An Interview With Vox’s Sean Illing: “There Is No Straight Line to Your Goal”

During the last two years, Sean Illing—journalist, self-described “failed professor,” Air Force veteran, and holder of a doctorate in political science from LSU—has staked out a claim as an insightful and provocative writer, largely focusing on the subject of contemporary American political philosophy. He is a former staff writer for Salon whose work has been featured in The Huffington PostAlternet, and Slate

Currently, Sean is the Interviews Writer for Vox.

Lamar: I don’t think I have ever interviewed someone who literally earns a living as an interviews writer, but I’m happy to turn the tables on you. For those of you who do not know, you moved to Washington D.C. a couple of years ago, but you’re a son of the Gulf Coast. Where’d you grow up? And when people ask you where you’re from, what’s your answer? 

Sean: My ancestors landed in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, but I grew up in Biloxi, MS. When people ask me where I’m from, I say Biloxi, but Baton Rouge feels like a second home. I grew up in a family full of LSU fans and alumni and I always identified with Louisiana more than Mississippi. The best years of my life were spent in Baton Rouge—it’s where I met my wife and so many of my closest friends—so it will always be special to me. Plus, let’s be honest, Louisiana is cooler than Mississippi and I don’t think that comment requires a justification.

Lamar: I did some fact-checking, and this is astonishing to me. We were introduced to one another a little over two years ago through the great Bob Mann. You had just launched a blog and had a few letters of yours published in The Times Picayune. Bob was helping you shop around a column you’d written about climate change, and he asked me if I would reach out to some of my contacts at Salon and Slate, which I did. All of this is to say, “You’re welcome.” 

But seriously, do you ever marvel at how quickly you went from being a self-published blogger and adjunct college professor living in Baton Rouge to a national reporter in Washington, D.C.? 

Sean: All the time. None of this feels real or deserved to be honest. My luck exceeds my talent and I try not to forget that. Bob is a wonderful human being and I’m eternally grateful to him for taking a chance on a weirdo he knew nothing about. I’m decent enough at what I do, but without the help of people like Bob and you and mentors like Wayne Parent at LSU, I have no idea what I’d be doing right now. I suppose that’s more or less true for all of us: you can have all the talent in the world, but you cannot truly succeed in this world without other people, without the grace and compassion and kindness of friends and family and colleagues.

Lamar: The very first time we met in person, as I recall, I had just enrolled in a Ph.D. program at LSU (which held my attention for an entire semester), and you warned me that the job market for college professors was soul-crushing. What made you decide, once and for all, to leave academia and plunge head-first into journalism? And, in hindsight, do you think your Ph.D. helped you more, career-wise, than you thought when you were only looking at teaching gigs? 

Sean: Well that’s simple: I didn’t decide to leave academia; academia decided it didn’t need me. I loved teaching and I loved my students, but there just isn’t much demand for political philosophers in the academy right now, and teaching isn’t a priority for universities any longer. But I always wanted to be a writer and journalism was something I wanted to do but wasn’t sure how to do it, how to start. When it became obvious that a tenure-track job wasn’t waiting in the wings, I had no idea what to do. The truth is that my wife, Lauren, encouraged me to start blogging and freelancing, just to see what would happen. And Bob Mann encouraged me to do the same. So that’s what I did, and thankfully it worked out.

I sometimes question whether my Ph.D. was worth it, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It made me a better thinker, writer and skeptic. Those years I spent toiling on my dissertation were some of the best of my life and I’m absurdly lucky that someone paid me a few bucks to do it. And, as it turns out, it was because of my academic background that I got the job I now have, so no regrets for me.

My advice to students and people interested in getting into journalism is always the same: there is no straight line to your goal, not in this climate. Be alive to the challenges in front of you and get comfortable with uncertainty. If you can manage that, you’ll find your way.

Lamar: A lot of people in Louisiana would be surprised to know that for several years, a large percentage of the front-page articles on one of the nation’s most popular websites, Salon, was written from the second story of a house in Prairieville, a few miles south of Baton Rouge. They’d probably be even more surprised to learn that the same writer, Scott Eric Kaufman, was behind some of the funniest stories ever published on The Onion. 

