Introducing "Out On A Limb"
A selection of my writing from 1989 to 2021
I mentioned this last week, but next month I’m bringing out a collection of my essays from the past 30 years or so. The pub date is August 10, and the book’s title is “Out on a Limb: Selected Writing 1989 - 2021.” I figured I owed you, my readers, a first look, and a chance to pre-order (use this special page, and you’ll get a signed copy).
Because the book is formally dedicated to you.
Over the past three decades, I’ve lived through several media revolutions, technological and ideological; I’ve worked for a half-dozen different magazines and newspapers over the years; I’ve lived through several wars and two plagues and written about six presidencies. But the one unifying thread has been you, the readers who have stuck with me, even as I have infuriated, frustrated and irritated you over the decades. I’m grateful — especially grateful that you had my back a year ago this month, and are the reason I can still earn a living as a writer.
I’m a little nervous because when Hitch released an essay collection, he was dead not long thereafter: it’s tempting fate, perhaps, to gather your wayward journalistic offspring in the latter part of your middle age. But when your primary form of writing is the essay, and when they’ve been dispersed across countless platforms and magazines and newspapers for decades, many of them now inaccessible, it’s reassuring to gather some of them in one place, and as a physical object. I’ve also just finished recording the audiobook (pre-order on Audible or Google Play), so each essay will be available to listen to in my own voice. (In the coming months we will also give paid Dish subscribers access to certain audio essays, as well as transcripts of Dishcast episodes.)
Here’s one example of an audio piece that will take Dishheads back a few years: a post about the death of my first beagle, Dusty, which prompted that incredible reader thread on what our pets teach us:
How did I make the selection for “Out on a Limb”? I picked pieces that I hope still have something vivid and memorable to say, essays that captured a particular moment in time, essays and posts on a wide range of topics, and those that help explain how my own philosophical small-c conservatism has guided me all this time.
One of the frustrations of being a writer in the age of social media is that both right and left tribes try to distort your record to suit their own purposes — by harping on one sentence you wrote decades ago, or hurling ad hominems, or smearing you endlessly with the same distortions. So instead of responding to every gibe, I thought it would be simpler and better and more constructive to put out a real collection so people can make up their own minds.
The essays are in chronological order, so they also present a kind of history of the past three decades, seen through the imperfect and provisional eyes of one writer. The idea is not to encourage you to read them in order — pick and choose as you wish — but to show how history affected them.
The very first piece — “Here Comes the Groom” in 1989 — is the conservative case for gay marriage, which was one of the very first salvos in a three-decade campaign for marriage equality. In its tone, it reflects how crazy the idea seemed at the time, and helps reveal, with dramatic irony, how far we’ve come since. And as you go through the collection, you can see these arguments get fleshed out, finessed, and re-formulated as new critiques popped up, and I felt the need to respond. By 2005, I’m lamenting “The End of Gay Culture.” By 2021, I’m examining the replacement of the gay rights movement with critical gender and queer theory. It’s an arc. And this is one way of observing how it unfolded.
I’m not that easy to categorize, though many have tried, and I hope these essays reflect that. Among the political figures I have supported: Thatcher, Major, Blair, Cameron, and Johnson in Britain; Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Dole, Bush, Kerry, Obama, Clinton, and Biden in the US. Among the causes I have passionately supported: marriage equality, legalization of recreational drugs, the Persian Gulf War, the Iraq War, welfare reform, the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama, and an expansive concept of free speech. Among the causes I have furiously opposed: the US adoption of torture in the war on terror, the Iraq War, religious fundamentalism in politics, both the Republican and Democratic parties, mass immigration, deficit spending, tribalism, critical theory, and Trump.
They all reflect, I hope, a singular form of conservatism that emerges from the thought of Michael Oakeshott responding to the contingent facts of unfolding history. (I have one memoir of him in the book, an explicitly Oakeshottian defense of Obama, and one account of Oakeshott’s religious ideas in a profile of Pope Francis.) My models for thought and writing run from Burke to Orwell. And my greatest failure of judgment, my shamefully excessive defense of the Iraq War, was, in retrospect, a moment when I abandoned that conservatism under the torrent of emotion and trauma in the wake of 9/11.
In the collection haven’t included that excess, of which I remain ashamed (you can read it all in “I Was Wrong”), but I have included one of many essays in which I held myself to account for the misjudgment. And I have included my most extended critique of torture, challenging Charles Krauthammer on the topic. The one substantive change I will readily concede in my thought was a distinctive move away from American military interventionism after the Iraq debacle.
There is also within the book an autobiography of sorts of my Catholic faith, my early attempts to reconcile it with my sexual orientation, and of an evolving and dying Christianity in the West — from the certainties of John Paul II to the mercy of Pope Francis. There are essays insisting on the separation of politics and religion; on the vital distinction between fundamentalism and faith; and on Thomas Jefferson and Saint Francis.
There is equally a story of what happened to conservatism and the right in these decades — a brutal tale of decline, decadence, and then implosion. Bill Kristol takes a beating, along with Robert Bork, Ken Starr, Bill Bennett, and other assorted scolds. There is a consistent and impassioned defense of liberalism and limited government against identity politics and illiberal government in all its forms. If you think I’ve only recently converted to opposing identity politics, you might check out my 1999 essay, “What’s So Bad About Hate?” If you think my defense of biology as a crucial factor in understanding human behavior is new, you can read “The He Hormone,” my paean to testosterone, from 2000. Both of them give you some perspective on what could once be published in the New York Times, before they were caved to the successor ideology.
