Ben Smith and Andrew Sullivan: Talking About Gays, Race, Genetics, Politics, and Journalism

Andrew Sullivan

From a New York Times column by Ben Smith headlined “I”m Still Reading Andrew Sullivan. But I Can’t Defend Him.”:

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — The only restaurant open late on this sandy tip of Cape Cod is Spiritus Pizza, and men have long gathered on the mottled bricks in front to hang out, gossip and cruise. One night last week, some were blasting disco onto Commercial Street when a slightly stoned Englishman with a salt-and-pepper beard approached them and demanded politely but forcefully that they turn it down.

It was Andrew Sullivan, seeking order.

Mr. Sullivan hasn’t changed much since he arrived in Washington in 1986 with an internship at The New Republic and a veneration of Margaret Thatcher. Among many other convictions, he believes in safe, lawful and relatively quiet streets. I was sitting with him on the back porch of the tiny, yellow cottage he owns here when videos of unrest from Kenosha, Wis., crossed his Twitter feed.

“If the civil authorities are permissive of violence, then that’s a signal to people to commit violence,” he told me, winding himself up for the dire newsletter he would write later in the week. “The idea that it’ll just burn itself out — it just doesn’t work that way,” he said.

I came to Provincetown to better understand why Mr. Sullivan, 57, one of the most influential journalists of his generation and an obvious influence in my own career, is not as welcome as he once was at many mainstream media outlets. But my visit helped me see something more: how Mr. Sullivan is really a fixed point by which we can measure how far American media has moved. He finds himself now on the outside, most of all, because he cannot be talked out of views on race that most of his peers find abhorrent. I know, because I tried.

He was a star in his 20s, when he ran The New Republic, so celebrated that he posed for Annie Leibovitz in a Gap ad in a white T-shirt and a memorably coy expression. He was a master of provocations there that included one that defined him, arguing long before it was part of mainstream political debate that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. But he also published a cover story, an excerpt from “The Bell Curve,” that claimed to show a link between race and I.Q., a decision that has increasingly consumed his legacy.

Mr. Sullivan trended on Twitter on Friday, as his critics there took a paragraph out of context in the uncharitable way people do on social media to suggest that his cries against civil unrest made him a “fascist.” He was trying to argue the opposite: that law and civility are what make democracy possible.

He was, if anything, early to the anti-fascist cause. The chief author of the 2014 Senate torture report, Daniel Jones, told me that Mr. Sullivan’s work helped lead America away from torture. Mr. Sullivan has been warning for years of the Republican Party’s authoritarian turn. And he was among the most prescient about Mr. Trump when, in 2016, he described his rise as an “extinction level event” for American democracy in a New York magazine cover story.

But Mr. Sullivan is, as his friend Johann Hari once wrote, “happiest at war with his own side,” and in the Trump era, he increasingly used the weekly column he began writing in New York magazine in 2016 to dial up criticism of the American left. When the magazine politely showed him the door last month, Mr. Sullivan left legacy media entirely and began charging his fans directly to read his column through the newsletter platform Substack, increasingly a home for star writers who strike out on their own.

He was not, he emphasizes, “canceled.” In fact, he said, his income has risen from less than $200,000 to around $500,000 as a result of the move.

“I’m not playing that card, deliberately,” he told me. “I just think it’s a shame that readers of mainstream newspapers and magazines can’t hear a dissent.”

Mr. Sullivan isn’t really vulnerable to cancellation. He has been around too long, wielded too much influence even to be easily summarized. His access to both a huge online audience and the covers of prestigious magazines has brought him an unusual kind of power. . . .

Mr. Sullivan was in his way among America’s first out gay celebrities, and his largest impact was on gay rights. He seems especially grounded here in Provincetown, where he first spent a summer in 1989, the same year he published the cover story making “The Case for Gay Marriage” in The New Republic. He returned in 1994, joining other H.I.V.-positive men who moved here at the time expecting to die from AIDS. He worked on a book on same-sex marriage that he hoped would be his legacy.

He survived, published the book and left The New Republic in 1996. A $100,000 annual contract for a weekly column in The Times of London allowed him to start The Dish in 2000, which helped create the political blogosphere, with its frantic pace, wide open conversation, and all-in takedowns, called fisking, at which he excelled. . . .

Mr. Sullivan, of course, never pretended to be a grass-roots activist. He’s a proud member of the elite, and his case for marriage was partly conservative — that it would be, as he told me, a “civilizing” influence on gay men who he believed had been emotionally damaged by discrimination. . . .

