At the end of the 1960s, when Hillary Rodham was writing her thesis on radical politics and Rudy Giuliani was contemplating the priesthood, the line between liberal and conservative was cleanly drawn. Young people on the right said “please” and “thank you,” prayed at bedtime, and saw the fight against communism as America’s sacred mission. Those on the left opposed the Vietnam War, championed the underdog, and harbored a solid distrust of anyone over 30.
According to Andrew Sullivan, politicians have never stopped wearing the team jerseys they donned during those turbulent years. “How do we account for the bitter, brutal tone of American politics?” he asks in “Goodbye to All That,” his piece in the December Atlantic. “The divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t… between God-fearing Americans and the peacenik atheist hippies of lore.” The 2008 presidential election, to his mind, is more than a call to take sides in a fierce struggle. It is an opportunity to transcend the struggle itself. “If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems,” he writes, “Obama may be your man.”
That Sullivan, a longstanding conservative, would throw his support behind a liberal candidate might strike some as unorthodox. But Sullivan himself has long defied definition. Born in Britain, he earned an early reputation for his commentary on American politics, becoming editor of The New Republic while still in his 20s. His public pronouncements have ranged from support of the Iraq War to bitter criticism of its folly. He has stood by his Catholic faith while remaining ever candid about his life as a gay, HIV-positive man.
Sullivan continues to write for print—along with his December Atlantic piece, his recent output includes a regular column for the Times of London and a book entitled The Conservative Soul. But over the past eight years, the vast majority of his writing has appeared on his blog, The Daily Dish. Since joining The Atlantic as a blogger and senior editor this past January, he has continued to stretch the limits of the online medium and challenge notions of left and right. On October 26th, he stopped by my office for the following chat.
—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz
Your piece revolves around the idea that Baby Boomer candidates like Hillary and Giuliani are essentially rehashing the same debates they had in college dorm rooms 30 or 40 years ago. How are these discussions different from the ones college students are having now?
Well, in the past, the size of government was one of the more fundamental dividing lines between right and left. The right was supposed to represent the small government philosophy—limited spending, low taxes. Obviously, things have shifted. I don’t think any Democrat could possibly have increased government spending faster than the Republicans have done over the last six or seven years. Therefore, when you actually look at who would make government bigger or smaller, the distinctions between the two parties at this point are almost moot.
I also think the paradigm of whether one wants to be an interventionist or an isolationist, to use two hackneyed terms, has rather broken up since the end of the Cold War, and specifically since Iraq. Obviously, we don’t have a Soviet Union, a big state with an actual army that we’re fighting against. Therefore the rules of this war are very different and require a different calibration. I think we’re just at the beginning of really figuring out exactly what that means.
You and Obama were both in your 20s when the Berlin Wall came down. Instead of coming of age during Vietnam, when everyone was choosing sides in a fierce battle, you suddenly found yourselves in an optimistic political landscape where all the boundaries were crumbling. Do you think the people who were young at that time came out of it with a less-polarized worldview?
Yes, and also on certain fundamental social issues, the post-Boomers, if you will, just don’t see things in quite the divisive ways that the Boomers do. Let me give you a couple of examples.
On abortion or marriage or even end-of-life issues, I think this generation tends to be more pragmatically small “c” conservative, in the sense that they don’t see this as a fight over the meaning of civilization. I think the consensus, actually— you see this in films like Knocked Up—is that abortion is actually an awful thing and we’re not interested in having a fight over whether it is or isn’t. We’re interested in finding ways to making it less common. Most people are not that interested in making it illegal, criminalizing it in all circumstances. Or they think that that debate is really not that interesting or productive a debate.
Similarly with the gay thing. I think most people who came of age after the ’60s and don’t associate necessarily being gay with the New Left—or the “goddamn hippies”— think it’s fine if gay people want to get married, or settle down, or whatever they want to call it. And many certainly are happy with an idea of a federalist sort of solution where different states take different positions. There is no support for a federal marriage amendment except amongst very hard-core Christianists. So, I think that the next generation grapples with these issues, is not unaware of them, but it doesn’t have the same emotional, polarizing effect that it does on our parents.
