The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Vale, Sully!

After a long and storied career in blogging, Andrew Sullivan is calling it quits. For all the times he has made me grind my teeth in frustration, I will miss the Daily Dish--indeed, since Sully went independent, I have been a paying customer, and at more than the minimum price.

That's for two reasons:

First, I admire Sullivan's willingness to correct himself when he is convinced he is wrong (he teaks some convincing, mind--but who doesn't?). All of us who blog, or write in any medium, hate to eat our words, and Sullivan hasn't done it in every case where I think it warranted--he still defends the arrant folly of giving The Bell Curve a platform, not to mention his half-assed apologia for publishing Betsy McCaughey's false hit-piece on the Clinton health plan. But still, Sullivan fully, painfully, and in real time, recanted his single greatest error, his support for the Iraq War, and (albeit grudgingly) to those who were right. That could not have been easy.

Second, as a liberal, I believe we need intelligent, open-minded conservatism to criticize our ideas, to prevent us from falling into groupthink and complacency. I do not find much of that on the modern American right. I had a list of examples here--but what would be the point?

We need better conservatives. I mean it. Conservatives who do not blanketly assume that the policies of the Reagan Era automatically provide all the answers we need a full generation later. Newsflash: I was 22 when Reagan left office; that's 26 years ago. I'm by any calculation a middle aged man, and I have lived more of my life since Reagan's term ended than I did up until that moment. The playbook is a period piece, whatever one thought of it in situ. (I was against it. Still think I was mostly right.)

Sullivan's book The Conservative Soul presented the best vision of a philosophical conservatism that I have read since my college days. It's not a philosophy I embrace, mind you--but it is a measured, thought out response to the challenges of the Twenty-first Century. Among American conservative thinkers, Sullivan stands virtually alone in his willingness to engage civilly, and examining his own ideas as well as those of others on the level of first principles. Sullivan generally passes the fundamental criterion necessary for serious debate, one which I have quoted before:
If I enter into discussion on any topic, intellectual, moral, practical, or whatever combination you like, it matters very little what I feel for my opponent, or what he feels for me. But I am entitled to require--or if I am not so entitled then I have to beg to be excused--that he and I will observe some basic and simple rules. If he refers to words that I have said or written, he will quote them accurately. He will not attribute to me attitudes and opinions which I do not hold, and if he makes any such attributions, he will check them against the documentary evidence. He will be careful when referring to incidents in my biography, and he will be scrupulous about getting his facts right. Naturally, I have a duty to obey the same rules in return. Nothing could be much more prosaic or straightforward; but without these ground-rules, any kind of serious human exchange becomes impossible.
--C.P. Snow, "The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case," in Snow, Public Affairs (1971) at 81.
Frequently, he does better; he tries to engage his opponents at their best, not caricaturing him. He learns from mistakes, and tries to be more open to opponents than once he was.

I don't mean to gild him too much--some of those early mistakes are horrendous, and he can fall into glibness all too easily. (As, no doubt, can I). But at his best, he has enriched American political discussion, and I hope he will continue to do so, in new ways.

The Dish will be missed.

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