One of America’s most-read bloggers is Catholic, conservative, gay, pro-Obama—and from East Grinstead. Johann Hari profiles Andrew Sullivan, a writer with an extraordinary tale to tell ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Spring 2009
Andrew Sullivan’s story is inherently implausible. How did an HIV-positive gay Catholic conservative from the poky English town of East Grinstead end up as one of the most powerful writers in America?
Today his blog, the Daily Dish, is regularly named as one of the most influential in America, and in November it reached 23m hits in the month. Politicians from Condoleezza Rice to Barack Obama himself have courted Sullivan in the hope of friendly posts. After he moved his blog to the website of the venerable Atlantic Monthly magazine, the traffic there rose by 30%.
This is all the stranger since—unlike other big-name bloggers such as the liberal-Democratic Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos or the libertarian Republican Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit—he has no obvious political constituency. Sullivan is regarded by his critics as an attention-deficit bundle of contradictions. He is a conservative Christian who rages against the self-proclaimed forces of conservative Christianity. He is a pioneering crusader for gay marriage savaged by the gay left as “chief faggot”, herding homosexuals on behalf of The Patriarchy. He admits: “I’m very uncomfortable with audiences who agree with me… I’ve never really had a place where someone didn’t dispute my right to be there.” So what is the glue that holds together the blogger-king?
In a series of long interviews, Sullivan—a friend of mine—talks me through his story. He is sitting in the office at the Atlantic Monthly in Washington, DC, where he blogs frenetically: it’s not unusual for him to produce 20 posts a day. Once a pretty, slight young man who modelled for Gap, he is now bald, bearded and solidly built, with his chest bulking out in front of him. He speaks in a baritone voice that seems to be always in italics and often ends his sentences incongruously with a slightly nervous laugh.
Sullivan’s travels began in 1963, when he was born in Surrey, the middle of three children. His grandparents had been Irish immigrants to Britain, barely literate and passionately Catholic. Sullivan’s father had worked his way up to a middling job in an insurance company, a career his son tells me “he hated really… My father was basically a jock. His natural home was the rugby club. It’s his passion.” He says quietly: “I don’t know how to summarise my relationship with my father. I still don’t.” In his 1998 book, “Love Undetectable”, he described how as a teenager, terrified of his emerging homosexuality, he grew further and further apart from his father, “consumed with an anger and hatred that terrified me, and [drew] closer and closer to my mother”.
But Sullivan’s mother wasn’t able to provide stable support. Starting when he was four, she had a string of mental breakdowns caused by bipolar depression, and had to be hospitalised. “I don’t remember very much about it. I’ve really blocked it out,” he says. “But I think it made me turn inward on myself.” He became a self-confessed swot, obsessively throwing himself into his schoolwork. He says his life uncannily paralleled that of Posner, the repressed gay swot in Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys”. He spent his Saturday nights learning about Tudor and Stuart history.
He was politically aware early in life. During his childhood, the lights would often blink out. One of his first political memories is of the three-day week. “But what really made me a right-winger was seeing the left use the state to impose egalitarianism—on my school.” At 11, he was sent to a grammar school for bright children, but the Labour government tried to merge it with a local comprehensive. The school chose to go private. “I was really disgusted…I saw that the 1944 left—which was meritocratic—had been replaced with this nasty levelling-down left committed to equality of outcome.”
For this rather lonely and alienated teenager, Margaret Thatcher appeared as a secular Messiah. “I really became a freak,” he says, laughing. “To be a Thatcherite at that time and place was much more rebellious than being a punk. My teachers thought I was insane. I’m sure I was pretty obnoxious.” He was so happy when Thatcher was elected that he stopped his calendar on that day—May 3rd 1979. He obsessively read George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, and had Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech seared onto his memory.
Sullivan was also slowly realising he was gay—yet he had no vocabulary to understand it. He says he didn’t hear the word “gay” while at school. “It’s hard for people to understand now, but there was a total silence about homosexuality. It was unmentioned and unmentionable.” Aged eight, he asked his mother if it was true that God really knew everything about you. She said yes. “Then there’s no hope for me, Mum,” he replied, and returned, despondent, to his bedroom.
