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Wieseltier vs. Sullivan

Your guide to the brawl

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Leon Wieseltier.(The Charlie Rose Show.)

Late last night, The New Republic posted an article in which Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s literary editor of roughly three decades, accused Atlantic writer Andrew Sullivan of extremely irresponsible writing about Israel. Wieseltier takes special issue with Sullivan’s contention that American Jews influence U.S. policy toward Israel in a way that is both indicative of and a betrayal of their very Judaism. Wieseltier is quite influential when it comes to shaping currents in highbrow American intellectual culture, and particularly the Jewish subset within; Sullivan has one of the most popular and highly trafficked blogs, period. In the little world where people argue over these things, this qualifies as one of the biggest title bouts in years.

The article is guaranteed to prompt a lot of discussion (plus, Lord knows, a response from Sullivan), and I’ll return to it in more depth later on. For now, here are some basic things that anyone should be aware of going into the debate.

What’s Wieseltier’s main charge? Wieseltier is less concerned with Sullivan’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which recently have drifted further and further left) and more with his declarations about U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel, and who’s behind them. A key line of Sullivan’s, according to Wieseltier, is:

Most American Jews, of course, retain a respect for learning, compassion for the other, and support for minorities (Jews, for example, are the ethnic group most sympathetic to gay rights). But the Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing—that celebrates and believes in government torture, endorses the pulverization of Gazans with glee, and wants to attack Iran—is something else. Something much darker.

For Wieseltier, this is condescending, if not worse. Whether or not Michael Goldfarb or Charles Krauthammer are right or wrong has no bearing on their Jewishness, and does not make them good or bad Jews, Wieseltier says. And:

the explanation that Sullivan adopts for almost everything that he does not like about America’s foreign policy, and America’s wars, and America’s role in the world—that it is all the result of the clandestine and cunningly organized power of a single and small ethnic group—has a provenance that should disgust all thinking people.

At one point, Wieseltier links Sullivan to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. They were the co-authors of an article and later a book that argued that U.S. policy toward Israel was influenced so as to counter the U.S. national interest by the especially powerful Jewish lobby. They are extremely controversial.

So, does Wieseltier call Sullivan an anti-Semite? Short answer: no. It’s a very specific charge, and one that must have occurred to Wieseltier; if he’d wanted to write, “Andrew Sullivan is an anti-Semite,” he certainly could have. The closest he comes is in the final paragraph: “About the Jews, is Sullivan a bigot, or is he just moronically insensitive?” Wieseltier asks. “To me, he looks increasingly like the Buchanan of the left.” My guess is that Wieseltier thinks Buchanan is both a bigot and moronically insensitive, so do with that what you like.

What’s with all the stuff about homophobia? Wieseltier imagines, as a thought experiment, that Sullivan had written about gay people what he had actually written about Jews, and asks the reader to consider how it would seem then. The subtext of this rhetorical gambit is that Sullivan himself is a gay man, and has written very intelligently and influentially on gay politics and gay culture over the past two decades. In fact, some of Sullivan’s most important articles on the subject appeared in The New Republic.

Where’s the beef? The fairest thing to do is to consider Sullivan’s posts on the merits, and Wieseltier’s essay on the merits. At the same time, it’s worth knowing that Sullivan was the editor of TNR for several years in the 1990s, while Wieseltier was literary editor. In other words, these two are not strangers to each other. In recent years, Sullivan (and many others) have criticized TNR for a rightward drift, particularly in areas of foreign policy, and particularly on Israel; actually, even in its liberal heyday in the 1980s, under the aegis of owner Martin Peretz, the magazine has usually taken editorial stands on the Middle East that would not look unfamiliar on the Israeli center-right.

What’s with all the purple prose? Yeah, this is kind of how Wieseltier writes, particularly when he’s writing at the home base. If you’re a fan, you take it as a sign of intellectual seriousness; if you’re a detractor, you see it as bloviating. Even the diehards must admit that the pretentiousness can be a little much (the first several-hundred words here are about W.H. Auden and Reinhold Niebuhr), and even the haters must admit he can be very, very funny (Sullivan has been a little too ready to endorse a little too crazy theories about Sarah Palin, among others; Wieseltier writes, “On the other hand, there is no suggestion that Netanyahu is Trig’s dad”).

What’s with all the stuff about blogging? Throughout, Wieseltier bemoans Sullivan’s alleged hyperbole, even hysteria, and implies that perhaps Sullivan’s chosen medium shares part of the blame; at one point, he even calls blogging “a sickly obsession.” (I’ll try not to be offended!) In the past, Wieseltier has discussed his problems with blogging: that it accelerates publishing past the point where reasonable thought can temper hot emotions; and that it lends itself to conspiracy theorizing and intemperate remarks. Which just gets us even more excited for Sullivan’s inevitable response. Stay tuned!!

Something Much Darker [TNR]

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Wieseltier vs. Sullivan

Your guide to the brawl

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