interesting times

See You Next Friday: A Farewell Letter

Photo: Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan

The good news is that my last column in this space is not about “cancel culture.” Well, almost. I agree with some of the critics that it’s a little nuts to say I’ve just been “canceled,” sent into oblivion and exile for some alleged sin. I haven’t. I’m just no longer going to be writing for a magazine that has every right to hire and fire anyone it wants when it comes to the content of what it wants to publish.

The quality of my work does not appear to be the problem. I have a long essay in the coming print magazine on how plagues change societies, after all. I have written some of the most widely read essays in the history of the magazine, and my column has been popular with readers. And I have no complaints about my interaction with the wonderful editors and fact-checkers here — and, in fact, am deeply grateful for their extraordinary talent, skill, and compassion. I’ve been in the office maybe a handful of times over four years, and so there’s no question of anyone mistreating me or vice versa. In fact, I’ve been proud and happy to be a part of this venture.

What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, 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. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory’s ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media. That, to the best of my understanding, is why I’m out of here.

Two years ago, I wrote that we all live on campus now. That is an understatement. In academia, a tiny fraction of professors and administrators have not yet bent the knee to the woke program — and those few left are being purged. The latest study of Harvard University faculty, for example, finds that only 1.46 percent call themselves conservative. But that’s probably higher than the proportion of journalists who call themselves conservative at the New York Times or CNN or New York Magazine. And maybe it’s worth pointing out that “conservative” in my case means that I have passionately opposed Donald J. Trump and pioneered marriage equality, that I support legalized drugs, criminal-justice reform, more redistribution of wealth, aggressive action against climate change, police reform, a realist foreign policy, and laws to protect transgender people from discrimination. I was one of the first journalists in established media to come out. I was a major and early supporter of Barack Obama. I intend to vote for Biden in November.

It seems to me that if this conservatism is so foul that many of my peers are embarrassed to be working at the same magazine, then I have no idea what version of conservatism could ever be tolerated. And that’s fine. We have freedom of association in this country, and if the mainstream media want to cut ties with even moderate anti-Trump conservatives, because they won’t bend the knee to critical theory’s version of reality, that’s their prerogative. It may even win them more readers, at least temporarily. But this is less of a systemic problem than in the past, because the web has massively eroded the power of gatekeepers to suppress and control speech. I was among the first to recognize this potential for individual freedom of speech, and helped pioneer individual online media, specifically blogging, 20 years ago.

And this is where I’m now headed.

Since I closed down the Dish, my bloggy website, five years ago, after 15 years of daily blogging, I have not missed the insane work hours that all but broke my health. But here’s what I do truly and deeply miss: writing freely without being in a defensive crouch; airing tough, smart dissent and engaging with readers in a substantive way that avoids Twitter madness; a truly free intellectual space where anything, yes anything, can be debated without personal abuse or questioning of motives; and where readers can force me to change my mind (or not) by sheer logic or personal testimony.

I miss a readership that truly was eclectic — left, liberal, centrist, right, reactionary — and that loved to be challenged by me and by each other. I miss just the sheer fun that used to be a part of being a hack before all these dreadfully earnest, humor-free puritans took over the press: jokes, window views, silly videos, contests, puns, rickrolls, and so on. The most popular feature we ever ran was completely apolitical — The View From Your Window contest. It was as simple and humanizing as the current web is so fraught and dehumanizing. And in this era of COVID-19 isolation and despair, the need for a humane, tolerant, yet provocative and interesting, community is more urgent than ever.

So, yeah, after being prodded for years by Dishheads, I’m going to bring back the Dish.

I’ve long tried to figure out a way to have this kind of lively community without endangering my health and sanity. Which is why the Weekly Dish, which launches now, is where I’ve landed. The Weekly Dish will be hosted by Substack, a fantastic company that hosts an increasingly impressive number of individual free thinkers, like Jesse Singal and Matt Taibbi. There is a growing federation of independent thinkers and writers not subject to mainstream media’s increasingly narrow range of acceptable thought.

The initial basic formula — which, as with all things Dish, will no doubt evolve — is the following: this three-part column, with perhaps a couple of added short posts or features (I probably won’t be able to resist); a serious dissent section, where I can air real disagreement with my column, and engage with it constructively and civilly; a podcast, which I’ve long wanted to do, but never found a way to fit in; and yes, reader window views again, and the return of The View From Your Window contest. I’m able to do all this because Chris Bodenner, the guru of the Dish in-box and master of the Window View contest, is coming back to join me. He’ll select the dissents, as he long did, in ways that will put me on the spot.

Some have said that this good-faith engagement with lefty and liberal readers made me a better writer and thinker. And I think they’re right. Twitter has been bad for me; it’s just impossible to respond with the same care and nuance that I was able to at the Dish. And if we want to defend what’s left of liberal democracy, it’s not enough to expose and criticize the current model. We just need to model and practice liberal democracy better.

And that’s my larger hope and ambition. If the mainstream media will not host a diversity of opinion, or puts the “moral clarity” of some self-appointed saints before the goal of objectivity in reporting, if it treats writers as mere avatars for their race and gender or gender identity, rather than as unique individuals whose identity is largely irrelevant, then the nonmainstream needs to pick up the slack. What I hope to do at the Weekly Dish is to champion those younger writers who are increasingly shut out of the Establishment, to promote their blogs, articles, and podcasts, to link to them, and encourage them. I want to show them that they have a future in the American discourse. Instead of merely diagnosing the problem of illiberalism, I want to try to be part of the solution.

I’ll still probably piss you off, on a regular basis. “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. But I’ll also be directly accountable, and open to arguments that I, too, don’t want to hear but need to engage. And I hope to find readers who are fine with being pissed off — if it prompts them to reevaluate ideas.

If you believe in that vision or are simply interested in engaging a variety of ideas in a free-wheeling debate, then please join us. Those of you who were loyal Dishheads receive this column every Friday in an email, and you will get the same email next week directing you to the new Weekly Dish. If you are not on that list, or have not received an email lately, or have gotten to know me from my work at New York alone, you can add your name by clicking here.

The Weekly Dish will be free for a bit, while we iron out kinks and prep a podcast for the fall. But if you want to subscribe right away, or be a founding Weekly Dishhead, we’d love it, and it would help us enormously in getting this off the ground.

Dishness lives. All we’re waiting for is you.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: See You Next Friday