The Trouble with South Park

by Leon Wieseltier | February 11, 2010

Andrew Sullivan, in his diligent and sentimental response to my complaint against him the other day, retreats immediately to the personal. “I have Irish blood and a Catholic conscience.” “There will be times in which the emotion of the moment will overwhelm me.” “Am I insensitive? At times, I’m sure I am.” “I’m a South Park devotee, for Pete’s sake.” What, precisely, does any of this extenuate? There will be times in which the emotion of the moment will overwhelm me, too--and those are the times in which I will choose not to write. I do not see that Sullivan’s hotheadedness absolves him of anything. He is not right because he is intemperate and he is not wrong because he is intemperate: he is merely explaining belief in terms of temperament, and mood, and identity, all of which have no bearing upon the substance of any discussion. Compose yourself, man, and think. For a deeply felt opinion may be false, and even pernicious. In intellectual life, volatility has no authority, and spontaneity is not a virtue, and neither is sincerity. (Nobody is accusing Sullivan of lying.) And when Sullivan boasts about his Proteanism--one of the reasons I dislike blogging is that it is often the perfect vindication of the postmodern glorification of the self as discontinuous and promiscuous--why should his blog be read as anything more than a psychological document, as a record of his shifts and his seasons?

I fear Emerson’s hobgoblin as much as the next man, but Sullivan has an instrumental attitude toward apology. He is correct that he apologized for his “fifth column” slander of 2001, and in my pages. I should have mentioned it, even if I was clear in my piece that Sullivan no longer holds this view, that this was the sin of one of his earlier selves. And now that we are visiting our past--though I have nothing to say here about our happy times and our hard times: they are not for all the world to know--I recall that he made this apology at my suggestion, after I advised him that he could not very well denounce Dinesh D’Souza’s smears without confessing to one of his own. But yes, he said he was sorry. Sullivan also said he was sorry after I (and a reader who was similarly shocked by an anti-Semitic implication) castigated him for suggesting in 2008 that William Kristol had no right to attack Barack Obama on the subject of American Christianity, because “a non-Christian manipulator of Christianity is calling a Christian a liar about his own faith”: “All I can say is that is not in any way what I intended,” Sullivan replied, “the context makes this obvious, and if someone were to take it that way, I am sincerely, deeply sorry for not being clearer.” Sullivan also said he was sorry in 2009 after a reader wrote to decry his observation--on Good Friday!--that Larry Summers looked a lot like one of the leering hook-nosed Jews in Hieronymous Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross in the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Ghent: “I can see now why you might see things the way you did,” Sullivan replied. “But it was in no way intended. I’m sorry if anyone was offended. I’ll try and be more conscious of these things in the future.” Sullivan is an athlete of regret. I believe in forgiveness, not least because I am frequently in need of it; but the impression that emerges from Sullivan’s many requests for forgiveness is mainly one of self-forgiveness. Maimonides famously taught that if a man says “I will sin and I will repent, I will sin and I will repent,” his repentance is not accepted. The same rigor about the individual’s reckonings and resolutions may be found in the Christian tradition. It is not for me to accept or not to accept Sullivan’s repentance. But its frequency confers upon it an unattractive degree of irony.

I did not defend Charles Krauthammer--as if he needs or wants my defense--because I concur with his view on torture. I mostly do not, though I do not agree that slapping around Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab would represent a crisis in our civilization. I defended Krauthammer only from Sullivan’s imputation of his thinking to his ethnicity--again, from the reduction of belief to identity. Bragging about his mental inconstancies, Sullivan declares that “I’m a writer who doesn’t much care for political correctness,” but there is no more definitive sign of the demagoguery of political correctness--and, I still insist, of an even worse demagoguery--than the ascription of a person’s opinions to his group. It was Sullivan’s treatment of Krauthammer that put me in mind of the foul Buchanan and his “amen-corner” of Jews in Washington.

Sullivan makes the erroneous, and self-glamorizing, assumption that criticism is a call for censorship. His heroes Mearsheimer and Walt have made a career out of this mistake, and thereby portrayed their success as martyrdom. To the best of my recollection, I have never characterized Mearsheimer and Walt, or anybody else, as “the modern equivalent of Der Sturmer.” And of course AIPAC “has massive influence in Congress”--but that is hardly all that Mearsheimer and Walt claim! Anyway, they, and Sullivan, have the right to say any damn thing they want about AIPAC, and Israel, and Jews. And I have the right to respond as strictly and as definitively as I can. I do not wish to silence them, I wish to refute them. I also do not wish to allow them to enjoy the sanctuary of the piously skinless. People who give offense will get offense. I appreciate the delicacy, or rather the indelicacy, of my allegation about Sullivan. I did not propose that he is an anti-Semite. I did propose that the scorn and the fury that characterizes his discussion of Israel and some of its Jewish supporters is wholly unwarranted by the requirements of a critical analysis of the settlements or the Gaza war, and that it may therefore be mistaken for bigotry. (There are conservative opponents of what they virulently call “the gay agenda” who should not be surprised if they have to defend themselves against the charge of homophobia, even if they are not homophobic.) If I should be more careful about the question of anti-Semitism, so should Sullivan. He complacently says that on this score “I did my best.” No, he did not. There is a lot of this prejudice in the world right now, and this is really no time to be sloppy, or South Parky, about it. Sullivan is correct that there is not much difference between our views about the settlements and Israeli brutality in Gaza and the ideological orientation of the Likud--but there is all the difference in the world, because I have labored to provide an example of what Michael Walzer has described as “connected criticism,” of criticism that cannot be mistaken for enmity. (This does not mean that enmity is not allowed. It does mean that enmity cannot pose as friendship.) Sullivan may admire Jewish liberals in America, but his recklessness is no help to their cause: he contributes precisely to the fetid atmosphere of polarization in which complexities of argument and commitment are increasingly hard to sustain, in which many people conclude that you really cannot criticize Israeli policy without despising Israel.

About his own tradition, though, Sullivan is morbidly sensitive. He regards my rejection on intellectual grounds of “the central tenets of the Christian faith--the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God” as “cheap pot-shots.” It is nothing of the kind. My opinions about these occult notions are the result of many years in the study of philosophy and religion. And they are hardly just my opinions. Sullivan is outraged that I regard the idea of plurality in the deity as “a regress to polytheism. … And not just polytheism but crude polytheism,” but in fact this is a very old view that was held also by non-believing Christians. (Crude polytheism is the only sort of polytheism there is.) And Sullivan does no damage to this view when he protests that what it denies is “a profound mystery to Christians.” So what? If religion is about truth, then religion is forever vulnerable to the methods by which truth is ascertained. And not just his religion; my religion, too. Sullivan concludes with a ringing question: “Can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?” He thinks he knows the answer to this question. So I want to be clear. There is no need to imagine me coming across people who think that some of the most foundational convictions of Judaism--God, creation, the splitting of the Red Sea and all the other miracles, the cosmos of reward and punishment--the whole supernatural apparatus of my religion--is nonsense. I have met such people and some of them are my friends. If their objections are thoughtful, then there is nothing “derogatory and condescending and cheap” about them. In deliberating on the most significant and the most vexing questions of living, what we are matters less than what we prove.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. 

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