When you started getting published in Salon, there were four of us all here in Baton Rouge who contributed to Salon in some capacity, and for a time, there was almost like a Salon Louisiana bureau. We’d meet up for drinks every now and then, which is how I ended up becoming friends with Scott and I’m assuming the same is true for you too. 

Scott passed away last November at the age of 39, which was heartbreaking. Is it wrong to say that, to a certain extent, Scott changed your life? What do you think it’s important about his work and his legacy for people in Louisiana to know? 

Sean: It’s not wrong at all. Scott absolutely changed my life. He helped me break into this world, and I made sure he knew that. Scott was probably smarter than all of us, but he was happy doing what he was doing. He was rare in that he actually cared about ideas, and there was a spark of brilliance in almost everything he did, even the most trivial pieces.

I hope people go back and appreciate some of his best work. When he was good, he was really good, and he had a singular voice and style. He was so dynamic and versatile, as comfortable doing satire as he was writing about visual rhetoric. I miss the hell out of him, and I’m grateful to have known him.

Lamar: On a somehow more upbeat note, the last time we saw one another was at the DNC in Philadelphia. You’d also just been to the RNC. Did you have any inkling that nearly a year later we’d be talking about President Trump?

Sean: Well, by that time I accepted that it was possible but I didn’t believe it would happen. Hell, I still can’t believe this is happening? Is it actually happening? Trump’s victory has really forced me to revisit a lot of my core assumptions about what’s politically possible. If this election proved anything, it’s that the range of potential outcomes is far broader than any of us imagined. I suppose there’s a lesson in that, namely not to take anything for granted. Political order is contingent and can fall away in a hurry. I’m convinced Trump is a legitimate threat to the republic, and although we will survive him, he has forever changed the country. There is no going back. He may be a bloated, bigoted buffoon, but he’s our bloated, bigoted buffoon, and in so many ways his existence is only possible in America. I don’t think we’ve even begun to understand what that means.

Lamar: With the caveat that we are both “enemies of the American people,” how do you think Trump’s presidency has affected journalism? Do you think he’s been successful at all in his efforts to smear critical reporting as “fake news”? If so, what’s the recourse? 

Sean: It depends what you mean by “successful.” On the one hand, he’s been wildly successful. He’s obliterated the distinction between truth and falsity, real and unreal. He’s weaponized bullshit and remade the country in his own tortured image. And he became president of the United States, so you can’t really say that he failed.

At the same time, Trump has reinvigorated journalism, made it as important as it’s ever been. The investigate reporting being done now is some of the best in the history of this country, and I’m honored to be in the same profession as these reporters.

As for recourse, I’m not sure. The only antidote for bullshit is truth, and so that’s all we can do: tell the truth. That’s what I try to do. That’s what you try to do. That’s what all of us are trying to do. And there’s nobility in that, I think.

Lamar: I just have a couple of more questions. This is a Louisiana publication, and I imagine most of the people who are reading this are from Louisiana. What’s the one book you wish every person in Louisiana would read? 

Sean: That’s a tough one, Lamar. I guess my answer would be “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. And here’s why: that book makes you feel small, not in a moral sense but in a cosmic sense. It’s a reminder of the human struggle and how improbable it is that any of us are here, right now, living our lives. It’s also a reminder that we are all we have and that solidarity is everything. I think in a polarized climate like this, a book that reminds us that our stupid and petty grievances are stupid and petty is worth highlighting.

And if that’s too highfalutin an answer, I’d add my buddy Wayne Parent’s book “The Louisiana Field Guide,” because it’s a great brief history of Louisiana and, well, because my buddy Wayne wrote it.

Lamar: And finally, if you could fix one thing about Louisiana, what would it be? 

Sean: I’d alter the hierarchy of cultural priorities. I love Louisiana and I especially love Louisianians, but a state that values football over education and health care has a problem – a profound problem. And I say that as a HUGE football fan, someone who hasn’t missed a LSU game in a decade. I could go on and on and on about this, but I’m tired and nobody wants to hear my rant, so I’ll leave it there.