The View From Somewhere

Neither ideology nor politics defines my work, but that doesn't mean I'm without bias - consider me a partisan for public discourse, California roots, and disagreement in conversation.

The View From Somewhere Photograph.jpg

The press critic Jay Rosen often complains about The View From Nowhere, his term for the conceit that professional journalists are impartial observers bereft of opinions or predispositions. "It's an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view," Rosen writes. "American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance." But every time I ponder his suggestion that writers instead be transparent about their perspective, sketching it somewhere so that interested readers might size them up, I've been conflicted.

An "about page" of that kind appeals to me in theory. I've even written a mini-essay titled Pragmatically Toward Libertarianism that explains how my thinking about American politics has evolved. What nagged at me was the feeling that a focus on political orientation gave credence to the lazy conceit that the ideological divide between right and left, or the partisan divide among Republicans, Democrats and independents is the appropriate lens through which everything in life should be seen. There are some fine ideologically driven magazines in America, and in its history. But there is an inherent tension between the political brinkmanship to which they're prone and the style of journalism that commands my ultimate loyalty. My guiding light is the conviction that a robust public discourse - grounded in facts and the forceful, intellectually honest exchange of conflicting opinions - is the best method available for refining ideas and flourishing as a polity.

My allies are the people who contribute to that project. It's an ideologically diverse bunch, and everyone cursed to see the world through the carnival mirror of partisan politics is confounded that anyone counts as favorite publications The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Review Of Books, City Journal, Slate, Reason, Washington Monthly, The Claremont Review Of Books, and The New York Times Magazine. Or that a single person might enthusiastically support and encourage the continued output of Glenn Greenwald, Eli Lake, Ross Douthat, Ann Friedman, Jane Mayer, Tyler Cowan, Heather Mac Donald, Reihan Salam, Matt Yglesias, Will Wilkinson, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. But there is no contradiction in wishing them all success if you share certain beliefs about public discourse and its place in democracy. I regret only that it's necessary to focus only on political writers in order to make the point that it isn't their political disposition that's important.

My adversaries are the men and women who do the most damage to America's ongoing conversation by treating it as an opportunity for sophistry, mindless viciousness and brazen propaganda. No party or clique has a monopoly on these people. On the right, they're currently among the most popular and influential talk radio, cable television and Internet publishing entertainers. Since they are prominent actors in our two party system, and inhabit ideological space I care about, I focus closely on their antics. Who is the left-wing equivalent of Rush Limbaugh? Someone far less influential. But that doesn't change the fact that Keith Olbermann, Michael Moore and every activist who ever carried a "Bush equals Hitler" sign has been a part of the problem. Nor do folks who do damage to public discourse exist only at the edges of the American political spectrum. Plenty of centrists are as Machiavellian in their use of rhetoric, if a bit less shameless about it.

Political labels are impossible to escape entirely in this corner of the blogosphere, if only because those of us engaged in a game with different objects are constantly beset upon by people who don't understand them. But the reader earnestly attempting to size me up and assess where I'm coming from is owed a few words about influences far more powerful than my ideological proclivities.

Attending Catholic School in grades K - 12, I also read Ayn Rand at an impressionable age. I like to think that the countervailing forces resulted in just the right amount of guilt. My upbringing was in the suburbs. I get along well with my parents. They still live in the same neighborhood where they grew up, mere minutes from the homes of my maternal and paternal grandparents, all four of whom are still alive. They're the people I most respect (and though this is the least of their traits they're all talk radio listeners). My dad's family is presumably German. His parents are Presbyterian in theory, but lifelong golfers in practice. My mom's family is Cajun and French Catholic, and that's where we get the family recipes. It's amazing what a ham hock can do for red beans. Or eggplant. Or okra. My maternal grandfather built his own house. Then he filled its walls with canvases he painted. I'm awed by that, and I think my little sister, of whom I'm tremendously proud, feels the same way.

More than anything, I am a Californian: averse to cold winters, addicted to the Pacific Ocean, my appetite for limes, Mexican food and especially avocados is insatiable. I've spent most of my life here, including undergraduate years at Pomona College and a stint working as the beat reporter for Rancho Cucamonga, California, a period that shaped a lot of my ideas about the press. In college, I spent a summer in Paris and a semester in Seville, where I lived again years later. It taught me that cultivating the enjoyment of everyday pleasures has a lot to do with a life well lived.

Circa 2007 I started graduate school at NYU, arriving in New York City with much the same outlook as Joan Didion. I thrilled at its magnificence, but stayed for several years fewer than she did. Then I spent a couple years living and working in Washington DC, an experience I summed up here. Right now I live in Venice Beach, California in a bungalow with a small front porch where I work long hours outside, and sometimes ride my bike with my girlfriend along the boardwalk trail that runs from the South Bay to Malibu. I never knew I liked dogs until I met Isabel, her shelter pup, who is a mix between an English bulldog and a Jack Russell rat terrier. She guards me when I work the night shift.

If we interact online, I'll often be disagreeing with you. In religion classes at my Catholic high school, the left-leaning liberal arts college I attended, the family dinner tables of my conservative elders, the community newspaper where I worked, the dinner parties thrown by my secular liberal friends, and the right-of-center space where I began reading blogs, I've always wound up a devoted contrarian. As an acquaintance recently quipped, I should have a podcast called "Conor Versus Everyone." Isn't it more interesting and useful to explore where exactly folks disagree?

I sometimes ruin the fun for people who mostly want to hear what they already think repeated back to them. All I can offer as apology is the promise that I won't hold disagreement with me against anyone.