The Lefty Directory

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

The Lefty Interview: James M. Capozzola

April of this year saw the creation of many new blogs with a Liberal point of view. One of the newbies that quickly gained notice in the political blogosphere was The Rittenhouse Review. When I first visited the site, I was struck by the formal tone of the writing and by a links column that indicated the authors were thorough, if not obsessive, in their research and sourcing. After a couple of weeks of reading TRR, I was hooked by the somewhat unpredictable nature of the subjects covered and the variety of opinions expressed. This was not a blog that preached to the choir or always adhered to predictable partisan ideology, and I found myself intrigued by the site. It soon became a daily read, even though I often disagreed with the opinions published.

If you've been wondering what is going on with this blog, many of your questions will be answered as editor James M. Capozzola agrees to sit for the Lefty Interview:

How would you describe your political orientation?

J.C.: I wish I could borrow from Irving Kristol and say I’m a neo-liberal -- a conservative who has been mugged by reality -- but the “neo-liberal” tag has been taken, though pretty much forgotten. (Not surprising given that it never really meant much of anything.)

My interest in politics began in 1976 when two of my older brothers were volunteering for Jimmy Carter’s campaign in the New York primary. The Democratic Party in the region was backing Morris Udall, so the Carter campaign was understaffed and under funded to say the least. One of my younger sisters and I were actually sent out door-to-door with Carter literature before the primary: we were just 12 and 13 years old, respectively.

So I guess I considered myself a Democrat while in high school and in the early years of college. Gradually, however, I found myself moving to the right, specifically on issues of foreign policy and national defense. I turned into a hard-core Cold War hawk, a stance I maintained until the very end: the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. While in graduate school I probably would have described myself as a neoconservative, and I actually wrote my master’s thesis at the University of Virginia on neoconservative anti-communism.

Over time I became increasingly uncomfortable with the neoconservatives’ embrace of the social conservatives and various conservative religious figures. Eventually, too many deplorable articles popped up in Commentary, the New Criterion, and elsewhere that I let my subscriptions lapse for several years.

With the Cold War over, my interest in foreign policy and defense faded. These issues seemed less pressing to me at the time and, in any event, I was by then already working in financial journalism. Keeping up with the stock market became my primary focus.

Over the last, maybe six years or so, I’ve found myself moving toward the left again, but I think of myself as being a liberal rather than a leftist, and not just because “leftist” is an epithet that I would prefer to avoid having thrown at me. In fact, I have opinions on numerous issues that would lead me to fail immediately the litmus tests of many liberal interest groups.

I guess the reason for this latest shift has to do with various setbacks, disappointments, tragedies, and just plain bad luck that I have experienced and that I have seen friends and family endure in recent years. The conservative rhetoric about the values of bootstraps and discipline and faith are all well and good, and I not only ascribe to them, I have lived them. But sometimes people need help to get through a difficult period and the insensitivity of many conservatives to the dire plight and horrible lives of many of their fellow Americans is unconscionable. I find this particularly true with respect to children. Why do we punish innocent children because their parents are losers?

And while my interest in foreign policy has reemerged after a fairly long period of dormancy, I have to admit to feeling more like an isolationist and certainly less like a unilateralist than I did in the past. One of the tag lines used by Sen. George McGovern during his 1972 presidential campaign was “Come home, America.” Some fifteen years ago I scoffed at the very notion (viewing the remark in retrospect of course -- I was all of 10 years old in 1972), but it appeals to me now in a way that it never did before.

What is your educational/professional background?

J.C.: I earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the State University of New York at Albany and then a master’s degree in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia.

After graduate school I moved to Washington, D.C., and spent my first six years there working as a research assistant and then research analyst for a small securities research and consulting firm serving institutional investors.

After that I went to work for a news wire that has since been incorporated into Dow Jones news wires. This service was also geared toward institutional investors. While there I worked as an editor and research analyst covering the energy and utility industries, and later spent three years, maybe a little less, as the managing editor of the wire. I guess I was there for about five years.

Then I moved to New York to join Individual Investor magazine, which unfortunately folded in July of last year. I started as a research analyst, then was promoted to associate director of research, then to director of research, and then to senior director of research.

It was a terrific experience. I worked with some great people and the company was very good to me. I enjoyed working in a magazine publishing environment (back then we also published Ticker, a trade magazine for financial planners and brokers, along with three different web sites, all of which I was involved with, in addition to Individual Investor.

Now I write the scripts for a nationally syndicated radio program. I work from home and have very flexible hours, which have proved to be of great help in sustaining the site.

What prompted you to start The Rittenhouse Review and where does the name come from?

J.C.: I’ve had in the back of my mind for years the idea of starting a journal, a “little magazine” as they are sometimes called. Of course, back in the early 1990s the idea was that it would be a print publication. The funding required for such a venture is substantial and without that, or the reputation needed to get one started, it remained more a dream than anything else.

