Andrew Sullivan–Again

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on July 28, 2010

Having decided that he has not yet had enough of our argument, Andrew Sullivan has posted yet another reply to me that is actually a non-reply. Let’s take each paragraph in turn.

Reply to Sullivanesque Paragraph One: Sullivan’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding, I have not, of course, engaged in any ad hominem attacks on him. I have certainly criticized his method of argumentation, and the dishonesty that I believe he brings to debate, but this is not ad hominem; indeed, one wonders whether Sullivan knows what the ad hominem fallacy actually entails, or whether Sullivan does understand what the fallacy is, and just chooses to misrepresent things to his readers. Sullivan also thinks that I have not put forth an argument “except that we should all be careful before we write for fear of unintended consequences.” His reply: “I understand the point, and will try to be more vigilant about hyperbole (blogs are real-time thoughts and not the place for truly considered writing), but I have to say this is not my view of what writers should do in general, regardless of the form we are using.” This appears to be qualified agreement, but it is qualified agreement that Sullivan will blast to smithereens in a couple of paragraphs (more on this later).

As for what I was arguing, in my reply to Sullivan: (a) I spelled out and summarized my criticisms anew concerning Walt and Mearsheimer; (b) I pointed out that Sullivan behaved, and behaves shabbily in pretending away the propensity of anti-Semites to take arguments criticizing Israel and the Israel lobby, and to use them to further despicable ends; (c) I stated that Sullivan’s habit in this regard does him no credit, and is a disservice to his readers, and to the Atlantic, which pays him; (d) I pointed out that Sullivan should denounce anti-Semites who cite him–with his knowledge–for their own malevolent purposes; (e) I showed that Sullivan is not as squeaky-clean on the issue of anti-Semitism as he likes to claim, and that he has a tendency to be a McCarthyite, to boot; and (f) I argued that Sullivan is a hypocrite in his denunciation of criticism–tough as that criticism may be–as “intimidation,” while at the same time, turning a blind eye to actual nasty comments directed at the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg, who has become the target of anti-Semites simply because he disagrees with Walt, Mearsheimer, Sullivan, Weiss, and Greenwald.

All of this was my argument in my reply to Sullivan. If he still doesn’t understand what I am contending at this point, well, I’m sorry, but save the provision of enough Chapstick to cover the entire land mass of Russia, I really cannot help out anymore.

Sullivan also says the following in his inaugural paragraph:

I think our core responsibility is to tell the truth, as best we can, to our readers. Sometimes, that means saying things that might not have the best consequences in real life, or can give comfort to those who should be given none, or foment hatred, or complacency, or any number of bad things.

See, I think that “truth” doesn’t “give comfort to those who should be given none, or foment hatred, or complacency.” I think that truth is a good thing. It might be a bitter pill, at times, but bitter pills don’t “give comfort” (especially not to those “who should be given none”), or “foment hatred” (they may foment anger, at times, but that’s a different thing altogether), or “complacency” (since when does the acceptance of truth lull one into a state of complacency? If anything, truth makes one aware, and puts one on one’s guard). But I guess that’s just me, and I guess all of this helps explain some of the differences between me and Andrew Sullivan.

Reply to Sullivanesque Paragraph Two: Sullivan goes on, and on, and on here about various controversial arguments that he advanced in previous points in his writing career. He pats himself on the back vigorously enough that one worries he might dislocate a shoulder, but fine; let’s assume for the sake of argument that Sullivan was quite courageous and valiant in publishing “The Bell Curve,” writing “When Plagues End,” and writing “”What’s So Bad About Hate?”. Who cares? What do past acts of bravery have to do with whether Sullivan is right or wrong on this issue? As Sullivan himself states, “[e]ither my argument succeeds or fails.” Quite so, but he seems to miss the fact that whether his argument in this case “succeeds or fails” has nothing to do with the merits of past writings on entirely different topics.

As for Sullivan’s comment that “I feel I should veer toward candor rather than sensitivity,” that’s a false choice. One can be candid, while at the same time, being sensitive. One can criticize Israel, and/or the Israel lobby, while being sensitive enough to understand that even if one’s arguments on this subject are correct and laudable, the very nature of anti-Semitism means that noxious elements will come by, and seek to twist one’s arguments to fulfill racist ends. That doesn’t mean those arguments cannot be made as a matter of course, but it does mean–apparently, I have to blog this until I am blue in the face–that the arguer in question has a direct and inescapable responsibility to make clear to his/her audience that the arguer will have nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Semitic elements seeking to make a useful idiot out of the arguer, and that on the contrary, the arguer will loudly and insistently denounce those elements to show good faith, and to feel unsullied (pardon the pun) afterwards. I don’t know why this is so difficult to understand. I also don’t understand why non-anti-Semites–and those who portray themselves as philo-Semites–shouldn’t or wouldn’t be in a rush to tell anti-Semites to go play in traffic.

