Frontpage Interview is honored to have Andrew Sullivan as its guest today. The editor of his popular blog AndrewSullivan.com, Mr. Sullivan is the former editor-in-chief of The New Republic magazine and today one of the nation’s most famous and provocative social and political commentators.
Frontpage Magazine: Welcome Mr. Sullivan to Frontpage Interview. It is a great privilege to have you here.
FP: Why don’t we begin with Iraq and the War on Terror. With the successful capture of Saddam behind us now, where do you think we stand vis-à-vis the terrorists and rogue regimes who are waging war on us?
Sullivan: I should say up-front that I don't think we can over-look the failure of the US to find tangible stockpiles of WMDs. It's a big embarrassment, and a big dent in the pre-emption doctrine. It doesn't change my view of the war, but it does shift my position on pre-emption. If our intelligence is that bad, then it seems to me hard to base potential wars upon it.
But I do think we have achieved some real progress: the removal of Saddam, the possibility of a non-dictatorship in the Arab world, a recognition by our enemy that we are prepared to fight, to take casualties, in order to defend ourselves and liberate others. We are at the end of the beginning. But Iran and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Syria remain huge problems, especially Pakistan. The outlook is much better than a year ago or four years ago. But much work remains to be done.
FP: What do you think of the Left’s behaviour in all of this, especially since 9/11? What explains the psychology of people in the West who hope for the victory of Hitlerian figures like bin Laden and Hussein over the United States and the freedom and prosperity it represents?
Sullivan: I despair. For me, it revealed that the primary motivation of the far Left is hatred of the United States. And the soft Left is too cowardly in many instances to expose and oppose this.
FP: So how can we best defeat the threat of militant Islam? Are you hopeful we can, and will, do it?
Sullivan: We will win through strong military action against its violent wing; through pressure on the Saudis to stop Wahhabist indoctrination; and through the actions of the terrorists who are now striking at fellow Muslims. We have to embrace Turkey, coddle Indonesia and face down the Saudis and the French.
FP: Let’s turn to your personal side and professional career for a moment. You have a background as an actor. Tell us a bit about that. Also, I have always been curious as to why actors are usually leftists. Please comment on this phenomenon and, perhaps, interweave your own experience with acting and how it influenced (if it did) your politics. Were you an outsider among the “artistic milieu” in this context?
Sullivan: I’ve only ever been a passionate amateur. In college and grad school I did a lot of shows, enjoyed them immensely. I also acted in the National Youth Theater of Great Britain for three seasons. In general, I don't think of theater as political. I don't bring politics up with other actors or directors. Yes, lots of them are bleeding hearts and not very sophisticated when it comes to politics and world affairs. But that doesn't bother me. I enjoy being around people who disagree with me; and I enjoy being in non-political contexts and activities.
FP: So why is it that you think that actors and directors are usually believers in the progressive faith? What is it about this profession that attracts, as you term, “bleeding hearts”?
Sullivan: I don't know. They're creative people; they tend to see the world as something that can be made up to fit their fantasies. They don't like acknowledging evil - unless it's that rival actor who just got the part. Actors and directors can be pretty hard-headed in their own industry. It's just when dealing with the world that they lose their minds. In most cases, they're also very emotionally attuned people. So they don't tend to distinguish between feelings and arguments.
I'm generalizing, of course. There are some brilliant actors. And many sane ones.
FP: You really distinguished yourself during your tenure as editor at The New Republic. Some hectic drama at that magazine accompanied your success. Can you tell us about one or two incidents/themes that stick out in your memory when you reflect on your experience there? What do you think the significance is in retrospect?
Sullivan: That's a big question. Looking back, I had a great time challenging some assumptions about what could and could not be put in a political magazine, and, I hope, broadening the magazine's breadth of opinions. When I think of things I'm proud of, I think of incubating Jeffrey Rosen's writing career, of having Michael Lewis cover the 96 election, of young writers like Margaret Talbot or Matt Miller or Hanna Rosin or Michael Lind - the vintage was a very good one.
Then of course there was our devastation of the Hillary healthcare plan and our airing of “The Bell Curve” - both of which pushed the limits of what was acceptable within a liberal magazine. It was hair-raising at times. And I didn't do a good job of bringing everyone along. I made a few enemies and didn't cultivate enough friends. But I did produce an interesting magazine. It reached a peak of over 100,000 readers and saw ad revenues soar. I'm also proud of our crusades - for intervention in Bosnia and for same-sex marriage.
