Andrew Sullivan Really Took This Opportunity to Misread Intersectionality?

Image from the front cover of The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994).

“Here’s the latest in the assault on liberal democracy,” writes Andrew Sullivan, as he decries the recent student shut-down of controversial author Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury College earlier this month. But it was the headline that grabbed our attention: “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”

Short answer: no.

While Sullivan’s grouchy and dismissive post isn’t likely to knock the earth off its orbit or threaten civilization itself, in the parlance of the day: he just says what other people are thinking. The stakes here are far larger than one peevish critique of intersectionality.

And ironically, his post serves as a sharp reminder that the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and class discrimination that inspired legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw’s powerful insight back in 1989 still make for perilous crossing.

For all the work it does (kudos!), the main points of Sullivan’s post are uncomplicated: a) the mob that disrupted Murray personifies, and provides a clarifying example of, the true meaning of intersectionality; b) intersectionality itself operates like a “smelly little orthodoxy” (a la Orwell) that controls one’s mind and brooks no dissent; and c) that liberal democracy itself is threatened by the fundamentalist zeal being spread on the wings of intersectionality.

There’s a “d” in Sullivan’s arguments, too—and that’s the implication that Murray’s work isn’t all that bad; that it’s actually legitimate. Sullivan concedes that Murray made a few missteps, perhaps, and included some chapters that weren’t necessary in some old book he wrote. But he stops far short of acknowledging that this “old book” (The Bell Curve) is in fact the work for which Murray is most famous, or that it is, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote back in 1994, “just a genteel way of calling somebody a nigger.”

Of course, as he duly notes, Sullivan is “friends” with Charles Murray and published an excerpt of The Bell Curve as editor of The New Republic (which, incidentally, alienated his entire staff and poisoned his relationship with mentor Leon Wieseltier). As one writer put it in a 2009 profile: “Sullivan thought it was a serious, scientific work that should be discussed.” He’s clearly changed little on this issue in nearly a quarter century.

Setting aside the fact that it wasn’t exactly a departure for Murray,* the legitimacy and focus of The Bell Curve, a 23-year-old book, is absolutely critical to an examination of Andrew Sullivan’s choice to write so hysterically about intersectionality, as we’ll see later on.

Criticisms of The Bell Curve are so widely available it’s hardly worth rehearsing the controversy. Entire books have been written on it. In addition to Bob Herbert, critics like Stephen J. Gould, Noam Chomsky, and Joseph Graves (to name just a fraction) expressed concern about the book’s racist conclusions and doubts about its sources and methods. Charles Lane’s New York Review of Books piece provides a valuable look at the openly racist Pioneer Foundation from whose research Murray’s book mainly drew.

Add to these considerable red flags the fact that, since 1981, Charles Murray’s research has taken place at right-wing think tanks, and that he’s largely avoided the peer review process, and you begin to arrive at the mindset of students, faculty and alumni who objected to Murray’s appearance.

Yet, despite all this, and despite the fact that, as Middlebury student Will DiGravio noted, “Hundreds of students and alumni signed letters calling Murray’s appearance at the college unacceptable and unethical, and over 55 faculty members requested that President Patton not introduce ‘a discredited ideologue,’” the school went ahead with the engagement as planned.

In his largesse, Sullivan does grant that “protests against Murray are completely legitimate,” before spending the rest of the article maligning the methods and motivations of those who protested Murray’s appearance. Here, he summarizes the common response from both conservatives and liberals to the events at Middlebury:

I do believe in the right of good-faith scholars to publish data—as well as the right of others to object, critique, and debunk. If the protesters at Middlebury had protested and disrupted the event for a period of time, and then let it continue, I’d be highly sympathetic, even though race and IQ were not the subject of Murray’s talk. If they’d challenged the data or the arguments of the book, I’d be delighted. But this, alas, is not what they did.

To be clear, it’s not just the violence that he objects to here, it’s also the attempt to shut down the event. Sullivan would have been a-okay with the disruption if the students had just been less… disruptive about it.

And to the silly implication that anyone was merely protesting “the right… to publish data,” there’s the following passage of the letter signed by over 50 Middlebury faculty:

Mr. Murray is, as you know, a discredited ideologue paid by the American Enterprise Institute to promote public policies targeting people of color, women and the poor. His work has employed a combination of eugenics and other pseudo-science that has time and time again shown to be based on false premises, inadequate research and erroneous conclusions. He is not an academic nor a “critically acclaimed” public scholar, but a well-funded phony. His research is an insult to the intellectual integrity of Middlebury College. To introduce him—even to critique his arguments—only lends legitimacy to his ideas as worth engaging with.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with academics knows that language like this, in a note with this many signatories at a single institution, is pretty rare.

