Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy 10th, Andrew

In my early 20s, I was already a well-established magazine junkie, and I remember looking forward to pieces by Andrew Sullivan in the New Republic and the New York Times Magazine. The pieces were often contrarian, and I was also a well-established contrarian. So when Sullivan started a web site -- just about a year or so after the term “blog” was coined, if Wikipedia is to be trusted -- I started reading it. Ten years later, I still read it. I don’t really visit many sites with regularity, and most of them are functional -- ESPN for sports, the New York Times for news/culture, book blogs to stay up on material for The Second Pass -- but I still consistently visit Sullivan.

He’s celebrating his blog’s 10th anniversary with a series of toasts and roasts from other bloggers. He’s certainly not hiding from the roasts. One reader wrote: “This is a man for whom great art is embodied by the Pet Shop Boys, South Park, and some of the most dreary Sunday-devotional verse and essays ever reduced to fair-use excerpts that don’t violate copyright law.” And some of the other criticisms from readers have echoed those of people I know who stopped reading Sullivan with regularity -- they mostly tired, I think, of what they consider his hyper-emotionalism and his dog-with-a-bone tendency to fixate on a subject to the exclusion of much else. Fair enough.

What I continue to like about Sullivan is that, whatever you think of his more patent complexities (gay Catholic, Obama-supporting Thatcher worshipper, etc.), they do reflect the fact that, unlike so many public voices, he is not a cheerleader for one side or another. Yes, he can chew on issues long after they are flavorless. (You won’t find someone more petrified of Sarah Palin than me -- well, unless you find Sullivan -- but there were times when the torrent of posts about her temporarily drove me away.) But even on divisive subjects about which he holds strong opinions -- torture, gay marriage, the legalization of marriage (about all of which I happen to agree with him, so there’s that) -- he can be remarkably un-strident, even too gracious to the other side.

If I had to guess, I think this stems from his history with debate, which he has mentioned on occasion. He debated in high school, and became the president of the Oxford Union, the famous debating society. My own experience with debate was far briefer and far more modest -- a couple of years at a suburban Texas high school. But I do think that experience lastingly affected the way I see disagreements (when they are substantive). Sullivan has admitted, “I took the losing side, as I always tried to in Oxford debates (far more fun to lose well than to win easily).” I think that in most cases, either side of a debate could “win,” depending on who’s doing the arguing. This is not just because style comes into it -- not just a case of some slickster being able to sell anything -- but because there’s normally a reason why each side feels the way it does, some logical structure beneath the more emotional manifestations of support.

The benefit of thinking this way could be called open-mindedness, though without the mushy Benetton-ad self-congratulation that the term often carries with it. The drawback, of course, is that it can lead to a sort of un-mindedness, a kind of if-anything-is-worth-believing-then-nothing-is-worth-believing cynicism or confusion. Sometimes I think Sullivan fumes about something that isn’t really a debate -- i.e., “Sarah Palin is not fit to bestride the free world.” Other times, as with the Iraq war, I think the debater in him takes whichever side he is defending and defends it to the teeth, rather than trying to see both sides simultaneously. But again -- and I’m not sure why I’m going on at this length -- I think the debater in him more often appears in the way he respects the other side. I have straight friends who are far more shrill about their support for gay marriage than Sullivan is. I might be one of them. He tends to talk about even emotional issues, in which he has a personal stake, in a way that assumes the best of the opposite argument, not the worst or easiest of it. That’s not nothing.

But on the anniversary of Sullivan’s blog, I can’t go without mentioning what I set out to talk about in the first place before rambling. (I stay away from the blog for a while, and this is what happens. I’m like a city dog that just hopped out of the car in the country.) Andrew Sullivan routinely gets a million visitors a month. Or more. I think my blog’s high-water month was probably something like 20,000 visits in a month, and significantly less than that in recent months, as activity has dwindled. But in October 2005, when I started this blog, Sullivan’s variety, voice, and pace -- though different from my variety, voice, and pace -- were inspirations.

As Hendrik Hertzberg said in a note about the anniversary: “I have a profound professional admiration for the Dish as an editorial enterprise. . . . I find that it orients me in cyberspace. It fends off motion sickness. It gives pleasure. I almost always feel a little better after paying it a visit, even when the news of the day is unusually depressing.” I always say that for someone who operates more than one web site, I’m a bit of a technophobe. I agree completely with Hertzberg’s motion sickness comment. For one thing, speaking of comments, Sullivan doesn’t have them -- he curates reader response instead. I think this is a great unsung reason for his site’s success. There is a sense of a controlling intelligence at the Dish, not the anarchic -- and, let’s face it, ignorant and vicious -- community that normally springs up beneath the fold at such popular sites.

On more than one occasion, Sullivan or his colleagues have linked to a post here, or at The Second Pass. I believe in each case I had sent them an e-mail pointing to the post in question. But still, in each case the link was a thrill, a cup of coffee in the big leagues. So in addition to thanking Sullivan for the decade of enjoyable reading, I thank him for the support. I know thousands of other minor-league bloggers like me have reason to do the same.


Blogger Barbara Carlson said...

And thanks to YOUR site for turning me towards Andrew's. I look in every day, several times.

"...I find that it orients me in cyberspace. It fends off motion sickness. It gives pleasure. I almost always feel a little better after paying it a visit, even when the news of the day is unusually depressing.”

Yes, I too agreed with that one, but American Politics has became such a cesspool of arrogantly-ignorant fanatics I can only hope the iridescent bubble of sanity floating on top manages somehow not to burst.

And as for Palin, I win. I read with gusto everything Andrew has to post on her, confirming my prejudice that she's directly to blame for much of the toxity spewing forth.

But, worse, there are far too many dumb Americans who listen "as she speaks in code to the reptilian brain of the disaffected minority" (as a Canadian journalist put it when she first sprung forth)
and an entertainment-oriented media that courts her, doesn't challenge her in any meaningful way. Like Andrew keeps trying to do.
Bless him.

However, I do not "get" his God-bothering beliefs.
How can such an intelligent man in all other ways still need some Daddy/god & all the silly delusion that goes along with Catholicism? Just asking. It doesn't make me stop enjoying his comments & assessments.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John knows he has devoted followers who do believe in God and ARE extremely intelligent like Andrew. What
you call "silly delusions" Ms. Carlson are the bedrock
of what once made America a country of integrity
and high moral values, compared to the decadent,
selfish and vulgar society we are becoming.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Barbara Carlson said...

Non-believers can have high moral values & integrity, as I do. I don't need any church-based ideology to tell me how to think. I use my own senses and observations. I grew up under Christianist teachings and know the great harm they have done.

And, If anything, religion is responsible for most of the terrorism in the world today.

2:41 PM  

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