Readers of The New Republic know that Leon Wieseltier has an acid pen. But does he also have an itchy trigger finger?
“To be called a ‘Jew-baiter’ in the pages of a magazine I was once proud and honored to edit, and which I love and support, is an extremely wounding blow. It is also untrue and unfair,” Sullivan wrote on his blog.
Wieseltier fired off his charge over a critique Sullivan had penned of a recent New York Times column by neocon scion Bill Kristol. Kristol had attacked Barack Obama’s recent remarks suggesting that Americans in small towns “cling” to religion because they are “bitter” about their economic circumstances, suggesting that the Illinois senator’s remarks echoed Marxist dogma and were “disdainful of small-town America.”
Kristol’s critique prompted Sullivan to go ballistic: “Kristol is deliberately distorting to paint Obama as a cynical manipulator of religious faith for political ends, rather than as a genuine Christian. He’s calling him a lying, Godless communist.” Referring to Kristol’s characterization of Obama, Sullivan continued: “A non-Christian manipulator of Christianity is calling a Christian a liar about his own faith.”
Before proceeding to the main event — “Wieseltier vs. Sullivan,” keep it clean fellas, no hitting below the Beltway — it’s worth noting that Sullivan’s post wildly misread Kristol’s column. Kristol, though hardly nonpartisan in his analysis, never actually accuses Obama of being insincere in his own faith, noting that the candidate has “written eloquently” about the “complexity of his religious commitment.” Instead, Kristol criticizes the Illinois senator for not extending to “other believers the courtesy of assuming they’ve also thought about their religious beliefs.”
But Wieseltier’s issue is not that Sullivan bashed Kristol. Indeed, he doesn’t seem to have particularly cared for Kristol’s column either. Apparently, however, he cared even less for Sullivan’s commentary, reading into it something sinister — on the basis of a single sentence: “A non-Christian manipulator of Christianity is calling a Christian a liar about his faith.”
“Ponder that early adjective,” Wieseltier writes. “It is Jew baiting. I was not aware that only Christians can judge Christians, or that there are things about which a Jew cannot call a Christian a liar. If Kristol is wrong about Obama, it is not because Kristol is a Jew. So this fills me with a certain paschal wrath. Nice little blog you have there, Obama boy. Pity if frogs or locusts should happen to it. Let my people be!”
Sullivan, for his part, called Wieseltier’s attack “painful in the extreme.” Sullivan — who has a record of standing up for Israel and issues of Jewish concern (with the exception of his views on circumcision, which, granted, he likely sees as a defense of Jewish penises) — explains himself as follows:
My phrase “a non-Christian manipulator of Christianity” is an attack on Kristol’s cynicism, not his Jewishness. I agree wholeheartedly with Leon that, “if Kristol is wrong about Obama, it is not because Kristol is a Jew.” It is because he is a cynic about faith, and a ruthless partisan indifferent to the truth when it cannot be harnessed to the wielding of power. My post was a protest against the manipulation of faith for partisan purposes, a theme that readers know I have been concerned with for a long time, and is the core argument of my recent book. It would apply to anyone outside a faith who has decided to use and manipulate another’s faith for his own political purposes. “Non-Christian” would include atheist or Muslim or agnostic or, of course, Jewish. It would apply to my calling a professing Muslim a fraud or a practising Protestant a liar….
One reader emailed me to say that he thought the phrase could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, and, to be honest, it was the first time it occurred to me. All I can say is that is not in any way what I intended, the context makes this obvious, and if someone were to take it that way, I am sincerely, deeply sorry for not being clearer. I find anti-Semitism one of the vilest, ugliest, dumbest pathologies of the human mind and soul, and I don’t think any fair reader of my work over the years could come to any other conclusion….
Rather than turn the other cheek, however, Sullivan proceeded to fire back in kind, hinting that Wieseltier’s charge of “Jew-baiting” was accompanied by a tinge of gay-baiting:
The origins of Leon’s personal hatred of yours truly are too tedious to recount, but they go back a very long way, and Wieseltier is a connoisseur and cultivator of personal hatred. I do think, however, that when accusing someone of “Jew-baiting,” a writer might be a little more careful in his own use of language. I am 44 years old, a former editor of the magazine Wieseltier works for, married, and adult. And yet this is the tone of Leon’s scorn: “Nice little blog you have there, Obama boy.”
Little? Boy? African-Americans and gay men have had one thing in common over the decades and centuries. When we are being put in our place by our superiors, we are called “boys.” What do you call an openly gay man who actually manages to have a career in mainstream journalism? A boy. Obama is not a boy, and neither am I. And breaking through those barriers is one thing this election has come to be about.
If nothing else, this edifying exchange provides a convenient opportunity to take note of a certain irony in this dueling duo’s election-year writings: Sullivan’s quixotic conservatism may have made him a poor fit for the ostensibly liberal New Republic, but this election cycle he has become an enthusiastic Obama booster. Meanwhile, the liberal Wieseltier’s seeming skepticism about Obama’s candidacy contrasts with some of his friendlier words for a certain senator from Arizona.
UPDATE: Jewcy’s Daniel Koffler has a withering take on Wieseltier’s low blow here. He also adds some context that makes me reconsider my dismissal of Sullivan’s complaint about Wieseltier’s disparaging use of the word “boy.”