Alexander Stille was a Nation intern in 1978. Now the San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University, he has contributed to various publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. His most recent book is The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi. In this interview, summer 2012 Nation intern Lucy McKeon asks Alexander about how he got to where he is today.
1. What was it like being an intern in 1978, the internship's inaugural year?
A very funny and interesting adventure. Victor Navasky had just taken over. The offices looked like had been left unchanged since the American civil war but the place was full of smart and interesting people from whom I learned a lot.
2. When did you realize you wanted to be a journalist?
Only a couple of years later when I was living in Italy in 1980-82. The puzzle of living in a different country, a country full of (at that time) political violence led me to want to write about it.
3. Where did you go/what did you do directly after the Nation?
I had a job as a researcher for a smart but tyrannical freelance book author. I quit after a week because I couldn't stand him. I then went to work as an editorial assistant at Random House, which worked out better and taught me the valuable lesson that I didn't want to work in book publishing.
4. What advice do you have for current or former interns and aspiring writers?
Journalism is nothing more than a license for curiosity. So allow yourself to be curious, to find out about things, to pursue and take seriously the questions you and others ask and see where they lead you.
5. What inspired your October 2011 New York Times piece "The Paradox of the New Elite," which asserts that as America has become more inclusive of race, gender, and sexuality, economic inequality has grown?
Two very specific things. In the last days of 2010, after the Republicans had won major gains in the November elections, they made a great show of strength in making abundantly clear that they were prepared to do anything — anything — to push through the renewal of the Bush tax cut specifically for the richest 2 percent. It was a live-or-die issue for them and they were prepared to shut down the government to get it. Of course, President Obama capitulated. But about a week later the issue of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," on gays in the military came up, and rather than fight, the Republicans shrugged and let it slide. I began to wonder if these two things could be related. It occurred to me that the two biggest changes in my lifetime were
1.) the movement toward greater inclusiveness in our society, the breaking down of barriers for blacks, women, hispanics, homosexuals. A series of very real, democratic accomplishments.
2.) And yet an equally clear trend was a movement toward levels of inequality that would have seem unthinkable in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was coming of age.
Were these two trends simply historical coincidental or were they connected?
6. What do you think of Italy's new Prime Minister, Mario Monti?
A huge, positive change after Berlusconi; a smart and serious man after a clown and crook. Nonetheless, he is a man in a very difficult position with limited ability to act without his own majority in parliament and dependent on various parties and factions with agendas of their own.
7. What is your favorite American city? Your favorite Italian city?
I would have to say New York perhaps simply because I was born there and live there still, although it is an answer dictated largely by ignorance. For Italy, I would have to say Rome. There are dozens of amazingly beautiful Italian cities with lots going for them, but Rome has such depth that it just gets more and more interesting the more you know it.