No Comment — February 12, 2010, 1:52 pm

Wieseltier contra Sullivan

The longest running feud in the magazine industry is between two men closely associated with The New Republic: Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan. It is a bit surprising, however, that TNR actually published the opening salvo in the last battle, a 4,000-word web of insinuations by Wieseltier, aptly entitled “Something Much Darker.”

Wieseltier never comes out and calls Sullivan an anti-Semite–perhaps because he is already on record saying emphatically that Sullivan is not an anti-Semite–yet that is unmistakably his case. The weakness of this charge is apparent from the opening volley, in which Wieseltier notes Sullivan’s posting of a quotation from W.H. Auden, in a letter to Ursula Niebuhr: “Trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to the readers of The New Republic is not easy.” When Auden wrote this, Wieseltier notes, “he was lightly lamenting the spiritual shallowness of the liberalism of his day.” But when Sullivan posts the quote, he claims, “he is baiting another class of people.”

Regular readers of Sullivan’s blog know that he is a stout advocate of Reinhold Niebuhr. He believes, as I do, that Niebuhr’s writings about theology and politics are important for the current political environment, because they bring centuries of mainstream Protestantism to bear on the duties and responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy. They enrich the political dialogue. In citing them, Sullivan would seem to be asserting mainly that religion as such is a proper part of our political and social dialogue. This is one of several points on which Sullivan himself parts company with much American liberalism of the post-Kennedy era. It is bizarre to see it as an attack on Jews.

In support of this strange interpretation of a single quotation from Auden, Wieseltier focuses on Sullivan’s criticism of actions of the Israeli government, and particularly the way it conducted the war in Gaza. He highlights a series of posts in which Sullivan’s wording may be overheated and imprecise. Most of these blog posts were written as spontaneous expressions of anger after hearing the report of some atrocity. They are not the sort of thing a writer like Sullivan would likely put in a book and Wieseltier is able to score some modest debater’s points about loose usage of language.

Probably Wieseltier’s strongest zinger in this series comes when he quotes Sullivan talking about the “Krauthammer-Goldfarb wing,” suggesting that they represent a “wing” of American Jewry that endorses torture as a matter of government policy. These obviously weren’t the best chosen words, among other things because they lump together a serious thinker with a crude political propagandist, and they suggest that religious affinity is what produces these views. But such shorthand linkages are commonplace in the political fray, and it is mean-spirited to infer racism from them, when more explicit evidence is absent. When Wieseltier goes on to link the dubious charge of anti-Semitism to Sullivan’s stance on Israel, he only weakens his own criticisms of that stance.

Wieseltier has managed the back of TNR for an era, and he’s done a consistently good job. Moreover, as a writer he knows few equals within his generation. In Kaddish he produced a work that shatters previous stylistic molds, moving between the world of intellect and a highly personal pathos deeply engaged with rabbinical tradition. He demonstrated the relevance of that tradition to our own times in a very persuasive way. One should be prepared to forgive the author of such a work for an embarrassing couple of blog posts. But in the process of identifying passages that Sullivan might better have left unposted, Wieseltier has written his own. As throwdowns go, this one has a lot of sizzle and no substance.

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