I have a love / hate relationship with Andrew Sullivan. I read his blog daily and enjoy almost everything he says more than any other political pundit, but sometimes his blindness is just too annoying to stay silent about.
From my perspective, he so often pays attention to all the right things, but he often draws conclusions that are frustratingly askew. For example, today on The Dish, he comments on Newt Gingrich’s foreign policy, writing:
Larison dissects Gingrich’s foreign policy:
Many Republicans flatter Gingrich by treating him as one of the party’s intellectuals, but Gingrich frequently shows that he is unable or unwilling to make crucial distinctions in his treatment of international problems. He complains on his campaign website that “we currently view Iraq, Afghanistan, and the many other danger spots of the globe as if they are isolated, independent situations,” and that America “lacks a unified grand strategy for defeating radical Islamism.” But these conflicts are largely separate from one another, and there is no such thing as a monolithic, global, radical Islamism that can be addressed by one strategy. No conflicts around the world can be properly understood except by focusing on local circumstances, but for Gingrich, the ideological emphasis on a unified global threat takes priority over proper analysis.
Which makes him the perfect antithesis of conservatism. Conservatism is concerned with reality, which it understands shifts with culture, history, region and all the immense complexities of human life. When a conservative approaches a problem like Jihadist violent Islam, he will seek first a grasp of its divisions, analyze the most effective way of defusing and disarming and fighting it, ensure that a strategy in one part of the world is not necessarily salient to another, grapple with unintended consequences, and so on. What Gingrich does is the opposite. What he always longs for is the absolute, eternal principle, the clarifying concept, the rhetorical rallying cry that speaks to the ideological gut rather than the reality-based frontal cortex. And Gingrich’s notion of foreign policy – making John Bolton his secretary of state – is essentially a policy of open hostility to the entire world, including allies who differ, and a maximalist military solution to most problems.
via The Daily Beast.
Now I am probably just as alarmed by Gingrich’s inadequate handling of foreign policy as Sullivan, but look closely and you’ll see that every one of his points is wrong. It’s not that we don’t both hope and pray that Newt never gets anywhere near the White House, it’s moreso that I have a “meta” perspective on his philosophy and he doesn’t have one on mine. He’s a reconstructed Burkean conservative who doesn’t quite grasp postmodernism. I’m a postmodern thinker who reconstructs conservatism and progressive ideologies through an evolutionary theory.
Let me fisk his post sentence by sentence so you can see what I’m talking about. Sullivan writes:
Which makes him [Newt Gingrich] the perfect antithesis of conservatism. Conservatism is concerned with reality, which it understands shifts with culture, history, region and all the immense complexities of human life.
No. Andrew is entitled to redefine “conservative” in his writings in a way that the vast majority of self-identified conservatives can’t recognize, but that’s just the sort of illegitimate, pseudo-metaphysical move with language that would send shivers up an ordinary language philosopher’s spine.
Newt Gingrich’s fixation with moral absolutes and ethnocentric triumphalism is very much in line with the mainstream traditionalist worldview as it is defined by developmental researchers looking at value systems from an evolutionary perspective.
In Spiral Dynamics terms, Gingrich is a Truth Force thinker; in Ken Wilber’s philosophy, a blue altitude thinker; in Steve McIntosh’s thought, he has a traditional consciousness. I prefer to suggest that Gingrich — like the vast majority of conservative thinkers in the mainstream — share values consistent with the Diplomat and Expert structures of ego-development identified by Susanne Cook-Greuter. (Basically, Beck, Wilber, McIntosh, Cook-Greuter, and many other developmental researchers who have looked at political worldviews are talking about the same thing.) What this perspective tells us is that conservative thinkers like Gingrich are very much concerned with reality, but they see reality through the black and white lense of their cognitive and moral developmental structures.
The point being: Gingrich is the “true” conservative because most conservatives today share his basic structure of values development. Andrew is the outlier, a thinker who emphasizes conservative values (more Agape rather than Eros, in Wilberian terms) but who is not located intellectually at anywhere near the same coordinates as the typical Red State thinker.
Also, Andrew is wildly mistaken about Gingrich not being concerned with reality. All political philosophers (even postmodern ones in an odd way) are concerned with reality, it’s just that they see reality in different ways. How Sullivan misses this is beyond me unless he is just cynically taking a stand he doesn’t quite believe in because that’s what his readers expect pundits to do.
When a conservative approaches a problem like Jihadist violent Islam, he will seek first a grasp of its divisions, analyze the most effective way of defusing and disarming and fighting it, ensure that a strategy in one part of the world is not necessarily salient to another, grapple with unintended consequences, and so on.
