Stephen Green is a writer and investor best known as "the VodkaPundit," after his popular weblog at www.VodkaPundit.com.
Green penned his first VodkaPundit entry on January 10, 2002, and was quickly helping usher in the boom in political blogging that followed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Since then, Green’s blog has grown to become one of the more widely-read political journals on the Internet, receiving over two thousand visits daily from readers around the world, drawn to Green’s insightful commentary on politics, culture, and world events — along with a generous helping of what fellow writer James Lileks calls Green’s "mordant wit and stylish cynicism."
Green lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Melissa. The Atlasphere’s Joshua Zader spoke with him by phone in late October for this interview, where Green discusses his thoughts on the Axis of Evil, his discovery of The Fountainhead as a youth, what he finds most revolutionary about Ayn Rand's thinking, how he met the woman of his dreams, and, of course, his take on blogging.
The Atlasphere: What do you enjoy most about blogging?
Stephen Green: What I enjoy most is that it’s conversational. Most of my readers have been reading VodkaPundit for a while, and they know the assumptions I’m working with. If I mention Bernard Lewis, I expect most of my readers know he’s a professor at Princeton who’s an expert on Arab history. I don’t want to have to explain that every time I happen to mention Bernard Lewis. It’s that sort of thing. There’s an assumption that my readers know certain things, and if you stick around long enough, you get the hang of it. One week and you’re good.
TA: What effect do you see the blogosphere having on the broader culture, in the United States and around the world?
Green: I think it’s minimal right now. I read the other day that there are something like 4 million blogs. And most are of the "here’s what I did at school today" variety. That sort of blog is not going to have much of an effect. It’s kind of nice, I guess, for a girl to have a high-tech diary. But for the rest of us, it doesn’t really matter. I think for — I don’t want to say serious bloggers, because I think everyone who does it takes it somewhat seriously — but I think the popular bloggers are the ones who have something to say, and who write for their audience. Just like writers anywhere who want to be read.
As far as actual effects, it’s minimal right now. I think it will grow. There are two things a blog can do already. One of those is to keep a story going. When it looks like something that should rightly outrage people is falling off the front pages or off the nightly newscast, blogs can keep that conversation alive until reporters finally pick it back up. So we may not have any direct effect, but we can certainly have an indirect one on the big media, on the real media.
The other effect is more direct. Some bloggers have "broken through" and become a part of the big media, instead of just a small adjunct to it. The author of Baghdad's "Where is Raed?" is one example; there are lots of others.
TA: You keep a sharp eye on politics — what kind of things do you see us headed for in America?
Green: Boy, I wish I knew.... On the whole, speaking as someone who agrees with a lot of Ayn Rand’s politics, I'd say: We’re not going to get there. Her perfect minimal state’s not going to happen. This is a democratic republic and for at least the medium term, there’s no way that a vast majority of people are going to be ready for what she advocated.
So Objectivists, libertarians — whatever you want to call us — we’d better get used to the fact that we’ve got to deal with the real world. And unfortunately the real world deals with a lot of stuff that we don’t like, politically.
But where we’re headed in terms of what we can do in that context, I think is generally good. We’re out of the cold war, which was probably the most dangerous threat to our existence, literally, physically. And right now there are two main debates happening.
The first is how much government can we limit ourselves to, domestically. And the other one is foreign affairs, of course, and this new war we find ourselves in. (And I think you’ll find that Objectivists — as opposed to a lot of Libertarians, who simply want to withdraw from the world — Objectivists are on the whole more willing to get out there and win this fight.)
So, in short, I’d have to say I’m a bit of an optimist — but within the constraint that we’re not going to see that perfect future presented in Rand's books.
TA: What do you see coming up with our friends North Korea and Iran?
Green: I don’t see how, long term — or even medium-term — either one of those governments can function.
In Iran, you have a theocracy ruling over a people who are sick of it. It looks like there was a chance for revolution last summer, but the mullahs stomped it down pretty quickly. And North Korea is the closing days of Atlas Shrugged, only in the real world, and worse than anything she ever imagined. I don’t see how that can hold together.
The problem I see with North Korea is, will they lash out when they see the end is near? If so, will it be nuclear? And then, what do we do with the survivors in North Korea once that government is gone? They are in no way ready for life in the twenty-first century. Not even the twentieth.
TA: Have you been following any of the blogs in Iran?
Green: Not as much as I should. I was doing it a lot more last summer when it looked like revolution or at least rebellion was brewing.
Although, what I do read, I really find heartening. You’ve got a lot of kids there — they’re mostly kids — who really just want a little freedom. And they’re not gonna get it as long as they have the government they have, and they know it. But instead of resignation, I see a lot of hope in what I read. I think Iran may prove a better test case for nation-building than Iraq, simply because the Iranian people are much more ready for it, culturally and politically.
TA: You’ve described yourself as a "small-L" libertarian. What do you think about the libertarian movement in the United States?