You touch on the gay marriage debate in your piece—you argue that none of the candidates will have a major impact on the way this issue plays out. I found that a bit surprising. As readers of your blog know, you married a man in Provincetown, Massachusetts, this past summer. Are you not concerned that a new president might come into office and influence the legal status of that marriage?
Well, the facts on the ground are like the settlements in the West Bank: the longer they’re there, the harder it becomes to reverse them. If a federal constitutional amendment were passed, then that could have an impact. But that’s not a factor for the president, it’s for the Congress, and it failed in the most Republican Congress.
So the idea it’s going to succeed in what most everybody believes is going to be an increasingly Democratic Congress—I think it’s over. I think the debate is done. My own view, if I were to be predicting—and I hesitate to predict—is that there will be a handful of states that allow marriage rights within the next decade, enough to change the culture, and then in another 10 or 20 years, the other states will follow. It will be a process.
Obama is generally thought of as a great unifier, someone who can bring together people of all races and political persuasions. But as one of your blog readers recently pointed out, Obama doesn’t have the support of middle-aged black voters. They’re afraid he’ll be assassinated if he gets within striking distance of the White House.
The relationship of black Americans to Obama is sociologically riveting. Obama himself believes that most blacks simply think he can’t win, because a black man can’t be president of America—and therefore they’re putting their votes with Hillary, because they think she at least can win, and largely because of her connection to Bill, who still, for some reason, has an amazing pull in that community.
I also think that Obama’s life story, which is really of self-help and overcoming, is a conservative story in a way: a black man who got to be the first African-American to chair the Harvard Law Review. This is a very serious person. And he embodies a message that some elements of black America don’t want to hear. They want to hear that the issues within the black community are entirely the fault of whites. Obama neither takes the Clarence Thomas position nor does he take the Julian Bond position. He takes a rather nuanced position in between. But of course, when you’re in a community that has been fed the Julian Bond/Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson line for a very long time, you can sort of resent where Obama is coming from.
But what about this idea of potential assassination? After all, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated before election day, and he was white. Do you think there’s any chance that the country could dissolve into chaos if Obama won the Democratic nomination?
I think Obama is an RFK figure. Right now, Clinton is absorbing all the usual right-wing fire as well as helping the right wing raise lots of money. But if Obama were to become the nominee, this race would be transformed, because he represents a transformation of American politics. I don’t necessarily think he’s going to be shot—my husband does, but I don’t. However, I do think that what that resonates with is a sense that this man really could change things. And people resist it.
I think we have a very rare opportunity to change the direction of this country with this guy. I’m convinced, having watched him closely and listened to him for a couple of years now, that he’s the real thing, in the sense that he is still, unlike so many other politicians, a real human being. He actually is thinking in real time. He’s not entirely about the machine, as Hillary is. Therefore, he might actually take positions that upset serious vested interests—on all sides. That’s a threat to people.
You raise the provocative point that Obama’s background—his race and even his name—might help to make America safer. You argue that it would be much more difficult for Muslim extremists to incite violence against a brown-skinned president named Barack Hussein Obama.
I’m thinking there in terms of simply the propaganda war. It’s clear after Afghanistan and Iraq that pure military force alone is not a solution to the problems we have. It can be part of the solution. However, long-term, this kind of asymmetrical threat requires shifting the views of a large number of people in the Muslim world—especially given that that world is disproportionately young. And many of them have known only Bush as the face of the United States.
If you’re going to try to reach that teenager in Lahore, you’re not going to do it with Karen Hughes or with some elaborate PR strategy. I think Obama’s face, background, and identity, as representing America, reintroduces the country in a way—rebrands it in a way, that no other candidate’s could. Certainly, if you consider what the impact of a Giuliani would be on the way the world responds to us—especially anybody without white skin responds to us—I can’t imagine a more disastrous move for the United States than to go with the most polarizing, hostile, arrogant, insular, dictatorial figure. I think Obama is the aggressive offense. Giuliani’s sole reliance on military force and attacking people rhetorically is in fact a defensive posture that won’t work.
