Sullivan on Debate

Andrew Sullivan worries about “living in a world where adherence to a particular ideology becomes mandatory.” He writes, “The puritanical streak of shaming and stigmatizing and threatening runs deep. This is the country of extraordinary political and cultural freedom, but it is also the country of religious fanaticism, moral panics, and crusades against vice.”

I think Sullivan is a bit unfair to Wesley Lowery, saying that Lowery’s focus on “moral clarity” implies not seeing “all sides of a story.” Well, no one thinks it’s a good idea to equally consider all sides of a given story, when some people still claim the Earth is flat. And claims about “objectivity” in journalism usually are pretty nuanced, as I’ve reviewed. (I think it’s a mistake to reject objectivity, but I also think that most journalists who think they reject objectivity simply misuse the term.)

Sullivan is rightly concerned about those who, like Lowery, see racism at work everywhere. The American experiment, says Lowery, was “designed to perpetuate racial inequality.” Obviously the Constitution was developed out of a compromise between Abolitionists and slave holders. But the essential American principle, articulated in the Declaration, is that all people are created equal. Sullivan grants “there is truth” in Lowery’s claim but thinks “there is also an awful amount of truth it ignores or elides or simply denies.” I think that’s fair.

Sullivan worries about the view that sees America as inherently and irredeemably corrupt: “It sees America as in its essence not about freedom but oppression. It argues, in fact, that all the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of all human beings were always a falsehood to cover for and justify and entrench the enslavement of human beings under the fiction of race. It wasn’t that these values competed with the poison of slavery, and eventually overcame it, in an epic, bloody civil war whose casualties were overwhelmingly white. It’s that the liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy — which is why racial inequality endures and why liberalism’s core values and institutions cannot be reformed and can only be dismantled.”

Sullivan says that what we need beyond moral clarity is “moral complexity.”

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