FP: You became “openly” homosexual, so to speak, in the early 1990s. This is not an easy calling for a Conservative activist/writer etc. Let me ask two questions here: (1) Many homosexuals often adopt liberal politics. I am not saying, of course, that everything personal is political. Of course not. But could you comment a bit on how you synthesize your sexual life with your political conservative disposition? (2) Many Conservatives are critical of homosexuality. Tell us a bit about the journey of being a homosexual in the milieu of many people who are judgemental of you.
Sullivan: Well, I came out in the mid-1980s. It's just that when I became editor at such a young age, my sexual orientation became a big deal in the culture. I couldn't help it. And I sure wasn’t going to lie about it. I thought in some ways it was an advantage at a time when the whole question of homosexuality was being addressed in ways it had never been before in the culture. And at TNR we certainly covered the whole matter thoroughly - to some people's dismay.
And again, I never saw being gay as a political issue. Homosexuality is like the weather. It just is. I didn't see any reason why my general political viewpoint - toward limited government, free markets, free ideas and a robust foreign policy - should somehow change because I had relationships or sex with men.
In many ways, my attachment to human freedom was completely compatible with my right to live freely as a homosexual. The Left's record in this matter has been decidedly mixed. But equally I see no problem with leftists being gay either. What I objected to was the notion that being gay was primarily a political issue and that it mandated your being a part of the organized left wing. I found that oppressive, condescending and often simply wrong. During the plague years, I also felt a deep responsibility to bear witness to what I saw around me, to do something about it, and to connect the horrifying death-toll with political and social reform. It was a wake-up call. And when I found out I was HIV-positive myself, I decided to write a book making the case for civil equality. I wanted to make the case before I died. I didn't think I'd see the next millennium. And many of my friends didn't.
But I was attacked, of course. And the 1990s were gruelling. It was very hard not to become embittered by the way the gay Left deliberately attempted to smear and libel anyone who disagreed with them. But those days are in the past by and large. My own early crusade for same-sex marriage, for example, is now mainstream gay politics. It wasn't when I started.
FP: What do you think of the tragedy of how leaders of the gay community in San Francisco allowed the deadly virus to spread in the name of “gay liberation”? As you know, David Horowitz was among the first to point out how radical groups exploited the AIDS epidemic for their own political agenda. When the virus in San Francisco could have been quarantined at a crucial time in the 1980s, gay radicals refused to adopt traditional public health methods to fight the spread of the virus and insisted on keeping the gay bathhouses open etc. In doing so, they perpetrated a human catastrophe.
Horowitz took a lot of flack for pointing this out back then, but now we know that he was 100% right.
What do you think of all this? We see an analogy here to the leftist romance itself – how humans are sacrificed on the altar of utopian ideals. Correct?
Sullivan: With all due respect to David, the best analysis of this is in Randy Shilts' book, "And the Band Played On." Quarantining was never an option. How do you do that when you don’t even know what disease people have, let alone a test to prove it? But swifter action early on to warn people generally about unsafe sex would have helped - no question. So would swifter recognition from the Reagan administration that this was a real problem. Neither group came out looking too good at the very beginning.
FP: Fair enough, perhaps we’ll save this particular discussion/debate for another forum. Let me focus in on your intellectual journey. If you were to look back at your life at this early stage, tell us perhaps two or three major influences/events in your life that made you walk down the Conservative street. Was the road toward Conservatism paved in your youth?
Sullivan: It began living under socialism. Growing up in Britain in the 1970s, watching the country's terminal decline, seeing the damage unions could do, and how the entire ruling elite had lost hope - all that made me a Thatcherite. I also went to a publicly-funded magnet school that selected boys at the age of 11 on the basis of IQ tests and gave them a chance to succeed.
My folks weren't rich. It was the only way I could have gotten an excellent education. I was so grateful. And then the Labour government took office and tried to abolish the school because it was deemed “elitist.” The school went private while I was there and lost its mission to educate under-privileged kids. (The school raised enough money to give me a scholarship to finish my time there). In all that, I saw that the Left was actually hostile to ordinary people, their aspirations, their achievements. The ideology of envy and equality of outcome trumped the ideas of freedom and equality of opportunity. And so I became a follower of the liberalizing right.
