Monday, July 21st, 2014
15

How to Work for the Enemy and Feel Just Fine

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, writer and co-founder of The Toast Mallory Ortberg tells us more about what it’s like to work at a famous conservative think tank.

Mallory! So what happened here?

Oh! I forget how this came up, exactly, but yes, for one summer I was one of several interns at the Hoover Institution, which is a fairly conservative public policy think tank attached to Stanford University, and woe betide you if you refer to it as the Hoover Institute, as I did on my first day.  

This was in the summer of 2010, I think; I had graduated the year previous from a Christian college in suburban Los Angeles with an English Literature degree and was profoundly unemployable. After about eight months of flailing in LA, where the only work I could find was picking up a few holiday stocking shifts at the BevMo, I moved north to live with my family and try to find a job. 

And I did find jobs! I found several jobs, and I was so horrified at the prospect of ever being unemployed again that I took all of them. So I worked four mornings a week at the Hoover, reviewed The Vampire Diaries for a pop-culture site based in Washington, D.C., waited tables every afternoon until midnight, and twice a week drove up to Marin to copyedit at an ecologically minded women’s website. Which I guess sort of balanced out the Hoover work, politically. 

The Hoover probably paid the best out of all of them. I think I earned between $12 and $15 an hour, which was more than I’d made at the BevMo, even. I’d ride my bike over to the campus every morning and run in through the Hoover Tower, which is quite lovely. My friends were all working at shoe stores and call centers and veterinary offices at the time, so they were mostly just excited I’d found a job. We’d all graduated at a really difficult time, you know, so there was a sense of victory whenever any of us found work or was able to afford an apartment on their own.

I just wanted a job. I wanted a reason to leave the house in the morning, and I wanted to learn how to be in an office, and I wanted to not email my resume to a thousand different Craigslist posters and bother my professors for letters of recommendation. I had no qualms about taking the job. I was grateful for it. I would have taken almost any job at that time. 

Maybe I wouldn’t have taken a job actively fracking an orphanage, but I would have happily supervised the fracking from a building a few miles away, where I didn’t have to look at the orphans. 

Mostly I delivered the morning edition of the Financial Times to various offices and worked a bit in the mailroom (where I ran into my high school prom date once), and updated mailing lists and answered calls from Haaretz at odd hours. But sometimes I’d get a last-minute email asking me to copyedit an op-ed that was about to run in the Wall Street Journal, and I was kind of amazed by the editorial latitude I was given. 

“I can just . . . change whatever I want? Even though it’s going to run under _____’s name in the Wall Street Journal?” 

“Just make it better.” 

So I did! And, you know, this was right around when the Hoover published Ending Government Bailouts As We Know Them, so I did some very low-level publicity coordinating. There were at least two other interns at the time—both of whom were real Stanford students and very nicely dressed—who did a lot more of the substantive work. Everyone was very friendly and bookish and low-key, and I had a massive chip on my shoulder. I felt like an idiot sitting next to a bunch of Stanford and Ivy League grads when I’d gone to a really unimpressive school, and I felt like everyone around me had attended a seminar on success that I’d slept through and I’d never be able to catch up. 

That was probably the toughest part for me, more than whatever political differences existed between me and most of the other employees—feeling like I was surrounded by success, by education, by money and authority and everything I wanted for my own life, but I couldn’t touch it. 

Having gone through it, and knowing what you know now, would you do it again?

I would absolutely go through it again. I was never asked to do anything that, you know, compromised my high ideals, which were mostly a jumble of incoherent nonsense anyhow. It helped me save up enough money to get my own place and start a savings account, and because of that experience there I was able to get my first job in academic publishing. 

I ran into Condoleeza Rice on the stairs once! Well, we didn’t run into each other so much as use the stairs at the same time. But I suppose that qualifies as significant. 

These were really your establishment conservatives, you know, who prided themselves on being well-read and respectable and polite, so there wasn’t a lot of Tea Party rhetoric or anti-intellectualism or anything like that. There was, generally, a sense that President Obama was a big-government monster, and a lot of talk about Keynes that frankly I didn’t understand. But there was none of the dog-whistle racism that I rather expected to encounter. Very little talk about the, you know, culture wars. Mostly economics. 

I think part of me was dimly HOPING to be tested, because it would have been sort of fun to think of myself as this stealth liberal, but that never happened. I mean, my boss was a former member of the Bush administration; obviously we had different politics, but there wasn’t really a sense of “we few, we merry few, we Bay Area Republicans” around the office. It was a lot like working with Jeopardy! contestants—friendly, mostly quiet nerds. (I also lost on Jeopardy! that same year. It was a year rich in life lessons). 

