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Keep Calm and Carry On

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Andrew Sullivan And Intellectual Integrity

Andrew Sullivan unfairly slags off a scrupled historian...
Andrew Sullivan reviews a book for TNR about Lincoln's homosexuality and leads in with some rather unremarkable and reasonable conclusions about Lincoln.
If completely heterosexual is a Kinsey 1 and completely homosexual is a Kinsey 6, Tripp puts Lincoln as a 5. Reading his engrossing, if uneven, book, I'd say you could make a case that Lincoln was, in fact, a 4. It's going to be a subjective judgment, and I'm no Lincoln scholar. In any particular piece of evidence that Tripp discovers, I'd say it's easy to dismiss his theory. But when you review all the many pieces of the Lincoln emotional-sexual puzzle, the homosexual dimension gets harder and harder to ignore. As conservative writer, Richard Brookhiser, has noted, all we can say with complete confidence is that "on the evidence before us, Lincoln loved men, at least some of whom loved him back." That's a pretty good definition of the core truth of homosexuality.
He struck a reasonable tone to begin with, agreeing that Tripp's work was "uneven" and acknowledging that Tripp surely overstated the case by admitting that he himself would probably rate Lincoln closer to the center of the Kinsey scale than to its extreme. The rest of the review until the last two paragraphs is an innocuous rehash of Trippi's book. But the last two paragraphs are just jawdroppers. I don't read Sullivan regularly so I don't know if this is the kind of thing that's letting down his conservative gay readership and causing people to search for "the new Andrew Sullivan". That GayPatriot article (thanks, Frank IBC!) pointed me to a Power Line piece by deacon where he opines that Sullivan's "distress clouds his reason" on an unrelated matter (Abu Ghraib), and I liked it so much I'm stealing it. I think his reason is certainly clouded by emotion here as well. Take a look:
The usual suspects have weighed in aggressively to counter these facts.
Who are "the usual suspects", in his prejudicial phrasing? Just
The Weekly Standard, from its sophomoric cover-image of a simpering gay caricature of Lincoln, to its hiring of a crank to denounce the book as a "hoax" and "fraud," is a useful exhibit in the degeneration of conservative discourse.
Of course, I immediately had to click the link and see what piece of dishonest conservative crankery it was that had gotten Andrew so upset. After all, he lulled me into believing he was being intellectually honest. This piece about the gay Lincoln book, I followed the link to it after reading a well-tempered, hopeful piece by him on the President's inauguration, and I thought "he doesn't sound so derailed". And his tone at the outset of the article sounded downright agreeable and admitting of doubt. But it seems by the end of the article he's convinced himself that mean bad conservatives are out to bury the truth, man. Well, I read the Weekly Standard piece and far from being a "crank" who was doing a right wing hatchet job on the book, Philip Nobile was-well, I'll let him tell it:
The book is a hoax and a fraud: a historical hoax, because the inaccurate parts are all shaded toward a predetermined conclusion, and a literary fraud, because significant portions of the accurate parts are plagiarized--from me, as it happens.

Tripp and I intended to be coauthors of the book, laboring together on the project from 1995 to 2000--when our partnership, already fissured by dueling manuscripts, came to a bitter end. We quarreled constantly over evidence: I said the Gay Lincoln Theory was intriguing but impossible to prove; he said it was stone-cold fact.
It's a chewy, short and sordid read about how Tripp disregarded evidence that disagreed with his predetermined conclusions, papered over the holes in his theory with wholesale inventions, willfully denied predecessors in the field their due credit even while using their work, and otherwise made what could have been a fanciful theory with a few tantalizing historical cues into something only the credulous could believe, and ended up doing history, and his desired reading of it, a disservice. Nobile:
I quit the project first in 1999, when Tripp refused to include citations to Charles Shively, a former University of Massachusetts historian and Tripp's main guide to the gay Lincoln. "Darwin didn't do it," he said to me, referring to Darwin's initial failure to cite precursors in The Origin of Species. Although Tripp profusely copied ideas and references from Shively's flamboyantly rendered Lincoln chapter in Walt Whitman's Civil War Boy Lovers, he brushed off proper mention because he thought Shively's reputation for being "too gay-lib" would dissuade readers.
[...]
Apart from jaw-dropping plagiarism in the first chapter, which kidnapped the text I wrote for the aborted peer review, I saw that Tripp was up to the same tricks that had forced me to withdraw from the project: consistently bending the evidence in the lavender direction. The con was so outrageous that I urged killing the book. "If you correct the errors, remove the copied material, restore what Tripp covered up, and make the proper attributions, there is not much left of Tripp's argument," I emailed Free Press counsel Jennifer Weidman.
[...]
Faced with reality, the publisher dropped the dissimilarities dodge. No longer able to deny Tripp's plagiarism, the defense shifted ground. "The issue is not whether you contributed to the work, or for that matter who wrote parts of it," Rivlin declared. The new issue went to ownership. She insisted Tripp's "Estate has the right to authorize the publication of the chapter. We see no issue of theft or other impropriety in our acting upon that authorization. Rather, any concerns that you have with respect to the authorization should be raised directly with the Estate."
Simon and Schuster's "editing", designed more to satisfy the most minimal legal concerns than to actually assure the good scholarship of the book (actually, they butcher Tripp's already-meager scholarship and make him look even worse).
All in all, no, I can't agree that Nobile is a crank. He sounds more like a well-meaning, honest historian who wanted to clear the air, and if his account of the events that transpired can be trusted (and he sounds credible). You know who does sound like a crank? Andrew Sullivan.
But what's interesting to me is that even if you gloss all Lincoln's male relationships as homosocial or homoerotic rather than homosexual, they still paint a picture that would offend today's Republican establishment. Whatever Lincoln was, he was very at ease expressing love, intimacy and affection for other men. The last thing he was was sexually prudish. His early doggerel poem about the progeny that results from anal sex with another man - he has the two men married no less! - would be regarded by today's conservatives as worthy of protest to the FCC.