No, conservatives don’t approach problems like that. The rare conservative who has attained a high enough degree of cognitive flexibility and sophistication does so, provided that she or he has not developed so high as to be more concerned with understanding politics in even more subtle ways (even articulating genuinely mystical appreciation for politics).
For example, at the higher levels of political sensibility they may see that Jihadist Islam is actually a face of human nature which is not distinct from our own face, and that our ego’s efforts to partition reality into good and evil is just another defense mechanism against our realization of unity with all beings. I am the Jihadist. You are the Jihadist. Everyone in the world is the Jihadist. Now … what sort of political action makes sense from THAT all-inclusive, world-centric perspective?
What Gingrich does is the opposite. What he always longs for is the absolute, eternal principle, the clarifying concept, the rhetorical rallying cry that speaks to the ideological gut rather than the reality-based frontal cortex.
Not really. What Gingrich does is long for the absolute truth in an ideological prism constructed with, as I put it recently,
a worldview consonant with what Susanne Cook-Greuter terms the Diplomat stage, a station of life with a language of simple statements of fact, referring to concrete realities seen from a single aspect. It’s a world where the most important thing is having the right beliefs and sticking up for them right or wrong and being “best equipped” to enforce those beliefs with the authority of the state.
That’s not looking to an “ideological gut” (i.e., a purely emotive, non-cognitive place in contrast to Andrew’s superior powers of cognition), it’s looking to a genuinely cognitive facility with limited capacity for agility, one akin to a hierarchical stage of intellectual and/or moral development that most of us passed through in early adolescence, according to psychological researchers following in the tradition of Maslow, Piaget, and Gilligan.
And Gingrich’s notion of foreign policy – making John Bolton his secretary of state – is essentially a policy of open hostility to the entire world, including allies who differ, and a maximalist military solution to most problems.
Hardly. Sullivan misreads Gingrich as being “openly hostile” to the world, when actually it’s better to say that Gingrich is “openly assertive” of American power and that he doesn’t really see or care much about “the world.”
His consciousness has evolved with heightened sensitivity to perceived threats to order, and his default mode is frequently responsive to those threats in ways that many of us can’t quite grasp because we are so differently constituted. In other words, Gingrich’s moral capacities are just a notch more elevated than a self-important, rebellious teenage boy. Gingrich is a good defender of his home turf, as he defines it, but that’s not so much hostility towards the world as obliviousness.
Andrew Sullivan may be one of our great political commentators writing today, one whose insights I gain value from daily, but sometimes his blindness to his own embedded position in a flatland discourse gets so annoying I just have to express my frustration. To him, everyone but him is basically wrong. He, more than most pundits today, has seen his thought evolve over time; and yet he never turns his eyes to the fact of development itself. In this sense, reading Andrew Sullivan is a bit like watching a train wreck.
To me, following Wilber, everyone has a piece of the truth as seen from their unique perspective. It seems to never occur to Sullivan that conservatism as an ideology exists at multiple structures of values development as a perfectly valid type of expression, and it is perfectly natural to expect Gingrich’s lower level of conservatism to co-exist with Sullivan’s higher level.
There are still higher levels than Sullivan’s, though the higher up on the rungs of political values development one climbs, according to the psychological research such as Robert Kegan of Harvard’s Education School and Ken Wilber’s Integral Politics, the more the distinctions between conservative and liberal become blurred, the more problems appear in need of solution that never before mattered (such as the problem of how to encourage the development of rich interiority in a mass populace and how to use public policy to bring people up the spiral of development). At more evolved stations of life, development itself is increaasingly prized and the goal if politics is redefined in terms of universal care, compassion, love, and justice.
Sullivan doesn’t get this critique not because he hasn’t heard it (I know I’m not the only developmentally informed writer on politics who has tried to bend his ear), but because … I don’t know why. I blog about how frustrated I am about Andrew Sullivan’s thought every couple of years or so and send him an E-mail about it, but he always ignores it. I’ve asked him to do an “Ask Andrew Anything” segment on his view of developmentally-informed political thought such as Ken Wilber’s, and he ignored it.
Ken Wilber once wrote that for a person to grasp that their thought and entire self is developmentally constructed is a big deal. Upon this realization, one must consequently re-examine all one’s beliefs in light of this knowledge and change more than 5% of one’s entire belief system about reality, and this is simply too much for many people to cope with. They instead go into denial. I guess maybe Andrew Sullivan is just not willing to open a can of worms that would make everything he has written to date remarkably partial and limited, or risk the embarrassment of not having a cogent response to a “fringe” view.
Either that, or I’m very wrong (from his perspective), and one of these days he’s going to explain why … and I’ll be so bowled over I’ll just have to change my mind.