Apart from ignoring the critical details about the opposition to Murray’s appearance, Sullivan offers a bizarre misreading of intersectionality. Dismissing decades of scholarship as “the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy,” Sullivan both oversimplifies and underestimates the rigorous insight that birthed the concept of intersectionality.

In the course of this broadside, Sullivan, who was raised Catholic, argues that intersectionality is a “smelly little orthodoxy,” manifesting “almost as a religion”:

[Intersectionality] posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

We are almost impressed by the flippancy that led Sullivan to trash a concept that originated in Black feminist scholarship in order to defend the rights of a white male racist like Murray.

Of course, what Sullivan describes in the above passage isn’t exactly “religion” so much as Christianity, or, more specifically, Catholicism—”original sin,” “confession,” “exorcism,” and “conversion”—and these aren’t insights about intersectionality so much as a continuation of the anti-“PC” drivel conservatives have spouted whenever their privilege is questioned.

More than anything, what it reveals is that his take on intersectionality is backward. If every analogy limps, Sullivan’s is laid up in a body cast.

Apparently for Sullivan intersectionality is the mere inversion of the prevailing forms of racism and sexism, with women and people of color at the top and white men at the bottom. But intersectionality isn’t about the intrinsic evils of men or white people, it’s about a recognition of the systems that tend to favor men and white people. Not in all cases, of course, but systemically. (Yes, it’s easy to point to data about white men faring poorly, but this argument against the existence of white male privilege is about as compelling as Rush Limbaugh pointing to a snowy day to debunk climate change.)

Sullivan’s complaints reek of the self-proclaimed victim (special snowflake?) who considers his own views so enlightened that any challenge is inherently violent. But Sullivan—either willfully or out of genuine ignorance—disregards the second, crucial pillar of any comprehensive understanding of intersectionality.

The theory does encourage everyone (yes, even women and people of color) to take stock of their own privilege—which can exist simultaneously inside the same individual who might experience oppression for other maligned identities they hold. It does challenge people to consider the ways their own identities have afforded them safety, opportunity, and freedom. This much Sullivan seems to understand, even if he doesn’t hold much respect for it.

But after taking stock of one’s privilege and identifying the ways it functions in day-to-day life, intersectionality challenges us to find ways to leverage that privilege in the pursuit of greater social justice and not, as Sullivan seems to believe, to simply feel badly about it or to self flagellate. For a gainfully employed, cisgender white gay man like Sullivan, that might mean taking the time to listen to, for instance, Black trans women who continue to be murdered across the U.S. at an epidemic rate.

Again, intersectionality isn’t about punishing Sullivan, or those similarly situated, for their privilege. It’s about recognizing that privilege and using it to upend the systemic injustice faced by those who hold more marginalized identities. That’s a far cry from Sullivan’s conclusion, based on a jerky YouTube video from a single event, that those who value intersectionality seek to silence dissent.

Of course as an admirer of a philosopher whose work he described, to Johann Hari, as “an anti-ideology, a nonprogramme, a way of looking at the world whose most perfect expression might be called inactivism,” it isn’t altogether unexpected that Sullivan might be poorly predisposed to a theoretical framework like intersectionality. It is, after all, not only a framework, but one that lends itself to activism.

Nor is it altogether unexpected that a conservative, well-off white man might embrace a philosophy based on a favorable status quo and the illusion that even an “anti-ideology” isn’t an ideology; that “inactivism” isn’t a decision about where we go, and who we are, next. Such a position is a demonstration of privilege.

Sadly, Sullivan missed an opportunity to use his own substantial platform to demonstrate not only a genuine understanding of and respect for the history and aims of intersectionality, but also of basic human decency, rooted in empathy—the very quality Sullivan critiques the Middlebury students for lacking.


*Murray’s early policy-oriented work, underwritten by the Justice Department in the late ’70s, pushed greater rates of youth incarceration. It was followed by 1984’s Losing Ground (called a statement of “social darwinism” by the NYRB), which is widely regarded as having influenced Bill Clinton’s disastrous “welfare reform.” If pushing for increased incarceration and the removal of the social safety net (followed by the deployment of racist data to argue the intellectual inferiority of certain races) doesn’t sound alarms, it’s unlikely anything will.