Andrew Sullivan: Anti-Trump British journalist quits in 'woke' row
He is one of the most controversial voices in American journalism, the British-born “anti-Trump conservative” whose acerbic commentary and vivid feature writing have attracted a wide following and a host of critics.
But on Friday, 56-year-old Andrew Sullivan resigned from New York Magazine, where he has worked for four years, claiming a “critical mass” of staff no longer wanted to associate with him due to his critiques of critical theory or woke culture.
Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic and writer on Time, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, said in a post that colleagues at the Pulitzer-winning publication “seem to believe … that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”
In one of his more contentiously held positions, Sullivan has drawn fire for defending aspects of The Bell Curve, a 90s academic study that attempted to recast discredited race science.
In recent weeks, he had reportedly been barred from writing about anti-racism protests across the US. In a recent column titled Is There Still Room to Debate?, Sullivan described what he characterised as a campaign to quell dissent from the belief “that America is systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start”.
“In these past two weeks, if you didn’t put up on Instagram or Facebook some kind of slogan or symbol displaying your wokeness, you were instantly suspect,” he wrote in early June.
Sullivan’s departure comes amid increasing turmoil in US newsrooms and cultural institutions. This week, the columnist Bari Weiss resigned from the New York Times, speaking out against what she called an “illiberal environment” at the institution.
Weiss, who was hired as a centrist, also described constraints on dissenting opinions and claimed she had been bullied by co-workers who called her a “Nazi and a racist” because of her “own forays into wrongthink”.
“Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired,” Weiss wrote in her resignation letter.
Weiss was widely criticised and accused by one writer of “taking thin, anecdotal evidence and framing it in grandiose culture-war terms”.
The twin resignations come not long after 153 journalists, writers and academics, many connected to leading liberal arts institutions and including JK Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and Malcolm Gladwell, co-signed a letter on justice and open debate, warning that “cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial” amid “powerful protests for racial and social justice”.
This much-needed reckoning, they wrote, “has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”.
The letter triggered a backlash, with some claiming the correspondence itself, and the privileged positions of some signatories, served only to reinforce injustice. The Harper’s letter “does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not”, read a response published by the news and commentary site The Objective.
While some signatories disavowed their participation with the Harper’s letter, Chomsky doubled down, saying: “The nature and scale of the reaction reinforce the message of the letter.”
The growing conflict is shaped as an intra-progressive struggle, as well as in some instances a generational dogfight. Sullivan and Weiss’s anti-Trump, pro-gender- and racial equality positions are not necessarily at issue.
Instead, they indicated, theirs is in some measure a battle over the freedom to examine, sometimes critically, the underlying constructs of identity politics.
Donald Trump has identified the schism as a campaign issue, flipping the script to conform to his anti-media crusade. At a recent Fourth of July rally at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, he warned that “cancel culture” is a “political weapon – driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees.”
“This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values,” the president argued.
In the tense months ahead of the November presidential election, the ability of news media to hold broad debate may already be beyond its grasp, some commentators have claimed.
In his resignation letter, Sullivan said he would maintain the right to “probably piss you off”.
He added: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear, as my journalistic mentor George Orwell put it … And I hope to find readers who are fine with being pissed off.”
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