Big Think Interview With Andrew Sullivan
A conversation with the writer and blogger.
Question: How has blogging changed the art of writing?
Andrew Sullivan: Well, I think it’s changed the art of a kind of writing. I don’t think it’s done anything to change, for example, fiction or poetry, although it might. Most of those experiments have not really panned out. I do think that what it’s done with non-fiction is really destroy a particular process, which is a future-oriented process of writing, which is that you, the writer, sits down, thinks about something, has something to write, researches, polishes, edits; if he’s lucky he has someone who can read it and edit it, and then publishes it and it’s done. And there is, so every time you write, you are writing with a sense of the future of a moment when it will be completed.
Whereas when you blog, especially if you’re... you’re thinking and writing in real time, so it takes writing away from that future oriented moment of completion to a constant presentness. For me, that’s fascinating and it’s also a way in which the writer, when they’re talking about non-fiction again, fact, or the reality that they see in front of them, is a fascinating challenge. Because it means, first of all, that everything you write is provisional; because you live in a changing world and you might change your mind or facts may change. Or you may come across arguments that force you to reassess. And so, it’s really a presentness of writing, I think that I’m talking about.
For me the great... the two great writers that I actually read and studied in college were Pascal and Montaigne, and they, in a way, in two very different forms, helped me understand this kind of thing before... avant la lettre, as it were. Montaigne wrote his essays as sprawling present thoughts. Some of them even contradicted themselves. Then he wrote them, put three editions out. And in the three editions he added stuff into the text and if you go through the best translation, which is Donald Frame, you will see A, B and C. You will see this text in three dimensions. This is how he first felt, this is how he secondly reconsidered, this is his third and final version. And that suddenly gave the writing a human quality to it because, look, there is no moment in our lives that are final except death. Our thoughts are constantly in flux. In some ways this writing is truer than the conceit of a finished piece of work.
And so, this was never possible really, except by the manner that Montaigne did it or as I said, Pascal, who in his defense of the Christian religion tried to write a finished book about defending Christianity. And along the way he just wrote what are called, the "Pensées," "The Thoughts." And he never finished the book, but what we had was these selections of fragments of thoughts and ideas that he... that subsequent people put together. And I actually felt it, and still believe, it’s the greatest defense of Christianity ever written. And it was because it never tried to capture the truth of Christianity because it demonstrated a mind thinking it through incompletely all the time.
So, I’m not saying that this was something I figured out at the very beginning, but it’s certainly something that evolved, mainly because, day-by-day, was you write your opinions on a blog, you are forced to acknowledge that you misunderstood something or made a mistake or have grown up a little bit. When you’ve done it for 10 years, that’s a quarter of my life, well a little less than a quarter, but it was a quarter of my life when I started. Anybody who’s writing the same thing or think they’ve completed their evolution of thinking at one moment in time is just wrong, or has stopped thinking. And as you know, I mean well maybe on of my core philosophical political principles is that there is not stopping.
Question: Can blogging really lead to a new “Golden Age of Journalism”?
Andrew Sullivan: Well I think that it sort of can. I don’t know whether it will, and I’m not naive enough to believe that we will not need I think publicly funded probably, or privately funded institutes for reporters, real reporters, to go and do the work that is necessary. Like ProPublica, for example. Because important stories and really hard stories require months of work, they’re really like developing sometimes experimental drugs. You have to work hard on the story and it may not in the end come to anything. But if we go to, for example, get to the bottom of questions like Guantanamo Bay or inside the intelligence apparatus, we’re gonna need reporters full time with the time and space to really do that. So I don’t think that... I think even when I said that I always prefaced it and qualified it with that. I just don’t think that the formula of doing a newspaper, where you can bundle it with crossword puzzles and advertising and classifieds in which the reader—well to be honest, a lot of the readers never actually read a lot of those foreign news anyway—but there was an economic model of bundling it in that fashion. That’s clearly over. I mean if it’s not over, it’s going to be over. I don’t think there’s any question about that, and it’s probably going to happen more quickly than most of these people realize.
