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Andrew Sullivan: “I don’t know what I am”

Twenty years ago, Andrew Sullivan was told he had three years to live: he was diagnosed with HIV.

Since then, he has seen gay marriage and online journalism–two movements he helped to ignite, and two ideas for which he was called crazy–become inevitable paths forward.

“There’s something liberating about knowing you should have been dead 15 years ago,” he said of his diagnosis.

Sullivan, who writes about politics and culture on his blog, The Dish, spoke in Marshall Auditorium Friday to an audience of students, faculty, and community members.

Sullivan launched his blog in October 2000, while he was a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, so he could put “all my stuff up in one place.” He called it “The Daily Dish.”

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Since then, the blog has become his full-time job; been hosted by Time, The Atlantic, and, most recently, The Daily Beast; dropped the “Daily” from its title; taken on seven employees; and built an audience of 1.5 million monthly viewers.

On Tuesday, Sullivan cut ties with The Daily Beast, migrating to a host-free, ad-free blog. For the first time since 2005, The Dish is independent. The site’s revenue will now come entirely from readers, who can pay $19.99 (or more) a year to get full access, while much of the blog, as well as all links to it from other sites, will remain free and accessible to everyone.

That Sullivan would choose to go off on his own ought not to be surprising. Sullivan is Catholic, conservative, and a homosexual. “In short,” Time notes, “he’s the perfect commentator in the age of the blog: impossible to categorize by the old rules.”

On Friday, Sullivan “unpacked” those three aspects that define his identity.

“I want to…[claim] three things about myself that I have been told, for many years, cannot coexist, which is a little like saying I do not exist,” Sullivan said. “But I do. And so do many others, who deal with similar, slightly different, but just as complicated forms of living and forms of believing. I want to come out tonight as a Christian; I want to come out tonight as a conservative; and I want to come out tonight, in a much less controversial way, as a homosexual.”

“I think at Haverford maybe the latter is the least controversial and least provocative identity,” he added. “But that’s because you haven’t heard me talk about what I think Christianity and conservatism really are.”

Sullivan emphasized that doubt must accompany any set of beliefs, political or religious. “What I place at the core of coservatism is also something that I place at the core of the Christianity that I’m talking about, and that is although one can believe very firmly in an idea, a way of life, importance of a certain set of virtues…you should always understand that doubt about those convictions is integral, both to those convictions and to their success” he said. “I don’t think anyone who’s never doubted has ever actually believed.”

For Sullivan, the political and religious right in America has strayed far from these values. “Conservatism has become in this country a competition to have the most certainty about the most bizarre things,” he said.

Sullivan also said that his homosexuality bolsters–not inhibits–his Christianity and conservatism.

“To be a homosexual is to be not a sexual being alone or even first, but a human being throughout,” he said. “And it is the equality of our humanity that is what Christianity demands of us; it is humility in the face of uncertainty that is what conservatism asks of us; and it living the life as a homosexual that has taught me the truth about both those things.”

Defining what he does for a living proved more difficult.

At a workshop before the talk, Sullivan began to introduce himself as a journalist, but cut himself off. “I don’t know what I am anymore,” he said. “I write things.”

Even calling his site a blog may not adequately reflect the type of project it is. Sullivan’s voice, his opinions and his vision come through, but “excerpts and links from the most compelling material posted elsewhere on the Web” make up most of what appears on the site, as one writer notes. Sullivan and the seven members of his staff “surf hundreds of sites every day looking for the best of the best”; they are curators of the Web. The Dish is built around the personality and views of a writer and posted on the Internet, but it really is a magazine, with weekly contests, frequent poetry, and letters—often, dissenting letters—from readers.

Sullivan emphasized the role his readers play in making The Dish what it is—he estimates that readers contribute one-third of the content on The Dish. “We have an official staff of 7,” he writes, “and an unofficial one of around a million unpaid obsessives.”

Full disclosure: I belong to that lot. I have been reading Sullivan’s blog since late 2007, if my memory serves me, when it was called “The Daily Dish” and was hosted by The Atlantic, where Sullivan was in the company of a deep bench of blogger-journalists that included Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Fallows and Jeffrey Goldberg

Readers send in all kinds of content, from links they recommend or photos from their windows–I once got a view from my airplane window published–to excruciatingly personal letters. At the workshop Friday, Sullivan described how in 2009, after the murder of the abortion doctor George Tiller, he mentioned that he was opposed to late-term abortions. Personal stories poured into Sullivan’s inbox. He posted them, anonymously, on The Dish, and was eventually persuaded to change his position on the matter.

Another “breakthrough moment” for The Dish, Sullivan said, was its coverage of the Green Revolution in Iran, also in 2009. “Journalists weren’t allowed in the country,” he said, and so coverage of the events had to come from people who were taking part in them. “The stories they were able to tell were so much more powerful than could have been done with traditional media.”

Still, readers come to The Dish, above all else, to read Sullivan. “It’s become bigger than me,” Sullivan told NPR, “but it can’t exist without me.”

Sullivan bares a great deal of himself to his readers, from moments of self-reflection—about his change of heart over the Iraq War, about the crimes of his church—to those of self-exposure: “Have you never fantasized about fucking a carpenter with sawdust under his fingernails just after he fixed your creaking door? (#SullyTMI: I pulled that one off in real life in 1989.)”

To put it another way: Among Dish readers I know, “Have you read Andrew yet today?” can mean one of three things:

1) “I haven’t been online yet today. Is there anything in particular I should look for on The Dish?”

2) “Andrew has written something very insightful; check it out immediately.”

3) “Good grief.”


Photo by Laura Eckstein.

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