Andrew Sullivan

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In 1994, an excerpt from Charles Murray’s bigoted Bell Curve bullshit served as a cover story for the New Republic, a call made by then-EIC Andrew Sullivan. It’s no surprise the former published an admiring tweet about the latter’s recent New York column, a lazy and wrong-minded take on race in America.

Sullivan’s detestable opinion piece tried to argue America can’t be a prejudiced place tilted in favor of whites (and, by suggestion, against African-Americans) because look at how well Asian-Americans are doing. It’s the old bigoted hogwash that diminishes our atrocious history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and a separate and unequal justice system–and all the social problems this poisonous past (and present) created. Comparing the travails of any ethnic group in the U.S. to the one brought here on slave ships is appallingly stupid. It’s an argument likely as old as Reconstruction itself.

Another memo for Sullivan: Asian-Americans don’t universally do well in America, with income inequality even more pronounced among the haves and have-nots in this group than in the country as a whole. Perhaps looking beneath statistics in the aggregate would allow for a more nuanced understanding of the citizenry.

From Sullivan:

I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?•



I occasionally joke that the 12,000-plus posts I’ve published on Afflictor over the years would be a good morning for Andrew Sullivan, but I win because I didn’t support the invasion of Iraq. 

Sullivan was, until recent times, a scary prolific blogger who seemed to turn himself into a machine in the process of working with them, running a sprint against a stream of information that never rested, never stopped. Finally, he stopped.

The writer wasn’t Zen enough to gladly accept the Bob Marley credo that “the day you stop racing is the day you win the race,” but he knew he needed help for what had become an addiction to a “constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego,” one that had begun to damage his physical as well as mental health. In the insightful New York magazine article “I Used to Be a Human Being,” Sullivan recounts the experience of using meditation, nature walks and quietism to break from this pernicious cycle, a piece which contains great lines like this one: “If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation.”

The thing is, he began noticing that though he was an early adopter of the antic existence of living-inside-the web, social media, smartphones, and apps had soon enough ushered a huge chunk of the globe inside. I wonder sometimes if being caught in an endless maelstrom of information caused Sullivan to lack distance and perspective to the disaster that the Iraq War was likely to become. Now I ponder the same about us all when we’re making vital decisions in this world of cold wars and hot takes. And once the Internet of Things is ubuiquitous, we’ll all be inside of a machine with no OFF switch.

The opening:

I was sitting in a large meditation hall in a converted novitiate in central Massachusetts when I reached into my pocket for my iPhone. A woman in the front of the room gamely held a basket in front of her, beaming beneficently, like a priest with a collection plate. I duly surrendered my little device, only to feel a sudden pang of panic on my way back to my seat. If it hadn’t been for everyone staring at me, I might have turned around immediately and asked for it back. But I didn’t. I knew why I’d come here.

A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.•



Does democracy know its limits?

As long as Donald Trump, a preferred artist at KKK karaoke night, isn’t in the White House, America can look askance at England and its self-defeating Brexit. But what if, say, Texas had the opportunity to vote to become independent after the election or reelection of President Obama? The state may be shockingly purplish this time around, but it would have already exited the nation if such a referendum was permitted in 2008 or 2012. Direct democracy seems like such an inviting idea. Who doesn’t want more democracy? But maybe it’s best we don’t vote on everything.

Three excerpts from: 1) Michael Sauga’s Spiegel editorial about the downside of direct democracy, 2) Andrew Sullivan’s New York piece about what he feels may be democracy’s breaking point, and 3) the late Michael Kelly’s 1992 New York Times article about Ross Perot’s long-held McLuhan-ish dream of an electronic voting booth of sorts.

From Sauga:

Boris Johnson has always had a playful relationship with power. During his time at university, it is said that the conservative politician pretended to be a member of the Labour Party in order to have better chances in the student union. As a journalist, he had a penchant for criticizing EU laws that didn’t even exist. And when the world was recently left scratching its head over how Britain could have voted to leave the EU, the leader of the Brexit camp unceremoniously dismissed the historical vote by 17 million Brits as a non-event. For now, the former London mayor concluded, “nothing will change over the short term.”

The success of political gambler Johnson represents a defeat not only for supporters of the European Union in Britain, but also for those who believe in direct democracy. Even here in Germany, citizens initiatives along with a broad spectrum of political parties — from the conservative Christian Social Union to the Green Party — have supported the idea of holding the greatest possible number of referendums as an antidote to the crisis in Western parliamentarianism. The hope is that calling voters to the polls will not only bring about the purest possible expression of the electorate’s preference, but also that it will provide clarity on issues of importance and create the foundation for a new societal consensus on the strength of a majority vote. The idea is that more votes translate into more democracy.

