Guest Columnist: The current controversy over Andrew Sulliv

Wieseltier was blinded by his friendship with Sullivan, who might have never become perhaps America’s most popular blogger except for the opportunity given him to edit ‘The New Republic.’

By HAROLD BRACKMAN
February 26, 2010 17:17
Andrew Sullivan.

Andrew Sullivan 58. (photo credit: Courtesy of Trey Ratcliff.)

The publication of Robert S. Wistrich’s much-anticipated history, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (see review on page 26), coincides with a heated debate over contemporary anti-Semitism. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic and blogger Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic Monthly’s “Daily Dish” are slugging it out over whether Sullivan has become “the Pat Buchanan of the Left” for attacks ranging from the alleged malevolent influence over US Mideast policy of the “the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing” of American Jewry, to Israel’s supposed “pulverization” of innocent Gazans, to the Jewish state’s purported “military adventurism” in countering Hizbullah as well as Hamas and its plans to lead the US into a war against Iran. And then there’s the jocular link by Sullivan’s blog to a comment about the shape of Jewish GOP Congressman Eric Cantor’s nose.


Wistrich completed his magnum opus before having a chance to analyze the Wieseltier-Sullivan slugfest, but many bloggers have been quick to do so. Two things cry out for explanation: first, what does Sullivan’s animus against Jews and Israel reveal about the state of 21st-century anti-Semitism, a pathology masterfully dissected by Wistrich’s book; second, why among bloggers, so few (as documented in a New York Times story) have defended Wieseltier’s well-documented critique of Sullivan.

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The truth of the matter is that Sullivan’s escalating attacks on Israel and its Jewish and Christian supporters are not a recent reflex of the often-biased coverage against Israel of the unfortunate recent deaths of several hundred Gaza civilians, many used as human shields by Hamas. While editing The New Republic back in the 1990s, Sullivan was reliably sympathetic to Israel – a fact he misleadingly uses to argue now that what he wrote way back then proves that he’s still “a friendly critic” of the Jewish state today. Indeed, as late as 2002, Sullivan’s only criticism of Israel was that it was not building “a wall” to keep out Palestinian suicide bombers fast enough! What happened to change his mind since then was not Israel’s defensive war against Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006 and certainly not its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.


NO, HIS attitude began to shift dramatically back in 2003-2004 when he needed a scapegoat to explain his own flip-flop from supporting to opposing both the post-9/11 war on terror and the US war in Iraq. In addition, he needed a target for his anger at George W. Bush, whose election he supported in 2000, because of the Bush White House’s push to outlaw gay marriage during the 2004 presidential election campaign. His 2006 book, The Conservative Soul, reflects how he gradually found a scapegoat in the neocon “Jewish lobby” for supposedly misleading him about the anti-terror war, Iraq War, and the Afghanistan War about which he’s also turned dovish.

At the same time, the political power of conservative Christians – whom Sullivan now mocks as “Christianists” – provided an explanation for the Bush administration’s alleged betrayal of gay Americans. In fact, “The Israel Lobby,” demonized by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, and evangelical Christians, who are among Israel’s strongest supporters, have now fused in Sullivan’s imagination as an all-purpose explanation of almost everything he hates about his country’s culture, politics and foreign policy including US support of the Jewish state. The final stage so far in Sullivan’s evolution is his urging of “American military imposition of the two-state solution” on Israel.

If Sullivan’s claim is true that he is still “a lover of Israel,” then his lobbying for US military action against the Jewish state must be a form of “tough love”! The other question that needs to be answered is why so few commentators are willing to apply the most damning term from modern political pathology to Sullivan’s case. Here, Wistrich’s book is helpful. A Lethal Obsession analyzes exhaustively and convincingly how anti-Semitism has metastasized into a new poisonous ideology – anti-Zionism – which provides useful cover not only to those like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but to those anti-Israel critics who purportedly want to “love it to death” by delegitimizing the Jewish state to the point where it is no longer capable of defending its survival.

LIKE THE courtiers willfully blind to the emperor’s nakedness, Sullivan’s fellow bloggers mostly prefer to avoid his wrath rather than call him a practitioner of “the new anti-Semitism.” Wieseltier deserves credit for standing up to Sullivan, but criticism for belatedly doing so.

As recently as 2002, he shortsightedly denied that there was such a thing as “the new anti-Semitism” in a piece entitled: “Hitler Is Dead: Against the Ethnic Panic of the Jews.” Even more damaging, he was blinded for too long by his own history as a friend and patron of Sullivan whose rise to his current status as perhaps the nation’s most popular blogger might never have occurred except for the opportunity given him to edit .

As a historian, I find instructive a comparison between Sullivan and a now largely forgotten figure who enjoyed at least as much transatlantic notoriety a century ago. Lord Alfred Douglas emerged from Oxford’s self-proclaimed “aesthete” and “decadent” literary circles into political prominence in the 1890s as the unashamed lover of Oscar Wilde who precipitated the lawsuit for libel against Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, that resulted in Wilde’s own conviction and imprisonment for indecent behavior as well as Wilde’s untimely death in 1900.

At first, Douglas also announced himself a great friend of the Jews, appealing to the international defenders of jailed Captain Alfred Dreyfus to make common cause with him and Wilde. But after his highly publicized break with the jailed Wilde – who no longer wanted to associate with the flamboyantly gay English aristocrat – Douglas himself veered to the right. In addition to marrying and converting to Catholicism, he became a political conservative. Emerging during and after World War I as a virulent anti-Semite, he helped popularize the English translation of the fraudulent throughout the Anglo-American world.

The second personal and political downfall of Douglas (who died in obscurity in 1945) occurred during the early 1920s when he made the mistake of publicly accusing Winston Churchill of being a political pawn of “international Jews” responsible for Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution as well as the “Zionist” Balfour Declaration. Earlier, the Marques of Queensberry humiliated his son by winning a defamation suit brought against him by Oscar Wilde. Douglas was again humiliated when Churchill sued him for defamation and won, resulting in Douglas’s own six-month jail sentence for libel. If libel laws were as strict today as a century ago, Sullivan might be in legal jeopardy for his scurrilous conspiracy theories about the parentage of Sarah Palin’s Down’s syndrome baby.

Douglas’s career – his chronic defiance of the Marquess of Queensberry’s rules! – had the flavor of “anti-papa” politics. Perhaps the same can be said for the rebellion that may have been simmering beneath the surface during the years that Sullivan maintained a pro-Israel stance under the paternal tutelage of The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier and Martin Peretz.


Of course, there are differences, of time and place and politics, between Sullivan and Douglas. Sullivan has transmogrified from “right” to “left” while Douglas did the same from “left” to “right.” Yet there is something, beyond their gay identity (which Douglas ultimately rejected), that makes them kindred spirits. They both not only showed signs of temperamental instability but exploited their sensational reputations to reap political notoriety.

And both harbored an extremist streak that led them to journey from an initial philo-Semitism into Douglas’s avowed anti-Semitism and Sullivan’s increasing tilt toward the same thing. With friends like these, the Jewish people need no enemies.


The writer is a historian with a PhD from UCLA for a dissertation on the History of Black-Jewish relations. He lives in San Diego.


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