Out on a Limb:
Selected Writing, 1989-2021
by andrew sullivan
simon and schuster, 576 pages, $35
Andrew Sullivan met his hero in the nick of time. Just thirteen months before Michael Oakeshott’s death, Sullivan visited the British political theorist for a long conversation over lunch. Their exchange—which Sullivan describes in a brief essay included in his new collection Out on a Limb—soon turned to faith. Oakeshott firmly believed that flawed people were more interesting, and that true love—though ultimately impossible for anyone, even God—begins with affirmation of the way people are, not what they could be. “After all,” he asked Sullivan, “who would want to be saved?”
That, above all, was what Sullivan learned from Oakeshott: that to be a conservative is to affirm what is. For more than 30 years, and throughout the writing now collected in Out on a Limb, Sullivan has championed an “empirical” conservatism that prizes “facts” over “ideology,” “doubt” over “certainty.” But this is more than the utopia-exhaustion of Cold War-era liberals, or a libertarian insistence on government passivity. This is making a high virtue of “affirmation,” “acceptance,” and “recognition”—words that pop up throughout Out on a Limb, almost no matter the topic—for individuals and for governments alike.
This “conservative sensibility” underlies Sullivan’s influential argument for same-sex marriage (or, as he called it in 1989, “old-style marriage for gays”). First, accept the fact that the definition of marriage as “inherently procreative . . . has long been abandoned in civil society.” Acknowledge instead that marriage is “the highest public recognition of our personal integrity” (emphasis added), a token that society bestows to acknowledge couples who have attained “personal responsibility.” Affirm that gay people are sufficiently bourgeois and responsible to have earned that token. Ergo, for Sullivan, legalizing gay marriage is a conservative move, an acceptance of existing facts.
The most compelling journalism in Out on a Limb exemplifies Sullivan’s own gift for recognizing reality. His vibrant and moving coverage of the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s reveals an intense interest in people and their struggles, drawing together a wide range of perspectives among gay men in different social settings and facing every stage of health and death. Later, as Sullivan moved from reportage to political commentary, his role as recognizer-of-what-is made him a reliable mirror of his times, a barometer of the American zeitgeist. He penned brash and at times vicious arguments for invading Iraq (omitted from Out on a Limb) and withdrew his support earlier than most. He adopted blogging early on, helping to set the direction of internet political discourse, then later recoiled from it in recognition of what the internet was doing to his attention span. Early in the 2008 race, he threw his support behind Barack Obama, seeing in the young senator a promise that America could finally move past the political divisions and culture wars of the 1960s (an ill-placed hope, perhaps, but one that many would come to share). And of course, his argument for gay marriage was reproduced point for point in Anthony Kennedy’s Obergefell v. Hodges opinion.
But reflecting the world, however accurately, can risk falling into a dull positivism—severing the “is” from the “ought” and never giving the latter its due. One 2000 essay discusses recent scientific findings about the effects of testosterone—“the he hormone” that researchers have associated with risk-taking, aggression, and increased libido. At the end, Sullivan moves from pop science to philosophy: “After a feminist century, we may be in need of a new understanding of masculinity. . . . What our increasing knowledge of testosterone suggests is a core understanding of what it is to be a man, for better and worse.” But is manhood reducible to the physical and psychological effects of a chemical? What is manhood for? Can men aspire to be anything more than the effects of testosterone? How ought men to conceive of themselves and relate to women? We don’t get the answers, and never could, from scientific studies about a hormone.
That, of course, is the downside of Sullivan’s insistence on “empiricism.” Knowing facts isn’t the same as knowing what to do with them, or how to live a life. Sometimes, one must choose between one thing that is and another thing that is. It’s simply not possible for an individual, much less a political community, to make such choices without reference to something more than facts and data. What are we, as individuals or as communities, for? What do we aspire to? What do we love? All of these inevitably have bearing on politics. We may not be “certain” of all the facts of a given issue, but certainty about what we value can (and does) justifiably lead us to offer ourselves in marriage, assent to religious doctrine, or take political action.
Recognition without love, affirmation without ideals—the Oakeshottian ethos—is insufficient for the needs of life or politics. One can list all the facts one likes about a given topic of public interest, but without making reference to common ideals—to higher loves—the most a fact-finder can ever do with his data is to kick the can down the road, say that the issue at hand is “complicated” and that any question of praxis must be the subject of “prudential decision-making” and “political conversations” to be hashed out later, by someone else. (More than a few essays in Out on a Limb conclude this way.)
