The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Saturday, October 19, 2002  

A Sorry and Unnecessary Search for Scandal

The other day I encountered a surprising observation at the eponymous weblog Charles Murtaugh:

By the way, am I the only one who’s noticed that Andrew Sullivan’s recently increased visibility has provoked the emergence of a new left-wing homophobia? [Oct. 10]

My initial reaction to Murtaugh’s question was one that might best be characterized as dumbfounded, given that I had not noticed Andrew Sullivan’s visibility increasing recently nor was I familiar with the phenomenon of “left-wing homophobia.” Consequently, I inquired directly to Murtaugh regarding this post. Being the most impatient sort and not having yet received a response, on Thursday, Oct. 17, I asked the Review’s readers for help in my efforts to grapple with Murtaugh’s remarks.

Fortunately, the very next day, Murtaugh graciously informed me via e-mail that he had responded to my question at his site. It is from that point that I begin today.

As noted, Murtaugh is saying two different things: First, that Sullivan’s visibility has “recently increased,” and second, that this has “provoked the emergence of a new left-wing homophobia.” I mention this not out of any desire to score points by inflating two patently untrue statements but because one flows out of the other.

I’ll begin with the question of Sullivan’s visibility. Murtaugh writes:

Rittenhouse first wants to know what I mean by Sullivan’s “recently increased visibility,” which he [Rittenhouse] calls “an observation of recent trends that runs counter to all empirical evidence.” I assume he refers to Sullivan’s dumping by TNR and [t]he New York Times, which I discussed back in May. I guess I shouldn't have used the term ‘recently’; let’s just say, post-Sept. 11. Pre-Sept. 11, not that many people I know had even heard of Andrew Sullivan, and now he seems to be pretty well known.

I’m not quite sure what to make of these remarks as they are quite alien to my perception of Sullivan’s visibility, prominence, and status in the media and the culture writ large. I can honestly say that I cannot think of anyone I know, at least among my gay or politically aware friends and colleagues, who had not heard of Sullivan before Sept. 11, indeed well before Sept. 11. That may be a function of my having lived for 11 years in Washington, D.C., home also, for most of that period, to Sullivan, and a city where politics is of considerable interest even among many with only a peripheral, if that, professional attachment thereto. It may also reflect my having worked for the last nine years in a few obscure corners of the media, an environment where the comings and goings and sayings and writings of the likes of Sullivan are part and parcel of industry gossip. Murtaugh’s profession, which I assume is in the field of the life sciences, may explain the unfamiliarity of his friends and colleagues with Sullivan’s name and career, but that is a subject Murtaugh is far better equipped to address than I.

Continuing, Murtaugh says:

Yes, [Sullivan]’s sabotaged himself by going off the rails one to[o] many times on his site, and his star may be fading, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that so many left-of-center bloggers still focus so much attention on the man. Is this the mark of an irrelevant figure?

With the first half of this statement, I agree. Sullivan has gone “off the rails” at his site on any number of subjects, something that has occurred with greater frequency since Sept. 11. In fact, before then I was a regular reader of because I found his pieces to be, more often than not, interesting, provocative, considered, reasoned, and thought-provoking.

Sadly, as many “left-of-center bloggers,” along with many other readers, liberal, moderate, and conservative, to say nothing of editors, producers, commentators, and politicians, have noticed, this is no longer the case. Sullivan has become doctrinaire, rigid, tiresome, predictable, caustic, thoughtless, vindictive, and indeed vicious. His endless complaints about Howell Raines and the New York Times are embarrassing, not only because they sound like so many sour grapes but because they reveal an astonishing ignorance about how news organizations generally, and newspapers specifically, actually work, a subject I have discussed in the past. For the life of me I cannot figure out why Sullivan doesn’t realize how foolish he appears while engaging in this infantile and thoroughly unprofessional behavior. I can only assume that he receives much appreciation for the effort from a segment of his readers.

I would also concur that Sullivan’s star is fading, as Murtaugh suggests. The New York Times dropped his magazine column and his appearances in the New Republic have declined substantially. He continues to write for The Times of London, but that paper, while highly regarded, carries little influence here in the U.S. He has been seen commenting on politics much less frequently in the broadcast media and I can recall precious few columns outside his normal venues.

I don’t presume to know the reasons behind the developments at the New York Times or the New Republic, though it is safe to say that media reports vary significantly from the stray comments Sullivan himself has offered. I would add that I take no particular joy in these developments, except on those occasions when Sullivan and his pals, including Mickey Kaus, express their smug self-satisfaction upon hearing each bit of rumor or gossip about the financial difficulties of rival journals, most notably the American Prospect, a book that for reasons not clear generates substantial bile among the terrible twosome.

I will concede that the weblog,, has introduced Sullivan to a wider audience, but that does not contradict Murtaugh’s own observation that Sullivan’s star is fading. Nor does the fact that many bloggers comment on, or criticize, Sullivan’s work. I’m quite sure the typical reader of “The Daily Dish” is not a major player in the media or publishing industries and I doubt his site is the topic of much discussion in the editorial meeting rooms of major newspapers or magazines. Moreover, the criticism of Sullivan by the blogging community largely centers on the aforementioned predictability and viciousness of his pieces. Sullivan rarely offers bloggers, let alone mainstream commentators, much of substance to work with. It is not easy to engage in a substantive debate with someone whose typical response is a name-calling rant. Sullivan’s star has faded because he has so little of interest to say. And while his site generates considerable traffic, it’s fair to ask how many visitors are stopping by for its sheer entertainment value.

