Andrew Sullivan Profile

This profile of Andrew Sullivan in Intelligent Life by his friend Johann Hari is quite good.  This ‘graph is especially noteworthy:

Sullivan is often accused of flip-flopping according to political expediency, but it’s revealing that almost all the later tensions in his thought are prefigured in his writings about Oakeshott from his early 20s, recently published as “Intimations Pursued“. In 1984, he wrote that Oakeshott offers “a conservatism which ends by affirming a radical liberalism”—precisely the charge against Sullivan since 2004.

The piece as a whole is well worth a read, providing some excellent insights into a man who is both the most significant and most exasperating voice online.  In addition to Hari’s, two recent descriptions of Sullivan capture my thoughts on him quite well.  

Jim Henley:”Sully is the medium’s one true genius. He is simply taking the implication of the online political (in the broad sense) diary to its implicit conclusion. He is silly like us, but his gift survives it all. I would read it all, and enjoy it, agreeing sometimes and disagreeing others, condescending now and bowing ten minutes later, but I would never have the time to read anything else.”

Alex Massie goes further: “Andrew is by turns perverse, infuriating, stimulating, entertaining, humane, amusing, provocative, admirable, obsessive, generous, contradictory, witty and above all, incorrigible.”

Sullivan is both simply brilliant –  he was the lead editor of The New Republic at 26! — and a well-trained intellectual (Oxford and a Harvard PhD) and yet the most emotional blogger I read.  He’s more willing than most to, as Hank Williams Jr. said of his famous father, pour his heart right out on the page.

The combination of these traits makes for some of the remarkable highs and lows you’ll see anywhere. His obsession with Trig Palin, for example, is baffling and sad.  And his contempt for “Christianists” goes way too far even for this anti-theist.  But the same tendencies make him the first to criticize his own, whether it’s jumping ship on a war he passionately championed, vigorously opposing torture, or his disdain for the more radical elements of gay culture.

First link via Tyler Cowen.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    Sullivan is the only example I know of a conservative blogger who, when it became clear that Abu Ghraib had its roots in U.S. policy at the highest levels, simply refused to support torturers, party lines be damned. (And despite his admiration for Obama, he’s holding the new president’s feet to the fire on this issue as well.)

    Unfortunately, to find someone with principle, we had to import him.

  2. sookie says:

    Sorry, but his nutty obsessions make him unreadable.

  3. Henley’s comparison to Yeats in the quote above is a bit overblown.

  4. magoo says:

    The “Sullivan is brilliant” meme just never rings true to me no matter how many times I read it. I too was exasperated by conservatives during the Bush years, and when he was against torture and the imperial presidency, I sighed out loud. At last!

    But I remember the shock at finding out he was trained at Harvard and Oxford. What? His posts simply do not reflect that intellectual pedigree.

    He is innumerate, which immediately calls his ‘brilliance’ into question. He is well read, which is good, but I never come across a truly sharp insight. He’s not an abstract thinker, which is what I typically think of as requiring brilliance.

    He’s a good blogger but a terrible writer, as far as I can see. Maybe he’s better elsewhere, but his book on the conservative soul was … I don’t know what it was, but it was dumbed down and fairly cursory in its analysis, as well as repetitive. Thumbs down. I couldn’t finish it.

    He’s a good blogger because of his emotional, sentimental style. That makes for reliable, enjoyable casual reading, the kind that the Daily Howler calls ‘comfort food.’

    Eventually I stopped reading him after I got his shtick down: emotional outrage over torture, Christianism; quirky pseudo-arty pictures and videos; and a pro-gay marriage outlook.

    He’s not stupid, and he can turn a good phrase. I’m not a ‘hater,’ but I just blink when I read the superlatives thrown at him. Reihan Salaam (sp?) said he was the best blogger on the scene, Josh Marshall wrote something similar, and then that one listed above about him as a ‘true genius.’

    Yikes! Enough. His analyses are never that deep; they are heartfelt and well put, but never too many layers deep.

    I realized how shallow his stuff was when I starting reading Daniel Larison. (I’ll use Larison from here on out as a good counterpoint.)

    Whoa – there’s a mind at work, quick, incisive, and erudite. He’s someone whose education seems fully engaged and more balanced. Larison has an extremely odd viewpoint to me – I’m an increasingly disgusted Democrat who longs for a party that respects liberty and smaller government – but I’ve come to terms with the fact that the public is eager to relinquish the responsibilities that come with both.

    Larison’s dour, reality-based conservatism seems actually to be closer in spirit to the heavyweights I keep getting referred to (eg Kirk, Sowell). He seems to see reality the way it really and has the intellectual honesty to call it fairly for both sides. Sullivan had to pull himself back from the brink. Good drama for reading blog posts, to see him beat his breast and cry mea culpa. But that’s hardly a brilliant mind at work.

    Lastly, Larison just seems… well, brilliant. Sullivan never says anything analytically novel, he grinds out the same ideas time and again. But Larison seems to cut through arguments, to undercut them.

    If I think ‘brilliant’ I think of a vigorous intellect that can marshal facts, adopt multiple viewpoints, and make surprising analytical leaps. I get the impression of a real intellect at work with Larison, whereas Sullivan seems like an impassioned college student.

    My guess is that those who think he is brilliant really mean that they like his writing style and his mid-level insights. Reading either alone, though, would foreground their lack of heft.

    Funny, I realized that Sullivan’s guiding epitaph by Orwell, the masthead quote, actually characterizes virtually everything Larison writes.

    I didn’t realize how much I had to say. Ah well. But I’ve long marveled at the overblown ink Sullivan gets and wondered at how PhD’s could be the offenders, the cheerleaders here. I still don’t.

  5. Anderson says:

    Good comment, Magoo. I’ve been wondering whether to pick up The Conservative Soul or not; perhaps not.

    Sullivan’s blog is a bit like Eschaton used to be — a useful aggregator of what’s out there. I don’t read it for the ideas much, because as you say, there’s not much there.

    I’ll also second the praise for Daniel Larison, many of whose premises I cannot share, but with whom I agree on a good bit of foreign policy. I was sort of wishing he’d get the NYT column instead of Douthat, but I think Larison is too stone-cold conservative — the Republicans would complain about him, and the NYT would feel that its effort at “balance” had failed.

  6. Ottovbvs says:

    Sullivan is pretty good. He’s a very bright guy and his Oxford pedigree shows through. I went to the other place in England. He is innumerate, his grasp of economics is very shaky, and he has immense hobby horses about gayness and religiosity which become tedious. All that said he’s one of the most entertaining bloggers out there who I read constantly. His ability to puncture the total mindless irrationality that seems to have taken possession of conservatism is unequalled. A couple of people here mention Larison who I agree is a strong and clear voice but he doesn’t really have Sullivan’s wit. The Brits are rather good at that.

  7. E.D. Kain says:

    I couldn’t agree more, James. Sullivan is honest and able to change his views in light of the evidence. I can relate to his writing in so many ways.

  8. E.D. Kain says:

    Oh, and certainly Larison is far and away one of the most brilliant minds in the blogging world today. A fantastic read, and always interesting to engage with…and undeniably honest.