Indeed, certainty about values is inescapable, even for Sullivan. He dips into the well of “certainty” himself on the topic of torture—as, of course, one should. Among the collection’s finest moments is a 2005 essay titled “The Abolition of Torture,” answering Charles Krauthammer’s defense of the use of “enhanced interrogation” at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Sullivan argues that torture is such a moral horror that even the unlikely scenarios Krauthammer concocts, in which torture might be both reliable and beneficial to national security, should not preclude its illegality. Sullivan “insist[s] on the humanity of terrorists,” which no horrible act can take away—and is the standard by which we may judge terrorists’ culpability for those acts in the first place. Torture denies that humanity by alienating the victim from his own body; “it is designed to extirpate his autonomy as a human being, to render his control as an individual beyond his own reach.” These are great arguments, bearing implications for any number of issues—from abortion to policing to drug use—that Sullivan’s other essays leave in the hands of “doubt” rather than “certainty.”
And, of course, there are times when Sullivan has to choose between facts, and can (like the rest of us) only do so with reference to what St. Augustine called “ordered loves.” Take the facts about Catholic teaching, and the facts about Sullivan’s own sexual orientation and activity, for instance. His 1994 essay on this conflict attempts a death-by-thousand-papercuts approach to arguing against the Church’s position. The essay reads every Vatican statement on the dignity of homosexual persons as somehow contradictory with Catholic teaching about sex. It repeats now-familiar, and easily answerable, claims that the Bible categorizes homosexuality with eating pork. Perhaps most frustrating of all, it frequently conflates “natural” with “extant” (a big no-no in dealing with any tradition influenced even remotely by Aristotle) to imply that natural law demands affirmation of any act that exists among human beings, by merit of its mere existence. Any one of these claims and quibbles is easily answerable on the level of rational argumentation. That does not matter, however, because nitpicking Ratzinger letters clearly isn’t the real reason Sullivan arrives at the conclusion he does. Prior to any of that, he makes clear how he orders his loves; at issue, he says, is that the Church pits itself against “the core longings that could make one emotionally whole.” Sexual longings thus defined, the deck is stacked.
For the most part, however, the big villains of Sullivan’s essays from the ’90s and 2000s are those who believe higher loves should order the world: “fundamentalists” both in politics (conservative writers arguing for the importance of public virtue amid the Clinton impeachment, for instance) and in religion (John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and anti-Western “Islamo-bullies”) who advance a dangerous “conservatism of faith” that “threatens Western freedom” by refusing to recognize “complexity.” They also appear in left-leaning varieties, as those, from Al Sharpton to Colin Kaepernick, who believe calling out systemic racism and criminalizing “hate” (rather than, as Sullivan recommends in one 1999 essay, cultivating “indifference to it”) can bring about a more equal America. Sullivan on occasion registers his appreciation of these true believers, whom he takes as a sign that Americans are not as apathetic about existential questions as are Brits and Europeans. But these believers, he suggests, need to be balanced out, if not opposed outright. Public life—not just politics, but intellectual and even spiritual life as well—is, for the Sullivan of the ’90s and 2000s, not a matter of striving to achieve any great aspirations, or to hold ourselves and one another to values any higher than mere recognition.
“Fundamentalism” is the enemy, until something worse comes along: nihilism. When Donald Trump and identity politics appear on the scene, Sullivan begins to note the real social benefits of belief and “myth”—and even “fundamentalist” religion, which gave downtrodden people assurance of ultimate justice against the corrupt, and a standard by which to judge their would-be social betters. Sullivan has begun, in other words, to see something (or, rather, someone) that Oakeshott did not. Perhaps these are the people “who would want to be saved.”
And perhaps decades of telling people that the worst thing they can do is believe too strongly in something higher leaves nothing but private appetites and the will to power to define our politics, economics, and culture. If we can’t be saved, then the stakes are all here, in meaningless tooth-and-nail competition with no possibility of transcendent—and therefore, potentially, commonly held—reality and values. In later essays, such as 2018’s “America’s New Religions,” Sullivan admits the insufficiency of “scientism” and “materialism” to ground common life but remains resistant to the possibility of religion ever influencing politics.
From its very first pages, Out on a Limb presents its author as independent from the believing right and the illiberal left. Sullivan takes the opposition he’s received from both sides as a sign of his objectivity, proof that his thought confounds the dichotomy. But right-versus-left may not be the proper dichotomy here. A better one might be between those who feel (or reasonably expect) themselves to be affirmed, accepted, and recognized by the bourgeois American mainstream and its institutions; and those who—even if they manage to win an election or otherwise manage to temporarily capture an institution—do not.
To the extent that the former describes you, you’ll enjoy Out on a Limb. To the extent that the latter does, you will find it frustrating. Either way, Sullivan does what he sets out to do—reflect accurately the America of his time. Even in dissent from the status quo, his is the voice of that line of anti-radical laissez-faire liberalism that—however many self-reinventions the right has undergone, however many times the illiberal left has flared up to challenge the mainstream—seems to keep winning out despite perpetually feeling “out on a limb.” This is Andrew Sullivan’s America; we’re just living in it.
Philip Jeffery is a deputy opinion editor at Newsweek.
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