Then the weblogs started appearing. For a while I used to send ideas, thoughts, and articles worthy of commentary to two or three well-known bloggers who used them to varying degrees. I enjoyed seeing my suggestions take the form of articles, but I didn’t get credit for it (I never asked for it and never expected it), and I suppose my ego revved up leading me to think, “Hey, I could do this.” Then I stumbled across Blogger and its software, looked into it a bit, and realizing how easy it would be to get started, I just jumped in.

The name of the blog comes from Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, one of the original squares in William Penn’s plan for that city. I don’t know what the term “Rittenhouse Square” conjures up in the minds of those who are familiar with it, but in its history it has at various times represented the city’s cultural, intellectual, and artistic center, and the fact that it’s a beautiful park lined with some wonderful buildings including townhouses, apartment buildings, hotels, a museum, the Ethical Culture Society, and so forth, adds a little class to the blog’s name (or at least I hope so).

Articles published at The Rittenhouse Review are written using the plural pronoun “we.” Is that the “royal we” or is the Review a collective effort?

J.C.: There are several reasons for this. I guess the most basic reason is that having launched the site as a collective endeavor, we used the plural pronoun and we’ve (I’ve) stuck with it even when it hasn’t been necessary.

The Review is still a collective effort, but not to the extent that was originally anticipated, as several prospective participants opted out or have become absorbed by other projects.

I think there are difficulties inherent in managing a collective blog. Being rather opinionated myself, what we publish on various issues may make potential or current contributors uncomfortable about beginning or maintaining an association with the site. Arguably, blogging is a very personal venture, perhaps an inherently personal endeavor.

Also, I have spent a good part of my professional life writing and reading securities research reports. Almost without exception these are written using the plural pronoun, as in, “We believe XYZ Co. is undervalued and recommend purchase at prices below $15.” It feels natural to me to write in this manner.

I don’t write everything that appears on the site but I edit nearly every article before it is published. When I am in general accord with the essay, I’m comfortable putting it forward with the plural pronoun. However, from time to time I will publish something that is mine alone and indicate that it is such by attaching my initials to the end of the article.

You publish nearly every day. What motivates you? What keeps you doing it?

J.C.: We try to publish at least one article every day, though we’re easy on ourselves on the weekends. (And, of course, Blogger bugs get in the way sometimes.) I think the greatest number of posts we’ve put up in one day is seven, but that takes quite a bit of effort given the length of the average piece at The Rittenhouse Review. Publishing that much is not my goal, but it’s nice when it happens.

I think what motivates me the most is the expressions of gratitude from readers and the statements of support and compliments from other webloggers. I remember when we first got started and I noticed that some bloggers were commenting on our work and setting up links to the Review, most of them without telling us. That was very flattering and it still is when it happens.

Watching the traffic rise over time has been particularly gratifying. As a matter of principle we don’t discuss the specific numbers of visitors, but the average daily traffic on weekdays quickly became far more than I could ever have imagined. Lately the same has happened with respect to weekend traffic.

And I like the camaraderie of the weblogger community. I’ve “met” a lot of very smart, talented, funny, and warm people since starting the site, one of whom I have been known to swap e-mail with until four or five in the morning. Within just a few weeks, I expect to meet several blogging friends in person.

How do you choose the topics you write about and what issues interest you the most?

J.C.: It’s fairly random, actually. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “I’ve got to say something about the Bush administration’s TIPS program.” Rather, I go about my normal visits to my regular sites and when I find something interesting I bookmark it. Afterward, I check the bookmarks to see which, if any, are about topics I feel like discussing at that moment.

There probably are better ways to go about this -- for example by focusing solely on one subject -- but I would feel confined by that structure, though it works very well for some very smart people out there.

The variety of topics covered is very important, the more I think about it. I’m gay and Catholic, but the last thing I want is to be known as “a gay Catholic blogger.”

I also wouldn’t want readers to expect us/me to comment on every single thing that happens on an issue of importance to us. For example, I am opposed to the death penalty and favor most reasonable gun control laws. Yet, as passionate as most people feel about those issues, I don’t share that energy. So while we might publish a piece about the death penalty or an outrageous incident involving guns, we cannot and will not feel compelled to write about every death penalty sentence or handgun incident that happens. We’re not the New York Times, after all. There aren’t hundreds of people in the building with me.

You’re among the better known new bloggers. What do you think helped you break out of the pack?

J.C.: A combination of factors. At the start we picked a few fights with people in the news in an effort to draw some attention to ourselves. But after that, I truly think we caught readers’ attention by consistently publishing interesting, provocative, and thoughtful articles on a wide variety of issues. We weren’t particularly aggressive about alerting people to pieces we wrote about them. I just wasn’t comfortable with that.

