My interview with Jonathan Last, about his new book:
Gayle Trotter: I am speaking with Jonathan Last, author of The Seven Deadly Virtues: 18 Conservative Writers on why the Virtuous Life is Funny as Hell. Thank you so much for joining me, Jonathan. How we have gone from a nation that discusses whether the President wears boxers versus briefs to a nation where we now have discussions about naked selfies?
Jonathan Last: Some people look at this and think we must be moving towards things getting worse. Bill Bennett’s great Book of Virtues came out in 1993 and that’s the same year we had the big flap when somebody on MTV asked President Clinton “Boxers or Briefs?” There was a national uproar. You are old enough to remember this.
JL: Women were clutching their pearls and fanning themselves and on the OP/ED pages people wrote “This is terrible! This is terrible! How can you say that to the Head of State?” Today that reaction seems entirely quaint. If somebody asked President Obama the same thing, we would all laugh about it and think how quaint and funny because we live in a totally different world. It is a worse world in a lot of ways, but we often draw the wrong lessons from that. The wrong lesson is that we take it as a sign that people are no longer concerned with virtue at all. But I’d argue that this is not the case. We are concerned with virtue—just different virtues. I call them the modern virtues, and there are some other things about which we are much more concerned than we used to be.
GT: You give us eighteen writers who each cover a different virtue. How did you decide which author should cover which virtue?
JL: What I normally tell people is that we had a big choose ‘em up like it was a fantasy football draft. It’s a funny mental image to have P.J. O’Rourke and Jonah Goldberg, Rob Long and Andy Ferguson and all sitting around, “I want chastity! No, I want temperance!”
That’s actually not the way I did it. It was all very intentional on my part. We were locked into the seven cardinal virtues because we were going to do those no matter what and they make up the first half of the book. The second half of the book is what we call the everyday virtues. Once you get into that, you have leeway as to what virtues you do. I was choosing both writers and virtues with each other in mind and I had them paired up really from the first minute I started talking about this with the people at Templeton Press. I was very lucky that everyone I wanted said yes.
GT: Some criticize the conservative movement for having no sense of humor. What would you say to that charge?
JL: It is often totally true. Many conservatives are incredibly dour and not particularly funny. But that said, my favorite funny writers and essayists are mostly conservative. There are a great deal of really, really talented writers in the conservative movement. Christopher Buckley and P.J. O’Rourke are unbelievably gifted. I honestly think that Christopher Buckley is the only living American satirist who you could fairly compare with Evelyn Waugh -- he is that good. Jonah Goldberg is fantastic. Rob Long is amazing. Matt Labash has a giant following out there in the world -- people recognize his genius. James Lileks wrote my favorite essay in the book and is an unbelievably beautiful writer and is elegant and funny as anything to boot. In a weird way, if you were going to try to tally it up, I actually think the conservatives who are funny are funnier than the people on the left who are known for being funny but who aren’t actually funny unless you are a fellow traveler. So much of liberal humor is predicated on agreement, which is entirely unnecessary for our book. You could be a liberal democrat who wears Che Guevara t-shirts and has a nose ring and you’ll love the book every bit as much as somebody who listens to Rush Limbaugh five days a week.
GT: You are not limiting your market audience for this book to readers from the right?
JL: No. It was designed to be very broadly ecumenical and, first and foremost, to be an entertaining read. I wanted something that I would enjoy sitting back and reading myself and that is what we got. It doesn’t matter what your political engagement is or even if you have any political engagement at all, because first and foremost it’s a fun book—though it has a little stealthy philosophical seriousness to it. But hopefully you won’t realize that until you wake up the next morning.
GT: You make the point that it isn’t that we don’t like virtue anymore; it is just that we’ve changed which virtues we value. As an example, you reference Mary Eberstadt’s thesis that our concern over food has replaced a lot of our concern over the sexual impulse. Did you see this played out by the other authors on their virtues as well?
JL: The other authors, to a large degree, stick to their own rows to hoe. I am obsessed with this point of Mary’s. It is so dead on. She is so brilliant. When I first read that my head snapped back and I said, “Of course!” It is so deeply true that you wonder how nobody ever noticed it before.
