The "New Republic"
To the Editor:
Midge Decter’s knowingness in her article written in terrorem of the New Republic [“In and Out at the ‘New Republic,’ ” November 1997] is amusing, except her knowingness about one episode in the magazine’s recent history, which is not at all amusing.
I refer to her repugnant discussion of Andrew Sullivan. For a start, Sullivan never “announced that he had contracted AIDS.” That is because he had not contracted AIDS. He had contracted HIV. I am not surprised that this distinction is lost on a person with Midge Decter’s attitude toward Sullivan’s sexual “coloration.” Then she refers to Sullivan’s cause of state-sanctioned marriage for homosexuals (or rather, to his “cause”: the quotation marks are designed to function like surgical gloves), and she observes that his medical condition has vitiated it:
In Sullivan’s grim announcement of his illness, and in the flagrantly contradictory message it conveyed as to the character of the homosexual love he championed, the intellectual integrity of the argument seemed rather to be undercut.
Really? In all the centuries in which sexually transmitted diseases threatened the lives of men and women, was the character of the heterosexual love that they championed, or the legitimacy of the institution of marriage with which they championed it, undercut? Miss Decter’s implication is that if a gay man is sick, then he is loose; that a gay man’s medical condition is his moral condition. How does she know that Sullivan did not meet his misfortune in the arms of someone he loved? I don’t know, and I don’t care. And that is really the point: you do not adequately respond to a philosophical argument or a political argument by peeping into somebody’s bedroom.
What does a person’s private life have to do with the truth or the falsity of his or her views? Midge Decter believes in religion; but her belief in religion does not stand or fall on her own practice of religion, whatever it is. She believes in family values; but her belief in family values does not stand or fall on the history of her own family, whatever it is. Her beliefs, like Sullivan’s beliefs, are either right or wrong. I understand that there is the risk of hypocrisy; but there are worse things than hypocrisy. Indecency, for example, and a lack of charity.
Midge Decter writes:
I must admit that I am somewhat puzzled by the tone in which Leon Wieseltier has elected to take me to task. Or I should say “tones,” since first he patronizes me with his amusement and then he thunders at my “indecency.”
It is true that I was mistaken in calling Andrew Sullivan’s condition AIDS rather than HIV, the condition in which AIDS may be held at bay with medication. It is a common mistake, and I should not have made it—a point that has no bearing whatsoever on what I said about the disparity between Andrew Sullivan’s preachments and his practices. For everyone, including Mr. Wieseltier, knows that HIV is a condition contracted in only a limited number of ways: anal intercourse with someone infected, a drug needle shared with someone infected, a transfusion with the blood of someone infected, or birth to a mother infected. And everyone also knows—again, including Mr. Wieseltier—that this horrible disease, which has carried off untold thousands of homosexual men, does not afflict those who practice the kind of marital monogamy on which Andrew Sullivan based his demand that homosexuals be granted the right to legally sanctioned marriage.
Of course heterosexuals have always contracted venereal diseases. But what is Mr. Wieseltier’s point in bringing it up? Whether or not people so infected are to be called hypocrites when they express their belief in marital bliss depends entirely on who they are. If Ralph Reed, say, or my dear friend Gary Bauer were to announce in the Washington Times that he had come down with the clap, would the New Republic or even the ever deeply feeling Leon Wieseltier find it no occasion for remark?
Now, as it happens, Andrew Sullivan played only an incidental role in the point I was making about the New Republic. Nor am I, nor have I ever been, interested in his or any other homosexual’s private life. It is they and not I who have made their private activities a matter of public debate and discussion. Nevertheless, I am prompted by the moral spanking delivered to me in this letter to mention something that has been haunting me for several years now. HIV-AIDS is a disease that for homosexuals has been the result of a particular habit of conduct. It has also brought to their community untold death and suffering. Speaking of decency, how has it come to be a mark of compassion to display one’s understanding and support for the conduct of friends and associates who are willfully killing themselves?