01 October 2014

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan is a lively writer, and occasionally people pass along him saying things I agree with and saying them well. I’m not above enjoying them.

But I’ve also followed his blogging and journalism career for too long to praise him. He’s a bad journalist and a bad judge of policy and a cheerleader for some truly odious ideas. When friends pass along links to his articles, I grumble.

Finally, Mark Ames has assembled the full brief against him: If Andrew Sullivan Is The Future of Journalism Then Journalism Is Fucked. Even worse than even I knew. Of course.

Some updates

Okay, it is super weird to find that the key takedown of Sully I had on an old blog post is from ... Mark Ames, who was always working his own version of Sully’s Contrarian Journalist shtick, and has spent years now working his own version of Sully’s Contrarian Bullshit Pseudojournalist schtick. Fortunately, I have more, as of September 2021.

The occasion for the update is Dale Peck’s vicious, cheerfully queer essay Bad Faith at The Baffler.

Sullivan, however, has spent the better part of forty years clinging to fantasies of a rational, compassionate conservatism “dedicated to criticizing liberalism’s failures, engaging with it empirically, and offering practical alternatives to the same problems”—as though this is a thing that has ever existed anywhere in the history of the world.


But there can be no healing when there’s no ability to recognize one’s plight in others, and Sullivan remains resolutely uninterested in any losses but his own. In his mea culpa on the Iraq War, the final note isn’t “the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed.” That was “bad enough,” sure, “but what was done to America—and the meaning of America—was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself.” That’s right, folks: as many as a million people were killed in a pointless war that Andrew Sullivan hawked like a fishwife for no other reason than his need to punish as many Muslims as possible for 9/11, but what’s important to remember is that he feels really bad about it.

Sometimes, Sullivan's writing just demonstrates on the face of it that he is a numbskull.

  • 2004: War Is Declared (linkrotted at Sully’s site but I found a blog which captured the text)
    Those of us who supported this president in 2000, who have backed him whole-heartedly during the war, who have endured scorn from our peers as a result, who trusted that this president was indeed a uniter rather than a divider, now know the truth.
  • 2008: How Did I Get Iraq Wrong? is full of howlers, including the admission that golly, he was not enough of a bigot.
    I bought the argument put forward by many neoconservatives that Iraq was one of the more secular and modern of Arab societies; that these divisions were not so deep; that all those pictures of men in suits and mustaches and women in Western clothing were the deeper truth about this rare, modern Arab society. I believed that it could, if we worked at it and threw enough money at it, be a model for the rest of the Arab Muslim world.
  • 2018: If We Want to End the Border Crisis, It’s Time to Give Trump His Wall
    If all this sounds like appeasing a bigot, I understand. But better to see it, I think, as a way to address the legitimate concerns, fears, and worries of a large number of Americans who feel like strangers in their own land, and whose emotional response to that has been to empower the white nationalist right. It’s also simply the moral thing to do to relieve real human misery on the borders. It’s good politics too, I’d argue, for both parties in the medium term.
  • 2020: The Trap The Democrats Walked Right Into — David Roberts says, “I still have this Sully paragraph saved on my desktop. It is the purest expression of the reactionary/fascist impulse I have ever read -- very much including its cosmic lack of self-awareness.”
    But here’s one thing I have absolutely no conflict about. Rioting and lawlessness is evil. And any civil authority that permits, condones or dismisses violence, looting and mayhem in the streets disqualifies itself from any legitimacy. This comes first. If one party supports everything I believe in but doesn’t believe in maintaining law and order all the time and everywhere, I’ll back a party that does. In that sense, I’m a one-issue voter, because without order, there is no room for any other issue. Disorder always and everywhere begets more disorder; the minute the authorities appear to permit such violence, it is destined to grow. And if liberals do not defend order, fascists will.
  • 2021: Tweeting about how trans women are monsters ...
    An extraordinary young de-transitioned woman talks about the emotional impact of testosterone on her body. Basically: a injection of pure rage.
    ... which is, uh, ironic, considering his weird 2002 paen to how great testosterone supplements are for him.
    It makes you feel marvelous. In lots of men with low testosterone, the extra boost makes them feel stronger, sexier, healthier, and more mentally alert.