JL: Once you have that in your mind, you can see it everywhere. You see it in our changing attitudes towards smoking. Now if you are a smoker and you smoke Marlboro’s, you are history’s greatest monster. You can’t smoke in your office, you can’t smoke outside your office and you can’t smoke within twenty-five feet of a Starbucks. Basically, you have to go into a dark alley and huddle somewhere by a dumpster – that’s the only place left to smoke. This is because smoking is terribly unhealthy, and we all agree that healthiness is a prime directive.
At the same time, all across the country we are now liberalizing marijuana usage. We are saying to you that you are a terrible, terrible person if you light a cigarette with tobacco in it but, on the other hand, if you toke up reefer that’s great, you’re just following your bliss and it’s freedom, man. Why should society be able to tell you no? It is very interesting because what these things are really showing is the tensions that crop up between these modern virtues—health and freedom.
GT: You make a point in the book that single-minded pursuit of only one virtue results in monomania. Balancing things is the idea that the virtues all complement one another. You raise the example of Mengele and curiosity. Curiosity can be virtuous but taken to an extreme it leads to horrible, inhumane things. Explain?
JL: Frankly, I didn’t think about this until the essays started coming in and this theme arose pretty organically with many of the writers coming to the same point on their own. To alter Nixon somewhat, “Extremism in pursuit of virtue can easily be a vice.” When you have a monomania for one virtue it can easily, if not enlightened by other virtues and informed by other virtues, turn into something perverted and very bad. For instance, curiosity is very good. We need it and without it we would still be living in caves and clubbing small animals with sticks. But, on the other hand, if all you have is curiosity without any prudence you can just be a gossip or worse, say, Mengele, who was very, very curious to terrible consequence. It’s not just curiosity. Even something like hope. If all you have is hope, you turn into a Pollyanna—which is not useful or helpful, least of all to you.
One of the lessons of the book is that virtue is additive and that the virtues ought to be cultivated as a group, not individually on their own. This taps into something our grandmothers told us turning out to be true: Moderation in all things. One of the lessons in this is perseverance. Christopher Buckley makes this point in his essay. Perseverance is great and we think of it as this wonderful, essential attribute except for the fact that perseverance in service of a bad cause turns out to be terrible. You can look at the American involvement with Vietnam as perseverance in a way, and a type of perseverance that did not do very much good.
GT: I have many followers who are interested in the writing life because they are writers or they aspire to be writers. I am interested to find out how you, as a writer, judge your success in this world of writing.
JL: I am convinced that the only reasonable measure for success is whether or not you are happy with the product because that is the only thing you can control. Published writing is a collaborative process because somebody owns the magazine or newspaper. In books, somebody else owns the printing press. And then you have publicity, which helps determine sales. And who knows what reviewers are thinking when they review your book. There are many reviewers and, I know this is going to shock you, who don’t even read the books they review. And even if you get a diligent reviewer who has read it, maybe they read the book but when they sat down to write the review they’d eaten something that morning that didn’t agree with them—so the review turned out to be more dyspeptic than they otherwise meant. The point is: You can’t control any of this. So your metrics for success in writing ought to be only the things that you can control.
If you like what you’ve done and you’re proud of it, then that has to be it. Everything else is icing.
The other thing about writing is that, if you’re doing it right, then you get better at it for a very long time. This isn’t like being an NBA player or a professional football player. You don’t top out in skill level by twenty-five; you’re not washed up by twenty-nine. You should, if you are pursuing your writing in the right way, be getting better at it every day until you’re in your seventies. There is no reason we can’t all be Bernard Lewis, churning out fantastic insightful writing into our eighties. You would like to, in a perfect world, be proud of something when you’ve written it and then every year or five years when you revisit it, you’d like to look back at it and appreciate it, but also understand how you would do it a little bit better if you were to go and redo that thing right now.
GT: You are a writer with the Weekly Standard, you are a published author with big publishing houses and you began your career before the advent of blogs and all of the democratization of writing that we have via the Internet now. Do you think it is a net positive to have the ability for people to reach out to the world without the gatekeepers or do you think there is some measure of beneficial screening that has been lost by the democratization of writing?