At the dawn of Thatcherism, he became the first person in his family to go to university—Magdalen College, Oxford. Was he daunted by it? “Never. If you had spent 18 years of your life in East Grinstead, to suddenly be in Oxford was paradise.” He describes it as “a very Bridesheady time”—the famous TV adaptation had just been broadcast—and he was determined to try everything. He made his name by founding the Pooh-Sticks Society, a group dedicated to A.A. Milne’s game where you toss sticks in a river to see which floats past fastest. It became a monster: he says the group swelled to a thousand members, and crowds of hundreds would stop the traffic on Magdalen Bridge to play Pooh sticks.
His Oxford brand established—he was known as Piglet—Sullivan appeared in a ream of plays and swiftly conquered the Oxford Union. He was thrilled to meet William Hague, the ultra-Tory-boy famous for making a speech to Conservative Party conference when he was just 16.
“I was such a sad bastard, I was thrilled by that speech,” Sullivan says. He was absorbed into Hague’s political machine, and became the president of the Union at the start of his second year. It was an unusual event—you were supposed to wait your turn, and Sullivan was seen as a vulgar grammar-school boy. He became “inseparable” from fellow student Niall Ferguson—soon to become a famous right-wing historian—in part because they both disdained what they called the “rah-rahs”. But he equally loathed the left: he organised a champagne party the night Reagan’s Pershing missiles arrived in Britain.
At the time he was sure he would be either a Conservative politician or an actor. He specialised in roles about conflicted, internally fractured men, taking the leads in “Another Country”, “Equus” and “Hamlet”. But then his sexuality suddenly became an issue for the first time. He had barely acted on his gay impulses, but the student newspaper Cherwell outed him nonetheless. “I’m proud of the fact I never hid it,” he says. “Even then, I wasn’t prepared to lie.”
It was at this time that Sullivan discovered the philosopher who was to provide the timber of his conservatism—and the road map to many of his apparent contradictions. Michael Oakeshott was then a relatively obscure English philosopher in his 80s. Sullivan characterises his thought as “an anti-ideology, a nonprogramme, a way of looking at the world whose most perfect expression might be called inactivism”.
At the core of Oakeshott’s thought is the belief that human beings are extremely limited in what we can know. As Sullivan puts it: “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”.
Sullivan is often accused of flip-flopping according to political expediency, but it’s revealing that almost all the later tensions in his thought are prefigured in his writings about Oakeshott from his early 20s, recently published as “Intimations Pursued”. In 1984, he wrote that Oakeshott offers “a conservatism which ends by affirming a radical liberalism”—precisely the charge against Sullivan since 2004.
He argues that Oakeshott requires us to systematically discard programmes and ideologies and view each new situation sui generis. Change should only ever be incremental and evolutionary. Oakeshott viewed society as resembling language: it is learned gradually and without us really realising it, and it evolves unconsciously, and for ever.
After taking a first in history and modern languages, Sullivan headed to Harvard, where he began a stunningly rapid ascent into American life—only to crash, reviled and apparently dying, five years later. Two months after he got to America, he wrote to his parents saying he felt he was home for the first time in his life. “It was like meeting a person in their prime. It was 1984, Reagan had been re-elected, the Olympics had just happened.” Within a year, his accent had morphed into a Middle American drawl. His life at Harvard was a dizzying whirl. He remembers one 24-hour period when he played Hamlet on stage, had sex with a man in the Senior Common Room, and flew home for his grandmother’s funeral. “I remember standing at my grandmother’s grave and thinking—how do I unite these different parts of my life?”
After years of trying to suppress his sexuality—an “emotional blockage” that “really warped my personality”—he allowed himself to fall in love and have sex. It was on a trip home that he finally told his parents he was gay. His mother paused and said: “Oh my god. I’d better make a cup of tea.” His father wept. Sullivan had never seen his father cry before. After a while, he said: “What’s wrong? I’m fine.” His father replied: “No, you don’t understand. I’m crying because of everything you must have been through, and I did nothing to support you.” Sullivan says now: “It was the most honest expression of love I have ever heard.”