You know, there’s always the question of whether a candidate’s idealism can survive once he or she is in office. The most obvious example is Al Gore. He’s won an Oscar, he’s won a Nobel Prize, but could he have stood up for his beliefs in such a bold way if he’d been elected president? Or would he have been constrained by the system and by the collective consciousness of the nation?
Al Gore’s problem, in my view, is that he never liked politics. He’s actually deeply uncomfortable in it but felt he had to do it because of his father. He’s much more comfortable in a private sector role and has, in fact, been much more successful in a private sector role, and I admire him for that.
I think Obama has picked this path of public office for all rather naïve, earnest reasons about service and so on and so forth. So far, I’m not a cynic about him—I probably will be at some point. Power corrupts people, and they have to make compromises. If you’re a grown-up, you’re not looking for total purity. But you are looking for someone who is at least attempting to do the right thing. He won’t be able to do this entirely, and this is the world we live in.
How would an Obama presidency influence Americans’s own sense of identity? Based on the example of South Africa, having a black president might not make all racial problems magically disappear, but it drastically influences the way a nation sees itself.
I do think that the day a black man becomes president of the United States will be a day that will make every American, alive or dead, stop and look. However, I don’t really know what the impact will be, because we are talking about a historical event that is impossible to anticipate. If, for example, he becomes the nominee and fails for clearly racial reasons, then it could have the reverse effect.
You mean it could set back the morale several years?
None of these things are without risk. But given this country’s original sin, giving Obama a chance would, among other things, be a form of absolution. Even though Obama is not representative of the African-American experience. His identity as a black man was not actually ingrained in him at an early age. He had to sort of learn it in his teens as he discovered himself, which obviously resonates with me as a gay man. Gay people often have a sense of dwelling in more than one world simultaneously, and, I think he does, too. The complexity of the man is what makes him a much more typical American than many of the others now running, in as much as he represents the future complexity of America, culturally, racially, and, as I argue in the piece, religiously.
As you put it in the piece, he’s both a believer and a doubter. Politicians rarely reveal any religious doubt, and you mention that as an asset. But it might not be an asset in red states, which is where religion matters the most.
No, it isn’t. But the struggle in America is not just between religion and atheism—between faith and non-faith—it’s increasingly between atheism and fundamentalism, which are actually two forms of fundamentalism that are strangling the experience of a more modern, intelligent, faith experience. And that’s a big question, whether that moderate faith experience will endure. Now this is a very interesting subject in many ways. Mark Lilla’s book The Stillborn God kind of argues that a moderate political theology is unstable and impossible and will collapse.
Why is that?
Because it neither commands the respect of believers, nor does it command the respect of the non-believers. But Obama is an eternal moderate, and I think that that’s important. I’m not interested in religion being moderate for any instrumental reasons, but because I think that any religious faith that has not come to terms with the limits of human knowledge and consciousness is an extraordinarily limited and unintelligent faith. I don’t believe that reason and faith are incompatible. And I don’t believe that doubt and faith are incompatible.
To give you a simple, rather crude example: if you were a fundamentalist Christian and you actually believed the world was made 6,000 years ago in its entirety, it would be impossible to believe that in the modern world without having to deny and oppose some extraordinarily resilient facts and theories, both in terms of science and in terms of human history. Yes, it might be easy to believe that, but at the same time, you could make the case that it’s hard to believe that. The more distant faith becomes from reality, the more insanely absolutist and unthinking and irrational and stupid the faith becomes. I see Obama as a way to bridge these divides.
Of course, we’re sitting here as a Catholic speaking to a Jew. We both come from scholarly religious traditions.
You guys more than us. Although Catholics, unlike other Christians, are committed to reasoning within faith. Thank God for Aquinas.