Reply to Sullivanesque Paragraph Three: Sullivan believes that Israel is acting in self-destructive fashion. He is entitled to his opinion, and there is nothing per se objectionable about giving voice to that opinion. But afterwards, he tells us that “[t]he notion that I should suppress these beliefs – or focus always on relaying them with extreme sensitivity to language – is one I’ll resist.” Recall that in Sullivanesque Paragraph One, Sullivan tells us–I told you we would get back to this–that “we should all be careful before we write for fear of unintended consequences. I understand the point, and will try to be more vigilant about hyperbole.” True, there was something of a qualifier immediately after those words, but by the time we get to Sullivanesque Paragraph Three, Sullivan goes beyond mere qualification concerning his promise to “be more vigilant about hyperbole,” and instead, he abandons the promise altogether.

And he wonders why some of us are so exasperated with him.

  • patrickirish

    You say Sullivan is “not as good at telling the truth…”,
    has an “attention span as short as a mayfly's life span.”, is prone to “misrepresentation..”, has “caste to the wind..(principles)..”,
    has a “propensity to misunderstanding…or.. misrepresenting..”, “propensity to engage in McCarthyite smears..” and suffers from “moral and intellectual myopia”.
    You then insist that Sullivan has no understanding of the term when he accuses you of ad hominem attacks.
    Have you no shame?

    • http://www.chequer-board.net Pejman Yousefzadeh

      Having problems with Sullivan’s method of argumentation, and noting that he doesn’t know how to follow an argument does not constitute an ad hominem attack. Sorry to break it to you, but there it is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1602925 Mason Cole

    Pejman has no sense of shame — not about this, at any rate. But then again, he shouldn't. You should, however, for implying that someone is committing ad hominem attacks even while you clearly misunderstand what ad hominem attacks are.

    An ad hominem is any argument of the form “X has said Y. Here's something bad about X. Therefore, we shouldn't listen to X when s/he says Y.” The reason this is invalid is because the truth/validity of Y is independent of anything about X, regardless of whether those features appear superficially relevant (circumstantial, tu quoque) or irrelevant (abusive).

    Here's an example: “Mark Dark has argued that we need to pay teachers more. But Mark Dark is a teacher. Shouldn't we not listen to someone so obviously self-interested?” Teachers may, or may not, need to be paid more. But whichever it is, that remains true, no matter whether it's argued by a teacher, a businessman, or anyone else. If Mr. Dark is wrong, he is wrong because teachers don't need more pay, not because he is a teacher.

    More outrageously: “Red Riley has put forth an argument for heliocentrism. But Red Riley is a communist, and therefore untrustworthy.” Here, the rejection of the proposed theory is based on the political convictions of the proponent — which are completely unrelated, and don't even appear superficially relevant to the truth.

    None of the quotes you cite above are remotely relevant to Pejman's central contention in his previous post. To sum those up for you, or as Pejman might say, “shorter Pejman”:

    “1) Sullivan has said I am shocked at the views of my former professors. In actual fact, I am shocked at the way they are twisting evidence to advance those views. Therefore, Sullivan is misrepresenting me.
    2) Sullivan says that I admit I never found my professors anti-Semitic before. However, he ignores all the evidence I put forth to show that they have changed.
    3) Sullivan claims that I said he was responsible for slamming the anti-Semites he doesn't know about who have twisted his words. My point, however, was that he refuses to take on the ones he DOES know about, which I maintain is irreposnsible behavior.
    4) Sullivan claims that I am trying to intimidate him. I have done no such thing.”

    There's not a single ad hominem argument in there. Now, it is true that Pejman does throw some barbs Sullivan's way, many of which veer into the realm of personal insults. But as I stated above, those are not ad hominem attacks. There is a difference. You may say — perhaps fairly — that Pejman needs to tone down his rhetoric. But the point still stands that he has not committed an ad hominem fallacy with respect to Andrew Sullivan.

    To close with one more example: I do not say that no one should pay further attention to your post above because you are a nincompoop. I say that no one should pay further attention to your post above because you have wrongly accused someone of committing an ad hominem fallacy, and there is nothing else of substance in your post to respond to. Your manifest nincompoopery is merely an unrelated bonus.

  • vanderleun

    “And he wonders why some of us are so exasperated with him.”

    Only some exist in exasperation, most exist in revulsion.

  • http://twitter.com/2klbofun 2klbofun

    Just listened to the podcast and had to respond. Have you not learned anything from the left on these issues. Just scream Andrew Sullivan is a RRRRAAAACCCCIIISSSSTT and that ends the argument. No logic or discussion needed.

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