He began interning in his summers for the New Republic, the leading liberal magazine in America, which was slowly shifting rightwards under a new owner, Marty Peretz. Sullivan was talent-spotted and mentored by Leon Wieseltier, the stern, vigorously heterosexual scholar of medieval Judaism who edited the books pages with an increasingly neoconservative eye. Sullivan became his deputy—and within a year Peretz made the startling decision to fire the left-leaning editor, Hendrik Hertzberg, and replace him with Sullivan.
“It was crazy,” he says now. “Daunted isn’t the word, I was terrified. I was 26 years old and overnight I was weekending in Hyannisport with Bobby Kennedy’s son and meeting Barbra Streisand and being photographed by Annie Leibovitz for a Gap advert.”
But he didn’t choose a cautious path. He instantly fired one of the liberal stalwarts of the magazine, Morton Kondracke, and made the magazine spikier. He drew in writers like Camille Paglia and Douglas Coupland. Advertising revenues soared by 76% during his editorship, but Sullivan’s innovations were itching powder to its traditional liberal readership. He championed welfare reform and helped destroy Hillary Clinton’s plans for universal health care.
At some point, the elders of the magazine turned on Sullivan, and Wieseltier’s support turned to hate. He claimed later Sullivan was “responsible for an extraordinary amount of professional and personal unhappiness”—although neither man will say exactly what happened. “I was a lousy manager of people,” Sullivan says. “I was this kid dealing with these large egos, and I was terrible at it. But…I loved putting out a magazine, and I was good at the ideas and the editing.”
He concedes that the turning point—in his relationship with Wieseltier, and the magazine—came in 1994, when he decided to serialise the sociologist Charles Murray’s incendiary book “The Bell Curve”. It argued that IQ was significantly affected by genetics—and that black people had a lower average IQ. Although he didn’t endorse everything the book said, Sullivan thought it was a serious, scientific work that should be discussed. The editorial team wasn’t persuaded: almost all of them threatened to resign. He just managed to keep them on board by running 19 critical responses in the same issue as the extracts.
The political fallout was furious—but Sullivan faced a personal crisis that made it seem irrelevant. After a routine check-up, he was diagnosed as HIV positive, and given five years to live. At that time, it was a death sentence. “We talk about the 4,000 people who have died in Iraq as a calamity, but 300,000 Americans died of AIDS… My best friend died just after his 31st birthday.” He describes the diagnosis as like being in a movie theatre when something goes wrong in the projector room and suddenly the images are out of focus. “You wait for it to go right, but then it hits you—the movie will never be fixed. From now on, this is the movie.” For days after, his body went into periodic involuntary spasms.
What shocked him most of all was his own psychological response to the diagnosis: he instinctively interpreted it as something he deserved for being gay. “All that carefully constructed confidence in my own self-worth was just wiped away overnight.” He volunteered to help a 32-year-old gay man with AIDS. “He was the stereotype in many ways—the 1970s moustache, the Alcoholics Anonymous theology, the Miss American Beauty Pageant fan, the college swim coach. But he was also dying.” Sullivan realised he had to re-explore his attitudes towards homosexuality, which led him to an even sharper confrontation.
Of all the debates Sullivan has been embroiled in, his collision with the gay left is the hardest to reconstruct, because the gay-rights debate has been transformed in the two decades since, not least by his own writing. Yet Sullivan wrote the first major article in America calling for gay people to be given the right to marry—and he was savaged by other gays. His talks were picketed by a group called the Lesbian Avengers, who waved signs with Sullivan’s head in the crosshairs of a gun. In gay bars he was denounced as a “collaborator” and physically attacked. He was anathemised by mainstream gay-rights organisations, who refused to engage with him. Why?
