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Flogged By The Dish

Andrew Sullivan isn’t happy with Via Meadia. This isn’t the first time; when we pointed out that a boneheaded German court decision to ban circumcision on males under 18 criminalized the practice of Judaism in Germany (to say nothing of Islam) and was an assault on religious freedom that Germany’s own better nature would not let stand, the Daily Dish came after this publication. Some pretty tough rhetoric ensued about how misguided we were until a worldwide outcry—including from Germans of all parties and faiths—led the Dish to concede, grudgingly, that the crusade against circumcision should probably go on hold for a while and that the world’s Jews aren’t enlightened enough just yet to let Andrew Sullivan tell them what Judaism means.

When Via Meadia tried to calm overheated, over the top fears of a GIANT CHRISTIANIST CONSPIRACY ABOUT TO DESTROY US ALL!!, suggesting that American religion is too divided and too multifaceted to do anything of the kind, we got called blind to the terrible danger that the crazy Bible thumpers are going to send all the cool people to concentration camps.

And when we made the observation that there aren’t enough Mormons in the United States to turn this country into a Mormon police state, even if someday a person professing that religion is inaugurated as president, the Dish continued to quiver with fear at the thought of racist cultists in strange underpants destroying American freedom.

This time, we’ve gotten in trouble with the calm and level headed management over at the Dish because we thought it was worth explaining why, as a matter of political reality, so many Americans are unshocked by what so many people around the world see as unacceptable Israeli violence in Gaza. We pointed to a long established tradition in American culture and political thought—one of four described in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed The World. This tradition believes that when a country or its citizens is attacked it has the right and even the duty to crush the offenders without regard to what defenders of just war theory consider the proper limits of force. The VM piece—like the book on whose analysis it is based—didn’t endorse this approach but tried to show dispassionately and clearly what it is, how it works and why, to those who think this way, it makes sense.

But when he’s angry, which is fairly often, Mr. Sullivan sometimes doesn’t see very clearly, and somehow in his own mind he’s converted an explanation of a political fact into an endorsement of a political program. There’s nothing in his post for us to argue with; he blatantly misreads a straightforward text and lashes out in that whiny, holier than thou manner he sometimes assumes as he lectures us from the utterly imaginary high ground on which it pleases him to imagine that he stands.

It’s OK. We aren’t asking for apologies or complaining about hurt feelings. This is the internet, and Mr. Sullivan has a shtick. Our backs here are broad, and we can handle an occasional random flogging by the Daily Dish. And it is also true that like all bloggers everywhere, Via Meadia owes Andrew Sullivan an immense literary debt. The Daily Dish was one of the first blogs to show a wide audience just what a vital medium the weblog can be; no matter what your political or religious views, Andrew Sullivan has done yeoman work in building up a new and powerful medium. Our hats are off.

But it interests us that Mr. Sullivan, a man who normally (and correctly in our view) believes that humans should strive to understand and celebrate diversity and tolerate and embrace difference and non-conformity gets all bent out of shape when anybody tries to approach certain made-in-America subcultures and religions with the same tools he would automatically use to understand people in other parts of the world. At Via Meadia we think it’s as important to understand Omaha as it is to understand Timbuktu; we aren’t Mormons and we aren’t fundamentalists, but we’d be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves if we didn’t try to understand the beliefs of these people—and to defend their civil rights. We aren’t Jacksonians or, for that matter, Islamists—but we don’t think we’ve done our job as public intellectuals if we haven’t tried to understand such points of view thoroughly and even sympathetically to the point where people who do share those views say that, yes, we’ve understood them.

That kind of understanding doesn’t preclude serious opposition and criticism, of course, and in fact it enables the kind of deep conversation out of which change can come. On the other hand, Mr. Sullivan’s increasingly self-parodic panic attacks as he repeatedly overestimates both the strength and cohesion of the groups that so frighten him suggests that the failure to understand people with whom you disagree is a poor foundation for political analysis.

Even if it means that Mr. Sullivan sometimes lashes us as agreeing with the viewpoints we analyze, we’d rather do the work of understanding the real world and pay the price of being misunderstood than live in a world of mirrors and illusion. There are enough real dangers in this world that we don’t have time to waste getting all wee-weed up, as the most eloquent and conservative President since Lincoln would so felicitously put it, about the pretend ones.

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