Saturday, 18 February 2012

Gadflies and Choristers: An Open Letter to Andrew Sullivan

Dear Andrew,

I was thrilled to have the chance to meet you this week, at fundraisers for Immigration Equality (a fantastic organisation, by the way, doing brave and necessary work to overturn cruel and dehumanising immigration restrictions against gay and lesbian families). I was especially looking forward to meeting you because, as I mentioned, I've been a daily reader and fan of your blog for over 10 years now - since before you blogged for the Beast, or the Atlantic, or Time. Since back in the days when you were publishing in white text on a blue background (why did you do that?).

And I return to your blog compulsively each day not because I agree with everything you say but because you are the conservative writer I most respect. I admire the unflinching way in which you present opposing points of view - even those that are sometimes harshly critical of you, and I admire the intellectual honesty with which you acknowledge that you sometimes make mistakes. I also know that you command a huge and diverse audience - which became very clear when you linked to my Sarah Palin post and 20K of your followers clicked over to read it.

So by the time we met, I'd been following the twists and turns of your thought for a very long time, and I know where you're coming from. You're a gadfly. You don't want to be inside anybody's tent, you are not a joiner, you treasure your independence and I suspect (in classic Oxford debating tradition) you relish a good fight.

And when we met, and I introduced myself as representing Democrats Abroad you weren't telling me anything I didn't already know by declaring that you were not a Democrat. I was a little taken aback, though, when you said that you "don't like Democrats much."

Andrew, you endorsed John Kerry in 2004, and Obama in 2008. You've written beautifully about why you continue to support the President, and you've been rightly appalled by the turn towards theocratic extremism and away from reality-based policy making that the Republican party has taken in recent years. Almost every Democrat I know reads you and respects you. And you clearly like and respect a lot of Democrats.

It's not true that you "don't like Democrats." I reject the premise. I think what is true, and what you probably meant, is that you don't like Democratic fellow travellers. I know you have distaste for what you perceive as interest group politics. I know you blame Clinton for caving on many issues that he should have stood up for.

However, I should note that since our meeting I have looked into this issue, and I think you are wrong to say that Bill Clinton imposed the ban on immigration for people who are HIV positive - my research says the ban was imposed in 1987 and that Clinton PROMISED TO REPEAL IT but failed, due to opposition from Conservatives in Congress. Similarly, Clinton promised to overturn the ban on gays serving in the military but again wound up giving in due to pressure from the right and instituted the (in some ways even worse) "compromise" of Don't Ask Don't Tell. So, you're not a Clinton fan. I get that. But to blame "Democrats" for failing to live up to a promise you wanted us to keep without reserving greater loathing for the folks on the other side who are fighting tooth and nail to do the opposite of what you want seems perverse to me.

No, not perverse. It seems gadfly-like. You described yourself to me at dinner as an "ornery journalist". Bless you for it. I'm glad you are! We need folks who are naturally uncomfortable with feeling comfortable. I love people who have an instinct to pick holes in their own side, to challenge even (or especially) their closest friends, and to prefer the good fight to the quiet life. I love them so much I'm married to one.

But I want to make a cautious, limited and tenuous plea on behalf of those of us aren't gadflies by nature. Because, in a world populated by gadflies we'd achieve nothing but the sting. And for me, the kind of intellectual honesty that gadflies enable is useful as a TOOL to help us improve our ability to do something specific. I care about politics because I think we need to change the way things work. I want to defend my country and my world from the prejudice and bigotry, create more opportunities for more people, reduce poverty, improve education and access to education, create a healthier nation at a lower cost... I want to play some small part, however insignificant, in DOING STUFF. And very often the best way of doing that is to find a coaliton of other people who agree with you about the direction you want to move in, put aside your points of difference with those folks, put your shoulder to the wheel and start grafting. For me, that coalition is the Democratic Party.

Sometimes, it's better to sing with the choir than to shout from the back.

The choir metaphor is very close to what I mean, actually - a choir or people who all have their own voices can create, together something new and amazing that none of them could have done on their own. I might want to sing "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" as a bluesy number. You might want to reinvent it as a rock ballad. And that guy over there might want to sing it at half speed to bring out the sorrow of the lyrics. But if we all agree we want to sing the song, and we are willing to let a choirmaster direct us in the arrangement, we can sing a song that's different than how any of us would have done it, but satisfying to all of us.

When it comes to politics, people think this means selling out or giving up your principles, but I don't accept that. Every member of the choir does have their own voice, and the variation of those voices does matter. But by harmonising with others you can be heard by more people, and sound better.

I would never support a policy that I didn't believe in just because the Party asks me to. Nor would I keep silent about something I cared about because the Party wanted me to. But if the song we are singing today is "Let's create affordable accessible healthcare", I'm happy to chime in on the beat. I'm not going to stand at the back shouting, "I'd also like to legalise marijuana." Though I do. Nor am I going to arbitrarily shout "prison reform is badly needed" into the chorus. Though it is.

I look around at my fellow Democrats Abroad, and we are working very hard indeed to register overseas US voters and get them to the polls. It's hard work. It's not glamorous. It's often frustrating and rarely wins us fame, or glory. I honestly believe that for every person that we register, for every new voter we reach, we are a tiny little bit closer to building, over the long term, a country that is a little better.

But I also believe our presence in the choir changes the choir. Changes the Party. Hopefully for the better. To give you just one example that should be meaningful to you, Democrats Abroad are a tiny state chapter within the Democratic Party. But we are a tiny state chapter that is nearly universally in support of immigration equality for our many members. Our voices on this subject are loud and clear. And increasingly our fellow Democrats are in harmony with this.

We need both gadflies and choristers. In fact, I think we should all aim to be a little bit of both.

Again, it was great meeting you in London. And thanks again for over a decade of being an essential, infuriating, enlightening, astonishing, inspiring and challenging daily read.

Very best wishes,