In the NYTimes Book Review: “Andrew Sullivan was and is a unique and always controversial presence in American politics and culture.”

From a review by David French in the New York Times Book Review of Andrew Sullivan’s book “Out on a Limb”:

It’s truly hard to provide a short description of “Out on a Limb,” Andrew Sullivan’s newest book. Yes, it’s a collection of his essays, stretching through 32 confused and contentious years of American history. But because it’s Sullivan, and Sullivan was and is a unique and always controversial presence in American politics and culture, to call the book a mere “collection of essays” is to do it a grave injustice. Perhaps it’s better to call it a series of journeys.

There’s Sullivan’s journey through the AIDS crisis and then the gay marriage movement. It’s hard to overstate his importance in laying the intellectual and philosophical foundation for the political, philosophical and legal campaign that culminated not just in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, but also in the cultural acceptance of gay marriage that reigns today.

There’s Sullivan’s journey in and out of the American right, where he went from one of the Iraq war’s most eloquent champions to one of its most ferocious critics. And there’s his vain attempt to champion a more modest “conservatism of doubt” even as he forecast the new right’s grasp for government power and its devolution into a cult of Trump.

But there’s also Sullivan’s journey in and out of progressive America. After rejecting Bush, Sullivan was enthusiastic, early, about the candidacy of Barack Obama. He was wildly optimistic about the promise of the Obama presidency, and he was furious at the immediate, intransigent Republican opposition to the Obama agenda.

Even as you read, however, you likely know how that journey ends (at least for now). The man who fiercely condemned rising Christian fundamentalism on the right soon enough turned his fire on increasing intolerant illiberalism on the left, an illiberalism, he argued, that was a fundamentalism all its own.

And as you walk with Sullivan on these many journeys, you relive sometimes decades-old disputes. When you do, you’re aware that few writers have generated more intense engagement — and more intense blowback — than Andrew Sullivan.

The reasons are obvious. First, it is crystal clear that Sullivan is not on your team. He’s not on anyone’s team. Even when he endorses a politician and sings his or her praises, you know that praise is contingent. He reserves the right to try any politician, and find him wanting.

Second, it’s also clear that Sullivan does not encounter politics, culture or religion from a position of Olympian detachment. He’s transparent about his life. He pours his emotion into the written word. The essays don’t just communicate his thoughts, they communicate his heart….

It’s hard for anyone to read Sullivan’s words and not feel provoked. However, he is no troll. He does not write for the purpose of inflicting pain. And even his most passionate arguments are thoughtfully delivered, deeply rooted in his philosophy and faith.

In one of the most interesting (and likely most contentious) essays in the book, Sullivan addresses head-on what was probably the most controversial moment of his career. The book contains his open letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates in response to continued criticism of Sullivan’s decision, many years ago, to publish an excerpt from Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve” in the pages of The New Republic.

His letter isn’t an apology for his previous work. Not exactly. A writer’s “core loyalty,” Sullivan says, “must be to the truth as best as he can discern it.” At the same time, however, he both articulates this loyalty and laments it. He walks his way through the friends he’s lost and the people he’s hurt — in the “Bell Curve” controversy and the many controversies before and since — and he even wonders if his Christian faith is compatible with the work he does.

In the end, he asks Coates “for forgiveness; not as a writer, where good faith and honesty alone matter, but as a friend and human being, where empathy counts.”

The last person to argue that Sullivan has always been right in both substance and tone is Sullivan himself. He puts his own mistakes on the page. He places them in his own curated collection of essays. It’s an act of remarkable humility in an age when humility is often derided as weakness….

Sullivan at his best is very powerful indeed. He could see the looming threat of American authoritarianism. In 2005 he wrote this prescient warning: “An ideologically polarized country, in which one party uses big government for its own moral purposes and the other wields it for its own, is not one that can long maintain a civil discourse.” The consequence? “Politics becomes war.”

I’m an evangelical conservative. When Sullivan sounded alarms about intolerance on the left, I applauded. When he ramped up his warning about religious conservatives during the Bush years, however, I’d roll my eyes. I especially hated the term he coined for the religious right, “Christianists.” Yes, there were bad apples in religious conservatism, but the comparison to radical Islamists was obvious, and excessive.

Yet he saw something that was directionally true. The right was harnessing growing government power to growing religious fervor. And as it did, it was shedding a conservatism of more modest ambitions, a conservatism that prized individual liberty and economic freedom, and that understood the limits of government power over human behavior….

There’s a through-line in Sullivan’s thought. He’s a zealous man who is suspicious of zealotry. Specifically, he’s suspicious of zealotry attached to power.

When I reached the end of his book, I felt a sense of gratitude. I disagreed with Sullivan on many points…but for 32 years a thoughtful man has demonstrated the courage of his convictions and challenged his readers time and again.

This world is almost impossibly complex. Conventional wisdom is frequently wrong. No partisan side has a monopoly on truth. In these circumstances, a nation needs writers and thinkers who will say hard things, whose fearlessness gives you confidence that you’re hearing their true thoughts.

It’s not difficult to be a partisan bomb-thrower. Attacking the hated opposition to the roar of the home crowd can be lucrative and rewarding. Partisans who gird for cultural battle don’t want to have second thoughts. They don’t want to look in the mirror and ponder the sin on their own side. Yet in essay after essay, for decade after decade, Sullivan has been the man with the mirror. He’s held it up to a nation and culture that increasingly yield to authoritarian temptations and shouted: “Look at yourself. Look at what you’re becoming.”

Read “Out on a Limb” for the snapshots of recent history. Read it to better understand the many journeys of one of America’s most important public intellectuals. But most of all read this book to see what it looks like when a thoughtful man tries his best to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

David French is a senior editor of The Dispatch, a columnist at Time and the author of “Divided We Fall.”


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