Also helpful were some early discoveries, plugs, or “props,” if you will, from Eric Alterman, Justin Raimondo, Media Whores Online, Cursor, and The Hamster. All of them enjoy high levels of traffic, so even catching a sliver of their visitors helped build a critical mass. Of course keeping people coming back is a different story entirely.

You have quite a number of links, including Catholic sites and sites of other religions. Why such an effort there?

J.C.: Religion and faith are very important to me, but I consider them very private matters. Some readers have expressed surprise that we don’t write about religion more than we do. Frankly, I’m surprised as well and I don’t know why that has been the case. I think we’ll work on it some more in the future.

I also believe religion is a crucial aspect of our cultural identity and that the decline of the established Protestant churches, for example, has not had a positive effect on our culture. By this I do not mean that fewer Episcopalians going to church every Sunday has resulted in some sort of moral decay in our society. Rather, that our culture loses something very valuable when we toss aside the rich traditions associated with faiths that have contributed much to who we are as Americans.

I think it’s sad that the “mainline” churches, the Protestant churches in particular, have lost so many members to various rigid new “denominations.” Some day we will look back on this with great regret, to the extent we haven’t already done so.

What has been the reaction to your blog from family and friends? Other bloggers? Your readers?

J.C.: I’m not sure many of my friends or family members read The Rittenhouse Review on even a scattershot basis. They rarely mention it.

The response from other bloggers has been very positive on the whole. As I said, I’ve made some good friends since starting the project. Even my critics, for the most part, have been fair, kind, and generous.

The readers are a great bunch of very thoughtful people. They send intelligent and timely suggestions and helpful criticisms, all of which are much appreciated.

What don’t you like about blogging?

J.C.: I could probably do without the hate mail, though as I posted on the site on Tuesday (August 20), it doesn’t intimidate me or cause me to couch or soften my opinions or remarks. Most of it is of a level of quality that more often elicits laughter rather than anger.

Dishonest bloggers bother me. It took me a while to figure out who they were and now I just ignore them.

I’m a little irritated at having been so readily typecast as a “leftist” blogger. Make no mistake, I would prefer to be associated with the left than the right, but I don’t think my views lend themselves to such rigid classification. Many bloggers on the right seem to think lobbing the term “leftist” without substantiating the assertion is in and of itself an argument, which, frankly, is an immature approach to intellectual discourse.

On your site you posted about being harassed? Can you tell us about that?

J.C.: Ugh. I’ll keep this short. A certain person became annoyed or angered by something published by the Review and decided to send me critical e-mails almost daily. That I can handle, but the messages were part of a larger agenda.

This person somehow found out some things about me that few people know and then began using this information in correspondence with various well-known pundits. This person also posted comments on at least one site posing as me, nearly destroying a professional relationship in the process. This person also maintains a weblog that was used to disparage my good name and reputation.

We made quick work of this once the situation reached a critical point. Two lawyers from two different firms helped me narrow down the potential culprits within 24 hours and within 72 hours we knew who it was with 99 percent certainty. Subpoenas have been drafted that can be served on any number of companies or individuals should we find it necessary to put this person out of action permanently.

It’s all so juvenile, but I suppose it comes with the territory.

You've launched two additional blogs, |||trr||| and Horowitz Watch. Tell us about those sites.

J.C.: |||trr||| is a personal site. It’s mine alone. I call it “The Lighter Side of The Rittenhouse Review.” I use it as an outlet for humorous, quirky, goofy things that I run across or that pop into my head. I enjoy working on |||trr|||.

Horowitz Watch was launched in response to David Horowitz joining the ranks of webloggers. Initially we posted some critical remarks about Horowitz and his blog at The Rittenhouse Review and jokingly added that we claimed first dibs on the name “Horowitz Watch.” We actually had no plans to begin such a site.

Then, in his all too predictable fashion, Horowitz attacked us, calling us “commies” as well as “post-modern commies,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. Regardless, both terms are ridiculous, laughable really. We viewed this as nothing less than Horowitz declaring war on us, something he has done with considerable frequency to any number of worthy individuals and groups throughout his various extremist ideological manifestations. And so we decided to set up the site.

Horowitz Watch is very much a collective effort. We’ve been joined by Scoobie Davis, Doxagora, and Yuval Rubinstein of Groupthink Central, all of whom have proved they can demolish Horowitz at any available opportunity. (Of course, intending no disrespect, Horowitz is a pretty easy target since he can barely construct a coherent paragraph let alone a reasoned argument.

What mainstream media do you regularly rely on?

J.C.: Just about everything and anything. My father instilled in me an appreciation for good newspapers and my mother did the same with respect to magazines.