Green: Ah, there’s not a movement. Not really. Compared to, say, the Green party — which is very motivated, very well structured, and increasingly effective — there’s no libertarian movement. It’s like trying to herd cats. I mean, so much of what libertarians in general believe has to do with individualism.
You know, I don’t think we’ll ever make for much of a movement. I don’t mean we’re doomed to fail. But as a movement, no — I don’t see us ever becoming a major single force.
TA: I assume you’re familiar with the Free State Project — the plan to get twenty thousand freedom-lovers to move to New Hampshire, working towards freedom at the state level. What are your thoughts on that?
Green: I think it’s terrific. I wish them the best of luck.
And I don’t say that with any kind of sneering tone. I just have to say it as someone who’s not going to leave his beloved Colorado Springs to go and join them. I can’t give up my view of Pike’s Peak; I’m just not going to do it!
But it’s a beautiful thing. We’ve got fifty states — big ones, small ones — and if enough people can go to one area and make a difference, it might set a really good example for the rest of the country.
TA: You mention Ayn Rand periodically on your blog. How did you get interested in her writings?
Green: I guess I was about fourteen — actually no, let me backtrack. At my grandparents’ house, and my dad’s house, there were bookshelves everywhere. And on all of those bookshelves you’d find Ayn Rand somewhere. So I knew the name. And when I was fourteen, my dad, who was an Objectivist — big "O," capital Objectivist — gave me a copy of The Fountainhead and said, "Here, read this."
I read it, probably with about as much understanding as any fourteen-year-old is gonna get. Enjoyed it. Wrote a book report on it, if I recall correctly. And a year later, just a couple months after Dad died, picked up a copy of Atlas Shrugged and never looked back.
TA: What do you like most about her writings?
Green: For someone who is a very happy person, I really like her hard edge and her bitterness. And I’m trying to think of a better way to describe that, but she had a very hard mind, a very tough mind. A mind that wouldn’t allow her to indulge in any wishful thinking. And in the real world, I think that’s a real necessity.
And when I say "bitterness," I don’t mean that she was mean, or resentful, but she was able to give you a solid look at the way politics works, as opposed to how it should work.
And the world she paints — especially in The Fountainhead — is just amazing.
TA: Yeah, I agree. So you read The Fountainhead first?
Green: I sure did. And I’ll tell you, it’s a less important book than Atlas Shrugged, but I think it’s a much better written one. Even her bad guys have a lot of humanity. Unlike in Atlas Shrugged, where they tend to be a bit more two-dimensional.
Whereas in The Fountainhead.... The scene that just popped into my head is the one before Howard Roark’s second trial, when Dominique goes back to her father — who, in the first part of the book, was an example of everything that was wrong with the business of architecture, and the art of architecture. In this scene, he and Dominique have a reconciliation and, in a very tender moment, he tells her that Roark will be acquitted. That was a scene that just lent a lot of depth to one of the villains of the piece.
TA: Looking through the comments on your blog, it seems like you have a better-than-average readership among women; and you’re recently married, too. Do you have any advice for mere mortals on hitting it off with the fairer sex?
Green: (Laughs) Believe me, I’m as mortal as they come. My twenties and early thirties were, you know, your endless series of two-to-six-week "relationships."
I met the right girl, I knew it right away, and I jumped in head-first.
TA: How did you know so quickly that you two were right for each other?
Green: I wish I could say we got into this deep, philosophical conversation and we really clicked, but it was a meshing of personalities and of goals.
And in her case, an endless supply of patience.
TA: How did you and Melissa meet?
And I’m not exactly mister pick-up artist, but I took a look and asked her what she was drinking. I bought her a beer, we started talking, and nine months later I proposed.
TA: What's the most important thing you’ve learned about marriage, in your first year?
Green: Ah, boy. I want to say something that doesn’t sound cliché or trite....
Never stop dating. And that probably does sound cliché and it probably does sound trite, but — I try not to call her "my wife"; I still call her "my bride," even though you’re only supposed to do that for the first year. We still cook for each other, we still go out on dates, we still play.
TA: Inasmuch as you can judge something like this from the way somebody writes, you seem like a man who lives with a lot of style. And some people eschew style based on the idea that it’s opposed to substance, which they consider more important. What are your thoughts on that, and about style in general?
Green: I think style can — it doesn’t necessarily, but it can — have a substance all its own.
I don’t want to live in a drab world. Ayn Rand wrote about drab worlds in her novels, and her heroes fought against it constantly. So what’s wrong with a little fun, a little style, with a little silliness. I think those things make you a little brighter. And make the rest of the world a lot more bearable.
TA: I know that you do investing. How did you learn? Do you have a degree in finance?
Green: No. I inherited a little money and discovered that I was pretty good at picking some stocks. I don’t do it often, but when I jump in I usually make pretty good calls.
TA: That’s right, it sounds like your dad passed away early.
Green: Yeah, he was not quite forty-two when he died. That was ... it’ll be twenty years ago this February.
TA: Wow. I can’t imagine what that would be like.