Right. But I’m not sure our view of religion is shared by the majority of Americans. For plenty of people, faith doesn’t have anything to do with reconciling streams of knowledge, or with panels of scholars debating ideas. It’s about opening up to a Holy Spirit that trumps science, reason, the devil, and everything else.
That’s fear, not faith.
Whatever it is, I wonder whether Obama will be able to reach the demographic that feels that way.
He can’t. He won’t. Those people are not going to vote for Obama. They may have a very hard time voting for Giuliani. But I think the job of leading public officials is to challenge this kind of fundamentalist movement rather than to exploit it. I think it’s dangerous, even though emotionally and psychologically you can see its appeal. Because it’s not true, because its fundamentals are a lie, because it is actually not faith, it is something that people mistake for faith—it will fail.
But not before it’s done a lot of damage to human society and human lives—human civilization potentially. We will learn these things are lies in the ruins of a massive terror attack or in the hollow shell of our constitution once it has been gutted of all our protections from executive power.
Part of the context of this piece is really as follows: if you believe the world’s okay, then the case for Obama is actually rather weak. Why would we listen to this rather young, untested figure? Let’s go to security mom, Hillary, or big daddy Rudy. If you believe, as I do, that the world seems to be hurtling toward something quite catastrophic, then the requirement of the United States to actually evolve itself to resist that trend—as opposed to accelerating it—is quite high. And Obama in fact puts the brake on what I think is our accelerating path towards global warfare and possible constitutional crisis.
Now, does that make me sound like a drama queen? Sure. I may be wrong. But if I had actually, seven years ago, sat down with you and given you the scenario we’ve lived through these last six years, you would have thought I was worse than a drama queen—you’d have thought I was out of my mind. Look at the instability of Pakistan, look at the fragility in Iran, look at the metastasizing chaos in Iraq that I do not believe is going to be resolved in the foreseeable future. The risks that we are running are huge.
The fact that you, as a conservative, are standing behind Obama is obviously going to raise some eyebrows. But your brand of conservatism has always been a bit hard to pin down. When your book The Conservative Soul came out last year, Bryan Burrough pointed out in a Washington Post review that it was not a book for anyone who belonged to the Elks Club or had ever read Ann Coulter.
It didn’t sell like Ann Coulter, either.
Do you feel that you occupy a lonely niche?
It’s not only lonely but it gets lonelier by the day. One’s only hope is that the manifest failure of the alternative will eventually lead people to come and take a look at what I’ve been saying and to reconsider it. The response to my book last year from the right—such hostility and defensiveness and refusal to even engage in a dialogue. Now, maybe on my blog I’ve ticked them off so much over the years that they don’t want to talk to me. But the ideas in it, if you separate them from the person, are still worth considering.
Your blog also puts you in a unique position. Everyone knows all the ins and outs of your thinking, because you have to be extremely prolific every day.
And provisional. I mean, you write provisionally on a blog in the way you don’t in an essay.
If you’d stayed at The New Republic, writing only print articles, do you think your identity as a public figure would have evolved in the same way?
Oh, God, I have no idea, Jennie. It just happened. I certainly didn’t expect to be having to have an opinion every 25 minutes about things I obviously cannot be an expert in.
I think a lot of writers feel that way. A couple of weeks ago, I heard James Fallows speaking to a group of China experts at the Hay Adams hotel, and he kept prefacing his comments by saying, “This is my opinion as of noon on October 16th. I might believe something completely different in the future.” For you, though, it’s quite literal—your opinions and ideas come out with an actual time stamp, and people monitor them hour by hour.
And you make errors. Let me give you an example. A few weeks ago, I was grappling with the nomination of Michael Mukasey. When he first started talking, I was like, “Good God, this is fantastic.” After a couple of days, having read the testimony, thought about it, and raised different views, I came to a different conclusion.
