I like Conor Friedersdorf. I don’t know him that well, but I wrote a few pieces for his ill-starred media project Culture 11, and I’ve bumped into him while out and about in Washington a few times and we exchanged hellos. He’s one of the few conservative writers who really appreciates the importance of cities. He seems like a nice guy.
And I don’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about in this piece, on “the tyranny of Washington, DC”. What tyranny, you ask?
I’ve nevertheless thought about it several times in the months since, because it helped me to clarify my thinking about why it is undesirable that our nation’s professionalized ideological movements are all packed into the smallish gentrified area of a single dysfunctional city. In that setting, work interactions bleed seamlessly into the social scene, and the inevitable career pressure to conform to certain orthodoxies of thought is reinforced and compounded by powerful impulse to be accepted and liked by the folks you see socially.
So much about Washington, D.C. incubates that fraught culture: its smallness, a social calendar organized around events with ideological affiliations, the combination of high rents, staffers right out of college, and free food provided by think tanks at lunchtime round tables, group house living, happy hour networking, the fuzzy line that separates journalism and activism, the people who cross back and forth without lengthening their commute, etc.
People blame the city of Washington for all kinds of things, and they’re almost always wrong to do so. They are especially wrong when they blame the city for generating this kind of corrosive camaraderie or group think. The Washington metropolitan area is home to nearly 6 million people (over 8 million if you count the Baltimore metro area). The central 125 square miles or so are home to just over 1 million people. If you can’t help but spend all your time with the same people, you might want to start by asking whether it isn’t your own shortcomings that need attention, rather than Washington’s.
It is true that the concentration of certain industry groups in Washington facilitates networking. Bringing people together is what cities do. It’s basically how I managed to get myself into this business. But these networks are tools. They’re a means to get more out of your career or your hobby or your social life. Blaming the networking amenities of the Washington area for personal failings is like blaming the internet for online gaming addictions. Maybe it’s not the internet’s problem.
I have lived in Washington for over eight years — just over 6 years in the District and the rest in Arlington. It’s basically home for me now. My life here has come in four phases. In the first, I was a lowly civil servant, and I spent most of my time outside of work drinking and playing sports. My social groups were typical of a recent undergrad: coworkers and fellow alums. Eventually, I moved past that. In the second phase, I worked as an economic consultant, and I barely socialized with coworkers at all. My housemates and I were in bands, and we spent much of our time playing music and going to shows. In a way, that experience led to my entry into the world of blogging. I developed an interest in doing some music writing, which led me to attend a DCist happy hour, which led to an invitation to cover some shows for the site. Which led, ultimately, to the job of editor in chief at DCist.
And DCist led to bigger things. Because the Washington blogger community is (or was) fairly cozy, friends I’d come to know while writing for DCist were also friends with Megan McArdle, who happened to tell them she was looking for economic writers to replace her at The Economist. They recommended me, she had a look at my work, and she invited me to participate in a round of blogging try-outs at Free Exchange.
A little less than a year later, I was a full-time economics blogger — the third phase of my life here in Washington. During this time, I came to know a lot of people in the world of journalism, many of them socially. And it’s true: it’s pretty easy to have a night out in Washington and run into a lot of policy writers (although it’s even easier to have a night out and not see any). I’ll freely admit that these social interactions have influenced my work: they’ve made me less of a jerk. It’s actually really easy to get along with people with whom you disagree. What’s difficult is getting along with someone you’ve just called a blithering idiot. Now, there are partisans out there who think this is a problem; that the fact that Washington’s networking scene makes writers more polite (in some cases) is bad, because some people need to be called idiots. Perhaps! And if the situation calls for it, I will, and if I don’t there’s no shortage of writers out there filling the idiot-calling niche. If you can’t find a balance between getting along with people with whom you disagree and writing honestly, then you either need new friends or a new career.
And during this period, I had plenty of other things going on. I was increasingly involved in neighborhood development issues, and I got to know a lot of my fellow Brookland residents. I got married, and came to enjoy the company of a lot of my wife’s friends (including her co-workers: District public school teachers). I met new people in the Washington music scene. And so on. And I’m in the fourth phase of my Washington life, now. I have a new baby, and a few good friends who also happen to be writers, but the balance of my in-person interactions with the Washington media crowd is increasingly professional rather than social.
The District is a big diverse place, full of lots of people who don’t make their careers as public intellectuals. If you find it oppressive to have your colleagues as friends, get new friends or get new colleagues. If your publication won’t allow you to forcefully disagree with someone else in house, maybe find a better place to work — one in which you fully embrace the house line or which is willing to tolerate a little dissent.
I may be misreading Conor. He seems to be focused on movement-oriented jobs, particularly on the conservative side. Perhaps the experience is somewhat different in that much smaller world within the District. If so, fine, but he has no business writing about the “tyranny of Washington” as opposed to the tyranny of the little occupational corner he occupies. On the other hand, Washington is fertile ground for start-up intellectual enterprises of all kinds, and I’m not sure geography has anything to do with the tendency of movements to self-discipline. If you’re in the business of playing politics, you’re going to have to play politics.
A social group is as corrosive as you allow it to be. Cities facilitate the growth and development of social groups of all kinds — from entrepreneurs to criminals — and you get the good with the bad. If Conor is arguing that the conservative movement should, for its own good, be blown up and scattered to the four winds, geographically speaking, then I suppose I can get behind that. But it looks to me as though he’s saying that the city of Washington holds its intellectuals so tightly together that they can’t help but befriend each other until they’re all ethically compromised. And that’s simply not true. And I’m sad for Conor, that his experience in Washington left him with that impression. Because that means he missed most of the great stuff the city has to offer.