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28 June 2001

A HOWLER sequel: Son of Sammon

Synopsis: Should journalists try to tell the truth? Andrew Sullivan doesn’t seem all that certain.

Home Base
Andrew Sullivan, The New Republic, 7/2/01

I Won’t Let D.C. Lose Its Flavor
Natalie Hopkinson, The Washington Post, 6/17/01


Should journalists try to tell the truth? Andrew Sullivan doesn’t seem all that certain. In his current TNR TRB, he writes about Washington Post staffer Natalie Hopkinson. More specifically, he discusses Hopkinson’s June 17 article in the Post’s "Outlook" section, describing her recent purchase of a house in D.C. Here’s Sully, early on in his column:

SULLIVAN (pgh 2): The article, by Post staffer Natalie Hopkinson, is a tale of how she and her husband moved to D.C. and bought an expensive Victorian house in the District’s Blomingdale section.

But Sullivan seems to be embellishing. The Hopkinson Two did indeed buy a house. But here’s how the owner describes it:

HOPKINSON (pgh 1): Last September, my husband and I signed a stack of papers at our real estate agent’s office. The documents spelled out in mind-numbing detail how we would acquire our first home, a Victorian rowhouse in the District’s Bloomingdale section just off North Capitol Street, and pay for it over the next 30 years.

How did "our first home, a Victorian rowhouse" turn into "an expensive Victorian house?" There is nothing whatever in Hopkinson’s article about how "expensive" her house is. In paragraph 3, she does refer to "[t]he house’s inflated price, the result of two rounds of bidding." But she also notes that it is located in an "inner city neighborhood" with "the occasional crackhead, prostitute and pack of idling men roaming our new block." Later on, she says that some of her new neighbors "have lived there since crack devastated our neighborhood." Is Hopkinson’s rowhouse really "expensive?" It’s not clear how Sullivan knows.

But then, Sullivan seems to embellish freely throughout this latest piece. And he seems to devote a good deal of effort to building up Hopkinson’s standing. "She’s an affluent member of the black middle class," he says, and he embroiders on that a bit later:

SULLIVAN (pgh 8): Hopkinson’s case is interesting because she presents the issue in extreme form. She is wealthy; she grew up in integrated neighborhoods; she has a stellar education…

But is Hopkinson actually "wealthy?" As we learn in the Post, Hopkinson and her husband are "twenty-somethings" with a six-month-old baby, buying their "first home." (Sully forgets to mention their ages.) There is no indication—none at all; none—that either one of the tandem is "wealthy."

Alas, Sullivan doesn’t content himself with improving his subject’s portfolio. Exploring our most tragic topic—race—he’s prepared to embellish more widely. To Sullivan, Natalie Hopkinson is One Bad Blood. Just check out her views on non-blacks:

SULLIVAN (pgh 3): Racial hostility to non-blacks pervades the entire piece. Hopkinson and her husband grew up in largely white middle-class neighborhoods and loathed the experience.

"Racial hostility" is in the eye of the embroiderer, of course. But did Hop and hubby loathe their young lives? That is another total invention. Here’s what she actually says:

HOPKINSON (pgh 11): Moving to the suburbs had been a natural progression for our parents. A lot of blood and sweat went into getting fair housing laws on the books and integrating schools. So our parents understandably saw being the first blacks on their blocks as an honor, the manifestation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream...

(14) One could easily argue that we thrived in those settings. The schools our parents worked so hard to get us into were, in fact, excellent (and my life took a turn for the better when, after two years, we moved into a neighborhood with a few more black families). My husband and I both did well academically, went to college, got advanced degrees, launched promising careers. We got ours.

There is nothing whatever in Hopkinson’s piece about "loathing" those middle-class suburbs. She does describe the problems that came with being the first blacks in town:

HOPKINSON (12): But there was a pernicious side to pioneer integrationism. After my family moved in the late 1980s to Beech Grove, just outside Indianapolis, I lived in a state of perpetual tension.

(13) Sometimes it felt like the ’60s had never happened there. The first people my parents tried to buy from pulled out of the deal, due to pressure from neighbors. Finally settled into a rental, we got harassing phone calls. One time a band of teenagers chased my cousin, screaming "The KKK’s gonna get you, nigger!" Most painful for a little kid were those steely glares that seemed constantly to demand, "What are you doing here?" At age 9, I tried to contort myself to appear smaller, hoping that no one would notice me and be offended.

Hopkinson’s "loathing" is expressed in the image of a nine-year-old child, hoping that she won’t offend. Hopkinson writes, "[M]y husband was going through a similar experience in suburban New Orleans, where a favorite playground jeer from white kids was, ‘My grandfather used to own your grandfather!’" Meanwhile, back at TNR, Ol’ Massa has a dismissive way to describe these passages. Sullivan writes, "They were, she says, subjected to bigotry"—opening up the possibility that what "she writes" may not be so. (That is his total account of these passages.) Sullivan don’t apply this qualifier to anything else Hopkinson says—most of which, admittedly, he refashions himself, in the effort to tell a preferred story.

