Every new journalistic effort must appear driven by hubris in a world already hyper-saturated with commentary. The advent of the internet has made the news cycle eternal, the scrutinizing eye of the press ubiquitous, and the menu of news sources available to the information hungry consumer all but infinite. There is no dearth of unsolicited opinion floating about in the cyberspace ether waiting expectantly to be plucked by a vigilant citizen on the prowl for political guidance, intellectual sustenance, ideological affirmation, or simple bemusement. If the demand for political and cultural analysis is indulgently sated, then adding to the supply seems like a gratuitous exercise in self-aggrandizement. What can we contribute to the chattering clamor worth its bandwidth?
So now every new periodical necessarily begins in a fit of existential doubt, predictably offering hyperventilated justifications of its promiscuous conception. The now fashionable self-issued warrant comes in two parts. First, we are told that political discourse has become unproductively divisive and shrill and, as a result, insensitive to the opportunities for cultivating fertile common ground and forging political and theoretical alliances. This is so utterly wrongheaded it makes us to want to unleash an unholy torrent of unproductively divisive and shrill rhetoric. Besides the impossibly self-congratulatory posture of philosophical imperturbableness, this argument presupposes, without historical evidence, that our age is somehow angrier than others, and that we should take our bearings by some quixotically imagined time when docile citizens lived in gilded harmony, unburdened by daily, rancorous dispute. We used to be intestinally polite, collegial to a fault. We used to look like Canada.
Counter Exhibit A: during the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson was called the “son of a half-breed Indian squaw” by the Federalists led by John Adams, who was, in turn, accused of being a “hideous hermaphroditical character.” Franklin Roosevelt would have laughed at demands that he prove he was born in New York after being called a “demented paralytic cripple”. These epithets certainly seem more vitriolic than being called an Ivy League elitist or capitalist robber baron. If anything our disputes have grown softer and we have grown softer with them. Keep in mind we at least have the gauzy veil of ersatz political correctness to hide behind. We will concede that we are living in a golden age of sarcasm, at the nadir of passive aggressiveness.
This is a nation fashioned out of contentious ideas, a “grand experiment in self-governance”, as Hamilton once wrote, and at the center of these ideas is the foundational democratic right to free political speech, creating the essential components of a forensic tinderbox. America is borne out of the crucible of defiant revolution, and our first and most foundational document is simultaneously a pugnacious manifesto and an effective call to arms.From the moment of our national genesis, we have been sustained by manly spiritedness. We aren’t passionate because our souls are small but because our ideas are so big–there must be sonically arresting friction when jagged world views collide. One might go as far to claim, as Madison seems to in Federalist #10, that the only real peace worth pining for is actually the product of ceaseless and free partisan debate. Recall that the Soviet Union’s domestic tranquility was largely undisturbed by the clashes of pundits.
The second strand of justification typically provided for bringing a fresh decanter of words to an open bar of text (we have a wine column!) is an addendum to the first: they can effect a general comportment of intellectual moderation because they are, in fact, non-partisan, unencumbered by the pulverizing freight of prejudice, untethered from the Platonic cave of shadowy dogma. Following Aristotle, they choose the impartiality of truth over attachment to friends. However, such pure philosophical liberation is an illusion: no imperfect human being sees the world synoptically, sees it in the way God sees it, unvarnished by a delimited horizon of perspectives. Every argument, however theoretically searching, has an unstated point of departure, or undergirding moral commitment, at the very least, to the goodness of truth itself. Even the very best of us are human beings with bodies as well as minds, interests as well as ideas, whole persons both erotically and rationally inclined. We can identify our fundamental postulates as such, compare them with the ones adopted by others, but human thought is exactly that, irreducibly human in all that connotes.
The point of this particular mission statement is not to eschew but rather articulate our intellectual moorings. This is a conservative magazine of opinion. We stress “opinion” in this formulation because we realize the discussion about the most important things necessarily courts controversy and resists facile demonstration. To have a perspective is not to be addled with ideological baggage, unmoved by the gravitational pull of persuasive argumentation. It means that we think, contra Socrates’ likely ironic declaration of ignorance, that we actually know some things, and with all appropriately skeptical qualifications, that we would find it both condescending and exhausting to feign otherwise. We hope that if you disagree with us frequently you will write us about it often, each critical epistle a love note from a kindred spirit.
Our magazine is called The Daily Witness. The word “witness” is a capacious one, pregnant with symbolism. It refers to the famous book of the same name written by Whittaker Chambers in 1952, recounting his conversion to both patriotism and Christianity, inspiring the likes of William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan. It refers to the Christian concept of “witness” or the acceptance of and subsequent testimony to the truth. It refers to the juridical notion of reporting the truth as a matter of civic and moral obligation. Finally, but not exhaustively, it refers to the experience of Soviet dissidence, personified by men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who stood unwavering against the lie of Communist ideology, the “lie as a form of existence”. (In another tipping of the hat to Solzhenitsyn’s influence on our mission, we named our imprint Red Wheel Publishing, after a much neglected work that he called “the chief artistic design of my life”)
We were drawn to the word “witness” because of its dual religious and secular connotations, in a way covering the full arc of the human experience in its political and trans-political iterations. We think the word somehow captures something essential about American identity, the unprecedented character and idiosyncratic demands of American citizenship. Our national creed is like no other, boldly proclaiming self-evident truths and imprescribable rights both beyond the pale of dispute and subject to constant interrogation, dividing us into parties and binding us into a people. We are entitled and obligated to challenge these foundational ideas, real and aspirational, the foundation and firmament of our political universe. To be an American citizen is to embody the spirit of dissidence as Solzhenitsyn described and displayed, as a writer and as a man. We express our patriotic ardor through vigilant independence. This historically unusual standard of citizenship is the extraordinary consequence of a nation midwifed by metaphysically abstract ideas and the concrete reality of war, producing a citizen’s soul that is two parts Christian catechism and one part Platonic dialogue.
We believe our journalistic mission is an extension of our civic duty, to faithfully observe and opine, to analyze and assess, to praise and blame. So now our response to the question we originally posed: what do we hope to contribute to the already deafening cacophony of political ideas in America? Nothing more or less than what every citizen owes: a resolution to strengthen America by our undying witness, proffered out of love and obligation, daily. We hope you join us.
Ivan Kenneally is the Editor in Chief of the Daily Witness.