Connoisseurs of sophistry and politicized intellectual mendacity will find a lot to occupy them in “Going Down Screaming,” the seven-thousand-word blast against contemporary American conservatism by Andrew Sullivan that appeared as the cover story in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, October 11. Mr. Sullivan, a clever English journalist who was editor of The New Republic for several years in the 1990s, has always thrived on contradiction. He first emerged on the scene as a transplanted Tory Catholic who was also homosexual. He left the editorship of The New Republic a few years ago because he had contracted AIDS. Since then, he has been on an increasingly shrill campaign to legitimate this year’s favorite oxymoron, “gay marriage.”

We mention these biographical details because they form the unspoken theme of “Going Down Screaming.” Mr. Sullivan does not declare his sexual allegiances in this essay; possibly he believes that he and his views are too widely known to require identification for readers of The New York Times; we think it is more likely that he wanted to cultivate an appearance of dispassionateness as he set about trashing some of his former friends for “moralism.”

The ostensible occasion for Mr. Sullivan’s broadside was Kenneth Starr’s now-famous report detailing President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and subsequent obfuscation and perjurious testimony. According to Mr. Sullivan, the Starr report is most important as “a case study in what has gone wrong with American conservatism.” Never mind that it contains a host of potentially impeachable allegations against the President of the United States. For Andrew Sullivan, the Starr report shows above all that contemporary American conservatism is both “prurient” and “puritanical,” that it has “lost sight of the principles of privacy and restraint, modesty and constitutionalism, which used to be its hallmarks.”

Mr. Sullivan knows what a potent weapon the accusation of “puritanism” is in contemporary America. He knows that many of his readers would far rather be accused of dishonesty or immorality than “puritanical tendencies.” Mr. Sullivan also knows the immense value of changing the subject. Like many liberal commentators, he pretends that the real issue is not the behavior of Bill Clinton and his inner circle but the activities of those legally charged with investigating that behavior. Bill Clinton engages in a series of grotesque sexual contacts with a federal employee, lies about it under oath, and here is Andrew Sullivan complaining that it is American conservatism which lacks restraint and modesty.

“Going Down Screaming” is part of a new genre of liberal polemic whose chief tactic is to convince people that the really dangerous thing about conservatism is that it is too left-wing. Thus Mr. Sullivan charges contemporary conservatism with “a vehemence and activism that can only be called characterologically leftist.” We suppose that there is a kind of compliment implicit in this rhetorical gambit: if there were good arguments against the conservative criticism of the counterculture, presumably leftists would deploy them. Instead, they close their eyes and accuse conservatives of radicalism in the hope that people will acknowledge the force of the argument but overlook the detail that it applies to the accuser rather than the accused.

Part of what makes Mr. Sullivan’s essay such a vertiginous experience to read is the way that it exemplifies what it attempts to criticize. In brief, there is a lot of screaming in “Going Down Screaming.” Andrew Sullivan complains bitterly about conservative moralism. But has there been a more hectoring piece of liberal moralism in recent memory? If so, we missed it. Mr. Sullivan is not particular in his indictment. He has ominous things to say about conservative figures from Robert Bork and William Kristol to Richard John Neuhaus and David Frum. He lambastes The Weekly Standard, which Mr. Kristol edits, for “gleefully egg[ing] on Republicans in their moral crusade” and castigates Commentary for publishing Mr. Kristol on abortion and so abetting “the vocabulary of religious war.”

Mr. Sullivan accuses conservatives of “moral obsessiveness” when it comes to Bill Clinton’s sex-lies-and-videotaped misdeeds. But his own amoral obsessiveness about sex is patent in practically every paragraph of “Going Down Screaming.” The real theme of the essay is the old countercultural dream of emancipating sex from morality. Mr. Sullivan takes the writer David Frum to task for criticizing “the central dogma of the baby boomers: the belief that sex, so long as it’s consensual, ought never to be subject to moral scrutiny at all.” But as a professing Catholic, Mr. Sullivan must surely know that every religion known to history has enveloped sexuality with a rich filigree of moral sentiment and prohibition. And not only religion: if being “consensual” somehow exempted sex from moral scrutiny, much of world literature would instantly be rendered unintelligible.

To say that Mr. Sullivan wants to have it both ways is like saying a Swiss cheese has holes. On the one hand, he fulminates against the moralism of “conservative extremists.” On the other, he writes toward the end of his essay that “this is not to say, of course, that morality is not an important, or an importantly conservative, issue.” We have to admire that audacious “of course.” Andrew Sullivan has just spent five- or six-thousand words decrying traditional morality; then in Act V, scene iv he casually declares himself on the side of the angels. But a moral life is not available simply by declaration. It is first of all a matter of behavior, of how we live our lives. Pleasures and pains, as Aristotle pointed out in the Nicomachean Ethics, are the things that moral virtue is concerned with. Mr. Sullivan, an apostle of a new brand of countercultural liberation, wants to do what he pleases but maintain a reputation for moral rectitude. It is a contradictory ambition, shot through with bad faith. But of such stuff is the liberal consensus made of today.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 3, on page 1
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