But today's right-wingers are right about one thing. The truth about Lincoln - his unusual sexuality, his comfort with male-male love and sex - is not a truth today's Republican leaders want to hear. They are well-advised to attack and suppress it. They are more closely related to the forces Lincoln defeated than those he championed; and his candor, honesty and brave forging of a homosocial and homoerotic life in plain sight would appall them. The real Lincoln is their greatest rebuke; which is why they will do all they can to obscure the complicated, fascinating truth about the man whose legacy they are intent on betraying.
How deranged, Andrew. Here's Nobile's conclusion:
THE INTIMATE WORLD OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, already an object of derision among specialists, contains a poison pill in an afterword by Michael Burlingame entitled "A Respectful Dissent." Recently retired from Connecticut College, Burlingame has a monumental three-volume Lincoln biography in progress with Johns Hopkins University Press. He and Tripp got along well and shared information, if not a thesis.

"I liked Tripp, but he was careless and sloppy," Burlingame told me. "I'm surprised that Free Press accepted my afterword since it says the book is full of baloney." In particular, Burlingame devastates Tripp's intellectual honesty by noting that he had suppressed many stories of Lincoln's heterosexual interest.

"Since it is virtually impossible to prove a negative, Dr. Tripp's thesis cannot be rejected outright," wrote Burlingame. "But given the paucity of hard evidence adduced by him, and given the abundance of contrary evidence indicating that Lincoln was drawn romantically and sexually to some women, a reasonable conclusion, it seems to me, would be that it is possible but highly unlikely that Abraham Lincoln was 'predominately homosexual.'"

The Gay Lincoln Theory, for all its jagged edges, may be a more satisfying explanation for the president's weird inner life than the Utterly Straight Lincoln Theory. "I have heard [Lincoln] say over and over again about sexual contact: 'It is a harp of a thousand strings,'" Henry Whitney told William Herndon in 1865. Leaving aside Tripp's bad faith, it is not utterly beyond imagining that Lincoln may have played a few extra strings on that harp.

But the fraud and the hoax of C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln are no way to explore the hallowed ground of history.
Philip Nobile ends up saying much the same thing as Andrew Sullivan, that Lincoln was probably gay. But in Sullivan's apparent newfound eagerness to attack the right on any and all specious grounds and attempt to portray even the intellectual right as bigoted, craven monsters (with himself as the put-upon and embattled Martin Luther King, Jr of the gay civil rights struggle) he doesn't want to see this-he only wants to see that "conservative discourse" is undergoing "degeneration". Is it really, when his own discourse is so shrill and so remarkably strident? Nobile sounded like a reasonable man with a professional and personal grievance, and Sullivan came across as a blinkered ideologue. This reminds me of nothing less than how "Soviet science", especially in the softer sciences, sometimes was preferred to reflect Party doctrine first and cold reality last. The scientific and historical unsoundness of Tripp's evidence, methodology and conclusions are nothing to Sullivan; that someone is pointing them out in a conservative publication, and it damages his new pet theory, is unforgivable. So, of course, he resorts to the ad hominem attack ("crank", "usual suspects", "degeneration of conservative discourse") and doesn't bother to grapple with any of Nobile's points.

Posted by evariste on Jan 18, 2005 10:59 am

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