Green: It sucks. That’s the short version. Long version is, I was in a real deep hole there during my teen years, which you can probably imagine. And reading Ayn Rand — maybe a little too much — helped get me out of that hole.
TA: I think she’s helped more than a few of us that way.
Green: Oh, I know she has.
TA: Returning to blogging again.... For people who are new to it, are there any blogs that you would especially recommend checking out first, to get a taste of what blogging is all about?
Green: Number one, you’ve gotta go to the link-man, InstaPundit. They say there are two types of bloggers — "linkers" and "thinkers." Glenn Reynolds is mostly a linker, he doesn’t write a whole lot. But he does post a lot, and it’s usually "Go read this...," and then a quick little comment on why it’s interesting, or why it matters or why it relates to other things that he’s linked to. And this guy will amaze you with the breadth of his knowledge and with the links to things that you probably never would have discovered on your own.
And for the thinkers, I think especially Ayn Rand fans would enjoy Stephen den Beste, at the USS Clueless. den Beste writes essays: five hundred words to, I think, a couple of five-thousand-word opuses, which is a lot to read on a web page. But more often than not, he’s worth the effort. He’s an engineer, an atheist, a mechanist. More of a pragmatist, philosophically, than anything else, but with a very strong bent toward individual liberty.
TA: I know you’ve inspired more than a few people to start their own blog. Do you have any advice for people who are starting out as bloggers?
Green: Well, first, I’d like to apologize to all those folks who I got into this business — it’s a colossal time-eater!
Advice? Try and write for your audience. And if you can’t do that, write for yourself and just enjoy it. I’m doing this because I love to write and I found I couldn’t seem to get paid for it. But this was something I could do to have a platform and, more importantly, give me a chance to keep my writing chops in good shape.
TA: You have mentioned on your blog that there are parts of Ayn Rand’s philosophy you disagree with. I’m curious what they are and what your thinking is.
Green: Mostly it’s quibbling with details. And some of them, she’s — I don’t want to call her a hypocrite, I certainly don’t think she was that — but, gays for example. I can’t remember which lecture it was, where she said some horrible things about homosexuals. I remember that really stuck in my head.
At the time I didn’t have any problem with it. I was raised in a really homophobic culture — mid-western preps — and then I discovered that some of the best human beings I knew were gay. And I discovered, or I realized, that I’d been a bit of an ass; and I thought Ayn was wrong on that. And then, I later read that some of Ayn Rand’s personal friends were gay.
And I couldn’t see how she could say all that in a lecture, and then do something else in person. Perhaps that’s just a personal flaw of hers, and it might have to do with the fact that, at the time that she evaluated the subject, homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder. So it’s really just quibbling with details.
She was revolutionary in her thinking. And I don’t hold a whole lot of hope for any sort of revolution in human thought. I think those who want to live their lives the way Rand says, should go out there and do it. But don’t expect a whole lot from the rest of humanity, because history is really against you.
TA: What do you see as most revolutionary in her thinking?
Green: That’s a good question. Politically, I don’t think she started a whole lot new. Others had certainly gone that road before: Hayek, Isabel Patterson.... It's a really good question.
TA: We all, when we read Ayn Rand, we get that feeling we’re encountering something revolutionary. And on the one hand, there are people who tell us "Oh, that’s been tried, that will never work," who tell us it’s not revolutionary. And yet, there is something so new and so unique....
Green: There is. Maybe some of what we think is revolutionary is simply the quality of her writing. I’ve never read anyone like her. I don’t think anybody has. She could hit you on so many levels at the same time. Especially the gut and the brain — all at once. I don’t know, it’s refreshing; I keep going back to it, to re-read.
TA: Even though parts of her philosophy may not have been entirely new, she was really a system-builder, in an important way....
Green: Oh, yeah.
TA: And being able to put things together that — sure, someone had talked about those individual topics before, but they’d never shown you how they logically lead from one to the other. There’s something powerful — particularly when you’re in your teens and you’re still figuring out how the world works — to be able to see all those pieces fitting together.
But when it comes to the structure of art, her explanation of why sculpture isn’t sculpture unless it’s of the human form — I thought that was pretty revolutionary. It hit something: If it’s not the human form, it’s just a model. And I always loved sculpture. I didn’t know why, but all the stuff I liked were nudes. And she hit the nail on the head with that one.
TA: It sounds like you discovered Ayn Rand at a particularly early age.
Green: Fourteen, fifteen. I can thank my dad for that one.
TA: There was a joke in the Sixties that if your parents loved Ayn Rand's books, you didn’t. You’re one of the exceptions, I guess.
Green: Well, my Dad’s family is Jewish. And I’ve always joked that Jews who don’t stay Jews end up as either communists or Objectivists. There’s no in-between. ...And usually Trotskyites.
TA: (Laughing) ...Any advice for readers who have just discovered The Fountainhead recently?
Green: Yes. If you’re really getting into her philosophy, remember the first line of that book.
TA: "Howard Roark laughed."
Green: Yeah. Don’t forget that.