Friday, November 6, 2009

In Praise of Andrew Sullivan. (duck and cover!)

I get flack from the Andrew Sullivan haters all the time. Gay people and liberals have a long history of grievance with Sullivan, centering around, as far as I know, three things:

1) In the mid-nineties, he wrote an essay, published in The New York Times Magazine, called "When Plagues End", which was about how the new HIV drugs were radically changing the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Lots of people thought it was irresponsible to be so upbeat.

2) He supported Bush's invasion of Iraq. Big time. When the war turned into a huge disaster, he changed his mind, very publicly.

3) I can't remember exactly when it happened, maybe 5-7 years ago?, but his profile on a gay sex cruising web site, on which he was soliciting unprotected anal sex, was made public. Sullivan is HIV positive.

I read his blog, The Daily Dish, every morning. I don't know of another journalist who blogs daily who is as consistently interesting, wide-ranging, and smart as Sullivan. His blog is a conversation; people who disagree with him get lots of airtime. I disagree with him as often as I agree with him, in fact probably more, but I learn a whole lot more reading him than I ever get by reading Huffington Post (which I stopped reading because, even though the general bias of the blog is maybe closer to my own politics, the writing there is just a lot of knee-jerk shouting by people who usually have a pretty shallow understanding of the issues). Sullivan is a thinker. He can be strident, but he listens and he enjoys the debate. That's why I like him.

I get really exasperated when I read most liberal blogs because they usually assume the correctness of their point of view on issues; they assume that if you call yourself a liberal or progressive, then of course you must believe this, this, and this. (For instance, if you don't support gay marriage, you must be a Nazi.) Sullivan gives me different things to be exasperated about. For instance, I disagree with him about gay marriage, but I agree with him about hate-crimes laws.

Anyway, all that to say that I really enjoyed this little clip this morning. It made me ponder how bizarre the world has become when thoughtful, informed commentary on the issues of our day more often than not is found on comedy shows. Of course, that's not a novel observation.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Andrew Sullivan
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

If anyone is curious as to my opinions on 1, 2, and 3 above:

1) I think the essay is great and I think it holds up all these years later. I find Sullivan's writing about the experience of being a homosexual man in these times moving and deeply perceptive.

2) Hard to forgive. But I think his support of the war and his embarrassment and shame about it is part of what motivates his vigilance now about Bush and Cheney, war crimes, torture, etc. Also mitigating was his relentless support of Obama's campaign, which I would guess was a factor in convincing lots of conservatives to vote for him.

3) I have a hard time judging anyone's behavior when they're looking for sex.


Mocha Jean Herrup said...

He does annoy me, but I do appreciate that he is rather intelligent and that when he changes his mind, he says so. I'm suspect of gay Republicans, especially white male ones. My take is that they are looking for the privilege of which they feel so unjustly deprived-- and Sullivan definitely fell into this category for a long time. But he finally got wise to the fact that his Republican brethren fucking hated him, and got smart enough to distance himself from the bigots. I liked the interview with Colbert but I can't stand it when he's on Bill Maher-- nobody else can get a word in.

Steven said...

Yeah, I hear ya Mocha. I'm definitely suspicious of gay Republicans. But then again I'm suspicious of all Republicans. And Democrats too for that matter.

I'm not so familiar with his pre-mid-90s writing, but, these days, I usually find him to be thoughtful and self-critical when it comes to his privileged status. However, he does have that annoying white middle-class habit of extrapolating a little too widely from his own life to assume that everyone else's experience is the same.

I guess I don't mind so much that nobody can get a word in when he's on Bill Maher, since he's usually the smartest person in the room.

ep said...

I read Sullivsn rarely, but sometimes like what I read. I have become disenchanted with all he poiticfl shows, even comedic ones, so rarely watch Bill Maher anymore. Hut what I think bugs most people about Sullivsn is that they can't pigeon-hole him. Maybe their problem, but the possibility always remains that he doesn't really have a strong personal or even ideaolgical foundation for his ideas. It's always OK to change your mind, and even brave to do it in public, but recanting his affection for Bush/Cheney doesn't get him off the hook for supporting them in the first place. I admit I don't want to go back on time and read his article on HIV drugs, but I wonder what he and you think about the recent NYT article by David France on the continuation of the virus in the body and the long-term effects if those drugs. I assume that with point 3, when he posted what he was looking for he didn't disclose his HIV status? If that's the case, then he us suspect again, not for looking for sex, but for not being honest in a public forum. It's not easy being an adult and dealing with illness, sex, politics, etc. But how do you want to comport yourself in the world? It may sound corny, but do you want to be a force for good or evil? Bush, Cheney, lying to people in a way that might adversely affect their long-term health - not good.

ep said...

Sorry - you'll have to creatively read that last post, done from my iPhone - with tons of typos!

Steven said...

I think if you read him regularly, you'll agree that his positions are very consistent and based on strong personal convictions. I can't think of anyone with stronger conservative cred. His writing about gay marriage is what led me to see that it is a conservative idea, a conservative cause, and that the modern gay rights movement is no longer (if it ever was) about sexual liberation but about entitlement.

The sex/cruising/honesty/HIV status thing is many-layered and complicated, so I don't feel like I can judge his behavior. First, people lie about sex all the time. Sexual desire makes people act in all kinds of irrational ways, so I tend to be very forgiving. Second, people choose to reveal their HIV status (or not) at different times and in different forums in the course of an encounter or relationship and have good reasons for their decisions. I don't know if he disclosed his status in the online profile, but even if he didn't I wouldn't assume that he never disclosed it. Third, I don't disapprove of HIV positive people having unprotected sex with each other, any more than I disapprove of HIV negative people having sex with each other.

Steven said...

It's fascinating to read the New York Mag piece about HIV and aging after rereading Sullivan's 1996 essay. Sullivan was saying essentially that the new HIV drugs were changing our idea of HIV from death to illness. He was clear about how at the time we knew nothing about the long-term effects of the drugs or about how the body would be affected by surviving so long with the virus. That's what we're finding out now.

ep said...

I have been meaning to check in on his blog more often - it's just my reading list is getting so big and where's the time? But I'll try. Sex is something that people have always (and always will) lie about, I agree.

Do you think AIDs and HIV have made sex a more "conscious" act? Sex has always had potential consequences - pregnancy, disease - but the ante was upped in this century even though syphilis killed or adversely affected plenty of folks in the last one. Is it that modes of communication, travel and transmission made it more quickly global (and easily detected) than other diseases before? I'm pretty sure Henry VIII and Van Gogh probably had syphilis, but we'll never know for sure.

It was New York magazine, and yes, I found it fascinating. The whole "premature aging" that is happening is horrible, but maybe it will help shake us all out of the notion that drugs can "cure" us, with no side-effects. My cousin's ovarian cancer has just returned, and this time the chemo is just so punishing. We were all living somewhat in la-la land thinking that drugs that could essentially kill every cell in your body could keep the wolves at bay. And that there wouldn't be any long-lasting effects - like osteoporosis, neuropathy, etc. etc. Maybe not a cure, but a window to enjoy life, before the next assault.