my eye. I've seen that there's no love lost between Wieseltier and Sullivan. Once Obi Wan Kenobi to Sullivan's Anakin Skywalker (if Wieseltier can quote W.H. Auden ...), Wieseltier's relationship with his padawan learner soured as the conservative/Catholic/British/gay Sullivan turned to the dark side. (The Economist writes that one big turning point in their relationship was when Sullivan published the controversial -- and debunked -- The Bell Curve in TNR.) Wieseltier also said that Sullivan had caused a great deal of unhappiness at the magazine when he ran it.

"About the Jews, is Sullivan a bigot..." Wieseltier asks this time. But this is not the first fight between the two that has brought into question Sullivan's affection or lack thereof for Jews and Israel. Read this exchange, in which Wieseltier states Sullivan's not an anti-semite. Has Sullivan backslid since then? Possibly. But for the rest of us, we can perhaps request that these two keep any future kerfuffle between them and not air it publicly. It does little to illuminate the situation of Israel, the Palestinians, or how weird multi-hyphenate pundits like Sullivan can contribute or detract from the debate.

In closing, I'll note with approval one more swipe Wieseltier takes at Sullivan, who blogs at The Atlantic's web site. He says of Sullivan: "He is the master, and the prisoner, of the technology of sickly obsession: blogging – and the divine right of bloggers to exempt themselves from the interrogations of editors – is also a method of hounding." That's a beautiful observation, and a dead-on charge of Sullivan and many other bloggers.

He might have added that bloggers are quick to forgive themselves their errors and quick to hound those they find to be offenders.

UPDATE: Sullivan has posted an initial response, and promised more.
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