At the start of the 21st century, Ana Marie Cox was one of the first journalists to bring blogging with a satirical bent to the US capital with her blog The Wonkette. Since then, she has written a satirical novel about her experiences on Capitol Hill (Dog Days) and has covered its inner workings for outlets ranging from the Guardian to GQ to Time. Most recently, she has found herself returning to work for Newsweek/Daily Beast as a Washington Correspondent. She has also had her life saved by Greta Van Susteren. She sat down with two of our Travesty correspondents before giving a talk at the Joynes Reading Room in the Carothers Dormitory.
What is your most ridiculous alien conspiracy that you kind of believe in?
There is a legitimate scientific theory that life on earth came from an asteroid. That’s not even like a conspiracy. I wish I could think if there’s one I actually believe. No, some of them are so crazy. The ancient alien stuff. I do think it’s possible that we have been visited by aliens. I do think it’s possible that alien life form might have come as bacteria. Or bacteria that has a hive knowledge. I don’t have a specific alien conspiracy theory that might be true, but I think that one of them might be true. I believe in ghosts.
I believe in ghosts too. I like to call them ‘spirits’.
‘Spirits’ is probably a better word for it.
None of my roommates will watch any ghost shows with me. There are so many humor outlets like The Onion or Jon Stewart that are a fusion of satire and news. That’s a trend for a reason, why do you think so many people are drawn to that?
Well you cannot blame me I don’t think. I don’t want to say that I legitimized it, that would almost be a contradiction in terms but I think that I brought that idea to the attention of people in Washington. My blog that I had before the Wonkette was called the Antic News and I got that title from a I’m sure out of print collection of New Yorker satires. I don’t think there is a real complicated reason, I think it is because you can find truth in humor. I think that people are very suspicious of people if you are being serious and say that you don’t have an agenda and say that you are being completely transparent then that raises suspicion. I think audiences are more likely to trust audiences whose conceit is apparent. I think that also goes to non-comedy stuff just like Fox news, MSNBC. People trust that stuff because the conceit is there. They are aware of what they’re going to get. And also may agree with it.
Can you think of an example that you’ve come across that comedy was the only way you could approach a subject? Has that ever happened? Or it was possibly the best way?
That is a great question and the answer goes back to something I said earlier which is I don’t necessarily think of myself as a humor writer. So, it’s not like I’m like, “oh my god it’s not like the only way I can write about this is through humor, but I want to write the truth about this.” I remember the thing that stands out most in my memory-- the thing that I found humor in that wasn’t necessarily funny were two things: Katrina... I was so mad. I was so furious. I actually lived in New Orleans for a while when I was a kid and I’m an animal lover and the stories of the animals being trapped and the visual and visceral images of the tragedy. I was really really furious. There was a big uptake in traffic and again with the 9/11 stuff people are looking for a way to express the inexpressible.
The other example I was gonna use is gay marriage. In 2004, when I was at Wonkette, it was a specific strategy on part of the Bush campaign to use gay marriage to turn out the vote. The Federal Marriage Amendment as a way to split up the vote: if you were for or against the federal marriage amendment, and they forced democrats to answer that. I am pro gay rights, which today doesn’t sound crazy. It’s so weird that it’s in my memory that didn’t used to be a default position for adults to have. But yeah, I’m very pro people rights and I happen to have gay cousins. I took that very personally and I was very angry. I also thought that people were really scared of-- what white male politicians were really scared of-- were two men fucking. That disgusted them and if the only gays in the world were lesbians, that they would be okay with it. I referred to the federal marriage amendment as the federal no ass fucking and that became kind of a theme. I also discovered that that term-- ass fucking-- people really reacted and then it was just funny to me. Again, it’s playing on people and that term today doesn’t even seem that funny or that provocative as it was 8 years ago. I found it interesting and in some way subversive and played upon that, which led to a perception among people who already did not like me... they were like, “oh she just writes about ass fucking.” That is something to this day, I have people on the right usually who, when I write something they disagree with or they think is unserious, they’ll be like, “she just writes about ass fucking.”
I mean, some things are so absurd in real life, what can you do but laugh?
Yeah, actually it was a conservative; I actually look at Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck for opposition research purposes, but also because I admire them. They are both very good at what they do. It was one of them who pointed out that a lot of Jon Stewarts comedy is just to show a clip and then look at the camera. Just roll a clip and look at the camera with a shocked horrified or bemused expression. And they were criticizing that, as like that’s not even a joke, what does it take to do that. And I kept thinking, that’s kind of a valid critique. except for sometimes things are so crazy that [AMC throws hands up].I used to say that my job was to point and laugh. That sometimes that’s all you need to do. I think that is definitely valid.
So you have a blog and a twitter and everything, and with this barrage of social media, how do you navigate that? To find things that are important to you?