Rarely, though, have the limitations of plebiscites been shown so clearly as in the British vote. Not because most experts believe the result to be misguided. Voters have the undeniable right to value the supposed advantages of increased sovereignty over the obvious economic and political disadvantages.•

From Sullivan:

What the 21st century added to this picture, it’s now blindingly obvious, was media democracy — in a truly revolutionary form. If late-stage political democracy has taken two centuries to ripen, the media equivalent took around two decades, swiftly erasing almost any elite moderation or control of our democratic discourse. The process had its origins in partisan talk radio at the end of the past century. The rise of the internet — an event so swift and pervasive its political effect is only now beginning to be understood — further democratized every source of information, dramatically expanded each outlet’s readership, and gave everyone a platform. All the old barriers to entry — the cost of print and paper and distribution — crumbled.

So much of this was welcome. I relished it myself in the early aughts, starting a blog and soon reaching as many readers, if not more, as some small magazines do. Fusty old-media institutions, grown fat and lazy, deserved a drubbing. The early independent blogosphere corrected facts, exposed bias, earned scoops. And as the medium matured, and as Facebook and Twitter took hold, everyone became a kind of blogger. In ways no 20th-century journalist would have believed, we all now have our own virtual newspapers on our Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines — picking stories from countless sources and creating a peer-to-peer media almost completely free of editing or interference by elites. This was bound to make politics more fluid. Political organizing — calling a meeting, fomenting a rally to advance a cause — used to be extremely laborious. Now you could bring together a virtual mass movement with a single webpage. It would take you a few seconds.

The web was also uniquely capable of absorbing other forms of media, conflating genres and categories in ways never seen before. The distinction between politics and entertainment became fuzzier; election coverage became even more modeled on sportscasting; your Pornhub jostled right next to your mother’s Facebook page. The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking “Is this relevant?” or “Do we really need to cover this live?” in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before.

And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin. Godwin’s Law — it’s only a matter of time before a comments section brings up Hitler — is a reflection of the collapse of the reasoned deliberation the Founders saw as indispensable to a functioning republic.•

From Kelly:

WASHINGTON, June 5— Twenty-three years ago, Ross Perot had a simple idea.

The nation was splintered by the great and painful issues of the day. There had been years of disorder and disunity, and lately, terrible riots in Los Angeles and other cities. People talked of an America in crisis. The Government seemed to many to be ineffectual and out of touch.

What this country needed, Mr. Perot thought, was a good, long talk with itself.

The information age was dawning, and Mr. Perot, then building what would become one of the world’s largest computer-processing companies, saw in its glow the answer to everything. One Hour, One Issue

Every week, Mr. Perot proposed, the television networks would broadcast an hourlong program in which one issue would be discussed. Viewers would record their opinions by marking computer cards, which they would mail to regional tabulating centers. Consensus would be reached, and the leaders would know what the people wanted.

Mr. Perot gave his idea a name that draped the old dream of pure democracy with the glossy promise of technology: “the electronic town hall.”

Today, Mr. Perot’s idea, essentially unchanged from 1969, is at the core of his ‘We the People’ drive for the Presidency, and of his theory for governing.

It forms the basis of Mr. Perot’s pitch, in which he presents himself, not as a politician running for President, but as a patriot willing to be drafted ‘as a servant of the people’ to take on the ‘dirty, thankless’ job of rescuing America from “the Establishment,” and running it.

In set speeches and interviews, the Texas billionaire describes the electronic town hall as the principal tool of governance in a Perot Presidency, and he makes grand claims: “If we ever put the people back in charge of this country and make sure they understand the issues, you’ll see the White House and Congress, like a ballet, pirouetting around the stage getting it done in unison.”

Although Mr. Perot has repeatedly said he would not try to use the electronic town hall as a direct decision-making body, he has on other occasions suggested placing a startling degree of power in the hands of the television audience.

He has proposed at least twice — in an interview with David Frost broadcast on April 24 and in a March 18 speech at the National Press Club — passing a constitutional amendment that would strip Congress of its authority to levy taxes, and place that power directly in the hands of the people, in a debate and referendum orchestrated through an electronic town hall.•

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I’ll use the graph below, from a post by Andrew Sullivan at the Dish, as possible proof of my contention that although police body-cameras may not instantly bring about a higher degree of justice, the images will effect public consciousness, which may in turn be brought to bear on race and policing.