The Village Voice writer Richard Goldstein spoke for this tendency when he claimed that Sullivan was “promoting the bargain of assimilation. But this deal comes with a price. It requires gays to maintain the illusion that we’re just like straights… [But] we were interested in messing with the codes of sexuality.” By advocating marriage, Sullivan was opting into the very system gay people should destroy. He was just “Rush Limbaugh with monster pecs,” a self-hater who “would solve the faggot problem by urging gay men not to act like fags”.
Today, marriage is the Number One demand of the gay-rights movement. So why was Sullivan demonised for being the first to articulate it? He says now, haltingly: “It was the middle of a plague, we were all dying, and here’s this brash British guy who’s a Catholic and right-winger talking about something unfamiliar, that challenges their assumptions… [But] I was too narcissistic to realise that it wasn’t about me.”
Sullivan was trying to alter the underlying argument of the gay-rights movement, from a radical assertion of difference to a radical assertion of sameness. The gay theme tune had to change from “I Am What I Am” to “I Am What You Are”—and for a dying generation, it was a message they could not bear to hear.
In the middle of this conflagration, Sullivan wrote his masterpiece, a philosophical treatise called “Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality”. The book rebutted both the homophobic right and the radical gay left to make the case for absorbing gay people into existing social institutions, especially marriage. He saw this as fundamentally conservative and Oakeshottian. His gay opponents were so enraged that they went—almost literally—below the belt.
They discovered that Sullivan was advertising for unprotected sex on a website called barebackcity.com. He made it absolutely clear he was HIV positive and only sought other HIV-positive lovers, but they turned the advert into a scandal. “It was vile. It was published everywhere, and they sent it to my mother and my bosses. They wanted to destroy me,” he says. His critics claimed that this proved Sullivan’s argument for gay monogamy was a fraud. Sullivan replies: “I was never a hypocrite. Never… No gay man writing at that time was more open about their sex life than I was.”
It’s true. In “Love Undetectable”, Sullivan had taken a nuanced position that was disarmingly honest. He wrote about the gay debate: “One side has excoriated promiscuity; the other side has glorified it. And both have, in the process, erased the human being in the middle.” He explained that while he strived for monogamy, “I felt, and often still feel, unable to live up to the ideals I really hold.” He even admitted to having unprotected sex with another HIV-positive man.
Nonetheless, the scandal, he says, “really devastated me for a while.” Was he angry with them? “Not really.” Angry with himself? “Yeah.” Was there part of him that subconsciously wanted to get caught? “No. I wanted to get laid!”
He left the New Republic, in a scenario he summarises as “I said ‘I quit’ and they said ‘No, you’re fired.’” Humiliated, reviled, and still carrying a deadly virus, Sullivan’s story could easily have ended here. But he was intrigued by the internet, and was one of the first dozen people to stumble across the fact that you could publish his own articles online and update whenever you wanted to. He was the first well-known writer to become a blogger—and played a key role in smelting the form. Just as Michel de Montaigne played a crucial role in developing the modern essay, Andrew Sullivan will be remembered as pioneering the form of the blog. The now-ubiquitous blog style—short, pithy, personality-inflected posts, offered often—was begun by him. “How many writers in their lifetime stumble across a new medium like this?” he asks excitedly. “Here you are, present at the creation.”
He pioneered blogging as a form where a writer can “think out loud”. He believes it suits an Oakeshottian temperament: like his favourite philosopher, it is radically provisional, always aware of its own limits in time and space, and always poised to have to correct itself in light of new evidence.
His readership figures surged after the 2001 massacres in New York and his home-town, Washington, DC. “I experienced 9/11 very personally,” he says. “The jihadists attacked my dream, my place—I felt like I had been beaten or raped. I succumbed to the fear a lot of us felt—panic really—about this country being in mortal danger. And neoconservatism seemed like the only ideology on the shelf with a plan for how to react immediately, and I turned to it.”
Having voted for George Bush in 2000, he now became one of his most militant supporters, urging him to invade not just Afghanistan but Iraq, in charged and extreme language. His blog posts from that time are quite startling to read now—more expressions of rage and grief than political analysis. After the anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill, he immediately attributed them to jihadis and even mooted the need for America to launch a nuclear or biological response. He then savaged the “decadent left enclaves on the coast”, saying they “may well mount a fifth column” within the United States. This was applauded by Republicans, but the liberal columnist Eric Alterman spoke for many when he called him “a one-man House Un-American Activities Committee”.