I read through four newspapers every day: The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. To a lesser extent and on a more random basis, I’ll take a look at the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Post, the Daily News, the Washington Times, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times.

If there’s a regional story running that piques my interest, then I’ll check the newspaper or newspapers in the region. And that can take me anywhere from the Seattle Times to the Savannah Morning News.

I also check in on several foreign newspapers, including the Guardian, the Independent, the Times (London), the Telegraph, the Frankfürter Allgemeine Zeitung, Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post, Le Monde, Corriere della Serra, and several others.

The number of magazines coming into the office boggles the mind: The Nation, the New Republic, the Weekly Standard, the Atlantic, Harper’s, Commentary, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, the National Interest, In These Times, Monthly Review, the National Catholic Reporter, the National Catholic Register, First Things, Fortune, Business Week, Esquire, Details, Men’s Journal, Paper, Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Traveler, and several more. You get the picture.

I rarely watch the evening news unless there’s something truly dramatic happening in the world and I’m interested in getting the visual aspect of the story. I think it’s a half hour that can be spent much more productively. If you knock out the commercials, the puff pieces, and the human-interest stories, you’re spending 30 minutes to get what? Eight minutes of real news? I guess they must be some amazing eight minutes though, given how overwrought so many conservatives become when the subject arises.

I long ago gave up on the Saturday evening and Sunday morning political talk shows. I catch “Crossfire” when the guest is someone of particular interest and preferably when the hosts are Paul Begala and Robert Novak rather than James Carville and Tucker Carlson. As for MSNBC and Fox News, I don’t know. They’re so far up in double-digit land on the basic-cable line-up here that I forget about them more often not, but I do get their e-mail blasts about upcoming programs

Now, all-news radio . . . that’s a forum I really enjoy. WCBS and WINS in New York, WKYW in Philadelphia, and WTOP in Washington, for example, are great stations. I have a habit of listening to all-news stations until I discover I’ve memorized the reporters’ scripts, having heard the same reports in each of the preceding four half-hour blocks. Then it’s time to move on.

What non-business and non-blog things interest you? Music? Art? Literature?

J.C.: I know almost nothing about contemporary music and I was never clued in to that element of the popular culture. I haven’t bought a CD in five or six years, to tell you the truth. I like classical music, but I can’t say that I know a lot about it.

I’m very interested in art history, particularly modern painting, actually anything after the Impressionists, who I think, as a group, are wildly over-rated though they played a critical role in the development of painting as an art form.

Favorite artists: Degas, Seurat, Pissarro, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Picasso, Derain, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Kolvitz, Schiele, Klee, Schwitters, Pollock, Rothko, Mitchell, Frankethaler, Hoffmann, Diebenkorn, Kelly. . . I’ll stop now.

I also greatly admire the Dutch masters, including van Eyck, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals. The works of the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians are fascinating as well. And of course the great Italian artists: Bernini, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello, etc.

Overrated: (I’ll keep it short.) Monet, Renoir, Morissot, Bacon, Neumann, O’Keefe, Warhol, Segal, Bourgeois, Koons, Close, Holtzer, Basquiat, Schnabel, Kruger, Sherman, Liebovitz, et al.

I read quite a lot, but I have to admit that I have read far less fiction than I would like. I prefer biography and history, with some dabbling in theology. My favorite novel of all time: Madame Bovary. Or maybe The Magic Mountain. Or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Lately, though, I’ve been spending more time working on foreign languages that I used to know well, including German, Italian, and French, and also trying to pick up a few more, including Dutch (not that difficult if you know English and German, though the pronunciation is tricky) and Finnish (which because it is not an Indo-European language is akin to learning how to speak like Martians or something).

I’ve been bitching about the heat all summer and threatening to pick up and move to Scandinavia. Who knows, it just might happen.

Which five bloggers would you want to be stuck on a desert island with, and why?

J.C.: Only five? Let me see if I can limit myself to that number.

Madeleine Begun Kane (a/k/a Mad Kane), definitely.

Atrios of Eschaton, of course.

Scoobie Davis, if he promises to teach me how to surf.

Silt,” though I won’t give out his real name.

Yuval Rubinstein of Groupthink Central.

Avedon Carol of The Sideshow.

Brian Linse, naturally.

And Michelangelo Signorile, even though he doesn’t have a weblog, because I think he’s smart and cute, and I’ll bet he’s really funny too.

I guess that makes eight.

Can I invite David Horowitz and Andrew Sullivan along? I mean, just for yucks, though they would have to stay in a separate tent by themselves. And find their own food.

Who do you wish would start a blog?

J.C.: Ann Richards, Elizabeth Holtzman, and Bea Arthur.

Thanks to Jim for subjecting himself to the interview. Check him out at The Rittenhouse Review.