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Old School Vs. New School? Leon Wieseltier’s Epic Battle With Andrew Sullivan

Last Monday, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, wrote a piece on Andrew Sullivan, staff writer at The Atlantic, maître d’ of The Daily Dish, and all-around nabob of web journalism. It was not a very nice piece. Indeed, leaving aside, for the time being, the charmlessness of Wieseltier’s prose (“I tried to read it . . .,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sullivan’s colleague, “but I found it really, really difficult to read”; “ ‘operating in the vicinity of a different canard,’” wrote the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson, in quotation of Wieseltier “—what does that even mean?” HuffPo’s M.J. Rosenberg put it unimprovably: “Wieseltier’s prose is impenetrable”) – even ignoring that, you might have rated the piece a tad bit over the top.

How so, over the top? The piece, “Something Much Darker: Andrew Sullivan has a serious problem,” starts out with a cavil about an Auden quote, but is soon sprawling and rioting all over the place in pursuit of its grim premise.  The claim, if I understand it correctly, is that Sullivan’s reviews of Israeli policy — which, to be fair, have gotten palpably foamier in the past year — have stopped being rational and started being . . . “something much darker.” These polemics aren’t reasoned discourses, Wieseltier suggests. They’re glandular outbursts, syntactical tantrums.  They betray a writer whose mind has become the plaything of his emotions.

What, then, is making Sullivan so hysterical about Israel, in the world according to Wieseltier?  Part of the blame goes to Sullivan’s blogging, a form, in his view, addled by the nonstop urgency of its news-cycles. (Wieseltier, of course, abhors blogging.) Most of it, though, is assigned to an insidious strain of anti-Semitism to which Sullivan, wittingly or not, has fallen prey: “The explanation that Sullivan adopts for almost everything that he does not like about America’s foreign policy, and America’s wars, and America’s role in the world . . . [is] that it is all the result of the clandestine and cunningly organized power of a single and small ethnic group [i.e., Jews].”

This wasn’t just a critique, in short. It wasn’t just a talking-to, a dressing-down. It was a smackdown, in high-literary style.

Mixing bemusement and rebuttal, Sullivan posted a response two days later on his blog, “Something Much Sadder.” He argued that Wieseltier was factually off and in bad faith.  “I’m sorry,” he avowed, “but this really is a vile lie, a stark accusation of anti-Semitism, unsupported by any evidence.” Via a smattering of links, Sullivan directed readers to numerous blog-posts and articles he had written that ought to upend any suspicion of his being an anti-Semite. In apoplectic italics, he pointed out that not a few of these saving articles had been “edited by Wieseltier himself.” Sullivan went on to express a stunned dismay that TNR, a magazine he edited from 1991 – 1996, had let such base stuff into their pages. He wondered aloud whether the heat of an old grudge might have unglued his accuser’s mind.

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