There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Andrew Sullivan or his blog the Dish, and will therefore regard the news that he is giving up blogging as not especially worthy of note. But for me this is a momentous announcement. I’ve been reading about politics online for a decade now yet the Dish remains perhaps my most treasured discovery. It took me from being a rather straightforward Orange Book liberal to something rather stranger. This was even though he rarely wrote about the UK. Instead what he did was expose me to a very peculiar worldview.
Indeed peculiarity was perhaps Sullivan’s key trait. Political writing is generally a very tribal enterprise yet he was utterly individual. He was: an American literary institution who grew up in East Grinstead, a Tory boy and self-described conservative who was an early Obama booster and came to hate the Republican Party with a fury few left-wingers could and most perhaps strikingly he was a conservative Catholic who is now married to another man. This made him so much more interesting than most political bloggers: you usually guess the contents of their posts before reading them, that was impossible with Sullivan.
He’d had an impressive career before taking up blogging. His 1995 book Virtually Normal made him one of the first people of note to call for equal marriage. This might be a mainstream, and in some circles even trite, position but then it was a confounding notion. It offended not only those who thought the gay community was not worthy of response but many within that community who saw it as caving to the norms of a hetro-orientated world. He also had a controversial tenure as editor of the New Republic.
However, it is blogging that defines his legacy. This is in part because he was one of the first to use it as a medium to discuss politics: not many other people were blogging about Bush v Gore. But it was also a product of the individuality I discussed earlier. Such a quality is perhaps easy to generate when you have plenty of time to reflect on your position and thousands of words to convey your personal twist on it. Doing the same in a medium like blogging that involves rapidly producing reactive bursts requires a truly huge personality.
And when I encountered that personality a decade it was a revelation. His biggest intellectual influence was the Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Sullivan described him as:
“While not denying that the truth exists, the [Oakeshottian] conservative is content to say merely that his grasp on it is always provisional. He begins with the assumption that the human mind is fallible, that it can delude itself, make mistakes, or see only so far ahead.” In light of this extreme fallibility, human beings should err on the side of inaction. Claims to certainty—in religion, or political ideology—are invariably hubristic. We have to build our politics on “the radical acceptance of what we cannot know for sure”.
What made Sullivan fascinating was that he saw in this not an argument against the left. He would attack those who held to a position dogmatically almost regardless of what that position was. For example, he criticised both Pope Benedict and Sam Harris. However, the group whose dogmatism he appeared find most objectionable were those people in America who also called themselves conservatives. He came to see the invasion of Iraq as a classic case of violence being used in the service of a utopian project. And he clearly found the spectacle of the likes of Sarah Palin luxuriating in their ignorance and close mindedness almost unbearable.
I don’t, however, mean to make him sound like a man just spitting bile. Reading his posts gave one the impression not of listening to someone shouting at the TV but rather of eavesdropping in an erudite conversation. Like his friend Christopher Hitchens, he had a talent for inserting poetry into his pugilism. There was also a pleasantly self-reflective quality to his blogging. Writing constantly led to what he called “grotesque over-sharing”. We, therefore, read in his own words about his foibles, doubts and demons. This was a refreshing antidote to the smug certainty that too often percolates online. And Sullivan’s blog avoided the worst repository of the smugness: the comments section. He handled conversations with his readers via emails, some of which he posted extracts from and his responses to in posts.
The result was that the blog became more than the sum of the parts. Individual posts were well written and interesting but the real fascination came from seeing how it all came together to make Andrew Sullivan’s worldview, and how that in turn interacted with the community that emerged around the Dish.
This is why there is something epochal about Sullivan stepping away from his keyboard. As Ezra Klein explains for Vox:
Sullivan was the closest we had to someone trying to run a blog with real scale. He was trying to make his blog — and its sizable audience — into a business. But blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale. And I think there are two reasons why.
The first is that, at this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don’t deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don’t go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.
There’s a lot of truth to this. As my own reading grew increasingly mediated by Facebook and Twitter, I read the Dish less regularly. And that frankly is clearly a loss. You would be searching for a long time before you found an individual post that was as interesting as Andrew Sullivan as an individual.
AFTERTHOUGHT: I’d recommend Johann Harri’s profile of Sullivan.