Andrew Sullivan: Further Down the Rabbit Hole

Lewis Carroll is said to have exemplified the genre of literary nonsense. Perhaps a case can be made that Andrew Sullivan is exemplifying a genre that I would term journalistic nonsense. Journalistic nonsense is an effect of the search for meaning in politics that post rationalizes every new tumble down the rabbit hole. Whereas literary nonsense can be described as “the tension between reality and language,” the ambiguity between “meaning and it’s absence,” or a type of “logical insanity” if you will, journalistic nonsense employs the same techniques to fashion an “illogical sanity.” Literary nonsense is a genre usually associated with children’s’ literature, and one of it’s primary lessons is to teach children to “distinguish the essential from the superficial” in terms of reality. Journalistic nonsense, however, is for serious adults, and it’s primary objective is to elevate the superficial above the essential in political reality.

Sullivan’s journalistic blogging odyssey is a tale of an author committed to post rationalizing the invented realities of the political class. Reading his tale leads us to an author’s first person voice utterly subsumed by the illogical sanity of DoubleThink reality. Illogical sanity allows Sullivan one week to write about the tyranny of the untamed Prince and a couple of weeks later write how he loves Big Brother. Sullivan is usually good for around 4 major post rationalization shifts a month, but he has truly outdone himself this time.

Below are passages illustrative of the journalistic nonsense of illogical sanity of “Andrew in PoliticalLand.”

I tried valiantly not to believe this of Holder and Obama for months; I tried to see their legitimate concerns about exposing a war machine when it is still at war; I understand the need for some extraordinary renditions; and the necessity for executive power in emergencies to act swiftly, as the Founders intended. Yes war requires some secrecy. But Obama has gone much further than this now. The cloak of secrecy he is invoking is not protecting national security but protecting war crimes. And this is now inescapably his cloak. He is therefore a clear and knowing accessory to war crimes, and should at some point face prosecution as well, if the Geneva Conventions mean anything any more. This won’t happen in my lifetime, barring a miracle. Because Obama was a test case. If an outsider like him, if a constitutional scholar like him, at a pivotal moment for accountability like the last two years, cannot hold American torturers to account, there is simply no accountability for American torture. When the CIA actually rehires as a contractor someone who held a power-drill against the skull of a prisoner, you know that change from within this system is impossible. The system is too powerful. It protects itself. It makes a mockery of the rule of law. It doesn’t only allow torture; it rewards it.

This knowledge tells me one thing. If we are to recover as a nation under law rather under a prince, it will not be through the channels of the two major parties or through any president acceptable to the mainstream of either party. It will require a citizenry so enraged and protective of its core liberties against this security Leviathan that it compels dismantling this machinery and exposing it to the light of day – not recklessly, not abruptly, but by close examination, judicial review, press inquiry, protest. There are legitimate trade-offs between national security and liberty. But the protection of war criminals where no secrets are at stake except the scandal of torture itself is not one of them. Alas, there are few such citizens around. And, most tragic of all, those who say they care about liberty above all – the tea-partiers who invoke the founders – seem only too willing to surrender every liberty for the prize of a security against a threat we cannot even measure, and to bow down before a new king (and probably warrior-queen) rather than elect a new president.

Have I been radicalized by this? You betcha. Because this is so plainly not a nation under the rule of law anymore. And there are very few political issues more important than that.

Obama’s speech to Gen44 tonight knocked my socks off. It’s streaming on CSPAN here. If you’ve forgotten why many of you worked your ass off for this guy, and felt hope for the first time in many years, watch it. He deserves criticism when necessary as this blogazine has not shied from at times. But he remains in my judgment the best option this country still has left – and it’s far too easy for the left and far too dangerous for serious conservatives and independents to abandon him now.

What I particularly loved about the speech was his direct attack on the fiscal irresponsibility of the Pledge To America, the $700 billion it means we will have to borrow from China to sustain the unsustainable Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 a year. And what I agreed with was his embrace of government that is lean and efficient, because these are times when the government is necessary to help reverse self-evident decline, mounting fiscal crisis, deeply dangerous enemies, and socially dangerous inequality, exploited at home by ugly demagogues and know-nothing nihilists. Here is his invocation of Lincoln’s core argument about the role of government:

I believe the government should do for the people what they cannot do better for themselves.

Then this passage where he soared like he hasn’t since the campaign:

I believe in a country that rewards hard work and responsibility, a country where we look after one other, a country that says I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper, I’m going to give a hand up, join hands with folks and try to lift all of us up so we all have a better future, not just some – but all of us. That’s what I believe.

I do too. I do not believe for a second that the GOP of Palin and Boehner and Beck and DeMint represents anything but more debt, more war, more social division and more denial about the deeply serious problems this country faces and the profound dangers that are metastasizing in the world. I have no love for the Democrats but I do fervently believe that this president’s record is far better than many now fashionably claim, that his inheritance was beyond awful, and I am not giving up on this president’s immense task now, and neither, in my judgment, should any of those who voted for him in 2008.

Know hope; and fight the cynicism and nihilism that is increasingly the alternative.

As a child, you might read the literary nonsense of such things as Alice in Wonderland or Dr. Seuss to recognize in adulthood that nihilism is not the alternative to the rejection of the superficial in an illogically sane world.

Glenn Greenwald called out Sullivan for his new rationalization of Obama’s Prince qua Prince. You can read the play-by-play here. Needless to say, Sullivan rationalized his new rationalization by an appeal to the War on Terror, complete with 9-11 imagery and all. The problem for Sullivan, however, which is typical of him, is that just a mere few weeks earlier, he had more or less managed to rationalize away the rationale for the War on Terror. Writes Sullivan:

Democrats are as silent about ongoing military operations in countries where we haven’t declared war, or even debated it. So perhaps it’s more helpful to see this through an institutional lens. As Gene Healy pointed out in a characteristically great column, our modern legislators are derelict in their duties. “The Constitution gives Congress vast powers over war and peace, and charges it with making the laws of the land,” he wrote. “Yet our feckless legislators prefer to punt the hard decisions to the president and the permanent bureaucracy, even if it leaves the rest of us mired in uncertainty and crushing debt.”

It’s especially interesting to discuss this policy at a time when so much of the right is insisting that we return to the vision of government laid out by the Founders. Needless to say, a president who wages clandestine wars on multiple continents is incompatible with the founding vision of the office, the ways it was designed to be checked, and its enumerated limits.

In the case of Sullivan, I wouldn’t say it’s ironical that his Masthead consists of an Orwell quote: “Too see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Irony is not a concept that exists in an illogically sane world.

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4 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan: Further Down the Rabbit Hole

  1. Sullivan is a very useful person to have around. If you want to know which way the political wind is currently blowing, even if its a mild gust, find out what position Sullivan currently has always held.

  2. I suspect that much of this behavior is driven by the demands of making a living through commentary. Sullivan can express radical sentiments every once in a while if he likes — it may even be a good way to keep his readership riled up and thankful for his “independence”. However, if he were to fully embrace radical attitudes, then he would likely alienate many of his readers and probably his employer too.

    Radical writings tend toward negativity — especially for people who are new to radical thought. It can be hard to keep an audience without regular “feel good” articles that focus on the noble intentions of people with influence, and let the reader cheer “we’re winning!”

      • There’s only room in this world for one Glenn Greenwald!

        But seriously, good point. I can speculate on the commercial differences between the two. Maybe Salon (and its audience) is more tolerant of radicalism. Maybe Greenwald (as a lawyer) has the gravitas to pull it off.

        Or maybe this self-contradiction and establishment-loving is just a cognitive/psychological property of Sullivan.

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