The marriage question is so settled now that Mr. Sullivan’s role feels like ancient history. It’s also rarely noted these days that he played as large a role as any journalist in the rise of Barack Obama. His 2007 Atlantic cover story “Why Obama Matters” arrived while many Democrats were on the fence about the Illinois senator, and it helped sway elite opinion and money his way. . . .

The admiration was mutual. When The Dish was moved behind a paywall in 2013, a White House aide passed on a complaint to Mr. Sullivan: Mr. Obama was locked out of a favorite blog. Mr. Sullivan scrambled to set up a special account for the president.

The president and other readers clearly relished what was always exciting about Mr. Sullivan: He was a contrarian, but an intellectually alive one, with eclectic views on Catholicism and social media and beagles that saved him from monotonous provocation. The editor Adam Moss, who ran New York until last year, viewed him as a rare talent and helped him keep his big platform.

But as the American examination of racism has intensified, one of Mr. Sullivan’s convictions has grown further out of step and more unsettling even to those inclined to disagree agreeably with him.

When The Times published an article as part of its “1619” package last year about how old racist beliefs about Black people’s pain tolerance linger in modern medicine, Mr. Sullivan sent the author, Linda Villarosa, an arch note through her website. . . .

The flap reminded his colleagues and critics of Mr. Sullivan’s original sin, his decision to put on the cover of the Oct. 31, 1994, New Republic a package titled “Race and I.Q.” The package led with an excerpt from the book “The Bell Curve” by the political scientist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard Herrnstein. They claimed that I.Q. test results are in large part hereditary and reveal differences among races; it produced piles of scientific debunkings. Many — including contributors whom Mr. Sullivan invited to object — saw the piece as a thinly veiled successor to the junk science used to justify American and European racism for decades. Politically, it offered elites an explanation for racial inequality that wasn’t the legacy of slavery, or class, or racism, or even culture, and thus absolved them of the responsibility to fix it. . . .

When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis in May, Mr. Sullivan said, his editors asked him to “be careful,” suspecting that his views on race in America would not be palatable to their audience in that moment, two senior New York employees told me. He decided instead to take the week off from column writing.

In the previous year, Mr. Sullivan had focused his ire on the politics of race and identity, seemingly relishing the chance to challenge what he saw as an increasingly “woke” mainstream media. But “The Bell Curve” excerpt — which Mr. Sullivan always says that he published but did not embrace — lingered over those pieces and framed criticism of him. . . .

So what does Mr. Sullivan believe about race? On his back porch looking over the bay, Mr. Sullivan said he was frustrated by the most extreme claims that biology has no connection to our lives. He believes, for instance, that Freudian theories that early childhood may push people toward homosexuality could have some merit, combined with genetics.

“Everything is environmental for the left except gays, where it’s totally genetic; and everything is genetic for the right, except for gays,” he said sarcastically.

I tried out my most charitable interpretation of his view on race and I.Q. (though I question the underpinnings of the whole intellectual project): that he is most frustrated by the notion that you can’t talk about the influence of biology and genetics on humanity. But that he’s not actually saying he thinks Black people as a group are less intelligent. He’d be equally open to the view, I suggested, that data exploring genetics and its connection to intelligence would find that Black people are on average smarter than other groups.

“It could be, although the evidence is not trending in that direction as far as I pay attention to it. But I don’t much,” he said. (He later told me he’s “open-minded” on the issue and thinks it’s “premature” to weigh the data.)

“I barely write about this,” he went on. “It’s not something I’m obsessed with.”

But he also can’t quite stop himself, even as I sat there wishing he would. “Let’s say Jews. I mean, just look at the Nobel Prize. I’m just saying — there’s something there, I think. And I’m not sure what it is, but I’m just not prepared to accept the whole thing is over.”

When I said some of this to Mr. Sullivan, he noted that he had been born and raised in England, and he hasn’t always had perfect footing on American questions of race — though he has seemingly absorbed and mastered so much about American politics.

But his exit out of big media is a very American story. His career, with all its sweep and innovation, can’t ever quite escape that 1994 magazine cover.

Ben Smith is the media columnist. He joined The Times in 2020 after eight years as founding editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. Before that, he covered politics for Politico, The New York Daily News, The New York Observer and The New York Sun. Email: @benyt


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