The other day I wrote about why supporting the Iraq War was the smart career move in media circles back in ’02 and ’03. Dozens of our country’s top journalists and pundits got Iraq wrong–embarrassingly, cringe-worthy, stupendously wrong–and it hasn’t affected their professional stature. In fact, many have climbed to even higher spots within the media’s power structure, occasionally writing about how wrong they were, publicly documenting their intellectual melodramas. By now, they rarely look in the rear view. I didn’t feel the need to names names, as that’s not my style here. But last night I was sent an email with comments Andrew Sullivan made yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival that, rather melodramatically, proved my point.
I wasn’t in the “packed lunch-room,” so I’m just going off what Patrick Gavin at Politico reported. Here’s what Sullivan said:
“I supported [the war] like a teenage girl supporting the Jonas Brothers,” confessed Sullivan, who currently writes and blogs for The Atlantic. Sullivan would later admit that his support for the war was misguided and told the crowd that it wasn’t without its consequences.
“You lose all your friends,” said Sullivan. “You make enemies of everyone you used to hang out with. … My traffic went down by 60 percent when I denounced the war, but it went back when those on the left thought I was one of them.”
I’ll give Sullivan a pass on the Jonas Brothers remark. It’s a neat way to describe what’s usually called “war fever,” or what Slate’s Jacob Weisberg called “group think” to explain his support for Iraq. It’s the deeply human reaction that occurs, en masse, when your nation state prepares to go to war. You can find examples of it in most conflicts; this powerful, hysterical force, that sweeps through the collective minds of citizens when blood is in the air. Governments rely on the Jonas Brothers-like effect of war to seduce the folks to go ahead with an act that almost always turns out to be way too costly and way too deadly.
In the next paragraph, though, Sullivan stepped into the land of heroic delusion. He described the “consequences” of his support, talking about it in terms of a) his personal life, and b) how it impacted his career. It’s another neat trick.
By saying he made “enemies of everyone” he used to “hang out with,” he’s managing to cast his pro-war views as courageous. My deeply held beliefs cost me my drinking buddies! Like he was standing, alone, on the edge of respectable opinion. This is clearly not true–most establishment outlets and writers supported the war, from op-eds in the New York Times (I Can’t Believe I’m A Hawk, ‘Suck On This’ etc.) to the New Republic to the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, Fox News, The National Review, the Weekly Standard, blah blah. Even his colleague at the Atlantic, Robert Kaplan, and Les Gelb–the head of the Council on Foreign Relations at the time, the establishment center of foreign policy thought–supported the war. So what friends did he lose? No more lunches with the staff of the Nation?
Then Sullivan goes on to cast his denouncement of the war as courageous. He lost web traffic (for a bit). It cost him page views. Was this in 2004 or 2005? I don’t know, but it wasn’t really that courageous to start criticizing the war after the invasion. Even John Kerry had the guts to do it. In fact, that’s what most of the war supporters did, to varying degrees and thoughtfulness. Oops, I was sort of wrong, here’s my excuse, let’s move on, please. Only the real neo-con diehards stayed true to the Iraq fantasy. But even then, the consequence of Sullivan’s conversion was only temporary. Sullivan’s web traffic started to go back up once left-wingers realized he was offering lively and entertaining writing that they could agree with. (Proving, once again, that sticking with the herd and being for the war was always the safe move, as you could change your mind later when the herd started to get restless.)
I’d really like to dismiss Sullivan and the rest of the American media-blogger-journalist punditocracy by saying they’re mostly full of shit, mostly folks who have strong opinions about things they know very little about. I’d like to be able to say, ‘Hey, no big deal, they’re just providing entertainment with a veneer of intellectualism. Hey, no big deal, if writing like this makes them happy, go for it.’ But, it turns out, ideas do have consquences. Ideas matter. And the consequences of the support that guys like Sullivan gave to the war will always be much more serious than friends who won’t text you back, or a dip in visits to a blog. Twenty four Iraqi families, and four American families, just felt those consequences yesterday.