It’s a little disconcerting, isn’t it, that two expatriate
Brits-Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens-have turned out to be the most
forceful, eloquent and influential voices in the American debate over the Sept.
11 attacks and their meaning.
Yes, there have been other articulate voices on all sides of the
question, but after four months of discourse, debate and contention, it’s hard
to deny that Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens have made the most difference : Mr. Hitchens by challenging
the Left to recognize the terrorists not as somewhat misguided spokesmen for
the wretched of the earth, but as “Islamo-fascists”-theocratic oppressors of the wretched of the earth.
And Mr. Sullivan by challenging the Right to question the danger that may lurk
in the heart of all fundamentalist versions of religion, not just Islam-perhaps
in the heart of religion itself.
But maybe it’s not an accident that these two self-exiles from
the U.K. have dominated the American debate. Perhaps it does have something to
do with their expatriate-Brit identity: As part of their intellectual
birthright, both are in possession of, both are possessed by , the spirit
of George Orwell. Both are steeped in Orwell; both have quoted him during the
current crisis. Both have looked on our Sept. 11 through the lens of Orwell’s
July 1940, when he was a lonely voice confronting defeatism on the Right and
Left in the face of Hitler, at a time when England itself stood virtually alone
in defying the Third Reich. One could say that Orwell is the secret weapon, the
smart bomb with which Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens have achieved preeminence
over their polemical opponents.
Yes, one could question the precision of the analogy to Orwell’s
time; one could ask whether they’re winning the debate because we happen to be
winning the war (or at least this phase of it). But it seems undeniable that in
their separate ways, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens seem to be winning the war over the war, the war of words. And that
it is Orwell’s vision-his legacy and example, and the perhaps-unspoken
competition for his mantle-that has made the difference.
But more important than the question of whether they’ve won the
debate is the way they’ve framed the
debate. The way that, coming from opposite ends of the ideological and
theological spectrum, they’ve focused the question of “root causes” not on
American power, but rather on some dark power at the heart of religion. That
was the radical import of Mr. Sullivan’s immensely influential Oct. 7 Sunday New York Times Magazine piece, when he
went beyond blaming “fundamentalism” to say that “It seems almost as if there
is something inherent in religious monotheism that lends itself to this kind of
In other words, it may not be enough to attribute Sept. 11 to
easily dismissible “religious fanaticism.” It may be necessary instead to
question whether religion itself-the kind of religion that bases itself on
supposedly inerrant holy texts-is responsible for recurrently convincing not
just terrorists, but established churches and states, that they have God’s
sanction to slaughter innocent unbelievers. To ask whether the terrorist
attacks can be attributed not just to a “perversion of religion,” but to
something in the logic of religion itself.
For Mr. Hitchens, this is a far less conflicted position than for
Mr. Sullivan. But it is the pivot on which, in large measure, he has succeeded
in turning around the Left, or a large segment of it (aside from the
Chomskyites). Turning around those who saw America as somehow to blame, who
sought to portray our power as the real culprit. In his columns in The Nation , Mr. Hitchens dramatically
recast the terrorists as “fascists with an Islamic face” and then (an even more
effective compression) as “Islamo-fascists.” (What leftist, after all, wants to
be seen siding with fascists?) Mr. Hitchens fought to a standstill those in The Nation (and the nation) who, as he
put it, “maintained that the al Qaeda death squads were trying to utter a cry
for help for the woes of the world.”
One senses that it’s very personal as well as ideological for Mr.
Hitchens that he feels he’s been at war with “Islamo-fascists” since the
Khomeini regime sentenced his close friend Salman Rushdie to death for
blasphemy. Thus perhaps the candor with which Mr. Hitchens conceded that, on
Sept. 11, in addition to experiencing the “gamut of emotions from rage to
nausea, I also discovered another sensation, and to my surprise and pleasure it
turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy-theological
barbarism-in plain view.”
In a different, perhaps more
complex way, it must be personal with Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic
conservative, since his church-along with most orthodox Western
religions-condemns his homosexuality; and yet he remains devout and wants his
church to accept him.
