Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989–2021, by Andrew Sullivan (Simon & Schuster, 566 pp., $35)
In 1995, Andrew Sullivan appeared on C-SPAN to discuss his book Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality. In the comparatively low-wattage world of Washington, his conversation with Brian Lamb proved a star turn. Over three hours, he was droll, frank, and winning—everything one would expect of a former Oxford Union president blessed with a telegenic presence. He was then, at only 31, already late in his long editorial tenure at The New Republic. This was in the before times, when a center-right public intellectual could run a center-left political magazine.
How the world has changed. A year ago, Sullivan was fired by his most recent employer, New York, effectively bullied out of his job by colleagues who claimed that sharing virtual space with him was “actively, physically harmful.” In 1994, Sullivan had published a chapter of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve dealing with the subjects of race and IQ, along with articles from TNR staff rejecting Murray and Herrnstein’s controversial argument that the races have observable, genetic differences in IQ. What was once an unpopular view has now become an unspeakable one. The merits of Murray and Herrnstein’s thesis aside, the shift from debate to rigid orthodoxy within the pages of opinion magazines is disheartening.
Sullivan’s new book, Out On A Limb, which collects essays written over three decades, declares his intention not to go away. Out On A Limb returns repeatedly to a handful of core themes: the long evolution of gay culture beginning with the AIDS epidemic and culminating with gay marriage; the long crisis, as he sees it, of American conservatism; his own relationship with the Catholic Church; and the growing threat to American democratic institutions. The loss of tensile strength in American democracy that began for Sullivan with polite recrimination has now reached existential terror:
The whole concept of an individual who exists apart from group identity is slipping from the discourse. The idea of individual merit—as opposed to various forms of unearned “privilege”—is increasingly suspect. . . . Polarization has made this worse—because on the left, moderation now seems like a surrender to white nationalism, and because on the right, white identity politics has overwhelmed moderate conservatism. . . . But anger is rarely a good frame of mind to pursue the imperatives of reason, let alone to defend the norms of liberal democracy.
To which any self-styled moderate, harangued by Left and Right alike, can say only, “Amen.”
Sullivan will survive his firing from New York, but in the longer battle for American conservatism, his prognosis is less certain. In the early years of his career, Sullivan’s ecumenical brand of Log Cabin Republicanism appeared to be on the rise. He was moving the debate on the issue that mattered to him most: gay marriage. Beginning at a time when fear of the AIDS virus dominated public discourse about gay identity (writing in 1990 that for gay men, “death is less an event than an environment”), Sullivan led a campaign for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage that became enormously influential on the gay-rights movement. He also urged Republican moderation in the Clinton impeachment hearing (“the Starr Report . . . represents a case study in what has gone wrong with American conservatism”) and was an early skeptic of Sarah Palin.
But Republican politics have moved against Sullivan. Still calling himself a conservative, he has not felt himself able to vote for a GOP presidential candidate since 2000. Meantime, Sullivan has become more rather than less distinctly British in his conservatism in the 30-plus years since he left Oxford for graduate school at Harvard, as American conservatism has hardened through the culture wars.
Sullivan wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and he rarely gives an address of any length without invoking Oakeshott’s name. Oakeshott represents a set of principles tied to the core conservative idea that the institutions and traditions of the West need preserving, and, crucially, a self-skepticism, a rejection of certitude—or, as Sullivan puts it, of the need to “respond to the contingent facts of unfolding history.”
Oakeshott’s modesty, almost quietism, works as a ballast against Sullivan’s own sometimes-excessive certitude. Like Christopher Hitchens, with whom he often crossed swords publicly, Sullivan loves the fight. I wonder, though, whether debates of the Oxford Union variety, or those carried out dog-and-pony style on the Internet, actually contribute much to our understanding. Sullivan has expressed regret over his “attraction to controversy rather than truth.” Truth is a more elusive quarry.
For Sullivan, the imperatives of reason operate most clearly at the level of prose style. He is always direct, often with the cheerful rudeness characteristic of English public life. Yet for a writer who clearly appreciates the sensuous properties of words, he is rarely indulgent. The reader feels that he is always working slightly beneath his own rhetorical capacities, perhaps out of some vestigial diffidence; more likely because to draw attention to his language would be to divert attention from his argument. Long an admirer of Orwell, Sullivan favors clarity and precision. In some alternate life, Sullivan is perhaps a chronicler of private experience in the manner of Armistead Maupin or Edmund White. In this one, he has chosen the cudgel and the rapier.
Sullivan was diagnosed with HIV in his thirties, and he has written that he was galvanized by his early brush with death, determined to live and write according to his conscience. (“HIV transformed my life, made me a better and braver writer . . . deepened my spirituality.”) He is 57 now, an age he never expected to reach, and he is as healthy as any of us. With luck, he will live long enough to outlast this ugly period in American life, to see his faith in his adopted country vindicated, and to find himself once again welcome in the magazines that now pillory him. That would complete an almost operatic journey, from boy wonder to cartoon villain to grand old man.