But, therefore, however, readers in general don’t get up in the morning and say, “I’d like to read 4,000 words about why this particular detainee was mistreated or what happened or whether there is a legal basis for, let’s say, targeting for killing Anwar Al Avlaki, they want some entryway into that. They need a narrative; they need a bundling that is not a newspaper. And in my view, the Internet being a very peer-to-peer operation, and a very human operation, the role of the individual writer in making sense of that, and it reducing people to that, and in being a hub for the relaying of that—which is really what editing and writing is sort of about anyway; it’s finding a way to engage readers into stuff that can be kind of boring if presented into drier fashion.
That is important. And then to have a really honest and open, interesting real-time discussion about it is, I think, is amazing. I think the last couple of weeks, Glenn Greenwald and I and Scott Horton and various other characters have engaged in what is a very... was a very difficult and sometimes heated, but nonetheless civil dialogue about exactly some of these issues. And I think that process is actually better than any single article because I think that it also treats readers as participants in that conversation.
Now of course, you’re also going to get—because we’re all human beings—shrieking propaganda sites and ghastly attempts to propagandize the news, or to polemicize it, or turn it into partisan digest. All of that’s going to happen too. But I’m a big believer that if you... if you really create a space, a line for what people will eventually tell and smell, as it were, is honest dialogue, then if you build that they will come.
Question: Should there be journalistic standards for bloggers?
Andrew Sullivan: Well they can’t be held to anything, that’s the thing. It’s like the United Nations, I mean; you don’t have the power to coerce anybody to do anything and in my view, nor should you, online. There are things called, I mean, standards evolve through experimentation. My own view is simply that there are some very basic rules; very simple rules that apply to all writing in a way, which is: don’t lie; if you’re wrong, correct; do not misrepresent; and try and keep oneself intellectually honest—which means, as a writer, the very difficult task in public of admitting you were wrong.
I mean, obviously, one should try as much as one possibly can not to be wrong, not to get things wrong. I’m actually quite proud and I’m very proud of the fact that The Dish has very rarely made any serious factual errors. We may have made errors of judgment or of opinion and I may have occasionally popped off when I probably should not have done, but even in really, really, really sort of dangerous territory, I don’t think anybody has ever caught me stating something that’s untrue, unless it’s by accident or mistake in which it has been corrected. So, look that is, that’s the only standing up you have. There is no way to police that, nor should there be except by readers figuring out who’s honest and who isn’t.
That’s how reputations emerge. The New York Times had not become The New York Times overnight. It had to earn its reputation day-by-day. And I think you earn your reputation for honesty and integrity literally hour-by-hour, and taste for that matter.
As for taste... what I love about the Internet and what I try to do on the issues is insist upon the ability to have bad taste if one wants. I mean, The Dish is a rare blog inasmuch as it will have discussions with Rooty and Oakeshott and Leo Strauss along with you know, the... that great TheyRapeYourKids Mashup, and Auto-Tuning.
But I actually think that that’s the world most grown up intelligent people of my generation belong. And we see a contradiction between South Park clips and discussions of theodicy.
I don’t believe in those – I don’t believe in those categories, never have. I’m a high/low kind of guy. And I also believe that the English language is robust enough to use good ole Anglo-Saxon words instead of these ridiculous circumlocutions you’ll find in established, old-fashioned journalism. So I still cherish the fact that even in The Atlantic Monthly, I think sometimes the consternation of some people, you know, I can say the word "fuck" and they can’t stop me. And I still have enough of an adolescent streak to be kind of happy about it. That’s why I get along so well with the South Park dudes because I think they have – they get a thrill out of that too. Pushing, pushing, pushing the envelope of what we can say and what we’re allowed to talk about.
Question: What advice do you have for aspiring bloggers?
Andrew Sullivan: I do have a couple of rules which is that if it isn’t updated at least twice a day it’s not a blog, it’s a website. So don’t fool yourself that you’re blogging when you’re really just putting stuff up online. And twice a day is sort of, I think, the minimum. I think a blog to live really has to be probably four or five times a day.
We post 250 times a week, which is insane. But what I’ve learned is that the readers treat it like crack. I mean, they will get... they will take as much as you can possibly give them and return infinitely more. And the interaction is the second thing I say. Take your readers as part of your community. This is a dialogue, not a monologue. With any luck the dialogue then becomes a conversation.
