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Jul. 27 2010 - 5:18 pm | 204 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Sully’s Sexism: Andrew Sullivan’s Masculinist Worldview

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It is puzzling indeed that it is the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol who has earned the appellation “Always Wrong” from the snarkosphere. As far as being persistently, punishingly, jaw-droppingly wrong on issue after issue, for year after year, Kristol has nothing on the likes of Andrew Sullivan.

Sullivan, whose popular blog, The Daily Dish, runs on the website of the Atlantic, has exhibited stunningly bad judgment for well over a decade. To run through just a few of his greatest hits: in 1994, while editor of the New Republic, Sullivan ran a lengthy excerpt from the Bell Curve, the discredited and toxic polemic which argues that innate racial IQ differences account for the achievement gap. (To this day, he’s “proud” of having done so.) Also while editor of TNR, he ran Betsy McCaughey’s dishonest attack on the Clinton health care plan – an article which is said to have been partially responsible for the defeat of ClintonCare. (As a result, the great James Fallows nominated McCaughey for his coveted “most destructive effect on public discourse by a single person” award.) In 2001, in the wake of the 9/11, Sullivan charged that American liberals “may well mount . . . a fifth column,” and side with the terrorists. He was a zealous supporter of the Iraq war, and heaped abuse on those who dared to disagree with him. For the past two years, he has fanned the flames of Trig Palin birtherism, frantically and fanatically claiming that Sarah Palin is not the mother of her child. Even his predictions regarding the Obama presidency have turned out laughably off-base. In a 2008 Atlantic cover story, Sullivan argued that an Obama presidency would end the racial and cultural wars that have divided this country.

We see how well that has turned out.

But the purpose of this post is not merely to bring to light the myriad mess-ups that Sullivan is responsible for – I’m not attempting to write a (longer) Moby Dick here. Rather, I wish to point out another disturbing element of Sullivan’s thinking: his equation of all that is venal and corrupt with the feminine, and his worshipful view of all that he associates with masculinity. His is a Manichean worldview that is as simple-minded as it is sexist.

Let us begin with Sullivan’s contemptuous view of the feminine – and his concomitant hatred of some very powerful women. Take his attitude towards Hillary Clinton. In 2007, and 2008, as Clinton was mounting a run for the White House, Sullivan’s blog was a hotbed of inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric aimed at the then-New York Senator. He charged that Hillary Clinton had “betrayed feminism” which occasioned the American Prospect’s Dana Goldstein to ask, “who stepped down and named Andrew Sullivan king of feminism?” In extraordinarily condescending fashion, he lectured women and feminists that “it’s time feminists realized that Clinton is a dream gone sour . . . One day, there will be a woman worth electing to the White House. But not this one.” And it hardly escaped notice that the pictures he chose to run of Mrs. Clinton were always highly unflattering, either showcasing her wrinkles, or using shadows and darkness to make her appear almost demonic.

His attitude towards Sarah Palin would require a book-length treatment in itself, but here, at the very least, is a representative post. Famously, Sullivan has been ferocious in arguing that Palin is not actually the mother of her child. On his blog, weeks were spent consumed with the subject, and he continues to flog that horse to this day. Indeed, the real question Dana Goldstein should ask is, “who stepped down and named Andrew Sullivan Sarah Palin’s OBGYN?” While Sullivan is clearly a highly emotional man, prone to fits of passion, he has never displayed the kind of scorn and hatred for men that he does regularly for women like Clinton and Palin. He also applies a double standard to lesbian women: while on the record as an opponent of outing closeted gays, he nonetheless demanded a public accounting of the sexual orientation of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

Conversely, all that Sullivan sees as good, he portrays in hyper-masculinized language. Take his frequent use of the term “balls.” He champions the “fiscal balls” of Chris Christie. He celebrates April Fools, with “bigger balls.” In complementing the journalist Spencer Ackerman, he gushes that “Spencer is a good person, dedicated to real investigative journalism and with more balls and capacity for hard work than most of his peers.” And he says that members of the Journolist mailing list are “devoid of any balls whatsoever.” Apparently, to Sullivan, virtue is equated with the posession of testicles. And Sullivan writes in near worshipful terms of virtuous, masculinized men. Of Reagan: “his visionary focus [was] matched only by a gentleness of character and a brilliance of rhetoric,” of Obama, “he’s the best thing we’ve got.” Even women sprout balls when they agree with Sullivan. He says that Maggie Gallagher “has balls.” (“In a good way,” he hastens to add.)

