Andrew Sullivan

The importance of gatekeepers

Blogger Andrew Sullivan is back, and his latest offering in New York magazine is a doozy. Here’s a quick (and predictable) synopsis: Donald Trump is an existential threat to the American system of constitutional order.

Trump Derangement Syndrome gets tiring, even from a sharp guy like Sullivan. But T-Man Sully does get one thing right about the Donald and our fragile Republic. Citing Plato, he argues that the populist swell that propelled Trump to the GOP nomination is a real danger to something our country is losing supply of: legitimate authority.

I know what you’re thinking: Talk of “legitimate authority” usually comes from puritan witch-burners or Stalinists. It’s true that if taken too far, authority can corrupt. But as sociologist Philip Rieff wrote in his book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, the culture before our modern era “was embedded in a consensus of ‘shalt nots.’” The America of yesteryear had “creedal hedges” in place around “impulses of independence or autonomy” that detracted from “communal purpose.” Our country used to have a shared set of standards regarding sexuality, religion, race, and working life. It wasn’t perfect; but at least it kept grown men out of the little girls’ room.

Those informal limits are long gone. Explanations are legion for the collapse; yet one factor in particular stands out: A lack of gatekeepers on truth and knowledge.

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The conflict of individual against community

Andrew Sullivan, acting a bit more of a spin doctor than usual after reading Mark Lilla’s sobering piece on the modern political context we live in, declared an empathic victory in the name of individual freedom earlier this week, calling modern America a nation of libertarians in an acid-laced bit of wankery the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Windsor decision – or his recent compensatory tirades on manliness, depending on your view of wankery. Money shot (because he’s too much a coward to say it himself):

The core idea of this post-ideological new age was simply expanding the freedom of the individual – and it was embraced economically by the right, socially by the left, and completely by the next generation of pragmatic liberaltarians.

The blather on display here is incredibly detached, and fails to seriously take into consideration that individual freedom has not been triumphant, but in fact contracting more than it has been expanding thanks to government and corporate interests.  But to discuss that at length would be a hindrance, and any response would likely be apathetic.

Instead, let us focus on the core problem Sullivan attempts to address in the post: The matter of foreign policy in response to this development, as well as the loss of hegemony following the quixotic crusades that were Iraq and Afghanistan. In fairness, Brooks’ calls for a return to worshiping the American Dream and the glory that is the nation’s “exceptionalism” (a word which people tend to forget was coined by Stalin as an insult) comes off as dense and paranoiac. It shows him clinging to the old parameters of which the world existed, a time that barely has meaning now. But to call Sullivan’s own response nonsense would be a bit of an understatement:

But there is another, saner response to this, and Lilla points the way. It is to re-exercize the intellectual muscles that created and then defended the idea of democratic capitalism – and to use them, first of all, to address the democratic deficits in our own too-often bought-and-paid-for republic, to build and defend intermediate institutions that check individualism’s acidic power – families, churches, neighborhoods, school-boards, sports leagues, AA meetings. And so we match gay freedom with gay marriage and military service, embracing libertarianism but hitching it to institutions that also connect it to the community as a whole.

To start with, where does Lilla even mention this, other than in a vague hint about the potential of reactionary right with the parable of the golem? Even then, he was more making a point than suggesting a solution. Also, what that has to do with foreign policy is beyond anyone’s imagination.

Sullivan’s extrapolation seems more a desire to display his Thatcherite paternalism than anything functional, for many of his suggestions are institutions designed to strangulate individuality. The military are specialists in this line of business: Nothing strips away individual freedom more than being trained against nature into becoming an efficient killing machine. Yet families, churches, any community-style organization are also capable of undermining the independence of the individual.

But then, that’s the point of a community, and therein lies the modern conflict that Sullivan fails to appreciate.
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