Last year, Andrew Sullivan quit blogging — the medium he had done so much to create.
And you know what? He was pretty damn happy about it. He was taking walks, meditating, exercising, reading, and generally living the good life. Of course, then Donald Trump just had to go and drag him back into the fray.
"The constant twitchy fascism of the guy just began to penetrate my consciousness," Sullivan says.
Sullivan's return came with a blockbuster feature in New York magazine, one we talk about it at length in my new interview with him on The Ezra Klein Show. (You can listen to our discussion by subscribing to my podcast or streaming it on SoundCloud or Spotify.)
We also discuss why Sullivan believes in God, what it was like being an HIV-positive writer during the height of the AIDS epidemic, how Sullivan's thinking on Obama has changed since 2008, what led him to fear Donald Trump, why he decided against building the Daily Dish into a larger operation, why he thinks "political correctness" is toxic to our politics, and much more.
Here are a few highlights:
On Sullivan's 10-day meditation retreat, and the "extreme suffering" he experienced in the middle
Andrew Sullivan: I took a 10-day completely silent meditation retreat. ... I went to the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, the converted old convent in a beautiful forest.
There were 90 people there, and you lived in a dorm — it's a noble silence, meaning you're not allowed to look anybody in the eyes. And no reading is allowed.
Ezra Klein: Holy shit.
AS: You get up at 5:30 and you eat — which is for three brief periods a day — and the rest of the time you are either sitting or walking in silent meditation. So you're spending from 5:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night meditating.
And 45 of the people there were doing it for three months. And 45 were there for, like, six weeks. And I was snuck in there for about 10 days.
All I can tell you is it was extremely grueling.
EK: Was this your first meditation retreat of any kind?
AS: Yeah, I went right into the hardcore, and this place is very hardcore, too. I like doing hardcore things, and I'm curious what it can really do. I wanted to know how far I could get from blogging. I really thought, "I need to detox from this whole crazy machine." And this was one way of doing it. ...
It's pretty wonderful, in some ways. And I have a strong, introverted, monastic kind of impulse — which no one really believes, but what is actually kind of true. When you get rid of the distractions we live with every day — every tweet, every news story, everything to eat, every commercial, every face, and every friend — you realize what you've been distracting yourself from. It takes a few days of just being to come into contact with what you're really feeling.
This was a total surprise for me. I thought I was going to go and sit for two days in bliss and just chill, and I was — for about two days. Then I was walking around the forest in silence on the third day, and I was completely overwhelmed by a feeling of — all I can say is extreme suffering. I was taken back to my childhood in a vivid and utterly uncontrollable way. ...
You wonder if you're going to go crazy because you can't talk to anybody about this. If you were in a normal place and these issues suddenly came up and you felt bad, you'd call a friend or you'd talk to your husband. But you couldn't go anywhere, and it really forces you there.
For some reason my maternal grandmother, my relationship with her, began to revive in my psyche, and that calmed me down. And then I was okay again.
What I drew from that, in many ways, was the thought that we do live the way the meditators say: The lives we live are not the ones we think we're living. If we zoom out of that experience and look at contemporary America or the West and you just think, "Wow, what an incredible amount of business and distraction that is in fact an entire economy built on top of it. And what is Western humankind really distracting ourselves from something?"
And you have those kinds of big thoughts when you're out there with nothing else to do. So I think it was a busy if grueling experience. It was a really good thing to do even if it was really rough. ...
EK: Ten days after the meditation retreat, were you different in how you went about your day? Or did you snap back?
AS: It took more than that. There was no point at which I snapped back, because by that point I also had weaned myself off the news.
But Trump, goddammit—
EK: The opposite of meditation in a human being.
AS: The constant twitchy fascism of the guy just began to penetrate my consciousness.
I had really hoped to write about other things. The book that I started on is a book about Christianity, and I wanted to shift to write about religion, maybe literature, because 15 years of doing that was mind-blowing in the end.
But what are you going to do? ... I realized in February, when my year off was coming to an end, I thought, I really felt this was history and a moment, and you have to stand up and be counted if you want to really do your duty.
I don't want to sound noble, but as you can tell from that piece I'm truly disturbed by this man. And truly concerned about the culture he's thriving in. Every day when I was blogging all these thoughts I'd have about the public wheel I can get rid of, it just built until I thought, "I need a place to put this down."
On longform, advertising, and the future of the media business
EK: I think our media culture is becoming friendlier to longform ... insofar as it's friendly to anything, I think it's friendly to longform.
On the part of readers, there's a desire to reward effort. I think there's on the part of other writers a lionization of longer, more narrative work.