And perhaps best of all, I have an epic tweetrant from Kristen Hanley Cardozo <@KHandozo> from 2017, which I have taken the liberty of transcribing:

There’s no excuse for publishing Andrew Sullivan, period. But especially not for this The Bell Curve 2: Curvier renaissance. Let’s review Sullivan’s public intertwining with white supremacist pseudo-science, shall we?

In 1994, as editor of The New Republic, Sullivan publishes an excerpt of The Bell Curve over objections from his staff writers. The Bell Curve, which I’ve read, lauds Francis Galton in its introduction without contextualizing him as “The Father of Eugenics.” The book, by Charles Murray & Richard Hernstein, uses the language of scientific distance to doctor statistics in favor of white intelligence while simultaneously pathologizing Black Americans by claiming they are just not as smart as white people — go figure.

The book is roundly panned by scientists who object to it on every single basis possible. Here’s Wikipedia summarizing the objections of the anthropologist C. Loring Brace:

Criticism by C. Loring Brace

Similarly, anthropologist C. Loring Brace suggests that The Bell Curve made six basic assumptions at the start and argued that there are faults in every one of these assumptions:
  1. Human Cognitive ability is a single general entity, depictable as a single number.
  2. Cognitive ability has a heritability of between 40 and 80 percent and is therefore primarily genetically based.
  3. IQ is essentially immutable, fixed of the course of a life span.
  4. IQ tests measure how smart or intelligent people are and are capable of rank ordering people in linear order.
  5. IQ tests can measure this accurately.
  6. IQ tests are not biased with regard to race, ethnic group or socioeconomic status.

There is room for this bullshit in Sullivan’s TNR, though. Here’s the excerpt that Sullivan chose to publish: Race, Genes and I.Q. — An Apologia

A few relevant quotes to think about in relation to what Sullivan published in New York Magazine.

[strong emphasis in all quotes is Cardozo’s]

Do Asians have higher I.Q.s than whites? The answer is probably yes, if Asian refers to the Japanese & Chinese (and perhaps also Koreans)

The issues become far more fraught, however, in determining the answer to the question: Do African Americans score differently from whites on standardized tests of cognitive ability? If the samples are chosen to be representative of the American population, the answer has been yes for every known test of cognitive ability that meets basic psychometric standards. The answer is also yes for almost all studies in which the black and white samples are matched on some special characteristics—juvenile delinquents, for example, or graduate students—but there are exceptions.

How large is the black-white difference? The usual answer is what statisticians call one standard deviation. In discussing I.Q. tests, for example, the black mean is commonly given as 85, the white mean as 100 and the standard deviation as fifteen points. But the differences observed in any given study seldom conform exactly to one standard deviation. In 156 American studies conducted during this century that have reported the I.Q. means of a black sample and a white sample, and that meet basic requirements of interpretability, the mean black-white difference is 1.1 standard deviations, or about sixteen I.Q. points.

Here they reject the claim that tests rely on culturally specific knowledge biased toward white test takers

The technical literature is again clear. In study after study of the leading tests, the idea that the black-white difference is caused by questions with cultural content has been contradicted by the facts. Items that the average white test-taker finds easy relative to other items, the average black test-taker does, too; the same is true for items that the average white and black find difficult.

Here they claim that the gap between white and Black IQ grows as you go up the socio-economic ladder

This expectation is not borne out by the data. A good way to illustrate this is to use an index of parental ses based on their education, income and occupation and to match it against the mean I.Q. score, as shown in the figure on page 32. I.Q. scores increase with economic status for both races. But as the figure shows, the magnitude of the black-white difference in standard deviations does not decrease. Indeed, it gets larger as people move up from the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. The pattern shown in the figure is consistent with many other major studies, except that the gap flattens out. In other studies, the gap has continued to increase throughout the range of socioeconomic status.
However discomfiting it may be to consider it, there are reasons to suspect genetic considerations are involved.