But agree or disagree with Mr. Sullivan, it’s hard to deny that
he is the surprising new media/political development of the post–Sept. 11
period. A media/political development because he’s gone beyond his influential
print platforms, The Times of London
and The Times of New York. What gives
him an edge in impact and reach over Mr. Hitchens (and just about everyone
else) is the way he’s turned his political Web site (Web zine, Web log, online
diary-whatever you want to call andrewsullivan.com) into a powerful weapon of
nonstop, 24/7, omnipresent total-surveillance panopticon punditry. Using his
political Web zine (a form pioneered by Mickey Kaus in his witty
Kausfiles.com), he’s done more than just frame the debate; he’s dominated it, smothered it with an
overwhelming energy and forcefulness that allows him to riddle his opponents
with ceaseless real-time hectoring and invective and polemic.
Nothing escapes the guy .
Let some lefty in London be heard to compare the burqa imposed by the Taliban
with the “enforced smile” of the American supermarket-checkout girl, and Mr.
Sullivan is there holding this idiotic moral equivalence up to ridicule for the
rest of the media, who are prominent among the six million page views a month
he says his site has been getting since
And let some traditional conservative in the National Review Online carp at Mr. Sullivan’s heretical libertarian
views on sex and drugs, or his penchant for writing about his boyfriend as well
as the Taliban, and Mr. Sullivan turns his riposte into a moving apologia pro vita sua that should give
the carper second thoughts for seeking to marginalize the most interesting
conservative thinker to emerge in a long time.
It was only after Sept. 11 that I began surfing the Net heavily,
but I quickly became cognizant of the way the Sullivanian Total Presence method
of dominating the debate worked. The preemptive midnight Times Op-Ed frame game he plays, for instance: I’m a habitual early
riser, but by the time I log on at 5 a.m., I often find that Mr. Sullivan has
been hard at work in the minutes after midnight, when the Times edition for the next day first comes online, giving him a
chance to digest, spit out, spin and frame whatever the Times Op-Ed columnists say in such a way that his spin will be available and often read before the regular Times
e-mail delivery to media in-boxes appears.
Thus, many in the media will read Thomas Friedman or Maureen Dowd
or Paul Krugman through the preemptive-strike lens that Mr. Sullivan has
already framed them in. No surprise he quotes Machiavelli at one point in his
“Daily Dish,” the running-diary- cum -polemic- cum -meta-media-criticism feature of his
What’s puzzling is when he actually does go to sleep, since his posts appear pretty much around the
clock. He just exhausts everyone else .
All this while on a heavy regimen of anti-H.I.V. drugs whose sometimes
debilitating side effects don’t seem to keep him from riding herd on the
intelligentsia, administering verbal canings to those in the punditocracy who
don’t see things his way.
There was, in fact, one remarkable and moving posting Mr.
Sullivan wrote in December, in which he goes into detail about his decision to
adopt a different strategy in his H.I.V.-medication regimen. Some studies had
persuaded him to stop or cycle some of his meds for a while to mitigate the
side effects. He tells us that he’s been the better for it in terms of T-cell
count-but then there came a dismaying rise in his “viral load” (the level of
H.I.V. particles in his bloodstream). “From being undetectable it went to 2,500
… then leaped to 48,000 in the aftermath of Sept. 11.” Did it have something to
do with the stress of the war, or the cycling of the meds? “I can’t help
relating my battle against H.I.V.” and the war, he wrote at another point.
Both, in a way, are a war against terror cells, the ones within and the ones
without (yes, yes, I’ve read Illness as
Metaphor , but I don’t think its proscription on metaphor is the last word
on the subject). I wondered if the kind of generalship it’s taken to engage in
waging the war on the enemy within
him has shaped his generalship in that other war he’s waging, the polemical
war, the war of words, of ideas-the war about
It’s been interesting to compare Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Sullivan
during the post–Sept. 11 polemical wars. One thing they share is that, unlike
most American writers, they can be both smart and fast-very irritating to those of us who find writing a
labor-intensive thing. I’m tempted (out of bitterness, I’m sure) to attribute
this speed and facility to the terror inculcated by caning at British boarding
schools, an internalized terror of procrastination that gets them off and
writing, even though I have no factual basis for this conjecture. (I just want
it to be true.)
Another thing they share is that they are both coming off minor
personal and political scandales , Mr.
Hitchens for having given a deposition against his longtime friend Sidney
Blumenthal to G.O.P. investigators during the Clinton-impeachment frenzy.
