What follows is not strictly literary, but might be of interest to my audience.
For all his flaws - an occasional propensity for obsession, hysterics, and self-regard - I'm generally an admirer of Andrew Sullivan's. I also think that Leon Wieseltier is, for all his obvious brilliance, a monumental tool. So I've watched the unfolding of their current spat with not a little interest. What is most striking about the saga is how thoroughly both parties - but the normally acute Sullivan, in particular - appear to have missed what really girds Wieseltier's animus.
When I first read Wieseltier's overlong broadside, I emailed my agent and said, "But what I actually think is REALLY up Leon's nose - what the piece is REALLY about - is not at all about Israel, Jews or Sullivan. It's about sloppy thinking by bloggers; it's really an indictment of the medium and the casual, shallow analysis it provokes - and I don't really think he is entirely wrong."
There will be times in which the emotion of the moment will overwhelm me, too--and those are the times in which I will choose not to write. I do not see that Sullivan’s hotheadedness absolves him of anything. He is not right because he is intemperate and he is not wrong because he is intemperate: he is merely explaining belief in terms of temperament, and mood, and identity, all of which have no bearing upon the substance of any discussion. Compose yourself, man, and think. For a deeply felt opinion may be false, and even pernicious. In intellectual life, volatility has no authority, and spontaneity is not a virtue, and neither is sincerity.
This is so clearly an indictment - richly deserved, I am inclined to agree despite being both a blogger and someone more disposed toward Sullivan than Wieseltier - on the medium and its practitioners. It is, of course, patently absurd to accuse Sullivan of anti-semitism, even as obliquely as Wieseltier tries to do. I think what he takes to be Sullivan's blog's intellectual unseriousness is, in fact, the gravamen of his essay. It feels like the desperate rage of a man incredulous at the authority and influence wielded by someone who represents everything that is opposed to his own life's work. It is only incidentally about Israel and the Jews - it could just as easily have been about Sarah Palin, Iran, Prop 8 or any other topic Sullivan regularly writes about.
As someone who has fired off no shortage of Sullivan-esque emotional sidewinders in his day (something I have sought to moderate in the last few years for just these reasons), I do believe that Wieseltier is right - to an extent. Where I think he fails, as many observers and critics of the so-called new media have also failed, is in expecting the rules to be the same across the board. With the likes of Wieseltier, there's never an acknowledgement that different media serve different roles; instead, blogs merely lose for not behaving as print outlets behave. Which is why Sullivan, with all his defects, is clearly the future, and Wieseltier, for all his virtues, represents the soon to be marginalized past.
But that's a true loss. Because for all of his own intemperate hysteria - go back and re-read his absurd review of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint if you want to be reminded - Wieseltier does, on his best days, represent a tradition of inquiry, of contemplation and of intellectual rigor that is disappearing at a rapid clip these days. And that is something truly lamentable. It's a shame that such important questions have been handed off to two such ill-suited representatives. And that they truly seem to have missed the forest for the trees. The problem deserves better.
UPDATE: Cheers to TEV regular Niall for alerting us to this smart take at Gawker. (Yes, you read that right.)