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Friday, July 12, 2024

Hard lessons from Aggie opinion


Opinion Editor Eli Flesch on four life-changing years of college journalism

It took me a long time to figure out exactly what Joan Didion meant in Slouching Towards Bethlehem when she wrote that “writers are always selling somebody out.” After four years of working on The Aggie’s opinion desk — two as its editor — I think I understand a little better.

To be an effective writer you need to betray some sense of loyalty — to your subjects, your editors, even to your friends and family. Otherwise it’s impossible to write candidly and honestly.

But most people, I would guess, enjoy many of their subjects and editors, and even love their friends and family. I certainly do. These last four years have been the best of my life for that reason.

So what gives? Are writers just back-stabbers? Is that Didion’s game?

Probably not. Because there’s a higher loyalty in being honest, especially when it means talking about uncomfortable truths. And if you’re an opinion writer, that loyalty comes when you tell your truth — the one you’ve come to after a life of unique experiences and lessons. It’s been a distinct privilege of mine to have been exposed to so many wonderful individuals through The Aggie.

I’ve always made a point of editing and writing for Aggie readers first. When I hired columnists, I made sure to hire liberals and conservatives alike. My goal was to facilitate dialogue. College newspapers should not be safe spaces. Editors and reporters disrespect their readers when they sanitize or refuse to publish material with the potential to offend. I’ve seen this self-censorship play out at The Aggie, and I often resisted out of a sense of obligation to the readers.

The vigorous pursuit of alternative opinions is the moral responsibility of every writer and reader. Ideas that go untested, no matter their strength, are simply not credible. So we better get as much writing as we can out there — to create those oppositional forces that improve our society.

Having felt those oppositional forces against my own work has made me a better person.

I’ve written dozens of columns and stories for The Aggie — the overwhelming majority of which would normally be considered liberal or progressive — and yet it was perhaps one, maybe two, that effectively cemented my reputation in some circles on this campus as a white supremacist, deserving, as one person notified me at a bar one night, of being beat up.

And while threats of violence I can never justify, I’ve always welcomed and encouraged criticism that compels me to reevaluate my own biases and preconceived notions. Publishing letters and interacting with the community has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this job.

But I would still advise against the tendency, regrettably common today among the left, to demand moral purity. The idea that a person can be free of deep contradictions and flaws needlessly creates enemies out of potential allies — dangerous at a political moment requiring unity.

In some of my proudest moments at this paper I’ve defended teachers unions, criticized private schooling and searched for ways universities can best serve low-income communities.

(I’m also so proud to have defended Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to speak on this campus.)

But I’ve never been perfect in my efforts. And any claim I may have to certainty now will surely be blunted by age. So I’ve learned to be as careful as possible with what I say, how I say it and where I say it (tragically, you’ll never see me stoop down to argue on Facebook or Twitter).

The saving power of journalism still exists, even in this age of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” The best writing gifts readers the ability to pause — to have a moment of skepticism in which judgement and self-righteousness give way to consideration and openness. In that moment, violence is impossible. Ego vanishes. This is to say, writing makes life immeasurably rich.

I think by writing. I find it difficult to speak to other people. I’m often inarticulate. My mind runs with stopgaps and pauses and loops that are impossibly frustrating. Those vanish when I write. Or at the very least I can work through them to the point where they don’t appear on the page. It’s for this reason that writing has been the great love of my life. It’s why I’m so invested in the impossible task of getting it right, and it’s why I lapse into self-loathing when I don’t.  

People have helped along the way. They’ve humbled me with their hard work and humor, and in the process they’ve made that self-loathing feel a little bit more common. I must conclude my Aggie career by acknowledging a few of these people, for whom I feel nothing but gratitude.

I need to thank Scott Dresser for not only employing me and defending my work, but being a friend. Stephen Magagnini deserves recognition for showing me the kind of mettle it takes to be a capable reporter. Taryn DeOilers, my successor, for leaving me absolutely confident in the continued success of the opinion desk. Ethan Victor for helping to bring some humor to this thing. Zach Moore, my rock. And the rest of my lovely columnists and humorists, who somehow trusted a person who never uses semicolons to be a strong judge of their work. Thank you. Thank you.


Written by: Eli Flesch — ekflesch@ucdavis.edu


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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