Sullivan now believes this was the only period in his life when he departed from his Oakeshottian stance: “I was terribly wrong. In the shock and trauma of 9/11, I forgot the principles of scepticism and doubt towards utopian schemes that I had learned.” He was jolted back to “sanity”, he says, by the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. He had always seen torture as the negation of American values—and was stunned that this man he had cheered on was authorising it. He began to pore over the emerging evidence. It led him to a radical reappraisal of Bush—and into a confrontation with the Republican right that mirrored his earlier fight with the gay left.
As Iraq burned, spending swelled and the deficit bloated yet further, he came to see Bush as the polar opposite of Oakeshott: a big-government proponent of absolute certainty, who was beginning to “combine the worst foreign-policy utopianism of the left with the worst social draconianism of the right”.
The Republican right—who had, finally, begun to accept him, despite his homosexuality—turned on him with rhetorical machineguns blazing. Hugh Hewitt, the hyper-partisan talk-show host, denounces him as “the biggest wasted talent in all of the English-speaking world… [He] wants very badly to be described as a conservative, but he is no more a conservative than I am a Russian... That Andrew Sullivan is read at all is a symptom of a fundamentally unserious country in a deadly serious age.” They found his argument for doubt incomprehensible. The right-wing commentator Jonah Goldberg says: “For many conservatives, Sullivan has become the intellectual equivalent of a write-off… [It’s] a Monty Python-esque absurdity to imagine a serious political movement founded on such bumper-sticker slogans as ‘We’re not sure!’ and ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, certainty has got to go!’”
Sullivan admits that this hurts. “Of course sometimes I feel like throwing in the towel and saying, ok, I’m not conservative any more, if Bush and Palin are what conservatism means. But I believe in [conservatism] enough to try to reclaim it from these people.”
He sees Sarah Palin as the “reductio ad absurdum” of the American conservatism he opposes—an “idiot” whose success is purely based “on identity politics and Christian fundamentalism”. This disgust was so intense that during the election campaign, he circulated rumours on his blog that Palin’s youngest child had in fact been born to Palin’s daughter, Bristol. Right-wing bloggers said he was a “shrieking fag”, and even whispered that he had aids dementia. If they didn’t ignore his thoughtful book “The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It and How To Get It Back”, they scorned it.
But as he was embarked on a new and vicious battle with the right, he was slowly winning his old argument with the gay left. Many of the people who denounced him as “evil” for proposing marriage were now—without any apology—getting married themselves in the two American states that allowed it. (Iowa has just become the third state to legalise gay marriage, after a recent state Supreme Court verdict.) Yet Sullivan believed he was too late to benefit from his own great crusade. He believed his generation was too scarred, but the next generation could still be saved. Then, three years ago, at a gay club-night in New York City, he met Aaron Tone, a younger actor and artist, and “fell head-over-heels in love, in a way I never had before”. In 2007 they got married in Provincetown, at a small ceremony for family and friends. It was the place where, 15 years before, when gay marriage seemed an impossible dream, he had written “Virtually Normal”.
They live together now with their beagles in an apartment in central DC. To be their guest is to wander into a scene of pure gay domesticity, of the kind Sullivan was picturing to widespread bemusement not so long ago. It is a clear, uncluttered apartment, filled up only with vast quantities of coffee and dog toys. But in one corner—Sullivan’s “blog den”—piles of papers and books erupt chaotically, and a Mac is perma-charged and ready to blog.
Protease inhibitors mean that Sullivan can now expect to have a much longer life—albeit swallowing fistfuls of pills a day, and with regular testosterone injections—than he could ever have imagined when he was first diagnosed HIV-positive. But he says the experience of facing death—imminent, painful death—underpins his writing. “The ashes of all the people I love who died keep me going. They’re my fuel. I promised one of my best friends that I would not give up. And that’s still very much part of my identity. I am a child of the plague and I will never, never forget that.”