Anybody whose instant response to events is the only response they ever have is—well, George W. Bush. You never have to revise or reconsider anything you’ve ever said or believed because there’s no such thing as a mistake; there’s no such thing as doubt. There’s just “truthiness.” That’s why Stephen Colbert is such a genius, because he’s captured the essential insanity at the heart of our culture right now.
So, yes, you have to get off your high horse, you have to accept that you are going to make a fool of yourself. But you know, having done it now daily for seven years, it’s hard to know how it’s changed me. I’m too close. And after all, the thing about blogging is that it’s never been done before. So we don’t know—we may all end up going mad. It gets pretty close to that at times. Even when people wrote fantastic diaries in the past, they didn’t expect the whole world to be reading each entry that very day.
And they, or someone else, had the chance to edit them before they were published.
Well, the great thing about Samuel Pepys’s diary, for example, is that you find, “I’m never going to sleep with that whore again”—two days later, “I slept with that whore again”—two days later, “I will never sleep with that whore again.” You can see the human being—inconsistent, incoherent, and, to some extent, a mess. But that’s what a human being is.
I like the way Whitman put it: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Right. It doesn’t mean that Pepys was stupid or that Pepys couldn’t, in the long run, deduce certain coherent ideas and argument and thoughts. It just means that when you live in the world—a temporary, provisional world—you’re a temporary, provisional being. I think the blog, in its defense —my blog at least —is very candid about that. It doesn’t pretend any great deal of authority.
Do you think the blog, as a news source, is ever going to replace the newspaper or the magazine?
I don’t think so. In fact, one of the interesting things about coming to The Atlantic in the last year or so has been realizing just what a fantastic and important future there is for a print magazine like The Atlantic. However, the online world is a different medium. It requires a different set of rules and a different set of expectations. What we have actually done here is to create what I would think of as a “blogazine” alongside a magazine, with some fallow ground in-between in which the two can interact but not merge. I think that’s the most coherent response to our emerging media.
Do you think all this blogging has changed the way you write for print?
It can only make you a better writer, practicing writing every day and making sure your sentences make sense and seeing the core argument that you’re making and editing. It’s a process that requires practice, and there’s no better practice than what I’m doing—none. I’ve written three quarters of a million words in 2007 alone. Of course, I didn’t write all of those words—a big part of what I do is to present and edit others’s opinions in order for the reader to have a portal to the world of the Web. But nevertheless, it’s a pretty insane amount of output.
Along with commenting on the news, you really put your life out there on your blog. Does that ever make you feel uncomfortably exposed? Or do you enjoy the fact you’re connecting with so many people in such a personal way?
I’ve always been a pretty candid person. I’m not a very secretive person; I’m not a very discreet person. One of my best friends once described me as pathologically indiscreet. The experience of being openly gay in my 20s and then getting a big job—I walked backwards into that. Then walking backwards into having one’s health crisis become public, which was just unavoidable.
Was it your own choice to make that so public?
It was when I left The New Republic, yes. Although frankly, at that point there were so many rumors that I think it would have been impossible to deny. In fact, one of the reasons I did come out was precisely to tell people, I’m not about to die. These are the facts. You find out in public life—and for better or for worse, I’m in public life—that if you don’t actively rebut an idea, especially around AIDS, which was, at the time, much more mysterious and threatening to people than it is today, then other people will write your story for you.
I wish in many respects I had more privacy. But I know I have no ability to ask for it at this point. There’s plenty about my life that’s not in the blog. It took many years, for example, for me to name my boyfriend, because I wanted to protect him and I’m pretty protective about the people in my life. I never write about Aaron without asking his permission, and normally it’s a very, very discreet mention. Mainly because if I tried not to mention him at all, it would seem even weirder. I can’t write about my private life without mentioning my husband.
When you’re a blogger, people seem to expect to know everything about your life because they’re hearing from you every hour or two. Last month when Ross Douthat suddenly announced that he was taking time off for his honeymoon, a lot of his comment writers seemed very surprised that they hadn’t even known he was dating anyone.
