a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Wieseltier v. Sullivan

Posted by Thomas Nephew on February 12th, 2010

There’s an interesting — well, interesting to me — contretemps going on between The New Republic’s long-time literary editor Leon Wieseltier and The Atlantic Monthly’s (and one-time TNR editor) Andrew Sullivan.  On Monday, Mr. Wieseltier unburdened himself of a four thousand plus word avalanche of a rant titled “Something Much Darker” and subtitled “Andrew Sullivan has a serious problem.” The outburst was seemingly triggered by, of all things, an obscure W. H. Auden quote Sullivan had posted on his blog a few days earlier: “Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to readers of The New Republic is not easy.”

To make a long story short, Wieseltier’s delicate political instrumentation detected tell-tale traces of anti-Semitism in Sullivan’s throwaway Auden quote, and Wieseltier implied that was of a piece with stronger indications yet elsewhere in Sullivan’s writings.

To make it a bit longer, re Auden and the Trinity, Wieseltier presented himself at considerable length as just the kind of  “stiff-necked”, “rational,” and “Jewish” (his words) person who is proud neither to understand the doctrine of the Trinity nor to aspire to do so.*  And of course all right thinking folk who wish not to ponder arcane theological disputes say it’s a free country, more power to him, and why don’t we order lunch now.  Unfortunately, Wieseltier closes Section Roman Numeral One of his wrathful reflections with the ominous words

…when [Sullivan] 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.

As blanching readers immediately suspected, Sections Roman Numeral II, III, IV, and V would prove to be considerably nastier bits of work, however tendentiously based on reeds as slender as the Auden quote.  Wieseltier’s next and primary exhibit was from a January 13 post by Sullivan in which Sullivan wrote that

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).  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.

Wieseltier, primly: “I was not aware that they comprise a “wing” of American Jewry, or that American Jewry has “wings.” According to Wieseltier, Sullivan was “dividing the American Jewish community into good Jews and bad Jews–a practice with a sordid history.” Not only that, but

“…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.” (emphasis added)

The thing is, of course, that Sullivan’s statement plainly didn’t assume any such thing.  (Indeed, it was a reaction to a far more sweeping claim by one Jennifer Rubin about why Sarah Palin is unpopular among Jews.)  Sullivan wasn’t suggesting something about every thought by every American Jew, but about many thoughts by two particular American Jews, and those who agree with them.  He was suggesting that Goldfarb and Krauthammer are two relatively well known (and in their own way powerful) American Jews who have attitudes he reasonably considers to be at odds with other, more tolerant attitudes statistically prevalent among American Jews.  Perhaps “wing” was not the very best choice of words, but it will do as shorthand for some other kind of political entity (cough AIPAC cough).

What’s especially irritating is that what Wieseltier saw as anti-Semitic sin in Sullivan (ascribing thoughts and motivations to Jewishness) was something Wieseltier did himself a scant two paragraphs earlier, in ascribing Krauthammer’s motives for supporting things like torture or the rocketing of Gaza to “deep and sometimes frantic concern” for, inter alia,  Israel’s security.**

Echoing Nixon’s dictum, Wieseltier seems to hold that it’s not anti-Semitism when Wieseltier does it.  Perhaps not, of course; after all — who knows — perhaps Wieseltier suspects Krauthammer’s “deep and sometimes frantic” concern for Israel’s security is based on its command of prime eastern Mediterranean fishing waters, or on his admiration for Knesset parliamentary procedures.

Sullivan has defended himself in dignified fashion.  For my part, I agree with the many writers weighing in on Wieseltier’s piece (see “19 Pundits on the Sullivan Wieseltier Debate” in AtlanticWire***) — many conservatives among them — that whatever else you think of Sullivan, he’s no anti-Semite.

But that faint praise will not do either.  Sullivan, to my mind, has been no weathervane, as the reliably and entertainingly acidulous Justin Raimondo would have it, but has instead moved away, step by painful, reasoned step from things he once said and political attitudes he once defended. And on the issue of torture, Sullivan has been one of the preeminent voices of well informed, persuasive and engaged opposition right from the start, all in the face of many readers and erstwhile allies howling their disapproval.

It was around then, it seemed to me, that his support for conservatism as it is practiced today, and to our various wars as they are waged in reality, began to crumble.  It was similar (not the same, just similar) for me.  We all start from somewhere, and politics for most of us (as I am personally all too aware) is a process of mistakes and revisions in our political attitudes, decisions, and allegiances.  The issue is whether we try to honestly see what is going on and honestly revise our views to reflect the facts.  Sullivan has done that.  His notorious “fifth column” item after 9/11 remains a rather disgraceful episode he can’t undo. But it is past, and he has reconsidered and changed.  One can not ask more.  Wieseltier’s present screed, by contrast, is an embarrassment even to a declining, verbose, slack-witted writer such as himself,  and renews doubts about the magazine he continues to inhabit.

It will no doubt compound the defeat Wieseltier has earned in the eyes of the public and his colleagues that his or anyone’s next unwarranted, vague, nebulous charge of “anti-Semitism” will be tougher to sell: whether it’s for daring to question Israeli policies or America’s near-unconditional support for them, for criticizing writers like Krauthammer, for noting the ongoing undefeated streak at AIPAC, or for suggesting attacks on Iran might not be the best nonproliferation strategy.  “Something much darker,” I hope, will suffer the worst fate any writer can envision: it will have precisely the opposite effect its author intended.

* Like Mr. Wieseltier, I suppose I find the doctrine of the Trinity somewhat difficult to grok in its divine entirety — that is, when I think about it at all, which has been roughly never.  I figure it’s (a) basically none of my business, (b) perhaps some kind of caterpillar/chrysalis/butterfly description of different forms of the same thing; as a layperson I hold this to be a nice thought, since I like baby Jesus, because I like babies, so that I think it’s touching and good that a god should be said to have taken form as one; however, perhaps terribly grave theological chain-of-divinity difficulties ensue, so that (c) mainly, again, it’s none of my business and of little concern to me.  So Auden got at least one former New Republic reader right.
** Remarkably, Wieseltier follows his “sometimes deep and frantic” description of Krauthammer by saying Sullivan merely “presents feelings as ideas”, while Krauthammer is “coldly clear, and may be engaged analytically.” I suppose there’s some way to be coldly clear, deeply frantic, and analytically engageable all at the same time, but it makes Krauthammer more of a curiosity than a writer to be very concerned about.
*** Links to Sullivan’s own responses are supplied in this article as well.

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