BOOK REVIEW : OUT ON A LIMB - [ 1989 - 2021 ]

Sullivan's travels : Selected Writing 1989 - 2021. It's truly hard to provide a short description of ''Out on a Limb,'' Andrew Sullivan's newest book. Yes, it's a collection of his essays, stretching through 32 confused and contentious years of American history.

But because it's Sullivan, and Sullivan was and is a unique and always controversial presence in American politics and culture, to call the book a mere ''collection of essays'' is to do it a grave injustice. Perhaps it's better to call it a series of journeys.

There's Sullivan's journey through the AIDS crisis and then the gay marriage movement. It's hard to overstate his importance in laying the intellectual and philosophical foundation for the political, philosophical and legal campaign that that culminated not just in the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision, but also in the cultural acceptance of gay marriage that reigns today.

There's Sullivan's journey in and out of the American right, where he went from one of the Iraq war's most eloquent champions to one of its most ferocious critics. And there's his vain attempt to champion a more modest ''conservation of doubt'' even as he forecast the new right's grasp for government power and its devolution into a cult of Trump.

But there's also Sullivan's journey in and out of progressive America. After rejecting Bush, Sullivan was enthusiastic, early, about the candidacy of Barack Obama. He was wildly optimistic about the promise of the Obama presidency, and was furious at the immediate, intransigent Republican opposition to the Obama agenda.

Even as you read, however, you probably know how that journey ends [ at least for now ]. The man who fiercely condemned rising Christian fundamentalism on the right soon enough turned his fire on increasing intolerant illiberalism, on the left, an illiberalism, he argued, that was a fundamentalism all its own.

And as you walk with Sullivan on these many journeys, you relive sometimes decade-old disputes. When you do, you're aware that few writers have generated more intense engagement - and more intense blowback - than Andrew Sullivan

The reasons are obvious. First, it is crystal clear that Sullivan is not on your team. He's not on anyone's team. Even when he endorses a politician and sings his or her praises, you know that praise is contingent. He reserves the right to try any politician, and find him wanting.

Second, it's also clear that Sullivan does not encounter politics, culture or religion from a position of a Olympian detachment. He's transparent about his life. He pours his emotion into the written word. The essays don't just communicate his thoughts, they communicate his heart.

Still, the term ''Christianist'' felt like a mild slap on the face, right until the afternoon of Jan. 6 when a mob of believers stormed the Capitol on a ''righteous'' mission to overturn an election - with crosses in the crowd and prayers on their lips.

There's a through-line in Sullivan's thought. He's a zealous man who is suspicious of zealotry. Specifically, zealotry attached to power.

When I reached the end of his book, I felt a sense of gratitude. I disagreed with Sullivan on many points [ and I do wish he had reproduced one of his essays in support of the Iraq war], but for 32 years a thoughtful man has demonstrated the courage of his convictions and challenged his readers time and again.

This world is almost impossibly complex. Conventional wisdom is frequently wrong. No partisan side has a monopoly on truth. In these circumstances, a nation needs writers and thinkers who will say hard things, whose fearlessness gives you confidence that you're hearing their true thoughts.

It's not difficult to be a partisan bomb-thrower, Attacking the hated opposition to the roar of home crowd can be lucrative and rewarding. Partisans who grid for cultural battle don't want to have second thoughts. They don't want to look into the mirror and ponder the sin on their own side.

Yet in essay after essay, for decade after decade, Sullivan has been the man with the mirror. He's held it up to a nation and culture that increasingly yield to authoritarian temptations and shouted : ''Look at yourself. Look at what you're becoming.''

Read ''Out on a Limb'' for the snapshots of recent history. Read it to better understand the many journeys of one of America's most important public intellectuals. But most of all read this book to see what it looks like when a thoughtful man tries his best to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

The World Students Society thanks review author David French.


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