Perhaps Orwell was the model here as well, since Orwell supplied the names of
suspected communist fellow travelers to British internal-security authorities.
The man was not a saint; nor is Mr. Hitchens-or Mr. Sullivan, who was the
subject of controversy when someone snitched him out for frequenting chat rooms
devoted to “dating” between those who liked “bareback,” unprotected sex. (Mr.
Sullivan maintained that he was only looking for those who, like him, were
But I think it would be reductive (and untrue) to attribute their
current crusading posture as a response. More important to their polemical
preeminence is the impact and imprint of Orwell, so that their quick and
powerful response to Sept. 11, to the self-hatred and defeatism they saw, was
second nature. They were also both tuned in to the response of the British
left, whose anti-Americanism and, at times, anti-Semitism Mr. Sullivan in
particular has an infallible radar for. And the British left, far more than the
American left, was exhibiting the same kind
of pacifism and defeatism in the wake of Sept. 11 that Orwell confronted in
It was a period in Orwell’s career as an anti-Communist left
polemicist when the Hitler-Stalin alliance had shamefully silenced much of the
left, and the fall of France had left the U.K. alone facing the two colossi of
Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Mr. Sullivan in particular has come up with some remarkable
excerpts from Orwell’s wartime diaries, unpublished until 1998. Here is Orwell
in July 1940, when America was still sidelined in the struggle against Hitler,
paralyzed by America Firsters like the disgraceful false hero Charles
Lindbergh. (Transatlantic flight versus lapdog for the Third Reich? You do the
The British public, Orwell wrote, supported Churchill, but the
chattering classes of the time did not: “The London ‘Left’ intelligentsia are
now completely defeatist, look on the situation and all but wish to surrender.
How easy it ought to have been to foresee,” he wrote.
Of course, Orwell was writing at a particularly perfidious time
in the history of the Marxist left, when the Communist parties in the West,
echoing the abominable rhetoric of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, were taking the
line that the British struggle against Hitler was merely a squabble among
morally indistinguishable versions of capitalism. I’ve written about the way
this moral paralysis is reflected in Charlie Chaplin’s stupidly overrated 1940
film The Great Dictator , a toothless
trivialization of Hitler hailed by appeasers of the left and right for a
disingenuous pacifism that objectively aided Hitler’s cause.
The problem of making comparisons between the Nazi era and our
own is a complex one. (In the February Atlantic
Monthly I suggest that, in mindset
if not magnitude, there are ways we can
compare bin Laden’s and Hitler’s crimes.) But Mr. Hitchens’ brilliant stroke
was to come up with a phrase that compresses the parallel into one hyphenated
word, “Islamo-fascists”-a coinage that has, I think, been devastatingly
effective in describing who the terrorists, the Al Qaeda–Taliban nexus, really are. “Islamo-fascists”: It’s a
coinage that has caught on; Andrew Sullivan now uses it himself.
But Mr. Hitchens’ argument
goes beyond phrasemaking: He has reframed the way many on the left perceive the
conflict. My only problem with Mr. Hitchens is his unwillingness to
re-evaluate, in light of these arguments, his unrelenting strictures against an
Israeli government facing an Arab world that, tutored by Islamo-fascist clerics
steeped in Nazi hate literature, increasingly seems not to want to negotiate
with the Jewish state, but rather to exterminate it.
Is there an implicit,
unspoken competition between these two Orwell devotees over who will turn out
to be the Orwell figure of Sept. 11? Perhaps not consciously, but if there is,
I’d suggest they deserve to share the honor, each for taking on his own
What fascinates me about Mr.
Sullivan is his optimism. Maybe it comes from his faith. But in the first two
months after Sept. 11, and before the fall of Kabul, it was impressive-and now
looks prescient. It was a time when, though I supported the aim of wiping out
the terrorists, I must confess that I, like many bred of Vietnam-era pessimism,
was expecting a quagmire (though I didn’t leap into print with the prediction,
as many did). A quagmire, and the fall of Pakistan (and the “Islamic bomb”) to
the fundamentalists, and more terror attacks at home for the foreseeable future
(it’s just my tragic sense of life). These things still may happen, but Mr. Sullivan’s optimism about the military outcome
in Afghanistan seemed to trump the gloomy predictions from both liberal Vietnam
pessimists and neo-conservative hawks who thought the war wouldn’t be
prosecuted vigorously enough.
