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Questioning Authority

William Saletan '87

My freshman year, I fell in love with philosophy. My roommate and I had it all figured out: He was going to be a journalist, and I was going to be a philosopher. Twenty years later, he's a philosopher, and I'm a journalist. But philosophy never took the journalist out of him, and journalism never took the philosopher out of me. I'm just teaching and learning in a different place. My classroom is the Internet. My syllabus is current events.

My first job out of college was at The Hotline, an electronic political digest, in 1987. The World Wide Web didn't exist. Newspapers uploaded their political stories to us overnight, and we condensed them into a downloadable briefing. I became the editor and found myself in the middle of a presidential campaign, with all the responsibility anyone my age could ask for. But I didn't want to spend my life writing about who was up or down in the polls. I hadn't gone to Swarthmore for a fancy title or invitations to the right cocktail parties. I'd gone there because I thought life had to be more than that.

Swarthmore is the kind of school you choose if you want a really big challenge. Not the superficial challenge of climbing the ladder that's been put in front of you, but the more difficult challenge of figuring out which ladder is worth climbing, or building a ladder to a place no one has imagined before. In 1990, I decided it was time to stop working on other people's projects and start creating my own. I wanted to tackle the sort of questions I'd studied at Swarthmore-questions on which people disagreed not just about means but about ends. So, in 1991, I left my job to write a book about abortion.

Along the way, my politics changed. While doing research and interviews for the book, I was writing articles for Mother Jones. The more I read, heard, and wrote, the more out of place I felt on the left. The professors who had influenced me were liberals, but they had given me a liberal education. They had taught me to question authority, even their own. Yes, they had introduced me to Karl Marx. But Marx's lesson wasn't in his delusions of postcapitalist paradise. It was in his ability to see the assumptions of his world from the outside. That's what freed him from the dogmas of capitalism-and freed me and others from the dogmas of Marxism.

In 1996, Michael Kinsley, my former boss, asked me to write for Slate, a magazine he was launching on the Internet. The new medium, coupled with Kinsley's adventurous spirit, presented an opportunity to develop new kinds of journalism. I proposed a column called "Frame Game." It would show readers how politicians, pundits, and interest groups manipulated public opinion by framing the issues of the day. When Democrats opposed "spending" federal money on tax cuts, they were obscuring the difference between handouts and earned income. When Republicans preached "judicial restraint," they were concealing their own interpretations of the Constitution.

In writing "Frame Game," I found a synthesis of everything I had learned at Swarthmore: the clarity of philosophy, the nuance of literature, the practicality of political science, and the emancipatory imagination of radical social theory. My job was to expose the assumptions that rigged and circumscribed public debate. Other columnists argued about how to answer the question of the week. "Frame Game" asked how that question had been formulated, by whom, and why. It illuminated the tricks of the left as well as the right. Emancipation is too important to be left to the so-called emancipators.

My book, Bearing Right, came out in 2003. It's a case study in framing. It explains how feminists repackaged abortion rights as an antigovernment issue to make it attractive to conservative voters-and how that repackaging led to a libertarian rather than feminist regime of abortion laws. That stuff we heard at Swarthmore about the dialectic of industry and ideology turns out to be more than blather. Interest groups do manufacture ideas. But ideas have dynamics of their own, and sometimes they overpower their creators.

Today, I cover politics in Slate's "Ballot Box" column. I still write about framing, but my interest is shifting toward science. The great story of our age isn't in politics. It's in biotechnology. Through cloning, genetic engineering, and the manipulation of body and tissue formation, we're remaking ourselves. We're turning human embryos into human parts and vice versa. We're mixing our DNA with the DNA of other species. Human ingenuity-a synthesis of agriculture, manufacturing, and information technology-is dissolving human nature. I don't know how to answer the moral questions implicit in that revolution, but I do know that they're being hidden and that I'm going to drag them into the open. That isn't where or how I expected to practice philosophy two decades ago. But that's why they call it education.

William Saletan, chief political correspondent for the on-line magazine Slate, has also written a book and articles for other publications.