There’s an enormous intimacy that blogging fosters between a blogger and his readers. My particular blog, which has been around for eight years, has always had that feeling. There are some people who have been reading it since the early days, and they really feel they know me. And they feel they know me not the way they know other writers but because they have been following the world with me.
For example, a big event happens and they check in to see how I’m doing: “How did Andrew respond?” Now some of them do so out of a visceral sense of loathing and fear, others do so because they actually like me, and others do so because it’s one of many data points. But the fact that they’re doing it in real time creates an astonishing relationship between reader and writer—I think unique in the history of writing—which is why I’m fascinated by this medium and why I’ve stayed with it even though it’s grueling.
I mean, how many writers in their lifetimes stumble across a new medium like this? This is about writing in a whole new way. It’s never been done like this before. So here you are, present at the creation. We only have one life to live. If you’re a writer with an opportunity to be part of this, why would you pass it up?
I feel that way about my life in general. When people asked me in the ’90s, “Why are you still writing about this gay shit all the time? Not only do you have to put it in The New Republic, you have to write a book, two books about it, three books about it.” I said, “Look, nobody asked James Baldwin why he was writing about race in the ’50s.” This is a huge subject, the world is changing—this is an amazingly interesting event, a social transformation. And the AIDS epidemic, too. I am given this front row seat and I’m a writer. This is happening to me!
And like it or not, you’ve become a poster boy for HIV-positive existence. You’ve been one of the first people to make it clear to the world that you can be HIV positive and still live quite a normal life.
I don’t write about my HIV very much at all, but yes, every now and then, I think it is important to let people know that this is still here, it’s a disease, I have it, I’ve lived with it. I went through a huge amount of trauma over it, less so in the last six or seven or eight years than I did in the previous six, seven, or eight years. But I’m now in my 14th year of HIV, and of course if I’m going to write with honesty and passion for my readers, they’re going to have to be in on it. It’s a hard line to draw—you don’t want to be baring your soul about everything.
When you started out eight years ago, blogging was much more of a fringe culture than it is now. If we’d had bloggers on our site back then, it would have been viewed as a quirky little experiment. But now, as you know, bloggers are a serious presence at The Atlantic, bringing in a huge number of visitors every day. What has it been like to watch the medium you’re part of move from the fringes to the center of media culture?
Staggering. The reason it’s staggering is simply because online media never existed before now, so we had to do it to understand it. And the blog as a form emerged organically out of the fray to become the dominant mode of discourse online. Whenever magazines traditionally or newspapers just want to throw their data up there online, they totally misunderstand the medium. It reminds me of when TV first started—in the beginning, they put radio shows on television because they didn’t know what else to do.
Or they had commercials where a man was just looking into the camera, talking about the product the way he would have on a radio commercial. It took them a while to realize they could actually show the product in motion.
Exactly. It took time. But the point is to always just listen to the medium. And lo and behold, what happens is you figure it out. I mean, Josh Marshall is another model, or Instapundit, or Pajamas Media—there are different models that have emerged, but I still like the single voice. I think it’s important to keep the formula pretty simple. You can make what’s within the formula complicated and creative, but the formula itself, which is one webpage, constantly changing—this is what Matt Drudge told me years ago—that’s what works.
And the key thing is to make it better and better and constantly adapting. The minute you think you’ve got this down, the media environment is altered and you’re redundant—if you haven’t grabbed onto video and YouTube, if you haven’t integrated photography. When I started there were, I don’t know, 10 blogs. Now there are thousands of just religion blogs, there are thousands of literary blogs, there are thousands of science blogs—all of which are generating content and facts. So it’s something that you have to constantly revise.
How did you get involved in online media in the first place?
I came at the Internet having left The New Republic as a freelance writer tooling around on the Web, having fun. I did day trading in the late ’90s, I was interested in that. God knows how many sex sites I’ve looked at. There are all sorts of chat sites. I was involved in things like Craigslist and AOL, all that stuff. And then blogging came along. It was a natural development from what I was already doing online. I was on a Listserv of non-lefty homos. It was a pretty small group of people, and I found myself spending an hour in the afternoon passionately writing something that 30 other people read. And after a while, I thought, Well, I’m doing journalism here. Why don’t more people read this?