This is merely the tip of the iceberg; Sullivan’s blog posts upwards of twenty items a day, and in attempting to follow Sullivan’s vacillations, wild swings of opinion, and overheated rhetoric, one is liable to contract whiplash. But, suffice it to say, the same pattern is clear — the gender-bifurcated worldview is the one constant of the Daily Dish.

Many of Sullivan’s acolytes like to point out that he has apologized for some of the colossal errors of judgment that he has made in the past. The Iraq War is an example: he has publicly declared that he was mistaken to support the invasion.

But in what terms did Sullivan apologize? “I supported the war in Iraq like a teenaged girl supporting the Jonas Brothers,” he has said. Ah, of course: according to Sullivan, supporting the Iraq war was the girly thing to do.


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  1. collapse expand

    Sullivan also supported massive tax cuts from 1999 through 2003 explicitly based on the rationale of starving the beast by racking up as much debt as possible. Seriously. He thought that the fact that they weren’t paid for was one of their better qualities and didn’t much care about the economic impact.

    These days, Sullivan is obsessed with any attempt to bring down the debt (this started, I think, with his dedication to Social Security privatization) and vigorously defends Obama’s plan to let Bush’s cuts expire for some people. I don’t think he’s ever addressed this change of heart or taken credit for his irresponsibility in endorsing Bush for such a stupid reason (who also was the ballsier candidate, I suppose).

    Sullivan’s at least mentioned how ridiculous his war rhetoric was, though I don’t know that he’s ever discussed the intellectual failure that he shared with practically every “serious” commenter in finding the evidence of Iraqi WMD persuasive… only, as you note, for calling war opponents traitors. Those of us in the middle who don’t oppose just wars but recognized that Hans Blix was screaming that he had no proof that Iraq had WMD are never acknowledged.

  2. collapse expand

    Ethan,

    Bill Kristol is called “always wrong” by the reality-based community because he is, in fact, always wrong about everything. In what possible sense can it be considered “puzzling” that someone who has been wrong about every issue of national importance becomes famous for being wrong?

    I can’t believe you’re actually trying to push back against the completely incontestable observation that Bill Kristol supports whatever is good for the Republican party at a given moment in time and never expresses the slightest degree of shame for his legendary list of inaccuracies.

  3. collapse expand

    More of the iceberg:

    His ode to testosterone:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/02/magazine/the-he-hormone.html

    In which he re-centers all sexual/biological difference and meaning around testosterone levels because, as always, it’s about what men have and where women are found lacking. We also get several pages of armchair biological essentialism and evolutionary psych–which are, of course, always great indicators of pro-woman thinking. Notice how he works in a little of his pet “maybe black people just aren’t as smart” argument, but it’s OK because they have lotsa testosterone and can play sports!

    There are a few cries of “what about the men?”–see the bits about male incarceration levels and how we need to refocus the gender/equality discourse around the comfort of blue collar men. (Try to ignore that these class structures and the prison industrial complex are wholly produced by and within a masculinist society and reified primarily by male actors.I find it helps while tuning my tiny violin.)

    Finally, he concludes that we can all just tinker with hormone levels to address inequalities and ‘undesirable’ gendered behavior. Because why do the hard work of rethinking and dismantling systematic biases when we can wreak havoc on our health and bodies instead? And, really, women’s hormonal profiles haven’t been pathologized enough in the traditional sexist narratives. I could see this ending well.

    See also: the infamous bear article, wherein gay bear culture is not only exalted for its masculine purity, but strangely positioned against women’s ‘domesticating’, feminizing effects on their male partners. I’m not sure what [imagined] heterosexual dynamics have to do with his personal preference for this particular queer subculture, but gotta rip on the bitches somehow, amirite?!

    http://dir.salon.com/story/opinion/sullivan/2003/08/01/bears/index2.html

    I can’t remember which articles or TV appearances leading up to the 08 election made me go “Hold up–is this guy just a complete misogynist or something?” But it was after I read the above from the early sexist Sully canon that I decided to stop taking him seriously.

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    About Me

    I'm a writer based in Portland, Oregon. My work has appeared in the Weekly Standard, the American Spectator, the New York Press, The Big Money, sp!Ked online, the Epoch Times, the Daily NK, and others. From 2005 to 2007, I wrote a column on culture and politics for the (alas, now defunct) Seattle-based Internationalist Magazine. In so doing, I filed dispatches from Berlin, Seoul, Paris, New York, and, yes, Reno - among other places. In 2009, I reported on business from Shanghai. I attended Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

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