My leftist friends are mainly baffled by how much I like Andrew Sullivan. His blog, the Daily Dish, presents a libertarian-inflected center-right political stance. He supported the Iraq War; he is gay and a practicing Catholic. As Ken Layne recently remarked here, Andrew is "by any rational assessment, a demographic of one—a conservative liberal gay Republican Obama loyalist and Irish-English Oxford man who sought and secured permanent U.S. residency."
But the Dish is intelligent, rational, mannerly, and welcoming, in stark contrast to the common run of right-wing blogs. Here is a conservative who accepts me and my views freely, however much they may diverge from his. It was evident from the first that among the apparently limitless multitude of conservatives who will not, cannot, have a civil conversation with me about politics (among whom I can count a discouraging number of my own relatives) here is one who is willing to talk and listen in a condition of mutual respect and candor. This quality is rare enough on the so-called liberal side; on the conservative side, it's unaccountably rare. Just as importantly, Andrew Sullivan recanted his support for the Iraq war, which cannot be said of most of his colleagues on the right. I hope I have the same courage and brains when it's my turn to change my mind.
Andrew is in the news because he and his partners in the Dish have struck out on their own, on the expiration of his contract with The Daily Beast at the end of 2012. The new Dish will be ad-free and independent, funded through reader subscriptions. This experiment is being closely watched, because he is one of the few bloggers (as of yet) with an audience large and loyal enough to try it.
When we spoke over the phone last week, the author was battling the flu.
Andrew Sullivan: Bloody flu. And I have chronic asthma and bronchitis anyway, so it always brings me down.
Maria Bustillos:: I know! [and I do, too. Any follower of the Dish has been on a real rollercoaster with respect to the author's health issues; he's HIV positive and discusses the status of his health there all the time.]
Maria: So you've set off on this great adventure. How does it feel?
Andrew: It's hard for me to distinguish it right now from the flu, to be honest, because I feel pretty rum, but of course it feels liberating, and exciting, and incredibly, just the response from our readers—the emails, on top of the donations, it's just been… I don't know, I'm not used to this sort of wave of love, I'm usually sort of more attuned to the opposite. People seemed to take to this idea very well.
We won't really know until we have installed the meter and see how many of these fence-sitters are nudged to help pay, but the number right now, I can tell you, because we decided to make this all as transparent as possible, let me just refresh it: it's $466,899. So we had a huge big bump on the first day, and then it's inevitably trailed off a little, but we're not doing our big pitch yet…
(I'm just checking on my beagle, here, I heard some noise… I thought she was up to no good, but she's all right. When you have beagles, you always have to be on the lookout for their latest mischief.)
So it's been a really exhilarating ride, and also kind of exhausting. We're sort of driving the car as we build it; it's not like we can take a month off and put all these pieces together, we have to keep going, and that's why it was nice of the Beast to give us some time to get our act together.
Maria: How different will the new site be? Are there things you couldn't do at a big shop, that you'll be able to do now that you won't have anybody breathing down your neck?
Andrew: Happily, people weren't breathing down our neck before; we've had really great relationships at both the Atlantic and the Beast, and my contract at both places gave me complete editorial control, so there was no pressure on me at all, editorially speaking. And we've made a strong decision that when we start we're going to keep it very similar to what it is now; in other words, it will remain, as it was always, a simple, reverse-chronological blog. The one thing we might be able to do is to have no pages, so that the thing will scroll infinitely down, which is fun.
The big advantage is that if we have a project we want done, before, we would have to have people in these other institutions to approve it or to give us the resources for it, or to beg their tech staffs to take some time to help us, whereas now I think, Inshallah, we will be able to have money to get a designer and do it our way, or [in the case of] commissioning art: just the ability to execute stuff quickly, simply, nimbly, without having to deal with any bureaucracy. Three of us, Chris [Bodenner], Patrick [Appel] and I, are partners in the company, and we do have a pretty solid thrashing-out process of figuring stuff out as we go along, but once we make a decision we do it as quickly and decisively as we can.
