Opinion

Goodbye to all that

On a tenure at 'The Week'

In this age of the internet, the purpose of the opinion column isn't clear. Columnists have never been expected to break stories and the speed of transmission on social media makes that even harder. Opinion journalists' former roles as professional aggregators and critics have been appropriated by legions of amateurs, whose blogs, tweets, and newsletters can display insight and expertise that put professionals to shame. For business reasons as well as political ones, finally, legacy media have increasingly abandoned the ideal of objectivity for "news analysis" that blends traditional reporting with commentary and sometimes outright advocacy. When everyone's a columnist, why should anyone be a columnist? 

I thought a lot about that question when I accepted a part-time position with The Week almost a year ago. Part of the answer was material self-interest. If The Week wanted to pay me to expound my opinions, I wasn't about to decline — even though I sometimes doubted their value. It helped that I have an inordinate number of opinions, so publishing several pieces each week didn't frighten me. 

But I also hoped I might be able to offer readers something they wouldn't find elsewhere. As a result of my somewhat eccentric academic career, I'm reasonably familiar with scholarly literatures in fields including political theory, American history, and religious studies. My goal was not only to expose readers to those sources and ideas in an accessible way, but to show how dusty books and long-ago events can shed light on our current predicament. Scholars know a lot. But without some help from journalistic mediators, they aren't usually very good at explaining what it is or why anyone should care. 

I'm not sure how well I've succeeded in that enterprise. Both the speed of the news cycle and the demands of my publishing schedule encouraged a fair amount of drive-by "takes" on polls, elections, and politicians' speeches. Those can be significant events and it's useful for someone to write about them. But I don't really believe I had deeper or more accurate perceptions than anyone else.

The pieces I'm more proud of took a different approach. In columns on the decline of the WASPs, the implications of female dominance in major institutions, the banality of recent science fiction, or America's love affair with lawyers and courts, I thought I came closer to realizing my goal. The lesson is probably that I'm not really a newsman. I plan to go on writing for general audiences but will likely restrict myself to genres and platforms where rapid response to current events is less important than the careful development of a distinctive argument.

I was also proud to mostly avoid the vitriol that's ever harder to escape. I have plenty of disagreements with various writers, public figures, organizations, and movements, but I think I've avoided name-calling, contempt, or personal attacks. I don't know whether the anecdote is true, but I've been told that Irving Kristol encouraged his younger colleagues to keep their focus on arguments rather than on the individuals who made them. That was always a valuable principle, but it's even more important in the relentless personalization of social media.

Controversy drive clicks, though, and I probably would have drawn a larger audience if I'd adopted a more aggressive tone. In fact, my highest-traffic pieces tended to be the ones with the kind of headline that's sure to provoke a certain cohort of readers. I can't blame my editors for that — although I didn't always write my own headlines, none was ever imposed without my consent. But I do wish more of the people who tweeted or emailed to express their outrage actually read the columns, which rarely corresponded to what they thought I was saying. And don't get me started on the self-appointed assignment editors, who get mad when you don't write about the topics they think are really important.

On the whole, though, I've enjoyed engaging with readers even when they haven't enjoyed my work. For all their familiar disadvantages, social media have enabled the development of a new kind of public sphere where it's more difficult to hide from substantive criticism and users who'd otherwise never encounter each other can participate in real conversations. Compare that to cable news, which is hardly less polarizing or susceptible to "misinformation," but has no redeeming features whatsoever. 

Despite its diminished role, moreover, I still think the opinion column has a place in what social media wags call The Discourse. Especially for readers who aren't political obsessives and don't have the time or energy for long-form essays — that is, the vast majority — 750 to 1000 well-chosen words can expose unfamiliar aspects of an apparently familiar situation, synthesize inchoate intuitions as coherent arguments, and boil down academic or other specialist knowledge to the key points that normal people actually want to know. That's a more modest contribution than seemed possible a few decades ago, when columnists could aspire (though only few succeeded) to influence the national agenda in ways that are almost inconceivable today. But it's worth a shot and I'm grateful to The Week and its editorial staff for giving me the chance to try. 

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