No single person knows very much, and what he knows he soon forgets. So the collective consciousness, or collective mind, of the world out there is what... is really what we’re trying to. And, in our case we are trying to get at the truth. We really are. We’re trying to understand what the hell is happening. And that means that I will have a particular line of inquiry, a sort of an angle of entry into that because I’m going to have certain prejudices and thoughts and feelings and judgments and mindset. But the goal is to provoke other stuff too so that we get... we try and get to the core of it, which we try and actually get to what’s actually happening. And I think that’s another thing.
But look, you can blog about your garden and it’s a brilliant blog. I also think the other critical thing, so more than one time a day; more than once a day, enter a dialogue. Thirdly, I really think you have to be yourself. I think this is a medium about personality and voice. It’s about honesty and openness. And people can smell inauthenticity a mile away. And you know, that’s really what Facebook is. You know, at some point now, with social media, everybody has a blog. And what I was doing 10 years ago is now ubiquitous.
At the time, when we first started, no one in the main... none of my peers in journalism could understand why on earth I would stop writing essays for you know, Trans Magazine to do this. And my feeling was, why not. I get to write. Having been an editor of an online... of an opinion magazine, having been a columnist, having done... having written books and knowing through that process every time you had to go some authority figure, you know editor, proprietor, colleagues, blah, blah, blah, publisher, got help with publicists—all that ghastliness. Suddenly, wahoo, I can go right to the reader—forget everything. The only question was whether I can ever make a living at it, and for six years didn’t. I mean, you know, I did it for the hell of it.
And I think sometimes this generation that grew up with this don’t remember, they don’t understand how hard it was for great writers of the past to get their stuff out there. The agents and the publishers and the manuscripts and the desperate attempt to get your reviews published and then they would botch it and cut it in half or rewrite it or wouldn’t publish it for political reasons or... I mean, you have no idea what people went through. And now we’re fine.
Question: How can anyone call himself a gay Republican?
Andrew Sullivan: You know, I used to say, we have to stay in these parties because certainly gay people do not want to become a Democratic Party constituency that is totally taken for granted, which is, of course, what has happened. When you have no leverage over the party, they don’t do anything for you—except take your money and invite you to cocktail parties, which is all that’s happened really in two years under Obama with two houses of Congress.
But at the same time, you know, this Homocon thing... it was in someone’s apartment. I mean the idea that this has been any genuine meaning out there for most people, there are plenty of gay people; many, many, many more I think than other minority groups actually, who would love a party of limited small government, prudent, strong foreign policy, balanced budgets, live and let live, like the British Tories. And if the Republican Party ever becomes that again, I think there will be plenty of places for gay people in it.
But to do so and join a party on condition that we oppose our own civil rights and our own basic civil equality seems a non-starter for me. I mean, it’s... there’s something quite nauseating about it actually. And you see even, like, Chris Barron who is the head of Homocon, or whatever they are calling themselves, GOProud, having to say that when Jim DeMint goes on and says that no gay person should be a school teacher, which is to the—which Ronald Reagan rejected in 1978—where are you left? I mean, it’s also important to remember that the Republican Party is now a Southern party. So the old Republican party, which had a balance of different regions and was based also in the Libertarian West—and remember how Goldwater ended up—and of course many elite Republicans, by which I mean a lot of people in Washington, are completely comfortable and accepting of gay people, and support our right to marry and our right to serve our country without lying about ourselves, which are just the two non-negotiables. But they are cravenly incapable of either understanding the importance of that or taking us as serious human beings.
I mean, I’m sorry, but Dick Cheney is not going to pass Mary Cheney, who is organizing to get a Republican majority that will make sure that gay people never serve openly in the military. And support a Republican Party in her own state that will strip her even the most basic contractual rights with her wife and children. At this point, I’m sorry, but no.
Question: So how should gay conservatives vote—against their political beliefs or against their rights as humans?
