Andrew Sullivan and the Importance of Self-Criticism

Blogging allowed writers to say anything about anything at any time—and offered the temptation to project unrelenting certainty. But The Daily Dish showed the medium's higher potential.

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I don't really have much big-picture analysis in the wake of Andrew Sullivan's departure from blogging. My reaction is strictly personal. I've spent the majority of my career as a print journalist. In 2008, when I first started blogging, I had two models in mind—Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan, and I only knew about Matt because of Andrew. I started reading Andrew during the run-up to the Iraq War and thus bore witness to one of the most amazing real-time about-faces in recent memory. But it was a sincere about-face and it taught me something about writing, and particularly writing on the Internet, which guides me even today—namely, that error is an essential part of any real intellectual pursuit.

Back when I started blogging, there was an annoying premium on "public smartness" and "being right" among pundits, journalists, and writers. Likely, there is still one today. The need to be publicly smart and constantly right originates both in the writer's ego and in the expectation of incurious readers. The writer gets the psychic reward of praise—"Such and such is really smart" or "Such and such was 'right' on Libya." And the incurious reader gets to believe that there is some order in the world, that there is a stable of learned (mostly) men who will decipher the words of God for them. The incurious readers is not so much looking for writers, as prophets.

And Andrew has never been a prophet, so much as a joyous heretic. Andrew taught me that you do not have to pretend to be smarter than you are. And when you have made the error of pretending to be smarter, or when you simply have been wrong, you can say so and you can say it straight—without self-apology, without self-justifying garnish, without "if I have offended." And there is a large body of deeply curious readers who accept this, who want this, who do not so much expect you to be right, as they expect you to be honest. When I read Andrew, I generally thought he was dedicated to the work of being honest. I did not think he was always honest. I don't think anyone can be. But I thought he held "honesty" as a standard—something can't be said of the large number of charlatans in this business.

Honesty demands not just that you accept your errors, but that your errors are integral to developing a rigorous sense of study. I have found this to be true in, well, just about everything in life. But it was from Andrew that I learned to apply it in this particular form of writing. I am indebted to him. And I will miss him—no matter how much I think he's wrong, no matter the future of blogging.