Our goal right now is to continue the Dish as it is, and keep improving its quality. But if we do better than we hope, we do have a kind of quixotic idea of starting to commission and edit longform journalism as a sort of added part of it; I have this concept of Deep Dish, where we want to get big writers, and pay them real money, or do the Byliner approach and sort of split the revenue with the writer. I do feel there's a real need for really good, long pieces, and the magazines out there that run them are really dying so fast, and we need that, and I figured if we can make the bloggy thing connected to a more longform thing, I thought that would be a lovely point of contact. There's no reason, I don't think, that the two can't be united.
Maria: You are occupying this unique position, not just in media but on the political spectrum. I'm very deeply interested in how people of conscience who don't necessarily agree on specific issues can unite to save our discourse. Which has gotten so stupid. So I would like to know, what do you think about the Dish as a sort of unifying force to get people of different political persuasions to be able to understand each other. Is that something you approach explicitly?
Andrew: That's a central part of our mission, I think.
My positions… I wouldn't say I've changed a huge amount actually, philosophically—people think I have? But the world has changed around me, in that the Republican party went so completely bonkers, and because I genuinely admire the President and what he's trying to do, but I've also always been for civil rights, and basically a libertarian, and I believe in a sober, sane foreign policy. So you know, I don't think I've changed that much, but we make sure there's cogent and potent arguments posted that counter mine. We have dissent. We have ongoing reader threads which take issue with me; we never let one of my more outrageous points go unchallenged. What I love about the process is, not only does it educate me, it also creates a safe space, I think, for dialogue between people who don't agree about things.
One of the things I'm proudest of about the blog is that when we did a survey of our readers, fifty percent were believers and fifty percent were atheists, and yet they're all reading the same site. Which I found thrilling, because that dialogue is absolutely one we need to have. The idea is to try to create a community dialogue for intelligent, well-meaning people in good faith. That's really what I want to do.
Twenty years ago—God. I don't even want to think how long ago it was, back in the late 80s, when I helped kick-start the whole marriage equality thing, over the next few decades I realized that the most successful thing we could do to achieve this was dialogue. If we could just have a debate on civil terms with our opponents on this, I was convinced that the argument was so strong for us that we would in the end win. Call me an old-fashioned liberal believer in the exchange of ideas—thought.
And we did, I think, actually manage over twenty years to shift public opinion by force of argument. I did an anthology on same-sex marriage which included Maggie Gallagher, and Leviticus, and all the smartest opponents of same-sex marriage, because I was completely convinced that a fair-minded reader who read all the arguments for and against would come out in my position. Maybe that was arrogant of me. But nonetheless I'm not afraid of airing these disputes.
There are lots of things in American journalism and American life that people won't talk about—they're "not gonna go there." And sometimes if it's truly pointless to go there I can agree, but it was important to me that the Dish took a really strong and really early stand on torture, or the issue of gay rights, of airing a much wider debate about the Middle East, about Israel, about Iran, those issues which are touchy and can often result in talk-radio blather. Even things like late-term abortion, which we covered primarily through women readers writing us about their own experience of having it; another thing I'd never read before anywhere. Probably a third of our content is from readers, and I'm telling you, they are as intelligent as any op-ed columnist. As an editor, I can tell you, these readers send in cleaner copy than half the professional journalists I used to have to edit. And they do it for no credit; they don't even have their names attached. That tells you, these people are just interested in debating; they want to get their point of view across.
Maria: Please comment on this related idea: that you can disagree and still be friends.
Andrew: Yes. When people bump into me on the street—people who've seen me on "Bill Maher" or something will come up to me and go, "oh hello, Mr. Sullivan." The people who read the blog say, "Hi, Andrew," which is a lovely thing for me, but they always end the exchange by saying, "I love the blog, don't always agree with it": they always say that! Well, neither do I! The whole point is not to reach some sort of premature conclusion, but to sustain a nutritious conversation, that's the idea. It's a conversation.
So we have these reader threads, that we call them, they can go on for quite a while. And you find in them people with their own firsthand experiences, for which there is no real substitute in finding out the truth about the world. And we think that if we just raise a question with our readership, and ask them to help, there is almost nothing they can't tell you; they're an amazing resource.
Maria: On the average political blog, there are so many comments threads where people are just trying to out-snark each other, and it's really poisonous; people start to fear that when they open these questions in their real lives, they are going to meet with that kind of a welcome.
Andrew: We refuse to have a comments section, because frankly the anonymity of the emails basically removes ego from the debate, so it becomes more about the argument than the egos of the people making the argument.