I’m sure if I’d been more well-read or aware of the news at the time I’d have felt more conflicted, but I was plenty used to being around conservatives after going to school where I did. To be honest, I quite like knowing people who think about things quite differently from me—you know, living and working the way I do now, it’s not at all difficult to move in very politically uniform circles.

Also, the archives in the Hoover Tower were absolutely tremendous. That was very cool, getting to see some of the materials that were being housed there. 

Lesson learned (if any)?

If you need a job and someone offers you a job, take the job. Working is better than not-working. Then, four years later, start your own media empire with someone you met on the Internet.

Just one more thing.

I probably regret more how often I wore my BevMo uniform even after I lost that job because I thought I looked compelling and butch in a green polo shirt and men’s cargo khaki shorts than I regret working at a hyper-conservative think tank. It took me years to get rid of those shorts. 





Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.

15 Comments / Post A Comment

Taffeta Darling (#260,337)

Hold the phone. You were on Jeopardy????

HelloTheFuture (#259,085)

Someday I will write an anonymous expose about the editing and ghostwriting industry. I will use “I can just . . . change whatever I want?" as a chapter title.

saythatscool (#101)

"If you need a job and someone offers you a job, take the job. Working is better than not-working. Then, four years later, start your own media empire with someone you met on the Internet."

Pfffffft. Like that's gonna happen.

melis (#1,854)

@saythatscool i havent even met you

holiday steam (#283,025)

"That was probably the toughest part for me, more than whatever political differences existed between me and most of the other employees—feeling like I was surrounded by success, by education, by money and authority and everything I wanted for my own life, but I couldn’t touch it."

Exactly how I felt working food service at a fancy-ass liberal arts school after graduating (also in 2010, from a different fancy-ass liberal arts school). I wish I had just taken a regular waitressing gig instead of this weird job abutting massive privilege and wealth. Gave me some shitty self-esteem issues. Guess I should start a media empire one of these days.

"My friends were all working at shoe stores and call centers" or rather, "all of my friend Maddie was working at shoe stores and call centers"

foxbat91 (#9,832)

But… how do you get a job at a conservative think tank without knowing/caring that it's a conservative think tank? I mean, first, why would you want to work for them ($$$, obviously, or, rather, $, because internship), but more importantly why would they want to hire you?

Lisa Frank (#14,308)

Is there any higher form of privilege higher than being able to abstain from politics? The policies of the Hoover Institution may not have detrimentally affected someone from a white, upper middle-class background and the people working there may have been polite, but the policies that they promote have have had real, adverse effects on many Americans. The economy is not something that was given to us from on high; it's created by the social forces that we either support or fight against.

conklin (#364)

@Lisa Frank one *could* argue that being able to pick and choose what work you're willing to be paid for, and by whom, based on your politics, while still knowing that you'll be OK if you turn down that money, is a "higher form of privilege."

sea ermine (#283,122)

@Lisa Frank I see your point, but I think that the freedom to turn down a job opportunity because you disagree with the politics of the organization is also incredibly privileged.

I'm fortunate to be in a position now where I can easily avoid working somewhere like the Hoover Institution but when I was unemployed I don't think I would have been able to turn down $15/hour to hope something I agreed with more materialized. Unfortunately not everyone can pick their jobs based on their personal politics.

contrarian (#283,137)

@Lisa Frank he needed a job and he was paid on time, was treated well and didn't hurt anyone. What's the problem?

anadromy (#245,693)

"I’m sure if I’d been more well-read or aware of the news at the time I’d have felt more conflicted"

You mean like, presumably, NOW (ie: that you're older and "more well-read and aware")? I would hope so. Except, in the next breath, you cheerfully advise anyone unemployed to take any job, even if it promotes or abets political viewpoints that many people would argue are the equivalent of fracking orphanages.

I dunno. I dig your work. But this is fucked up.

listen, lady (#245,976)

@Lisa Frank "Is there any higher form of privilege higher than being able to abstain from politics?"

Yes.

Now that we've settled that, do you have any sparkly stickers you can send me?

Poubelle (#214,283)

Wow, so a person who badly needed a job took one at a place that likely helped contribute to their desperate economic situation? That's privilege now? Didn't know so many Wal-Mart employees had it so good!

Libtard (#283,621)

How about an "evil" place from the other side of the aisle. Center for American Progress or New America? They are alot more batshit crazy than the GOP.

Post a Comment