Andrews Sullivan: They have to vote for whichever candidate they think is the least worst option. And not... and of course we don’t just vote on our sexual orientation. And on the critical issues, the critical issue of marriage, it’s fundamentally a state issue anyway, although DOMA remains you know, a terrible blight on our national federal equality. So, I’ve never been a partisan, I’ve never been a Republican, I’ve never been a Democrat, ever, which is why I was very frustrated being called a gay Republican when I never attached myself to that. You just have to keep going. I mean I think our job, my job, is to keep articulating that I exist and that there are lots of people like me exist and we just have no home.
But if temporarily we seek a home with Obama, or with people who are less hostile to us and we are not also too opposed to their other policies, then that’s the compromise that we all have to make.
Question: Who are the most rational conservative voices in politics?
Andrew Sullivan: There are the beginnings of an intellectual revoltion at what conservatives... what has been done to conservatives as a governing philosophy in America. And I think one of the roles the Daily Dish are now trying to play is to be a place where those voices can be... can be brought to a wider audience. So I think of Bruce Bartlett, who along with me in the early part of the Bush Administration, called them out on their fiscal irresponsibility, is a voice that I am very happy to keep bringing. I think much later, someone like David Frum has come to that recognition even though I think we are going to still disagree about foreign policy.
I think there are some Libertarian voices that are out there and I think the younger generation of reasoned people, I think of people like Damon Linker, there are people out there. Unfortunately, what’s happened in Washington and more generally is that the conservative movement is bankrolled by certain large donors with certain overwhelming interests and they police the discourse with a ferocity and a lock-step mentality that has frozen conservatism as a philosophy in place and turned it into ideology that cannot ever change. Or aligned it with such fundamentalist concepts that there can be no real conservative dialogue, because dialogue is not what fundamentalism is about. And the price of simply existing as a conservative in Washington, to be in good standing, is to obey the dictates of whichever this constellation of donors and organizations from Heritage to AEI to even something like Pajamas Media, which is apparently financed by people also financing West Bank settlements is, if you stray you are expelled and then also thoroughly demonized.
So intellectually, we are, you know, the blogosphere allows these kinds of ideas to percolate. And I mean, Conor Friedersdorf for example is a young conservative whom I brought on specifically with the mandate of, because... find, encourage, let us bring to light that young writers right of center, who are not yet... who have not yet been basically bought by this establishment and then coerced to certain positions. Daniel Larison is another person. Now, these people don’t all agree, by all means. That’s the point I mean, but the do not... they have acknowledged that conservatism in the past 10, 15, 20 years; it’s not that there was a great period of pure or great conservatism; we’ve never had this sort of populist, xenophobic racist, bigoted strains. It’s that... that was always there. It is that there was also a lot of good stuff there that we were responding to contingent situations, such as the collapse of the social democracy model in the 1970s, like a really smart critique of the welfare state, and a really, I think critical insight into how one defeats Soviet communism.
What’s happened is that all that stuff has slowly been marginalized and all the worst has come to the surface. And that won’t change overnight. And I think from everything we are seeing, talk radio and these, I think essentially corrupting institutions in Washington are turning conservatism into something that is really very creepy, but also emotionally and psychically powerful for people.
So what do you do is, all you can do is write books, write articles, write blogs that articulate what you believe.
Question: Who is the greatest gay American?
I think there were two great gay Americans obviously, and that was Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman.
Question: Abraham Lincoln was gay?
Andrew Sullivan: I think it’s obvious, obvious that the man was gay and not many people sleep with other men and when the other man leaves have a nervous breakdown. Very few other presidents in history have slept with a man in their own bed in the White House while their wife slept next door. It is staring us in the face. It was written at the time, historical consensus is slowly shifting. It’s far too dangerous right now for people to acknowledge. But which, I mean, no only was he... had a homosexual orientation, but he actually was sexually active as well, which is really quite remarkable.
And I know it is controversial... there was amazingly—unfortunately flawed because the guy didn’t die before he finished it—"The Intimate Life of Abraham Lincoln" by C.A. Tripp, which really blew a lot of this stuff out of the water. And mainstream Lincoln scholarship for a long time completely dismissed this, in fact. But you are beginning to see in the scholarship out there, an emerging scholarship, that what people at the time called his lavender streak, at the time, is a core way of understanding who this human being was. Not that he didn’t also function heterosexually; gay people in these periods of time had to. And the social and psychological pressures that required people to adhere to heterosexual norms were overwhelming. And not that we will ever find, you know, proof of such, but just the simple facts I told you, which no one can dispute, are pretty remarkable.