Maria: This is another thing I want to talk with you about; you've managed to avoid falling into the trap of having to "protect your brand," I believe because you don't fall into any of the standard categories of thinkers or writers on any given subject.
Andrew: Sam Harris once called me "a parish of one." I don't fit into any demographic, I never really have. But that's true of lots of us, especially people my age and younger who've grown up with complicated identities, because life has gotten more complicated, and in which we don't want to be defined by any single one of them, but are happy to present many facets of our interests and personalities. So you'll get me going on about facial hair as well as circumcision, or the Iraq War, or Piers Morgan. It's just whatever's interesting to me at the moment.
I must emphasize that Chris, Patrick, Matt [Sitman] and Zoe [Pollock]—my colleagues—their job as I've asked them to do it is not to echo me, at all. It is to follow their own impulses and to find out what they find interesting, and to keep as broad a dynamic as possible so that different topics can be explored in different ways. Sometimes it's a bust, sometimes it isn't.
And then there's also the bloody joy of the Internet. Our Mental Health breaks, which are—there's been a huge resurgence in the beauty of the animated and non-animated short, why not have a daily one of those? There's so many news photos that never get put in the paper at all, there's only one photographer for one story, when there's so much more to offer; we pay for it, and we try hard to feature photography in an interesting way.
Maria: Going back to this point of being able to present different sides of yourself—I think one of the problems in US journalism is that us hacks are encouraged to suppress those extra sides, to develop a sort of artificially homogenous POV.
Andrew: Our motto is: Biased and Balanced. I am not going to pretend, partly because none of you would believe it, that I don't have opinions, right? Okay, that's ridiculous! I mean if you're an intelligent journalist you've got to have opinions; so let's get those opinions up there and let's challenge them! See how robust they are!
The Internet kind of taught that to me; the readers showed it to me. I have some favorites. One was this kid who emailed me from Kazakhstan, telling me, I'm not kidding, that he was about to kill himself, because he was a gay kid in some godforsaken place in Kazakhstan, and he'd heard of my name somehow on the Internet as Something Gay, and there I was at 2:00 a.m. reading this email from this kid in Kazakhstan and so I wrote him back and said first of all, please don't. And tell me more about your life, and tell me is there anyone in your life that you can have a relationship with? And he wrote me back and we continued this conversation for about a year, actually. And he set up his own listserv, and then created his own Internet network to connect gay Kazakhs. It's an amazing thing, I still can't quite get over it.
Right now, I was just looking… we have four readers in Saudi Arabia, one in Ethiopia, one in Uganda; we have 39 in New Zealand. These are paying readers, who've already subscribed. It's everywhere. In Britain we have 400, Canada 600; I've always been amazed at the global nature of it. The fact that you're writing not just for one audience. We had a reader survey once, and the first two responses came from New Zealand and North Dakota. My first thought was, who the hell is up at this point in ND?
Maria: Someone is always up.
Maria: Actually it's you, most of the time.
Andrew: I try not to be. The biggest restraint on the Dish is literally my health. It's an extremely grueling way to do journalism, if you're doing 50 posts a day… you have to absorb the original content to contextualize, you try doing that seven days a week, 365 days a year. So my doctors actually set up a plan for me not to blog all day. They really insist that I have to take three to four hours off a day because otherwise I will be consistently bronchitic
Maria: I remember your saying you had to stop.
Andrew: I've tried stopping two or three times. In 2005, I actually had a party to celebrate going out of business. And then the Pope died! The Pope died two days later. What am I gonna do? They appointed that big queen Joseph Ratzinger to be the new Pope and I'd been studying him for years and I'm not gonna sit back, I have to blog it.
Maria: It's hard though, your mind is always attached to it, all the time.
Andrew: You're never off deadline. My first days in journalism, I was an intern on the old Fleet Street in London, in that big towering building that was the model for Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. And I was working for the guy who was actually the model for William Boot in the novel. I was typing on an electric typewriter with carbon paper copies and the thing was printed by these trade unions that had prevented any change whatsoever, in hot lead and little metal type that they had the skills to do (this is before Murdoch had revolutionized British media). But once your bloody thing had been written—you were gone!—you were done, okay. A whole day, I wrote an editorial and we were done, and we went out to dinner. And it was incredibly civilized, and incredibly cushy. And I think we journalists really had it good for so long in ways that we never really deserved.