In some ways I think it's very dismissive of blogging, of "smart takes," and much unfriendlier to other forms that have become commoditized even though doing those forms is, I think, really difficult.
AS: I think that's really changed over the last 15 years. Partly because what the internet allowed you to do was "hot takes," what blogging was around the clock, and we were fascinated with it.
And let's face it: That's the business model at this point, these huge firehose machines that just churn out little bits and barbs in the hope of getting other people to peddle corporate advertising.
I think you might be right. My own sense is that what I want to do now is this longform writing and write books. And I get the sense that books, too, are becoming fashionable again — we had this fantastic new toy, we played around with it in a million different ways, and I think the entire economic model of the web is about to collapse. I think there's a content bubble of massive proportions.
EK: I obviously have a lot of motivated reasons to be more optimistic about this, but I go very back and forth on if there's a "content bubble" and what that ends up meaning.
When I got to the Washington Post, they were in their fourth round of layoffs. And every day there was a bell and everyone would gather, and someone would eat cake because they were leaving the institution.
I rode up [the elevator] with the managing editor one day and said, "It's incredible how much cake you go through here." And he said, "Yeah, we've really had to cut the cake budget recently." I thought, "I really got into media at the wrong time."
BuzzFeed being profitable but maybe not as profitable as they'd hoped to be sounded like a very different situation — and, frankly, a much better one — than the one that was really not that long ago, where nobody was making any money.
AS: Yes. But this depends on the fusion of journalism and advertising as a business model. And my contention is that that won't work.
I don't think that will work. It will either destroy the brand of the journalism — in which case, advertisers won't be interested — or the truth is that young writers will earn much more money writing corporate propaganda under the guise of writing articles and the journalism stuff will peter out. It's just not cost-effective.
I think there's too much stuff for people to try to read, and the ad dollars are so minuscule that you'll get diminishing returns pretty quickly. I haven't dealt with this in terms of developing a business model, but I really think a crash is coming. I think the branding is going to become really hard.
EK: I could see two ways that could look, right? Because if you imagine a crash is coming — one is a crash, what people imagine is that everyone goes down. The other is a consolidation — the tide goes out, and those without a brand or a model end up in a lot of trouble.
AS: I think I need to add something: This will work at the expense of text. Writing will become a far tinier portion of web traffic than video.
EK: And that's happening. But 20 years ago, when I read magazines, it was clear that more people enjoyed television. It's been true for a long time that more people enjoyed video entertainment over text entertainment...
AS: Except video is the only thing that pays any money.
In the last 10 years, when the internet was evolving, text and writing suddenly had a huge increase in its reach. And my view is that video will crowd that out and writing will return back to a much more niche situation, and we will return to where we were before without the excitement around writing — as the web becomes basically TV.
And I think what's left for writing will be subscription-based, because there are so many other places for people to advertise, and because writing at any serious level drastically reduces the possible levels for readership.
The origins of Sullivan's push for same-sex marriage
AS: From the '80s on, this was the issue I really wanted to promote. There was a constant conflict about it on the left and the right, and when the decision came down I felt this incredible sense of relief.
EK: You were really the first writer to push this in a serious way. What was the background to the first piece you wrote about this?
AS: It was an editorial meeting at the New Republic. Those were the good old days when magazines would be asking, "What should we collectively write about this? What's our position?"
I wasn't on staff at all — I had been back at Harvard working on my dissertation and said at the meeting, "Why don't we let everyone get married?" ... Michael Kinsley said, "That's a good argument," and I said, "Surely that should be the conservative argument."
And that was the basic gist, and Mike said, "Write that, write that." He kept nagging me, and I said, "All right, I'll bash this out." And he put it on the cover.
I wasn't even out to my parents at that point. At that time in 1988, if you wrote about gay subjects you had to be gay. No one wrote about them because they didn't want to appear to be gay; they were all written by women or gay men. ...
It was regarded as an interesting, classic New Republic contrarian, silly, rhetorical, "stick it to the right" argument. That's how most people saw it. But when I thought about it some more, I realized, "No, I've absolutely stumbled onto something important."
The book that really affected me was John Boswell's book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality — it's an amazing book because it was the first that really advanced the idea that gay people have really existed forever, and have in the past constructed forms of relationship that were stabled and enduring. That was exciting to find that was going on in the eighth century, to discover we're not doing something new.
And then it got fused with the AIDS epidemic, because I saw people who had taken care of their spouses for years denied access to their apartments, not allowed into their funerals. ... Gay people today could not believe what these people went through, because we didn't have basic protections.
Then my best friend died. And I also felt I was going to die. So I thought, "I have to write something soon about marriage equality."