There’s a lot more, but you get the gist. This is all from the excerpt that Sullivan pushed over the objections of his staff.

Basic premise, that will come up again: pseudo-scientific anti-Blackness is given cover by white use of East Asian American population

1994 is a long time ago! How has Sullivan changed since then, in terms of racist belief in genetically determined intelligence?


The links are broken, but Gawker summarizes Sullivan’s 2011 posts on intelligence for The Daily Beast. Here’s a direct link to one such post. Some important news in this: in 2011, Sullivan is still defending The Bell Curve.

I certainly don’t have profound knowledge of the deep research of experts in the field. But since the Bell Curve contretemps, I have kept up a little with some in the field who sympathize with my own position on this. They say the chilling effect has only gotten worse. Even a scholarly citation of Jensen can cause havoc with your career. Maybe the effect on research into non-racial aspects of IQ has been exaggerated and readers should check out Dr X’s data. But they should also check out the original piece, which has some serious points to make.

In the same excerpt, Sullivan refers to his “own position on [genetically-determined racially-stratified intelligence]”

In March of this year, Sullivan defended his good buddy Charles Murray from PC attacks. Please note that while he seems to be distancing himself from The Bell Curve, he isn’t, really.

None of this is very surprising, given the current atmosphere on most American campuses. And protests against Murray are completely legitimate. The book he co-authored with Harvard professor Richard Herrnstein more than 20 years ago, The Bell Curve, included a chapter on empirical data showing variations in the largely overlapping bell curves of IQ scores between racial groups. Their provocation was to assign these differences to both the environment and genetics. The genetic aspect could be and was exploited by racists and bigots.

I don’t think that chapter was necessary for the book’s arguments, but I do believe in the right of good-faith scholars to publish data — as well as the right of others to object, critique, and debunk. If the protesters at Middlebury had protested and disrupted the event for a period of time, and then let it continue, I’d be highly sympathetic, even though race and IQ were not the subject of Murray’s talk. If they’d challenged the data or the arguments of the book, I’d be delighted. But this, alas, is not what they did. (I should add up-front that I am friends with both Murray and Stanger — having edited a symposium on The Bell Curve in The New Republic over two decades ago, and having known Allison since we were both grad students in government at Harvard.)

The problem, as he describes it, is not that Murray was wrong, but that the work could be used by racists and was.

Racists like Andrew Sullivan, perchance?

Oh, I skipped over his 2005 claim that publishing the Bell Curve excerpt was “one of [his] proudest moments in journalism.” At the time, he wrote “...the book...still holds up as one of the most insightful and careful of the last decade.”

The point is, the man’s public career has been a decades-long dedication to racialized pseudo-science that specifically harms Black people.

He’s also a raging sexist.

Second, there’s a missing piece of logic, so far as I have managed to discern, in the gamergate campaign. The argument seems to be that some feminists are attempting to police or control a hyper-male culture of violence, speed, competition and boobage. And in so far as that might be the case, my sympathies do indeed lie with the gamers. The creeping misandry in a lot of current debates – see “Affirmative Consent” and “Check Your Privilege” – and the easy prejudices that define white and male and young as suspect identities (because sexism!) rightly offend many men (and women).

Andrew Sullivan is a bigot who has his sexuality, an accent Americans find intelligent, & a long career of failing upwards to lend him cover. He is also very good at the sort of language we view as measured and polite, even when he’s making a horrific and unsupported claim.

I’ve done what I could in this space to avoid the subject of Hillary Clinton. I don’t want to be the perennial turd in the punchbowl. I’d hoped we’d finally seen the last of that name in public life —

So! His latest shit in the punch bowl of public intellectualism! It doesn’t sound like it will be about race at all!