Maria: Oh, come on. "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole."
Andrew: Exactly. Those days unfortunately are gone.
Maria: I never forgot! I sort of idealized that. When I was a kid and I first read Scoop I just thought, that is so frickin' cool. I want to do that.
Andrew: I was always a writer, but then I thought I wanted to be an actor, and then I wanted to go into politics.
Maria: And you've done it! All!
Andrew: Well, I don't know about that. You know—have you ever read Michael Shelden's bio of George Orwell?
Andrew: Try it, it's a really amazing read. And in it, you just get a sense of Eric Blair, who just wanted to write the truth. It was a very simple thing. All he wanted was to get at the truth of what was going on. And usually, it didn't take much more than common sense and courage.
Instead of writing a piece about the homeless, he became homeless for a month. Instead of talking about the mines he went down the mines. He worked in the kitchens of Paris restaurants. And he brought to life—such a fantastic clarity to the experiences he had.
That's what made me want to be a writer because for him, it wasn't that complicated. It was just the truth he was after.
The lovely thing about the Dish is that it's this sort of collective hive mind of all these readers, all of whom are interested in getting at the truth.
Maria: Are you going to write another book?
Andrew: I would if I could. I can't right now, but I have a book I want to write, I know the title, I know what I want to say.
Maria: Tell me the title! I won't tell, if you don't want.
Andrew: It's called Sheer Christianity. I want to defend Christianity from its current representatives. I want to defend Jesus, because I think the Gospels are the greatest, most profound things I've ever read, and you know, I'm actually a believer.
Maria: I know.
Andrew: The current church, and the current way in which the teachings of Jesus are portrayed to an entire generation and beyond is just such a tragedy, that it is becoming associated with hatred and bigotry and intolerance and didacticism, and the refusal to engage—it just drives me crazy.
Maria: I bet. What do you think about Jürgen Habermas' writing on that stuff?
Andrew: What has he been writing about Christianity lately? I haven't read.
Maria: Well… not lately? But one of my favorite things, I have this little book, my husband bought it for me, it is a dialogue between him and Papa Ratzi. It's called The Dialectics of Secularization. And it's real beautiful, man. It has a path by which nonbelievers could see a new context for believers. Habermas basically explains that what we call secularism, or secular humanism, couldn't even exist without Judeo-Christian traditions of love, and the law, and it's really simple, obvious and beautiful… where can we read this message? But in easier language, because he writes in German and it's crazy dense.
If that one message could just be put across, it would help a lot.
Andrew: Right… I think in some ways John Locke's essay on toleration is the great thesis, because he's grounding it in Christianity. He was the first to say, look, coercing belief can't possibly be what Jesus meant. Faith and coercion are polar opposites. And one can see the temptation to go there, but no, no, no, it has to be freely understood and embraced. And that itself is of course immensely difficult, whereas disliking people or labeling them or compartmentalizing is the easiest thing in the world.
Maria: I've freaked a few atheists out by telling them: You don't understand doubt nearly as well as my friends who are believers. Faith is a much harder struggle than just smugly shelving the question of doubt, imagining you "know" something. You don't understand it.
Andrew: Thank you. Thank you, thank you so much for saying that, because the one thing I always argue is that no Christian does not have elements of agnosticism in his or her life, because God is ultimately unknowable; so of course there is a vast amount about God that we cannot begin to understand, and therefore doubt is integral to faith; it's not some sort of enemy of faith, it's its wellspring.
Maria: Right? Another dialogue. Young kids who call themselves atheists, I always think of them as like, on the tricyle of doubt, whereas people like you are in the sort of Ferrari of doubt.
Andrew: I just always knew and acknowledged that there were times at mass or in prayer where I've felt nothing. And there have been periods in my life…
Ssshh, all right, Dusty! My oldest beagle is an absolute tyrant when it comes to food. Aren't you? Aren't you?!
After this, Andrew had to ring off, and this is a strange thing, because we ended the conversation in the middle of a most compelling exchange, but I wasn't panicked about breaking off like that; I didn't feel like oh shoot, as I might normally. Because I can just go read the blog anytime, which provides a connection pretty much exactly like Sullivan's conversation IRL.