JL: A little bit of both. I entered journalism at a very strange time. I came to Washington in January of 1997 and so, it was this weird moment where I was too late by only about three or four years to have been able to take advantage of the real high-water mark of journalism. Back then, every twenty-seven year-old journalist was being given a Simon & Schuster contract for $300,000 to write about whatever they had been covering the year before. But I just missed that because I was slightly too young and by the time I was 27, the business had been upended.
Because about three or four years after I came to town, we had the advent of blogs. When that happened, the effect was that if you were a twenty-two-year-old blogger, then all of a sudden you had people throwing money and jobs at you. But I missed that, too, because I was slightly too old when that moment happened.
I came right at the moment where you were supposed to start at the bottom, but then by the time you got a little ways up the latter, the rewards for doing the grunt work were gone. So it took me longer—but that was good for me in many ways. It was good for me to spend time doing grunt work and being a fact checker and a researcher and then writing very, very small stuff under close supervision while I learned how to write.
On the other hand, I was very lucky that I was at the Standard because the Standard is an amazing, amazing place. I’ve been here for eighteen years, which is crazy. Nobody spends eighteen years in one job anymore, especially not in Washington. I’ve been here that long because it’s the greatest office in the world and the people I work with and work for are the nicest people in Washington, and they basically raised me and turned me into the writer I am today.
To the extent that I exist as a professional, I’m the product of Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes and Claudia Anderson and Richard Star and Andy Ferguson and Chris Caldwell and Matt Labash. Some of the fantastic writers in this book are the people who really taught me how to write. So I got very, very lucky. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t been at the Standard. If I had been someplace else I don’t know if it would have worked out the way it did.
Me aside, there’s is the larger question of net-net: Has this change been good or bad for the world? I don’t know. Probably bad. I think that if we had gone somewhere in the middle-ground, with the institutions preserved, but some democratization on the internet, that might be optimal. I think we might have been at an optimal moment around 2001 or so in terms of the balancing between gatekeepers and democratization. But that’s generally not how technology works; it pushes relentlessly past middle ground. And I don’t know that I like where we are now, as a business. For example, I don’t like Twitter in a very real way.
GT: That is why you don’t have a Twitter account?
JL: I have a Twitter account. I use it only for the months in and around the launch of a book. And I only do that because the publisher of my first book was insistent that I be on Twitter. And I’m a good team player so I said, “Fine, I’ll do it.”
Twitter, to me, is incredibly pernicious for about fifteen different reasons, one of which is just the brevity of it. Twitter does what the old Blogosphere did. If you remember what 2001 or 2002 looked like, people had the same conversations they have on Twitter except that everybody had their own blog. It wasn’t in one place. They were talking back and forth to each other—but they were talking back and forth in paragraphs, and that winds up being a lot more productive. What Twitter does, is it dumbs everything down and speeds it up. And when you dumb things down and you make them go faster, then people are less thoughtful, and they make poorer judgments and decisions. You wind up with Twitter mobs.
Professionally, what I always tell young aspiring writers (and they always just roll their eyes at me like I am an old person, which I guess I am now) “Look, you are never, ever going to be paid a single dime for anything you do on Twitter. Nobody is going to give you a job from your Twitter work, nobody is going to give you a bonus at Christmastime because of your Twitter work. But you could absolutely destroy your career on Twitter. It is all downside and no upside for you.”
I tell them Twitter is a loaded gun and you should put it away. If you want to lurk on Twitter and use it like an RSS feed, that’s fine. But you are a crazy person if you sit around playing with that loaded gun all the time. Because the thing is, even if we think we know where all of the red lines are, those lines often get drawn post facto. So maybe something was in bounds when you tweeted it out but then six months later, when somebody is looking through your timeline and trying to get you in trouble, it’s no longer in bounds. And the next thing you know you are getting fired.
GT: Prudence is a virtue.
JL: If there were an upside for Twitter, then I would say maybe the risk is worth the reward. But I have never been able to tell what the upside is for anybody other than the stockholders at Twitter.
GT: Jonathan, thank you so very much for your time and congratulations on this excellent book. I highly recommend it.