Mr. Sullivan’s invincible optimism only seemed to falter once, in
the week before Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul fell, when he posted to his Web zine a
weary-sounding note that he’d been “depressed” recently. But the weariness may
be understandable: I think Andrew Sullivan has a more difficult job with his constituency on the Right than
Christopher Hitchens does with his on the Left. Because Mr. Sullivan’s critique
of the terrorists goes to the heart of the conflict within conservatism-and the
conflict within himself, as someone who
suffers from his church’s intolerance of his identity.
Can conservatism be about preserving the lasting values of
civilization and dismantling the
separation of church and state, if monotheistic religions seem recurrently-at
least in their fundamentalist forms-to threaten
the values of civilization? To give us jihads, pogroms, Inquisitions and that
hateful moron who shot Yitzhak Rabin? (As one of the characters in the
brilliant war-skeptic satirical Web cartoon “Get Your War On” at www.mnftiu.cc,
puts it: “Thank you God for your healing gift of religion.”)
I guess where I differ most from Mr. Sullivan is his long-term
optimism, his long-term faith in the possibility of a reconciliation between
civilization- civil society in every
sense of the word-and revealed religion. After three millennia of people
slaughtering each other in greater and greater numbers over religious
certainties, I wish I could share that optimism.
Even the short-term optimism
raises a question: Do Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens seem to be winning the war
over the war because the tide turned so dramatically in Afghanistan? What if
something Very Wrong happens-if another attack of similar murderous magnitude,
or a spate of suicide bombings in American malls, brings the war home again? Is
Sullivanian optimism a hostage to fortune? Does he believe, as the President
evidently does, that we can “end” terrorism and root out all the “evildoers”
that threaten us? Or do we face a darker, far more prolonged and tragic
struggle that may never be resolved?
My other reservation about
Andrew Sullivan is that he sometimes seems to carry his polemical zeal a little
too far. His various “Sontag Awards” (including one named after one of my
estimable Observer colleagues), as
well as the sometimes unnecessary touch of cruelty with which he plays this
naming-and-shaming game-the virtual public caning of his opponents-can
sometimes be more about intimidation than persuasion. There is a whiff (if only
a whiff) of the branding of heretics at times.
He’s defended his tactics by arguing that, in the first weeks
after Sept. 11, the same kind of defeatist, self-hating rhetoric Orwell railed
to be combated with scathing responses. And it’s true that one has to wonder
where the debate among intellectuals might be now had it not been for Mr.
Hitchens’ and Mr. Sullivan’s force and fire. (And he’s right to say there
really was-and still is-what Thomas Friedman calls a “Yes, but … ” response to
Sept. 11, an “it was bad but ultimately our fault” attitude alive and well in
New York. I’ve heard it firsthand.)
These questions aside, I think
Mr. Sullivan’s breakthrough to a new kind of fusion of personal and political
commentary is a remarkable achievement. It makes one imagine what the effect
might have been if Orwell had the opportunity to turn his wartime diaries into
a real-time online weapon.
It’s true that the candor of
Mr. Sullivan’s online diary can sometimes approach the verge of “too much
information.” As when he graphically documented his exploding-toilet situation
this past New Year’s Eve, telling us that “as I plopped myself innocently down
on the porcelain, a fizzing sound behind me became a gushing sound and
was suddenly pouring into my apartment …. ”
There’s a kind of funny,
rather endearing conclusion to the story: “After about half an hour of my
acting like Shelley Winters in The
Poseidon Adventure ,” Mr. Sullivan called “a friend in construction” who “showed
up like a Guardian Angel. Old Faithful subsided [and] I gave my savior some
Moët and took him out to a dance club for the night. I got back at 6 a.m.… ”
But soon he’s up and
surveilling the Web for Error again: Nicholas Kristof of The Times ‘ Op-Ed page must
be refuted about Somalia! Mr. Hitchens spares us the gush and fizz of the
exploding toilet, the Shelley Winters moments, and Orwell probably wouldn’t
have posted them on his Web site. But
perhaps that’s what makes Andrew Sullivan more of an Orwell for our age.