You can agree or disagree with Andrew Sullivan -- sometimes you can do both at once. But you can't pigeonhole him. A longtime conservative who is now an outspoken champion of Barack Obama, Sullivan is a gay Catholic, and a British citizen with an expert perspective on American life. His blog The Daily Dish (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com) is a staple of the Atlantic magazine's Web site.
Sullivan visits Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, Rashid Auditorium, Gates Center for Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland. Free. 412-268-2084
Your talk, "American Politics: A View from Home and Abroad," comes as Americans try to fathom Barack Obama's Nobel Prize. Does the rest of the world see something in Obama we don't?
I think the Nobel Prize is absolutely deserved, and it's kind of brilliant. Because he represents a sense of rebuilding America's relationship with the rest of the world. I also believe that we were headed towards a pretty apocalyptic religious conflict that 9/11 intensified, and that the American response had -- wittingly or unwittingly -- further intensified.
And I think that his existence as the President is an act of such amazing fortuitousness that I'm kind of amazed. Someone is looking out for America [because] we've got this dude.
I know I'll be called a sap and a suck-up and God knows what else. It's cool in America to be sophisticated and say, "It's too soon." But this is a down payment to say, "We support your efforts to open up dialogue with the rest of the world, to speak directly to the Muslim world, to try and tell the Israelis what they really need to hear, and to stabilize what was possibly the next Great Depression."
One more thing before I bore you to tears, and that is that I didn't grow up here. I do see this country a little bit from the outside. So I think I have a better grip on how the rest of the world [sees us]. And I don't think Americans have internalized just how deep the ditch Cheney and Bush had dug for this country's moral reputation, and its actual power. The world needs America, probably more than ever, and it needs the real America -- not the torturing, invading, bigoted America that Cheney and Bush showed the world.
Why do you think we're slow to realize the damage done by Bush/Cheney?
Americans don't want to know that their own country has committed some of the most grotesque human-rights abuses, has tortured people it knows were innocent, invaded a country and didn't even think of the moral responsibility of protecting its citizens from being slaughtered in genocide. And also invaded a country on what turned out to be false pretenses. They don't want to believe that. They don't want to understand that the last President and Vice President were war criminals. But that is simply a fact. The rest of the world sees it; the rest of the world knows it. They look at Gitmo and see a torture camp. And they're right to see a torture camp.
So you're saying that because we want to see ourselves as the emblem of human rights, when our President is actually RECOGNIZED as an emblem of human rights, FOX News goes nuts. Does that about sum up where we are?
Well, how do we get out of here?
The only way to get out of it is the way Obama said we'd get out of it, which is that he has to absorb all of this shit, and stay reasonable, stay calm, and pragmatically try to move the country forward. But if America wants to commit essentially suicide, if it wants to do nothing about its human-rights abuses, if it still wants to keep expanding its presence abroad even though the country is bankrupt ...
I don't think any president has in history has done as much damage to this country as George Bush has done in eight years. And of course they're in denial about that, especially those who supported him and didn't have the wherewithal to realize they were wrong. So they have to double-down on all of it, until they sound absolutely insane.
And FOX News is a deranged, unhinged network, with the sole exception of Shep Smith, who is actually trying to do journalism. The rest of them are out of their bloody minds.
Well, you were once an advocate for the war in Iraq, and you've come around to a different view. What advice would you give to your former allies?
These people will get crazier and crazier. There is no way to reason someone out of something they weren't reasoned into.
It is the unthinkable, but exactly this climate led to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and Harvey Milk. Sometimes a figure emerges in this country who really could change the country. And that is so terrifying to those who are wedded to no change -- especially when they feel they are losing the culture. I do think it's a danger.
And I don't just mean the President. There are lots of other ways in which this kind of violence can seep out. And I think it's the job of the responsible right wing to start reining this stuff back in. Lindsay Graham has been real good at that -- David Frum -- there are people out there finally realizing where this might lead.
If you look at the polling, the portion of [voters] with Republican ID is lower now than it was after the historic loss after the last election. I don't believe for a minute that this kind of right-wing is going to come back and run this country. I do believe that that will make them crazier in the short term.