With the scenery of conservatism collapsing all around, Sullivan was one of the first major champions of Barack Obama as a future president. He found his temperament—empirical, doubtful, discursive—immediately congenial. This brought yet more howls of betrayal from the right. But now Obama has won, will Sullivan’s Obamaphilia clash with his small-state conservatism, as Obama embarks on a programme of big-government Keynesian reflation?
This question cuts to an unacknowledged tension in Sullivan’s thought that has lain dormant since his Oxford days. Oakeshott believed we should be sceptical of all human institutions—including markets. He savaged Hayek’s market fundamentalist bible, “The Road to Serfdom”, as another rationalist delusion. He saw it as a utopian plan to end planning, yet another argument that a perfect system could be found, this time in markets. Sullivan’s scepticism, by contrast, has been lop-sided. He is highly sceptical of the capacity of governments to act, but he has often presented markets as close to infallible, if left undistorted by government action.
This belief has been at the core of the left-wing writer Naomi Klein’s criticisms of Sullivan. She says: “Where is this ideal capitalism of which [he] speaks? It reminds me of people on the very far left who, where when you present them with evidence of the real-world application of their ideology, say, ‘That doesn’t count, that was a distortion.’ Well, where’s the real version?”
When I ask Sullivan about this, he says: “It’s very hard to be a consistent Oakeshottian, to not let dogmas creep in. Perhaps my belief in markets has become like that. Over the next few years, in my blog and writing, I’m going to be thinking this through.” It seems he can imagine reasoning himself to a more Obama-friendly pro-intervention viewpoint—surely provoking yet more cries of betrayal from conservatives.
He believes his greatest future conflicts will centre on religion—the topic of his next book. He learned his Catholicism as an altar boy in East Grinstead. For him it is a sacramental religion, all about smell and sight and touch. Ritual is at its core, because “ritual has no point beyond itself. Only ritual can approximate the ineffability of the divine, enact its truth while not purporting to explain or capture it.”
Sullivan feels that this model of religion—filled with a sense of the mysterious, and the unknowability of God—has been replaced in both America and the Vatican by outright fundamentalism. He says he can understand the appeal of this fundamentalism because he went through a phase of it himself. When he first went to grammar school, he was severed from his childhood friends. He became obsessed with doctrinal differences. He would draw little crosses in his exercise book to ward off evil, and in art classes he refused to draw or paint anything that was not somehow related to the Bible. For confirmation, he took the name of Sir Thomas More—the scourge of heretics and Catholic martyr.
“I remember feeling that without the structure of my faith, without my knowledge of its infallible truth, I might have been completely overwhelmed,” he says. Fundamentalism “was a way of sealing myself off from the world”. He sees American Christians turning to fundamentalism as a panicked response to change and doubt too. They have ended up pining for a theocracy that is contrary to his beloved US constitution and basic liberties for gay people.
He says his next battle is to “turn Christianity against the fundamentalists”. For him, “their certainty is the real blasphemy; their desire to control the lives of others the real heresy; their simple depiction of the Godhead proof positive they do not really understand him.” In the Gospels, the men who set themselves up as arbiters of moral correctness are often the furthest from God, he says, while Jesus urges people to see beyond fetishising rules and commandments to their own conscience. This is the flag Sullivan will carry into battle as a paladin against the Palins.
And so he is left where he is happiest: at war with his own side. I try to picture him as a boy, wearing his Reagan ’80 badge in a bemused liberal school, a proud minority of one. This Andrew Sullivan feels familiar to me. In the decades since, he has recreated this lonely dynamic—as Thomas More, standing for the truth against the heretic-majority—with the three constituents of his character in turn: his homosexuality, his conservatism and his Catholicism. Even when he is wrong, it is invigorating to watch, and proof that heat does generate light. I suspect Andrew Sullivan will be wearing his defiant badge of difference to the end.
Picture credit: Dudley Reed
(Johann Hari is a columnist on the Independent. In 2008 he won the Orwell prize for political journalism and was called "fat" by the Dalai Lama.)