By John Dicker
Harper Collins, 304 pages, $25.95
Several months ago comedian Bill Maher, whose show Real
Time is about enough to justify HBO’s guilt-inducing price
tag, hosted one of his typically implausible panels. The cast
included Salman Rushdie, Ben Affleck, and writer-blogger Andrew
Sullivan. While Rushdie was soft-spoken and Affleck proved
smarter than South Park would have you believe, it
was the token conservative that unsuspecting viewers might’ve
gotten confused for the Angry Liberal. So inflamed was he
about the current administration’s positions on torture, Iraq,
and gay marriage, he preempted any sort of left-right shout-downs.
Sullivan was one of a small core of early bloggers who posted
(and posted!) before blogs became a constituency unto themselves.
Sullivan is a gay, Catholic conservative, not to mention a
British expat, so he’s got plenty of material to mine. Adding
to this bag is his two-year-long transition from a Bush supporter,
especially on Iraq, to one of its angriest critics.
Sullivan used to write for The New York Times Magazine;
he also edited The New Republic, where he still contributes.
The man is nothing if not prolific. Scratch that—the man is
nothing if not prolific and a very skilled polemicist.
His new book bears that out more than readers of his blog,
The Daily Dish, might imagine. That’s because The
Conservative Soul isn’t the sort of book a blogger is
supposed to write. For one thing, it’s not about blogging
and how bloggers are changing the Media/Democratic Party/World.
Rather, this is a personal book of political philosophy. It’s
grounded in previous thinkers, and contextualized to the present
moment. It’s feisty and, at times, fun and remarkably readable.
Much of the book is spent making the case for what Sullivan
calls a “conservatism of doubt.” This declining political
strain is uncomfortable with ideological certainty that pops
up everywhere from the pulpits of mega-churches and mosques,
to the editorial board of The Weekly Standard. Any
movement that boasts its ideas will surely change the world
should be suspect, our author notes, and this point is illustrated
at length in a variety of different contexts.
Conservatives still loyal to the Bush administration and its
with-us-or-against-us mores, will have a tough time with Sullivan’s
political resume. He supported Clinton in ’92, Bush in 2000
and Kerry in ’04. A flip-flopper? Not as he sees it. More
of a free thinker and surely a walking testament to the rightward
tilt in the political center, at least as far as the economy
and foreign policy goes.
Liberals, on the other hand, will surely bristle at Sullivan’s
occasionally smug support for the globalization and anti-unionism
of the Thatcher-Reagan school. But . . . this very same camp
will have a blast with his dissection of social conservative
teaching on sexuality. Because, really, who better than a
gay Catholic steeped in conservative political and Christian
theology to dismantle its own dogma? Specifically, Sullivan
devotes many delightful pages puncturing—nay, body-slamming—Catholic
“natural law” philosophy, which seeks to find in the natural
world a proof-positive that human nature is indeed synonymous
with conservative edicts on sexuality. For example: “The very
existence of the clitoris is therefore a living rebuke to
those who argue that nature itself—the way our bodies have
been constructed—dictates a certain and necessarily procreative
On fundamentalist art, he’s equally delightful. A brief takedown
of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ illustrates
as efficiently as any blog or film review how fundie art serves
one exclusive, anti-intellectual goal:
the richness and subtlety and grace of centuries of Christian
art is literally hammered into an inarguable, uncontestable
demand that the viewer be emotionally brutalized into the
sublime self-surrender of the fundamentalist faith.”
Because he’s so clearly capable of much nuanced analysis,
when Sullivan delves into disingenuous or intellectually lazy
assertions, it’s painfully obvious. For example, one need
not be a fan of academic leftists to dispute Sullivan’s contention
that this entire professional class believes the only moral
absolute is a woman’s right to abort a fetus.
Fortunately these kind of barbs are few and far between. There’s
a lot more by way of philosophical inquiry, drawing lines
from Plato and Aristotle to contemporary British conservatives
like Michael Oakenshott.
In light of recent political events, it’s clear that while
America isn’t necessarily embracing Sullivan’s “conservatism
of doubt,” it’s rejecting one of “certainty.” The certainty
of a “decider” whose rhetoric does not keep pace with the
competence of his administration in making things on the ground,
be it hurricane relief or Humvee armor in Iraq, actually work.
Political campaigns can’t be constructed on the premise of
doubt, but surely many conservatives might wish, if only in
private, that their Great Decider had spent more time doubting
and less swaggering.