Now, they have to dispute it, oh men slept with each other all the time in log cabins in the 19th Century and there was this principle with intimacy and friendship that was re-sexualized and blah, blah, blah. All of which is true. But in the White House, when you were already married? I mean, it’s staggering. And no one disputes these facts. So what do you think? Again, I think that one of the great things about a blog is to write and think about stuff that the people kind of know, but don’t want to talk about. And yet which are really, I think, pretty obvious, but are restrained by taboos.
Taboos, you know, that’s... like the race and IQ taboo. Like the Trig taboo. Like things you can’t actually—not even answer, there may not be an answer for some of these things that we can nail down with any certainty, or that we can do so without people cooperating or finding new sources that can confirm it—but I don’t see why we can’t actually sure as hell talk about it. And that’s what blogging does that you can’t do when you are putting down a fact on paper, forever. You know? You can ask questions. As long as they’re not sort of leading and obviously malicious leading questions, but genuine questions. Can we talk about whether the Pope is gay? Can we? Can we talk about whether Elena Kagan is gay? When it would seem that every, I don’t know a gay person anywhere who believes that either of them is straight.
But look, I’m not one of these people who thinks everybody’s gay. I’m really not. I think very few people are gay. I’m a two-percenter myself. But I’m not going to sit around an pretend I’m not thinking things on my blog when I am thinking them and when I’m open to rebuttal.
Question: When did you come out?
Andrew Sullivan: The first person I came out to was God. And the first conversation I ever had about this with anybody was in prayer. For me, God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit have always been my closest friends in this journey. It’s funny; I’ve never quite put it like that before. So when people tell me: "How can you be openly gay and Catholic?" My response is now and always has been: "I’m openly gay because I’m a Catholic." Because my conscience really... and it was not an easy decision, it was a struggle for a long time. I was a very precocious kid and I thought a lot about this and prayed a lot about it. And was because I really believe it was my moral responsibility as a Christian to tell the truth. Because I do not believe that the truth can ever be in conflict with God. And I think a lot of people are afraid the truth is in conflict with God. And are unable to let go and let the truth of the world, I mean, as John Paul II put it, the one thing Jesus tells everybody here that meets in the gospels, the most common thing that he ever says is, “Be not afraid.” And homophobia whether internalized or externalized is really fear; it’s not hatred, it’s fear. It’s fear of the truth about ourselves.
So, and the first person I actually told that I actually was going to have an emotional or sexual relationship was a priest. I went to confession and said, "Bless me Father, for I am about to sin." I did it preemptively, because I knew at some level I didn’t really think it was a sin. Then having done it and having entered that world, boy was it not a sin. It was a form of such lung-filling life that... such an obvious blessing from God, that it was absurd. I mean, not that a homosexual cannot sin, not that I haven’t sinned, not that there are some aspects of sex that are so powerful that they obliterate from our minds even an understanding or the sense of the presence of God. In that sense because they take us away from him, they can be sinful. But I mean by sin, simply forgetting God. 'Cause this stuff is so awesome.
On the other hand, I also believe that there are moments in sex that are so awesome that they actually reflect God. So I see no conflict. But to return to the basic question. So the first person I came out to was God, the second person I came out to was a priest, who himself, of course was gay because there are barely any who aren’t. And then my parents and my family. And I went home to England and I asked my mom and dad to sit down together to have a conversation with me, which is something I’d actually never done before. And they were kind of a little perplexed by this. And so I sat them both down in the living room and I said, "I just want to have a conversation with you both at the same time. I’m gay. I always have been and I always will be, and I’m happy."
And my mother, I mean these very English people, and my mother is also... I mean, they’re English, but Irish in origin and my mother’s devoutly Catholic. She just said, "What does that mean?" I said, "I'm gay. I’m a homosexual." I finally decided I wanted to clear it up. I think she was still grabbing onto various forms of etymology at that point. And then she said, in classic English fashion, "Oh my God! I better go make a cup of tea." This was her literal response to this question and she left the room to make tea, which is what the English do when all hell breaks out because you know... it’s a ritual, you know what to do.