There’s a method to Sullivan’s embroidering. Ol’ Cap’n wants you to think of Hopkinson as wealthy, privileged, and hugely ungrateful. And he doesn’t want you to know her age, so you won’t give her the benefit of any doubts. And why does Sullivan go through this reinventing? So he can make you hate Hopkinson’s vile racial views, the views which he came here to slam. As we’ve seen, "[r]acial hostility to non-blacks pervades the entire piece," Sully says. Hopkinson wants "to return to a predominantly black city and keep it as segregated as she can." Indeed, "like many bourgeois blacks, [she] seems to view her success as reason to be more racially bitter, not less." Sullivan ends up suggesting that Hopkinson is a "bigot," a "separatist," and a "left-wing racist" with "an ugly aversion to living among people who are different." In his stirring closing sentence, Sullivan—the brilliant hero of the piece, as always—declares that it’s time "to take this evil on."

"Evil" is a rather harsh word. But when someone has spun you on everything else, do you trust him to characterize someone’s views about race? Is Hopkinson determined "to keep D.C. as segregated as she can," for example? After describing the commitment of her neighbors (one of whom is white) "to making sure our kids get the best education possible," Sister Huey P. Newton says this:

HOPKINSON (pgh 25): No doubt many white people also see their renovated rowhouses as more than a financial investment, and don’t think they’re just jumping on the it’s-cool-to-live-in-the-city bandwagon. Many whites want to help out, too, and their privileged racial status can only improve the city’s prospects.

"Many whites want to help out, too?" Somehow we don’t think she’ll shoot Sully down if he takes a stroll through her new neighborhood.

This past Sunday, Post ombudsman Michael Getler said he didn’t think that Hopkinson’s piece was "racist," but he did offer this critique: "[H]er views were presented in inflammatory, in-your-face, racial rhetoric that alienated many readers rather than illuminating a complicated issue of history, place and emotion." We think that’s a bit of an overstatement, although there are surely constructions in Hopkinson’s piece that shed more heat than light. In fact, Hopkinson’s article is an almost hackneyed type of piece which has appeared routinely for the past thirty years, in which idealistic young people, black and white, declare their desire to live in, and improve, our troubled cities. Meanwhile, one other part of Getler’s comment deserves comment, his mention of the Post’s "alienated" readers. Here tis: some people today love nothing more than the chance to be "alienated" by "racial rhetoric," even that offered by young people whose wisdom may not yet be fully formed. Hopkinson, remember, is a young person. She is even younger than Sullivan, for example, and take a look at how hopelessly flawed his judgment always turns out to be.

But today’s HOWLER is not about Hopkinson, a young person with the idealism and, perhaps, the occasional indiscretion of youth. This column is about someone else—Andrew Sullivan—and his peculiar attraction to dissembling. To propel himself on his latest rant, Sullivan keeps you from knowing Hopkinson’s age; freely dissembles about her wealth; and invents a "loathing" of the suburbs and a "pervasive hostility." He even makes a "rowhouse" get bigger. Like Bill Sammon, Sullivan seems to have an instinctive aversion to stating the truth. So why does TNR keep the bloke in print? And what should we as free people do when our Washington press corps seems to be held by a culture of instinctive dissembling?

 

Smile-a-while (6/28/01)

Kumbaya: As usual, the star of this show is Ol’ Cap’n, Andrew Sullivan. After inventing Hopkinson’s "ugly aversion to living among people who are different," he presents a stirring scene of life in the city, one in which our essayist stars:

SULLIVAN: It should be possible, for example, to retain the character of a predominantly black neighborhood while incorporating increasing numbers of whites, Latinos, and Asians. What’s to stop newcomers from getting to know local manners, food, and neighborhood events, regardless of their ethnicity? One of the joys of my mixed neighborhood in D.C., for example, is the local Catholic church, St. Augustine’s. Predominantly black, its liturgy is a unique blend of African American spirituality, Catholic ritual, and Gospel music. I may be a white gay Catholic, but no one bats an eyelid if I show up in the pews. Why shouldn’t, equally, my black neighbors appreciate the Korean food my local convenience store offers? Why shouldn’t my straight friends have a beer every now and again at a gay bar? My local park, named after Malcolm X, hosts Salvadoran soccer games on weekday evenings. This is not, of course, what Malcolm X had in mind, but it’s certainly close to the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.

Salvadorans playing soccer with other Salvadorans is now close to the MLK vision. In fact, the recent rapid spread of tolerance is one of our society’s great achievements. We’ll suggest that racial tolerance will spread more quickly if Sullivan—emerging refreshed from his pew—would stop dissembling about his younger black peers.