July 8, 2007

What’s Your Story: Jeremy Lott

By: Anastasia Uglova

Jeremy Lott is smiling at me. Sitting behind a cool pint of Hefeweizen on a sweltering Washington evening, the self-avowed “cautious pessimist” seems sanguine despite the oppressive heat and the sweat on his forehead that never quite dries. Wearing wrinkled jeans and old sneakers, with a clumsily overstuffed backpack resting by his feet, he’s not one of those dress-to-impress Washington operators. It’s as if he thinks you should be impressing him.

Jeremy is the anti-Dale Carnegie. And he his own way of explaining the basics of human behavior, a philosophy he jokingly calls Jeremytarianism. Its basic tenets are: you will fail; people lie; everybody hates somebody. This bleak worldview is of course more an acknowledgment of his own failings, says Jeremy, than a judgment on his peers. “I’m a very talented and very flawed person,” he offers, praising and flagellating himself at the same time.

Jeremy is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to Books & Culture, a Christian literary review. In addition to stints with Reason magazine, the American Spectator, and the Cato Institute (disclosure: he and I were briefly colleagues at Cato for a two-month period), he has written articles for over one hundred publications. Less than a year after the release of his first book, In Defense of Hypocrisy, he’s working on another. An irreverent history of the vice-presidency due out in 2008, it’s a fitting follow-up which he describes as “hypocrisy in action.”

Lott took an unusual path to journalism. He started by dropping out of high school. “School was like a really boring prison,” he muses. “I was a libertarian in this sense: I hated, hated, hated, hated high school and my thought was, The state is making me go to school. I don’t like going to school. Therefore I hate the state. It was very primitive.” Though lacking a diploma, he was able to enroll at Trinity Western University, where his writing career began.

Lott attributes his “accidental” foray into journalism to abject necessity. His parents were unable to help with tuition, but, fortunately, Lott’s college years coincided with the late ‘90s boom of anti-Clinton webzines. “I figured I could write some of this stuff,” he explains. In his first year in college, Lott moonlighted as an editor and opinion columnist in as many publications as his college work allowed. “The way I paid my way through school is by doing journalism at night. I wasn’t keeping count. I wrote a lot of stuff, but it was basically because it was work.”

His parents were struggling. Lott, with characteristic bluntness, says they were “flat on their asses,” but this didn’t stop his father from buying him a computer for his writing. “At the worst financial moment of his life, he walked down to Circuit City, threw his credit card down on the table, and said, ‘Get me a computer that works.’”

Despite a solid publishing record, Lott insists that writing is simply the thing he’s “least bad at.” He claims he doesn’t even remember the first article he placed, only the name of the editor who accepted his work. “It was a guy named Joel Miller running a Yiddish magazine called Mensch that didn’t pay anything.”

That first clip later paid off, however, when Miller’s publisher, Nelson Current, brought out In Defense of Hypocrisy, which argues that hypocrisy is an engine of moral progress because it allows people to be decent even when they fail to be good. The contrarian polemic was published to mostly favorable reviews. “Because of the novelty of someone writing a book in defense of hypocrisy, people aren’t sure what to do so they move on,” he explains. “But I do hope someone in the future, when I’m a talking head on television, accuses me of being a hypocrite and I’ll say, ‘Honey, I wrote the book on hypocrisy.’”

The book is just one of his many published works that challenge conventional wisdom. He’s also written articles like “Jesus Sells,” a Reason magazine piece that looked into the Christian culture industry. He claims it was misunderstood. “Almost everyone who has responded to that article has either damned me for damning the Christian culture industry or thanked me for damning the Christian culture industry, when it should have been titled ‘in defense of the Christian culture industry.’” Another Reason article by Jeremy, “Burning Sensations,” details how, in a liberal democracy, book-burning actually ends up promoting free speech. Chris Mooney of the American Prospect referred to the piece as “the most counterintuitive argument ever,” to which Lott is quick to add that “it may have been the best counterintuitive argument ever.”

Lott’s work calls to mind the writing of Christopher Hitchens. Of course the two journalists are dissimilar in their age, country of origin, and faith: Jeremy’s a Baptist turned Catholic, while Hitchens is a veritable scourge of organized religion. But there are some distinct similarities. Both are extremely prolific, both prefer stories with a contrarian angle, and both share a fondness for drink. Pouring out the pitcher of IPA into his pint glass, Lott weighs the comparison with skepticism. “I suspect that Hitchens often sits there and says, ‘What’s the most outrageous thing that I can argue that I can just sort of justify?’ I don’t do that. And I am cantankerous, but I don’t constantly go on trying to overturn every bit of received wisdom, because some of it’s true.” He takes another sip of beer and meditates on the idea for a moment before adding, “But it’s very flattering to me, so I may be wrong.” The waitress comes by to drop off a fresh pitcher of Killian’s.

If Hitchens-style contrarianism isn’t exactly Lott’s pint of pilsner, then how best to define him? Call him a libertarian and you’d be right, but not because he buys into the movement’s ideological presuppositions. “Gene Healy divided libertarianism into the markets-are-cool libertarians and the I-really-hate-the-government libertarians. And I’m much more in the latter category. You know? I’m a cauldron of hatred.”

I recall something Lott said earlier in the evening. I had asked how a competitive industry, where one has to have clips to get clips, identifies and rewards good writers. “Do something for free for somebody that’s good,” he advises. “I did a lot of my early writing for free. I won’t do that now.”

Who is this guy? One second he’s all charity and light Give your work away and success will follow! the next he confesses to hating everyone.

The American Spectator’s editorial director Wlady Pleszczynski assures me that “Jeremy is as smart as the Devil but as sweet as an angel,” adding “though from time to time I have seen him frown.” But what is one to make of Jeremy Lott, that self-styled libertarian “cauldron of hatred,” or sweet, smiling angel of his former colleague’s imagination? He quotes Freud, saying, “The Irish are the only people who cannot be psychoanalyzed.”

He sort of tells you a lot without explaining anything. And when I grow exasperated, he says he would have made everything clear, but “you didn’t get me drunk enough.”

Anastasia Uglova is a writer and podcast producer in Washington, D.C.