You also learn from having online interactions with strangers, even when you’re basically trying to hook up. You develop skills for understanding that when you write a blog, you are trying to communicate with people you don’t know and you have to let them come back at you. You have to read their emails and post some of them, have that interaction. Now if you’ve come entirely from a magazine or newspaper, you’re just not used to doing that. So in a way, my little period out in the wilderness as a freelancer led me back here.
Were there bloggers you admired who were out there at the time you started?
Yes, Micky Kaus was one of the first ever. Glenn Reynolds was an interesting voice who came out of nowhere. But I tell you, just as soon as I got my first blogger platform and I started writing—I mean, I had already run a weekly magazine. I had the skills to know how to present information in a compelling fashion. I think what I do now is really run a daily magazine.
And the great thing about running a daily magazine is that I don’t have to bloody well deal with all these people. I don’t have to manage them or deal with their egos. I don’t have to cut anything to size. It is all the fun of editing a magazine and none of the crap, and I found very quickly that I was reaching as many people. This week, I think basically every day we had about 140,000 page views. Well, I only had about 110,000 subscribers at The New Republic. It’s pretty amazing.
I have friends who are both bloggers and magazine writers, and sometimes they’re almost put off by how popular their blog entries are. They spend three months deeply researching a piece, agonizing and writing and going through edits, but when it all comes down to it, the blog entries they dash off in 20 minutes attract far more readers.
I know. My last boyfriend was a cognitive neuroscientist, and while I was blogging, he was finishing a paper for a journal—which, he pointed out, he would deliver and finish and then it wouldn’t get published for another eight months and wouldn’t get read for another 12 months. Here I was, writing the same amount of words in a day and having it read instantly by exponentially more people. My concern was that the hard work needed in those long, in-depth articles would be replaced by a bunch of chatterers like me.
But one of the things you come to understand about a good blog is that if you use it right as a reader, it will lead you to read something much more than the blog. It’s an entry point to longer pieces, to debates, that you can really go deeply into in a way that, for example, talk radio or the op-ed culture are unable to do. I mean, from books to long articles to reports to studies—you may not have had time to read the whole thing, but I will give you the materials to do so. Sometimes I am not able to read the entire thing, but I’ve read enough of it to know it’s worth passing along.
As long as one does one’s best not to misrepresent it, I act as a sort of maître d’. The maître d’ doesn’t have to have eaten every dish he recommends. He can just have a little bite. Because you simply physically can’t do it all. The Dish has to be one step ahead—until I collapse. And of course, like every blogger I have this thing in the back of my head that one day I’m going to quit it all and sit down and read books for a year.
Do you think you’d feel restless if you were sitting on the sidelines, watching the medium continue to evolve?
Who knows? But the nice thing about the Web is that it is so obviously its own organic being. You contribute to it, but you don’t control it. And you don’t want to control it. I like that about it. I think it’s actually changed my politics a little bit. I think I’ve become more libertarian as I’ve understood this medium.
That’s interesting. Your politics have changed because of the nature of the medium itself?
Yes, I’ve become more skeptical of doctrines and more skeptical of ideology and more skeptical of dogmatism. Including my own, occasionally. I think that my faith life, for example, has become more deconstructed than it was and has allowed me to entertain doubt more thoroughly.
But of course, it also helps to have been fantastically wrong about the Iraq War, the most important decision made in national life in a long time, and to have spent the last five years accounting for that and trying to explain that and understand it better. I think my readers—I hope, anyway—forgive me for some of that, as long as I’m candid and honest about it.
The task of talking out loud about one’s own mistakes is a very helpful thing to do. I think it’s more helpful than pretending you know everything and proclaiming every now and again from some high horse what the truth is. Blogging is a whole new way of writing, and a new way of experiencing the world. It’s very real and very human.
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