Some of my pieces champion individuals: the pathos of Princess Diana (1997); the poise of Monica Lewinsky (1998); the integrity of Bayard Rustin (2003); the conservatism of John Roberts (2012); the liberating force of Margaret Thatcher (2013); the sexual orientation of Abraham Lincoln (2005); the breakthrough of Pope Francis (2013); and the potential of Joe Biden (2019). Some are brutal criticisms: of John Paul II’s theatrics (2005); of Rush Limbaugh’s take on Christianity (2013); on the tyrannical psyche of Donald Trump (2016). There is the May 2007 post when I predict Obama will become the next president; the Atlantic cover-story, “Why Obama Matters,” which helped reformulate the case for his flagging candidacy; an excoriation of the Republican response to him; and a robust defense of his moderate conservatism.
I’ve also included my meditation on “Why I Blog”; a rant against Israel’s settlement policy; a rhapsody about psychedelics; a take-down of political tribalism; a defense of the classics; and a deep reflection on opioids, history and their meaning in contemporary America. For good measure, a post, “Dear Ta-Nehisi,” defends the public discussion of taboo topics; a celebration of a sub-sub-culture: “I Am Bear, Hear Me Roar!” defends the sexiness of back hair; the stats on police violence and race that undercut Black Lives Matter’s argument; and the New York Magazine cover-story, “I Used To Be A Human Being,” on the Internet and social media’s banishment of internal peace.
The forms vary: from reports on the ground to longer essays to blog posts and diaries. They come from The New Republic, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Time, The New York Times, The Sunday Times (of London), Salon, New York magazine, and also The Daily Dish, The Dish, and now, The Weekly Dish. But the goal has always been the same: to look at the world, to make sense of it as best I can, and to tell the truth.
And my ideal reader has always been the same as well: happy to read arguments with which you strongly disagree, tolerant of my misfires, and open to any argument from anyone, regardless of identity or ideology. Writing online is much more a dialogue than writing on paper, and I’m proud to say my readers have alternately educated and engaged me, driven me nuts, and provided solace.
I used to call this the general reader. Online, those dedicated to my blog came to call themselves Dishheads. None of them agreed with me about everything; most disagreed vehemently from time to time, and let me know; still others changed my mind, or opened their hearts and souls to me, as they, too, tried to make sense of the world.
Those devoted, querulous readers, loyally disloyal, never dull, were always helping me to understand something better. You have made my life possible, and have been with me every step of the way. Which is why this book is dedicated to you. And why I hope you’ll enjoy it.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: me calling out Kendi and DiAngelo for their latest interviews in the woke, gaslighting media; yet more reader dissents over my CRT crusade; a wonderful convo with Michael Pollan about the drugs that shape our consciousness and society; a glorious window view from Australia, and another from my own window in Ptown; a legendary Mental Health Break with a bonus vid; 11 recommended pieces by other substackers, including several on the situation in Cuba; and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
A Dish subscriber quotes my latest column:
“And if you really want to be on ‘the right side of liberalism,’ you will join me."
Dammit Andrew, this is why I’ve read you for 20 years and why I subscribed to your Substack. You haven’t changed with the prevailing political winds; you continue to stand for things worth standing for, and thank God you’re doing it against the howling mad mob.
The woke left is empowering the very people they loathe the most. I fear the right is going to capitalize on the sentiment — “it’s either them or us.” And the right, with Trump gone, will not seem as menacing as the woke cult — which, after all, will try to get you fired if you hold the wrong opinions; will tell your children, if they are white, that they bear the blood guilt of historical oppression.
Thanks to you — and Glenn Greenwald, and Matt Taibbi, and now Wesley Yang — for being a voice of sanity in all this. I hope it’s enough.
Speaking of Yang, who coined “Successor Ideology,” a reader notes:
One of the most dangerous and perverse aspects of the successor ideology is the way it punishes people for even reading or listening to someone who has been “marked” for whatever vague orthodoxy they’ve transgressed. I admit that I avoided your writing for this reason until about six months ago, and I’m so thankful I was able break out of that nightmare spell of wokeness.
New On The Dishcast: Michael Pollan
One of the writers I most revere in journalism, Michael has a style that is as lucid as his research is exhaustive. His new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants — specifically coffee, poppies, and the San Pedro cactus — is a continuation of his magisterial How to Change Your Mind, a deep dive into psychedelics that made the subject more respectable than it’s ever been. (My 2018 review of that book, “Just Say Yes to Drugs,” is included in my new essay collection.)
To listen to three excerpts from my conversation with Michael — on our shared love of gardening and why it’s so zen; on whether psychoactive drugs may have sparked the rise of religion; and how the first coffee houses were a kind of proto-Internet — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That link also takes you to a smattering of commentary on last week’s episode with Amy Chua and another raft of dissents over my views on critical race theory.
Dissents Of The Week: Who’s Really Changed?
A reader responds to my analysis of how Democrats have shifted leftward faster than Republicans have shifted right:
Though it makes me sad, I found your piece very persuasive. But your Twitter feed is a lot less persuasive. You come across as someone consumed with outrage and seeking reasons to vent it. Maybe many of people asking what has happened to you are reading only your feed and miss your full arguments by not being Dish subscribers.
Read the rest of that dissent, and my response, and my response to two other dissents, here. As always, please keep them coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (if we post yours, we’ll give you a free subscription): firstname.lastname@example.org.
In The 'Stacks
A fan of our weekly feature for subscribers is a “longtime reader (and occasional correspondent with you)”:
Just a small thanks, because I’ve discovered some amazing Substack journalists thanks to the Dish’s weekly recommendations. I don’t subscribe to all of them, but some of them have really opened my eyes (who knew there were Christians in polyamorous relationships?) The Weekly Dish is a constant source of edification.
Go here to read 11 new recommendations.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? (The photo was taken a while ago.) Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.