I wore a Reagan 80 button in high school; I read Solzhenitsyn and Orwell; I became fascinated by the horrors of Soviet tyranny; I read Hayek and Oakeshott and Friedman; I was so psyched when Thatcher won office that I stopped my calendar on the day - May 3, 1979 - and left it on the wall at that date. And at Oxford, I enraged my peers by celebrating the arrival of Pershing missiles with a champagne party.
But again, I was political in order to free people from being forced into politics. I wanted to ratchet back the state to let people breathe more freely, however they wanted to. I'm not interested in being ideological all the time. I love pop culture; I love gay culture; I love sex; I enjoy movies and Shakespeare and bodybuilding and my dog. I'm conservative in politics so that I can be radical in every other human activity. To me, that makes sense. But I'm aware I'm somewhat alone.
FP: And perhaps “being alone,” with its accompanying pain, has also been the foundation to the elements of joy in your life and to some of your greatest strengths. No?
There seems to be a consistent theme here: the outsider Andrew Sullivan stirring trouble at his high school with the Reagan button, outraging his peers at Oxford with the Pershing missile champagne party, taking the TNR to places it hadn’t gone before etc. Add to that the conservative Andrew Sullivan who doesn’t necessarily fit, perhaps in a social setting, that comfortably with many conservatives.
Forgive me if I am speaking for you here or putting a label on something that might be more complex. Perhaps I am just projecting my own reality, since I have always been, and felt like, an outsider – especially among many of those who share my political ideology. Can you talk a bit about this reality in the context of your own life? How do you think being the sheep who strayed from the flock shaped you, your strengths, who you are, etc?
Sullivan: Well, I am a loner. My early childhood involved living in a troubled home. My mother has long had bipolar depression and growing up with her in and out of mental hospitals forced me to rely on myself probably more than other kids. I was also a Catholic in a protestant country; I was gay in a Catholic sub-culture; I was a conservative among liberal peers; I am a social and cultural liberal among conservatives; and a Bush-supporter among liberals; I'm a right-winger among gays.
I was a conservative running a liberal magazine; and an English person in an American citadel. I've never really had a home I could call home, a place where someone didn't dispute my right to be there. I have learned to live with that. In the end you die alone. We all do. You have to place faith in friendship and love. I have a loving family, a wonderful boyfriend, a great dog, and several inspiring, funny, ornery friends. That's enough.
Maybe that's one reason I care about marriage rights so much. Most heterosexuals don't realize it but marriage is really a way to create a home. Under current law, gay men and women are forced into social and psychological homelessness. Yes, we've done amazing things creating homes for ourselves outside the law, 'in the shadows', so to speak. But cutting us off from other families, keeping our relationships legally sealed off from others', as if we might contaminate them, is very damaging to the psyche. Mine is permanently damaged. My struggle is to find a way to prevent that from happening to the next generation.
But this loneliness is good for a writer, I think. On the blog, I've deliberately taken on people I like and know a bit, just so as not to sink into beltwayitis. Believe it or not, Maureen Dowd and I were once good friends. People forget but I started criticizing Howell Raines while I still had a lucrative contract with the New York Times magazine. I knew I was risking my career there but couldn't find a way to stop myself writing what I believed on my blog. So I got canned. But I'd rather be canned than muzzled.
Of course, I separate the criticism of someone's writing or editing from their person but not everyone can. It pains me sometimes to think I may have hurt someone's feelings. But I'd rather hurt someone's feelings than soft-pedal an argument. As long as it doesn't get into people's personal lives, I think their work is fair game. So I have many fewer friends in DC now than when I started the blog. But none of my close friends give a damn. They've known me for years and almost all of them have nothing to do with the media-political bubble.
HIV undoubtedly helped me get there. I thought I'd be dead by now. Once you've gone through that experience, it's hard to start playing games with power. You tend to say what you think and worry what it does to your reputation later. It's liberating. You realize you only get one life, and you might as well live it as you want to. Be not afraid, Jesus said. In some ways, they're the three most important words he ever spoke.
FP: You are a remarkable person Andrew. A real inspiration. I wish you all the best. Thank you kindly for giving us your time for this interview. I hope you can come and visit us again soon. Take care for now.
Sullivan: My pleasure Jamie. Thanks for being patient with me over the last few weeks, with the flu and Christmas and all. Give my best to David.
FP: Will do. Thanks once again.
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