At some point, somebody there will realize that this can't work. But I don't see many of them there now with any integrity at all. They sat around for eight years when Bush exploded debt, grew government, went into insane nation-building exercises, suspended habeas corpus, asserted the right of the federal government to seize anybody at will and torture them -- and they claim to be limited government fanatics? I mean, how do they even begin to compute that?
What's your biggest reservation about Obama?
I worry that the logic of fear and politics will push him in a few areas. The first area is Afghanistan, where I think he's facing an incredibly difficult moment. And honestly, I think we need to wait a little bit to see the imponderables that are around it, including the Afghan election, the situation in Pakistan, and the campaign against the Taliban in the north of Pakistan. The situation in Iran. I think there are so many imponderables that a huge commitment to nation-building Afghanistan, which itself is to some extent an absurd proposition, should be resisted. I worry that he may feel we have to, because he would be accused of being weak.
My other worry is that in the pragmatic decision not to really investigate the war crimes of the last administration, they may end up -- and are ending up -- becoming quietly complicit in ways they don't fully understand. Because covering up a crime -- even if you didn't commit it -- is still a crime. And that's a very dangerous slide.
I'm surprised you didn't mention Obama's unfulfilled promises to LGBT voters, who are still waiting for him to end "don't ask/don't tell."
Yeah, it's unacceptable. But it's also [speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid. If Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid wanted to end this ban, they could do it tomorrow. Having said that, of course, I'm tired of it. I think the military thing is essential. And this is not a culture-war issue. These men and woman are risking their lives for us. For us to persecute them is immoral. I'm sorry, but this is something [Obama] has said in the past: "the fierce urgency of now." What we're getting is the "fierce urgency of whenever." And that's not good enough.
It's a moral issue, and I believe that the issue of torture, the issue of civil rights, are more important than our economic growth. These are core issues about how we treat human beings. And I don't think we should be asking these people to risk their lives while we demean and smear them. It's just wrong, and I'm tired -- and anybody who is willing to tolerate that has no right to show up at a gay-rights event, like the President will this weekend.
Unfortunately, we have a gay-rights establishment who are so pusillanimous and so enmeshed in the Democratic establishment that they can't say that to them.
What else would you have them do?
I would have them refuse to meet him. I would have them stand up and condemn him. I would stop funding the Democratic Party. I would take our money away, because this has been going on for years and years and years. Do you know how much money gay people give to Democrats? I don't think the Democratic Party as it currently exists cares about anything except the donors. And the only way they'll listen is if you yank the money.
But obviously the fear is that if you do that, you empower Republicans who aren't merely apathetic, but are outright hostile to the cause of equal-rights.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. But at some point, do you have self-respect, or do you not? I'm tired of being told what we've been told for 20 years. These are soldiers. They're heroes. We need them, desperately.
I can't help but wonder: Is there a Glenn Beck in England? If not, why are Americans so different?
Last night, in Britain, there was a big event for gay Tories [Britain's conservatives]. The chairman and vice chairman of the party, and two members who are probably going to be in the next cabinet -- who are openly gay and married -- showed up. So that's where the Right is in Europe.
I don't know of any other grown-up country that operates in this fashion. But this is America. It's always been like this.
This is about the paranoid strain in the same areas of the country that have always been there. And this goes very deep in American history. And it's a very profound cultural rift, and it's unique to this country. They have had a veto over government for about 30 years now, and finally they don't. And so they are screaming and yelling and complaining in ways they think may regain them power.
I think Obama deserves and needs real constructive criticism when he goes wrong. I've given him a huge amount of shit about the gay stuff. But there's a difference between criticism of policy and proposing of alternatives and the kind of screaming hatefest that these people have fomented.
And there are nutters on the left too. I've been the target of both of them, because I backed the Iraq War. And I'll tell you this: Had the anti-war Left not been so extremist -- had it not equated Bush with Hitler, but actually proposed constructively that we didn't know enough about the intelligence -- then maybe they would have avoided what happened. Or at least not turned off the middle of the country. So this is not a simply right- or left-wing issue, even though right now it is on the right primarily. And I think there hasn't been a liberal opposition to that extremism in their own ranks, just as there hasn't been enough Main Street conservative smackdown of this insanity on the right.