Why Do Democrats Feel Sorry For Hillary Clinton?

Why indeed, Andrew? Pray tell.

OK, well, usual predictable stuff. People feel sorry for her because she’s a woman, but that’s not why she lost yada yada. But if you thought Andrew was going to deny us his prized thoughts on racism and the United brutality, you, my friend, were wrong.

Do you know the real reason Dr. Dao was so brutally tackled and thrown off that United flight? It was all about white supremacy. I mean, what isn’t these days? That idea is from the New Republic. Yes, the cops “seemed” to be African-American, as the author concedes, so the white-versus-minority paradigm is a little off. Yes, this has happened before to many people with

Noticing white supremacy: a fad like swallowing goldfish or stuffing college students into phone booths.

the incident was just another example of Trump’s border-and-immigration-enforcement policies toward suspected illegal immigrants of color. That no federal cops were involved and there is no actual evidence at all of police harassment of Asian-Americans is irrelevant — it’s all racism, all the time, everywhere in everything.

“All racism, all the time” would make a good motto to put on the American flag.

And then we get to the meat of ol’ Andrew’s lil racist argument.

It’s easy to mock this reductionism, I know, but it reflects something a little deeper. Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well

We’re back on familiar Bell Curve ground here.

I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites?

See, if Asians have been “allowed” success by white Americans, then systemic racism is disproven and hooray! everything is fine. This is erasing, profoundly, actual American history to do with race and immigration.

Back in January I did a thread on immigration acts.

The Expatriation Act of 1907 included a section that revoked the citizenship of American women who married men without American citizenship.

One thing I did not get into in any intensive way, was how immigrant quotas changed Asian immigration. Most Asian immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century were laborers. In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act profoundly changed the way American immigration quotas functioned. A series of acts, from 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act onward, had severely limited Asian immigration to the U.S.

Many aspects of these acts sought to prevent Asian community formation. Women were often barred from emigrating. Anti-miscegenation laws prevented legal interracial marriage. In California, this combination of restrictions led to the formation of Punjabi-Mexican communities in the Central Valley.

Asian immigrants were, again, mostly laborers at this point, agricultural or otherwise. The U.S. wanted the labor, but not the communities.

In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act changes how the quotas, which allow very few Asian immigrants, work. Although there are still strict quotas, entry is now based more on skills than previously. The quotas are no longer based on race and nationality, which means they apply to Western European immigrants as well. Preference is given to people with citizen and legal resident family in the U.S.

But the new preference I’d like to focus on is the preference given to “professionals” and people with “specialized skills” Whereas immigrants had, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, been primarily blue collar laborers, the new immigrants were white collar. To demonstrate that one is a “professional” with “specialized skills” one needs a certain measure of success back home. Higher education, work in a white collar field, money, connections to professionals in the U.S., etc. The new wave of immigrants does not always mesh well with established communities descended from the previous waves. (And actually, since Sullivan throws the Jews into the mix, I should note that was also the case with some waves of Jewish immigrants.)

So post 1965, we start getting the “model minority” myth that is a weaponized form of anti-Blackness. Even though the success of these new immigrants is curtailed by racism, they achieve financial success more quickly than previous waves.

So let’s move to one thing Sullivan notes, that Asian Americans make, on average, more money than white Americans.

I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites?

While this is true on its face, there’s a lot going on behind those numbers. And to quote them uncritically is to replicate forms of racism against Asians in the U.S. that still serve as impediments.

“White” is still the largest racialized group in the U.S. and represents a broad range of classes. I’ve talked before about how white supremacy maintains a white majority by systemic inclusion of some immigrant populations.