Strangely, Murtaugh’s evidence of something called “left-wing homophobia” is scant to the point of being non-existant. Pressed for details, Murtaugh can point only to two displays of the elusive phenomenon: the first, a post by Atrios, author of the highly regarded and widely read weblog Eschaton, that drew notice to an earlier piece published at the gay news and discussion site Data Lounge summarizing that site’s readers’ suggested titles for Sullivan’s next book.

It’s true that some of the suggested titles referred to aspects of Sullivan’s private life that he and others, including me, would prefer not to hear more about, but I am mystified as to why we should be surprised that Data Lounge’s readers, many of whom have been living with or actively fighting AIDS, or watching their friends get sick and die from the disease, for the past five, 10, 15, or 20 years should be chastised for expressing their disgust for the hypocrisy revealed by Michelangelo Signorile in the pages of LGNY on an issue that had only recently exploded in the gay community. And I am compelled to ask what exactly about the post in question was “homophobic”? Apparently we are once again being directed to suppress any admission that gay men have sex lives for fear that doing so is per se homophobic. Some of the details at hand are embarrassing and spark considerable discomfort, but simply discussing the issue, or drawing attention to those who are doing so, is hardly “homophobic.”

Furthermore, to charge Atrios with homophobia is simply ludicrous, indeed Coulteresque. I cannot and will not let this smear, since picked up and irresponsibly propagated, albeit slyly, by Professor InstaLinker, go unchallenged. As a self-professed admirer of Atrios’s work, surely Murtaugh knows he was pulling just one post from Atrios’s many thousands since April, of which dozens I would wager, if not more, are explicitly or implicitly reliably supportive of the civil rights and human dignity of gay men and lesbians. Moreover, I have had the good pleasure of maintaining a cordial and lively e-mail correspondence with Atrios for the past several months, and earlier this week enjoyed the company of Atrios and his wife at dinner. The very notion that this fine scholar is “homophobic” is ridiculous on its face. Indeed, one is far more likely to counter homophobic comments at than at Eschaton.

As for SullyWatch and an explanation of his or her use of the term “Blog Queen” in reference to Sullivan, I direct you to that site as he or she has discussed this subject in the past and today posted remarks about Murtaugh’s initial comments about Sullivan and his response to my inquiry on the subject.

Even if we were to take Murtaugh’s contentions at face value and apply to them the most negative of interpretations, we would be left with very little evidence of “left-wing homophobia.” With what have we been presented? Two widely read but anonymous bloggers, one referring once, obliquely and through a link to another site, to Sullivan’s personal life, the other doing so with considerable regularity as part of a larger effort to counter Sullivan’s errors, misstatements, and dissembling. Forgive me for saying that this doesn’t have the characteristics of a budding political or social movement.

Now, how does this stack up against the manifestation of homophobia among the leading lights of the American right wing? Where shall I start and how much time do you have?

How often do we read snide, intolerant, misleading, biased, and yes, bigoted, remarks about gay people in such popular and respected publications as National Review, Commentary, Human Events, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard, the National Catholic Register, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere?

Where are the left-wing counterparts to the sneering, smug, and self-righteous right-wing pundits and activists who cannot keep themselves from attempting to score rhetorical points at the expense of gays and lesbians, or who cannot resist the temptation to justify their purportedly superior moral standing by casting aspersions on the gay community? For heaven’s sake, the list is endless: Cal Thomas, Mona Charen, Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, William F. Buckley Jr., Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Mary Eberstadt, R. Emmett Tyrell Jr., Ann Coulter, Rod Dreher, Jonah Goldberg, Linda Chavez, John Derbyshire, Gary Bauer, Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Aldrich, Laura Ingraham, Paul Weyrich, Hilton Kramer, Beverly LaHaye, Brent Bozell, Larry Elder, Dorothy Rabinowitz, Charles Krauthammer, Oliver North, Robert Novak, Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Tony Snow, George Will, Michael Medved, John Podhoretz, Joseph Sobran, John Leo, Pat Robertson, Louis P. Sheldon, Laura Schlesinger, James Dobson, Maggie Gallagher, John Simon, Don Feder, James Kilpatrick, Andy Rooney, Fred Phelps, Wesley Pruden, Donald Wildmon, Armstrong Williams, John Schmitz, William Bennett, Ralph Reed, D. James Kennedy, Richard Viguerie, Jim Woodall, Paul Cameron, Lou Mabon, Reed Irvine . . . Need I go on?

And what of our elected politicians? Who can Murtaugh name among liberals or on the left that has any affinity with, or could in any way be compared with, the likes of Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer, Dan Burton, Phil Crane, Strom Thurmond, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Lauch Faircloth, Robert Dornan, Phil Gramm, Bob Barr, Don Nickles, Bob Smith, Evan Mecham, Robert Bork, Helen Chenoweth, Henry Hyde, William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, and so on, ad infinitum?

Please, Mr. Murtaugh, spare us the hysterics. We both know conservatives are in a scary league of their own on this issue and assertions to the contrary, no matter how hedged, are their own kind of sorry and unnecessary scandal.

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