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a fire hose. I definitely have people and outlets that I trust more than others. The Awl…trying to think who else. Huffington Post a lot of the time. I think one trick is just trying not to fight it too much. Like, you’re going to miss stuff. My whole experiment with being off twitter for 5 months…you’re going to miss a lot and you will be will just fine. If I’m off twitter for like 12 hours I know I’ll get through it.
Does humor need to be appropriate?
Well, I think that the trick is that a short circuit answer is that I don’t think of my job as persuading. I think then that’s when I get really frustrated. There was a book that I read that I know can’t remember the name of that was about the un-persuadable. It was going through history and the neuroscience of hard it is to change people’s minds. There are pathways in our brain that are just incredibly difficult to change. And that most—it’s just almost impossible to change someone’s mind once they decided something. And so, I don’t think about what I do as changing people’s minds, I try to think about what I do as, again, more about revealing something and you can take that any way you want. And I think that to go at it head on, you’re going to meet defeat. You can say, alright, this is what you believe, but have you thought about this? You probably have a better chance. That often has to do with showing them respect for their position.
Jumping off that, there seems to be a trend amongst people online to criticize people with differing points of view personally. Do you think this is unique to our time or something that needs to be fixed?
There’s nothing new under the sun. People make things personal all the time. I mean I read a pretty good history of dirty campaigning that goes all the way back to the Roman era. Like, campaigns that were like “so-and-so has a big nose” or “he visits brothels, don’t vote for him”. So, making things personal is not new. Do people do it more now? I think what happens now is that it gets around a lot faster, and that it’s hard to undo. Plus, they are basically faceless and nameless and can send it into the void. There’s no personal connection. I was actually a fellow in the spring semester at University of Chicago, and I taught a class on social media and social activism. One of the things we talked about was trolling and personal attacks and the contradiction of both. One of the things that make it possible to be so vicious is that you have a separation; you don’t have to think of that person as a real person. But another thing that makes it possible is like you have a connection, that you don’t feel alone and other people feel this way. So there’s an interesting tension there. It is interesting; people just go straight for the personal. I had a really good lesson early on in my journalistic career that I think has helped me a lot when I think about this. When I was at Suck.com, one of the founders had a rule of thumb which was, which now sounds crazy but, we had to respond to every email. But, in 1994, that wasn’t so hard; you’d get, like, thirty or forty max, maybe a hundred. Which sounds like a lot, but his rule of thumb was that you had to spend as much time on the response as the person spent writing it, or at least be as thoughtful as the person who wrote it. So if they wrote a twelve page screed, you just have to say, “Thank you”. Because if they just went ad hominem attack on you, that’s not a very thoughtful critique and so there’s no need to be thoughtful back. But if someone wrote you a paragraph that makes a good point then you should write back a thoughtful answer that might take some time, might take awhile. And that sort of helped me think about responses online in general, which is when somebody makes a good point I try to acknowledge it. [She keeps talking but says it’s off the record, and due to this and a blood oath both Texas Travesty correspondents have sworn not to divulge the rest of her answer. But it was juicy.]
You grew up in Texas. How do you think that has affected you as the person you are today?
Yeah, my dad’s from Texas, and Texans have a libertarian streak that is hard not to get by osmosis if nothing else. And my dad’s very liberal and a vegetarian, but he collects rifles because he likes to shoot rifles. He does marksmanship competitions, but also, in the back of his mind, and he’ll admit this, he thinks maybe he might need a gun some day. And when we talk about it, he can laugh about it and admit that’s probably not going to happen. And what’s more, since he’s a mathematician he’s very logical, having a rifle once the government has turned against you won’t help, you know. [Laughs] If the government decides to crack down on citizens, they have tanks and bombs, so rifles will not do a lot of good. And I kind of have that idea, too. Like, there might be some day that the government turns on us. Like when I talk about Eric Holder and civil liberties and the need to be watchful about that stuff. It has happened in the past. Governments have gone bad. Though, like with places in Iraq right now, if you are willing to die for your cause, all bets are off, you know. If you’re willing to use yourself as a weapon delivery mechanism and commit terrorist acts, you level the playing field really quick. I’ve thought about a lot of this. Another thing I’ve thought about, and I want to write this someday, is that if you were serious about wanting to survive the eventual, authoritarian Obama regime [chuckles], you should give up on arming yourself and learn to code. That will be the way to resist government intrusion. The other thing I say is that if everything goes to shit, if we were reduced to a state of nature because civil authority breaks down because of Ebola, weapons, again, not as useful as skills. Like, in the back of my head, I’m like, “I want to learn CPR and distinguish edible nuts and berries.” Because that’s the stuff. Like if you’re collecting gold in the event of civil meltdown and disorder, you might lose the gold or have it stolen from you, but if you know how to tell what’s edible from what’s not edible you can trade that. You can get on the life raft. You won’t get voted off the island, if that is what happens. Is it weird that I’ve thought through this?
A little. But thank you for your time!