A mean average of white wages includes many classes, including the top earners and very low earners. Because Asian immigration to this country has been tightly controlled, and has a history of preventing poor Asian populations from growing, the selection bias is in favor of this post 1965 wave of "professional” Asian immigrants. So a mean average is drawing on a smaller population with a greater number of people in professional jobs.

But! This ignores both the racism driving that bias toward “professional” immigrants and what Jane Hyun termed “the bamboo ceiling.” If education is taken into account, Asians earn less money than white people with the same level of education.

Labour market discrimination against Asians is not unique to the US. A study conducted in Australia also uncovered labour market discrimination against Asians. Alison Booth and her colleagues conducted an audit study where they sent 4,000 fictitious job applications out for entry-level jobs, where they varied only the last name of the applicant – thereby signalling ethnicity.

The results were that the average call-back rate for Anglo-Saxons was 35 percent. Applications with an Italian-sounding name received responses 32 percent of the time – with only a small statistically significant difference. The differences were starker for the other groups: indigenous applicants obtained an interview 26 percent of the time, Chinese applicants 21 percent and Middle Easterners stood at 22 percent. According to these findings, Anglo-Saxons would have to submit three job applications to have a decent shot at getting a call-back whereas Chinese applicants should submit five.

That link refers to Australia, but there is similar discrimination against Asian workers in the U.S. Asians are left out of leadership roles in the U.S., even when they have the necessary qualifications. The linked study found that when Asians showed “leadership qualities,” they were often penalized for it.

So Sullivan’s point that Asian Americans are successful in spite of discrimination is true, but lacking a shit ton of context. Knowingly or unknowingly, he is conflating policy from before and after the Hart-Celler Act in 1965. Here’s rest of his hateful little screed; he doesn’t directly mention Black people, but he doesn’t have to.

Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?

Sorry, I know this thread is already really long, but I want to close read and contextualize this section a bit. Sullivan lists a series of oppressions from the 19th and early 20th centuries enacted on primarily blue collar laborers. Then, somehow, miraculously, things change in a nebulous time after WWII and bam! Asians are “prosperous, well-educated, and successful.” Contrasted against unnamed others who do not maintain “solid two-parent family structures.” This is some straight up Moynihan Report shit.

Here’s a link to the Moynihan Report, should you wish to read it.

The reference to two-parent families is specifically an attack on Black women, so let’s not forget Sullivan’s intersectional bigotry. Also a contrast between Asian communities and unnamed communities in reference to support networks and emphasis on “education and hard work”.

bootstrap capitalism + pathologizing Black communities

kisses fingers like a chef

It’s the Andrew Sullivan way!

And of course, all of this is in service of saying that police brutality is not racially motivated, because Black officers beat an Asian man. Asian success, tightly controlled and limited by white supremacy, is used as a bludgeon against Black Americans while dismissing violence done to an Asian body. This is racism against both Black and Asian people. This is harm.

I’m gonna stop here, because this thread is a behemoth, but fuck Andrew Sullivan.


sglover said...

It's good that Ames devotes so much attention to Sullivan's amazingly incompetent tenure at The New Republic. Sullivan gets lots of (deserved) scorn for his career-long bouts of hysteria, but his fundamental professional ineptitude is too often overlooked. His ever-failing-upwards track has been a vivid symptom of the degradation of American journalism for about a quarter-century, now.

Anonymous said...

Incredible to see him compare the fortunes of 19th century Asian-Americans and 1960s Asian-Americans as if there's a strong continuity from 19th century asian american communities and modern asian american communities.

It's as pseudo-historical as the nonsense about "Irish slaves". But when a legacy media gobshite says it I suppose we all have to stroke our chins and consider it thoughtfully.

The "Bad Gays" podcast did an episode about Andrew Sullivan that might be worth your attention - they discuss his appalling vision of gay politics (apparently the gay rights movement should have pursued only two goals: the right to marry and the right to join the US military, as if not being able to join the US military wasn't one of the few perks of being gay) and I think they cite some other critical articles about Sullivan that might go nicely on your list.