For the better part* of Andrew Sullivan’s career, he was something of an iconoclast. While he identified himself as a conservative (he still does), he was really more of a conservative by default. He got his start in American journalism, writing for The New Republic, the flagship magazine of serious liberal thought, but he was anything but an American liberal. Nor did he fit within the mainstream of conservative thought, yet in his heyday (from about 1989 to 2004), he was philosophically closer to contemporary conservatism than he was to Anglo-American liberalism.
What distinguished him more than anything was that he was the first (or at least the most prominent) gay public intellectual to write about gay issues in a way that challenged the gay orthodoxy. And for that he earned the scorn of those with whom he liked to socialize.
An intellectual by day, Andrew enjoyed (and I presume still enjoys) frequenting gay haunts at night. He summers in Provincetown, long a retreat for East Coast gays, nearly all of whom (the outspoken ones at least) hold left-of-center political views. And while Andrew, like all of us (or most of us at least), didn’t push his political ideas during every hour of the day, many of his ideological adversaries were determined to define him by his departures from said gay orthodoxy.
Instead of finding his off-time as a respite from the rigors of his working life, his angry adversaries used it to remind him of his unorthodox opinions. They insulted him in bars, threw drinks in his face and, if one account is to believed, even spit on him. Other gay writers and activists were no kinder, regularly ridiculing him as a traitor to the cause. One such individual made Andrew’s private life a source for public censure.
Such nastiness takes its toll even on the hardiest of human beings. And Andrew is, if anything, human, very human.
That’s one reason I think he has, in recent years, gone so far to the left, more out of a sense of fatigue at being the outcast among his peers than anything else.
Just over five years ago, when then-President Bush came out in favor the Federal Marriage Amendment and Andrew Sullivan responded with an angry rant on his blog, a gay leftist on a listserv to which I then subscribed e-mail us that post, offering that “even Andrew Sullivan” was taking W to task. Surely, he wasn’t the only erstwhile critic of Sullivan to celebrate the one-time iconoclast’s criticism of the much maligned Republican. Andrew was earning accolades from those who once ridiculed him.
All of us, no matter how much we claim otherwise, delight in the praise of our peers, those with whom we socialize on a regular basis. When Andrew Sullivan criticized George W. Bush, perhaps for the first time in his life, gained the praise of such individuals. Previously, he had drawn praise primarily from the more thoughtful voices in journalism, specifically punditry, and in the think tanks in our nation’s capital.
(To be sure, a few gay writers and editors and average every day gay folk recognized his talents as well as those in the then-nascent gay conservative movement.)
As his rant against W helped him gain favor with gay activists, he turned it into a shtick which has increasingly come to define his voice.
The sensible, level-headed voice challenging liberal pieties became in blogger John Hawkins’s words, “the most inconsistent, scatterbrained, haphazard writer in politics today.” And yet while Andrew has become a card-carrying member of the angry left, he he has one thing which few of his fellow travelers have, a body of work which will endure.
His essay, Here Comes the Groom: a Conservative Case for Gay Marriage, has, in many ways, come to define the serious arguments in favor of gay marriage. His essays on friendship and sexuality resonate with anyone who has ever differed from the social norm. His insights into politics help us better understand the flaws of Bill Clinton and, before February 24, 2004, even George W. Bush. He was a blogging pioneer who foresaw the influence of this medium of communication and commentary.
But, he’s also a human being. And perhaps his success in the public arena made him long for something more tangible and perhaps even more meaningful in the private one, the sense of belonging in his community of peers.
While I know others many differ with me as to why Andrew became such an excitable opponent of George W. Bush and cheerleader for his successor, that’s my view of this blogger. And yes, it is a somewhat sympathetic view because well, Andrew is a sympathetic guy. I met him, have seen his flaws as well as his generosity, his arrogance as well as his compassion. He’s a complicated guy, but underneath it all, he does have a good heart. And that’s saying something. No, that’s saying a lot.
*double entendre intended