And my father, who is and was like a bit jock, captain of his rugby high school team, captain of our town’s rugby team. A real man’s man, English, reserved, bent double and started sobbing, which kind of took my breath away. And I said to him, "Daddy, you know, why are you crying? I’m okay. I’m really okay. It’s okay. I’m happy, I’m fine." He carried on what seemed like forever. I’ve never seen my father cry. He only ever cried once before, according to lore, which was when Kennedy was shot and killed. And then when his own mother died. At least that’s... I don’t know if that’s literally true.
But finally I said, "Well, can you tell me why you are crying so I can respond to it?" And he looked at me in the eyes and he said, “I’m crying because of everything you must have gone through when you were growing up and I never did anything to help you." Which was some of the most beautiful words anybody has ever said to me in my life. And then I was a wreck.
And my father has been a rock for me every since. And again, it’s a long time ago, but it’s funny how when you say it again, that you remember how painful that was and how cathartic that was, and how tough it still is for so many people, and how much pain and misery that is still inflicted on so many people in the world. And we’d been reminded of it recently with these ghastly suicides; this horrible torture in the Bronx or in Queens.
But I guess at the bottom, so to speak, I believe that that was a moment of grace. That my father’s ability to transcend so much was God intervening and lifting us up to a better place and therefore all these things that are supposed to be contradictions within me and within many other people are not. They are actually just things we just don’t yet fully understand.
Question: Why is the “It Gets Better Project” such a success?
Andrew Sullivan: What’s great about it is that you see, the great struggle for gay people is that the politics is just not going to work for us. That the idea that these politicians will bring us equality has always been a complete delusion. That the only thing that brings us equality is our own testimony and our own lives. I’ve always believed this. Although I do think we have a politics and what I tried to do in the '90s was to redefine gay politics by focusing on what... by getting away from victimhood and the New Left's interpretation of homosexuality to what I think was the truth about it. And our emotional core as human beings. Not that there was anything wrong with sex. I love sex; I think sex is completely absurdly demonized in our culture. But in the end, however much sex you want to have, with however many people in how many ways, to be loved and to love is what human beings really want.
And when I first started talking about gay marriage, most people in the gay community looked at me as if I was insane or possibly a fascist reactionary. Whereas, the next generation of gay men and gay women just, I think have internalized and understood that of course it’s their right to do this. Why would they not?
And that’s happened in 20 years. That is a shift, a profound shift in self-consciousness. And that shift in self-consciousness has affected the consciousness of everybody else, especially our families. Would my father have ever moved from one position to another were it not for his son telling him the truth? No, I don’t think so. And that’s our strength, unlike other minorities; we are totally embedded in the majority. Every generation is born into, for the most part, a heterosexual family. And so therefore we have such cultural power. So the argument was always: "Yes, these are the politics. This is the need, but if we think we’re gong to get this through paying these Democratic Party muckers all this money—like the Human Rights Campaign and all the other groups do—we’re crazy." What we’re going to do is so shift public consciousness so that we now... you know, we’ve gone from like 15% support for marriage rights in 1989 to 52% today. We have 75% support for gays openly serving in the military. We have like 80% support for non-discrimination in employment. And yet we still have politicians that can’t do it. And I think our goal is simply to forget those politicians and that’s why this sort of just worshiping of Obama or of Clinton or of these Democratic figures to me is really just kind of a sad artifact of the gay need still to feel worthy.
In the end we will have so remade the society, it will have to adjust to us. Because it will seem absurd not to. And the only weapon they have against us is fundamentalist religion, in its crudest and rather brutal form. And of course, just the general constancy of the general panic and fear of anything different, which is a human constant.
But if you change the society and a culture, the politics will follow. And that’s why this kind of thing, "It Gets Better," is fantastic. That’s why all the social media has been fantastic. Because you know, it’s also one thing to see a celebrity or some kind of character on a TV show being gay. It’s a totally different thing when you know your husband... not your husband, but your brother or your friend or the dude you hung out in high school was gay. I mean, that is what changes people’s minds, what changes people’s minds.
So I’ve always believed in a way that if every gay person really did come out, it would be over.
Recorded on October 12, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller