Closing time at The Dish. How Andrew Sullivan’s blog pioneered change.

“I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.’’

– British Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader, David Cameron, Oct, 2011.

Following Mick’s link to Tim Montgomerie’s conservative case for gay marriage, it is well worth paying tribute to Andrew Sullivan, the Tory-American writer who literally wrote the book, Virtually Normal, on gay marriage.

It’s forgotten how unpopular the idea of gay marriage was on the left, particularly the gay left, back when Sullivan wrote what Maria Popova rightly recalled as his seminal cover essay for The New Republic  in 1993. Back then Sullivan didn’t have to convince only the right but the radical left too.

“[Q]ueer” radicalism’s doctrine of cultural subversion and separatism has the effect of alienating those very gay Americans most in need of support and help: the young and teenagers. Separatism is even less of an option for gays than for any other minority, since each generation is literally connected umbilically to the majority.

The young are permanently in the hands of the other. By erecting a politics on a doctrine of separation and difference from the majority, “queer” politics ironically broke off dialogue with the heterosexual families whose cooperation is needed in every generation if gay children are to be accorded a modicum of dignity and hope.”

The tribute’s timing is apt. Where championing the case for marriage equality represented Andrew’s first great social innovation, just last Friday he called time on his second: blogging to a mass audience.

Losing The Dish opens a space and a need for another outlet with real non-party partisan cajones. Sullivan’s blog’s power and influence as an advocate for gay marriage (among many other causes) was drawn, to a large degree, from another innovation the Dish championed: Reader driven content.

As most other tributes have recognized, Andrew’s work on the Daily Dish (as it was previously titled) contrasted with the tendency of other early bloggers to adopt a journalist’s or columnist’s old-school ‘come hear my wisdom; be dazzled by my knack for making accurate predictions‘. Not Sullivan.

Partly despite and partly because of his experience as an editor of the once mighty The New Republic, his Daily Dish remodeled both the purpose and potential of a blog and subsequently, the expectations contemporary readers  have come to associate with this writing form.

In his 2008 essay “Why I blog” he recounts almost immediately realizing how a blog, i.e. a web log, represented something new: A more intimate and informal opportunity to think aloud in real time – with all the mistakes, exaggerations, temper tantrums and, at times, brilliantly raw insights that required and produced.

“No columnist or reporter or novelist will have his minute shifts or constant small contradictions exposed as mercilessly as a blogger’s are. A columnist can ignore or duck a subject less noticeably than a blogger committing thoughts to pixels several times a day. A reporter can wait—must wait—until every source has confirmed…For bloggers, the deadline is always now. Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.”

The unique power and attractiveness of the Dish, including its coverage of the marriage debate in particular, came from this blend of serious writing combined with an editor’s eye for compelling reader-based narratives.

On marriage equality – like many topics including abortion, religion, healthcare, taxation, elections, neoconservatism and the Iraq war, illiberal feminism, and hundreds more – The Dish provided a window into the worlds of real individuals. By disseminating countless real citizens’ experiences, a compelling case for “Why Marriage Mattersemerged.

These deeply personal, vivid and often harrowing personal stories redefined ‘bearing witnesses’ for the digital age. Andrew, a committed Catholic, had already done the intellectual heavy-lifting for marriage equality, including and why the definitely separate and supposedly equal civil unions were neither sufficient nor in the interests of the institution of marriage (See: France.)

We read about Brittney Leon and Terri-Ann Simonelli, a Nevada couple whose domestic partnership proved worthless in the eyes of hospital admissions staff despite state law (at the time) supposedly guaranteeing all coupes equal rights. Consequently,

“Leon ended up losing her baby, and Simonelli had to rely on the doctor for updates, spending long stretches of time without news on her partner’s condition and the fate of her family.”

We learned about Tom Bridegroom’s six year relationship with Shane Bitney Crone. Following Tom’s death, his disapproving parents cut Shane out completely.

“Shane had no legal right to any of Tom’s possessions, not even the ones with little monetary value, but exceptional sentimental weight. Nor was he able to hear firsthand from the doctor the circumstances of his partner’s death.” Sullivan’s take at the time:

“You can feel secure but without civil marriage, you aren’t. So many of us learned this in the plague years – watching de facto spouses denied entrance to hospital rooms, thrown out of shared apartments by the spouse’s family, denied access to the funeral, brutalized by those who never cared for someone until he died.

I swore to myself then that this would be my life’s work: to prevent such horror from happening again. We’ve made a start. But as this video shows, we are not close to the end yet. And that churches –churches – should be in the vanguard of brutalizing these people in this way – and justifying it –  fills me with oceans of sadness. And grief again.”

Equal marriage rights aside, it might be quicker to list the topics Andrew and his readers didn’t unpack than the vast multitude they tackled together. Of them all, his coverage of Iran’s Green Revolution was a game-changer for whether blogging should be considered journalism. (Answer: Screw you Arron Sorkin, the MSM was miles behind.) The Dish’s Live-Tweeting the Revolution was, among other things, grippingly addictive.

Like all media, the social impact of The Dish is nearly impossible to measure but it certainly made an immense contribution to growing a healthier, long-overdue skepticism towards the the ‘mainstream’.

The faustian access pact that defines the relationships between too many traditional media showmen and the power centers they ought to be holding to account is a little more strained thanks to blogs like the Dish and its ‘nothing and no one off limits‘ approach.

Take the many Odd Lies of Sarah Palin. Some considered Sullivan’s brutally candid commentary on the honesty and competency of Presidential Candidate John McCain’s VP pick bad taste. By the standards of mainstream reporting, it certainly was.

Yet Andrew’s refusal to overlook the tall tales and hateful speech wasn’t a lurid intrusion into a private person’s private life, it was the writing of a journalist on duty; a public service made indispensable by the failure ‘traditional’ mainstream to do its bloody job. As he recently wrote of the affair:

 “…every time you see John McCain on television, remember that this is what he intended to bring within a heartbeat of the presidency. This is the man’s judgment. As he lectures us about the need for more wars, and the Beltway media kowtows to his authority, remember that.”

The electorate saw enough of Palin in the end to see her off. Whether this exposure would have been possible without the terrier-like coverage of blogs like the Dish, thankfully we’ll never know.

If you’re wondering whether the Guildford-born Sullivan even took any interest in our local squabbles, know hope, my friends. There was one honorable link to a Mr. Pete Baker and his Chocolate Balls. Was the author credited with coining the term Christianism ever going to miss the Iris Robinson affair and the prospect of a government falling over the hypocrisy of homophobes? See: Ulster’s Theocon Sex Scandal Grows.

Christianism – “The fusion of politics and religion – most prominently the fusion of the evangelical movement and the Republican party – has been one of the most damaging developments in recent American history” – or Democratic Unionist Party, as it’s known locally – was, by my reading, Andrew’s bête noire.

Anti-theists, like his late buddy Hitchens (peace be upon him), may have cornered the market in excoriating the nefarious and dangerous influence of religious fundamentalists in political life – i.e. your life – but Sullivan’s attack line is more subtle. As a committed religious believer, he deeply resents what he sees as the hijacking of faith and religion (including his Catholicism) for political and material and power ends.

He’s relentless on this point; particularly in charting the decline of so much of contemporary US conservatism into an ideology based on rigid (and expired) doctrines. As Ta-Nehisi Coates had to remind us only last week, failure to recognize the role Christian fundamentalists have played in politics throughout US history explains why the worst of the past isn’t always so past.

If I’ve portrayed Sullivan and The Dish as only an ideological champion of certain causes then I’ve done him and you a disservice. One of the best aspects of his readers’ responses was their frequent dissents, his responses to these dissents, and vice-versa, often running for days and weeks.

To capture a sense of The Dish at its most brilliant, interactive, provocative best, I submit The Hounding Of A Heretic: the treatment of Brendan Eich, former CEO of Mozilla, and:

“The guy who had the gall to express his First Amendment rights and favor Prop 8 in California by donating $1,000 has just been scalped by some gay activists.”

As Eich was forced out of his position, Sullivan expressed his outrage:

“Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.”

Andrew’s follow-up post, the Quality of Mercy, captured many of the nuances you won’t find on more partisan, vindictive, shouty, and ideological outlets. An extract:

The ability to work alongside or for people with whom we have a deep political disagreement is not a minor issue in a liberal society. It is a core foundation of toleration. We either develop the ability to tolerate those with whom we deeply disagree, or liberal society is basically impossible. Civil conversation becomes culture war; arguments and reason cede to emotion and anger.

And let me reiterate: this principle of toleration has recently been attacked by many more on the far right than on the far left. I’m appalled, for example, at how great gay teachers have been fired by Catholic schools, even though it is within the right of the schools to do so. It’s awful that individuals are fired for being gay with no legal recourse all over the country.

But if we rightly feel this way about gays in the workplace, why do we not feel the same about our opponents? And on what grounds can we celebrate the resignation of someone for his off-workplace political beliefs? Payback? Revenge? Some liberal principles, in my view, are worth defending whether they are assailed by left or right.

I’m then informed that opposition to marriage equality is not just a political belief. It’s a profound insight into whether someone is a decent moral person or a bigot. And this belief is also held with absolute certainty – the same absolute certainty of righteousness that many Christianists have.

Let me just say I’ve learned to suspect anyone with absolute moral certainty, whatever position they take. My last book, The Conservative Soul, was precisely an argument against such certainty on the right. What it does is extinguish the space for people to think, change their minds, entertain doubt, listen, and argue. It is absurd to believe that a third of the country recently “hated” gay people and now don’t.

It’s incredibly crude to posit that you’re a bigot to oppose marriage equality in 2013, but not in 2008. I remember this argument being used by the hard left when they opposed marriage equality in the 1980s and 1990s (and, yes, they did so then and they were not bigots either).

The majority hates us, and will never be persuaded, we were told. Stop your foolish crusade! And yet a decade and a half later, so many minds have changed. So why on earth would we seek to suddenly rush this process and arbitrarily declare that all those we have yet to persuade are ipso facto haters?

And one ugly manifestation of absolute certainty in near-theological movements is their approach to dissidents. Dissidents in these absolutist groups are outlawed, condescended to, pressured, bullied, lied about, trashed, slandered, and distorted out of any recognition.

In this case, a geeky genius who invented Javascript and who had pledged total inclusivity in the workplace instantly became the equivalent of a Grand Master in the Ku Klux Klan. And yes, that analogy was – amazingly – everywhere!

The actual, complicated, flawed human being was erased by thousands who never knew him but knew enough to hate him. Because that’s all they need to know. No space was really given for meaningful dialogue; and, most importantly, no mercy was given without total public repentance…

Eich begged for mercy; he asked to be given a fair shot to prove he wasn’t David Duke; he directly interacted with those he had hurt. He expressed sorrow. He had not the slightest blemish in his professional record. He had invented JavaScript. He was a hero.

He pledged to do all he could to make amends. But none of this is ever enough for Inquisitions – and it wasn’t enough in this case. His mind and conscience were the problem. He had to change them or leave.

A civil rights movement without toleration is not a civil rights movement; it is a cultural campaign to expunge and destroy its opponents. A moral movement without mercy is not moral; it is, when push comes to shove, cruel.

For a decade and half, we have fought the battle for equal dignity for gay people with sincerity, openness, toleration and reason. It appears increasingly as if we will have to fight and fight again to prevent this precious and highly successful legacy from being hijacked by a righteous, absolutely certain, and often hateful mob. We are better than this. And we must not give in to it. [Emphasis added]

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