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Get to Know J. Rosenberg

Welcome back to 'Better Know a SoCal Blogger' on KCET.org, where we feature our city's plethora of fascinating and first-rate blogs. This week we are speaking with our very own Jeremy Rosenberg, a blogger obsessed with all things think tank, including "the tanks themselves, the people who work at them, and the big ideas so often born at tanks."

The Basics:

Blogger name: Jeremy Rosenberg

Official name of blog: Think Tank L.A.


When did your work first appear online? During the great dot-com boom of the late 20th Century.
That's right, didn't you used to work for the Los Angeles Times? Yes, for latimes.com - I was an early adapter when it came to layoffs. Among my other work there, I wrote a column called the Secret City.

And in addition to your media writing, you've also been involved with Farmlab and other non-profits, right? Yep, I spent the past four-plus years working for the Annenberg Foundation, on special projects such as Farmlab, Not A Cornfield, and Chora. Currently, I'm on the board of both the Outpost for Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. I've also done some work with Next American City, out of Philadelphia.

What books are you currently reading?

The answer I'd like to give is Nothing The Sun Could Not Explain: 20 Contemporary Brazilian Poets. Closer to the truth would be Brown River, White Ocean: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Philippine Literature in English. But the full truth is limited to The Taqwacores, The Public Storage Story: Behind the Orange Door, from Angel City, and Los Angeles, from Taschen.

What L.A.-based blogs are you reading? That changes all the time - you just have to follow the links. But a couple consistent favorites are Ben Sullivan's Scienceblog and Jesus Sanchez's The Eastsider L.A., plus everyone at KCET Local.

The Lowdown:

What is your blog about? Ideas, and the idea of Los Angeles as a center for ideas. It's the slow-boil chronicling of the goings-on at policy centers, research institutions, and the like in and around the Southland - and beyond. The blog covers the tanks themselves, the people who work at them, and the big ideas so often born at tanks.

But you sometimes stray from just talking think tanks. Hey, some days you gotta talk about space aliens. Or soccer. And almost any topic can easily enough be linked back to tanks. There's got to be some kind of Six Degrees of RAND Corporation parlor game.

How did you get involved with KCET Local? Juan Devis invited me. I'm a big fan of his visionary work - for KCET and elsewhere. His Web Stories and Departures are superb. So, I said yes. Then Juan started telling me that Don Waldie and Erin Aubry Kaplan and Holly Willis had already said yes, so I kept saying yes until Juan hung up the phone.

Did you know the other KCET bloggers? I'd met Adolfo Guzman-Lopez during the Not A Cornfield project. He and his Radio Sonideros colleagues produced an audio documentary called, "Roots of the Park." I'd also seen him perform his spoken word work. Holly Willis - I'd written a couple of real short pieces for RES, but never worked with her. I met Erin Aubry at a party years ago - she wouldn't remember, but hey, for me, that was a big night out - I got to say hello to the likes of Erin, Nina Wiener, Betty Rinehart, Ruben Mendoza, and Ron Athey.

What about Ophelia, Brian, and Don? I've only met Ophelia and Brian (who works for Reason) once in person, at KCET. I've neglected to mention Gary Dauphin so far, but his writing and his web vision is first-rate. Now, as for Mr. Waldie, my jaw dropped like the Times Square apple when I read his Better Know a SoCal Blogger piece.

What are you talking about? Mr. Waldie's KCET Q&A. In it, he references a piece he wrote a decade ago, about the future of the literature of Los Angeles. I don't save too many hard copies of newspapers and magazines, but I saved that one. It was published in 1999. I was the books editor at latimes.com. The print edition of the Times' Book Review was still a stand-alone Sunday tabloid. The cover illustration was by James Doolin, whose works grace the interior of the opulent MTA headquarters over near the Twin Towers jail, downtown. Waldie wrote:

The former literature of Los Angeles is nearly finished - the literature of Anglo unease with race and sunshine in our ruined utopia. The literature that runs from Nathaniel West to Joan Didion is passing away. The literature to come isn't here yet. When it is, it will finally be comfortable with the autumn heat and the pitiless light in a season of drought. Its writers will be more familiar with the real streets of Teheran or the imaginary ones of Tenochtitlán than those of Greenwich Village. They will be disturbingly frank about the presence of God (or gods) in the suburbs. They won't be Emersonian. Because many of them will have gone in a day - not in a lifetime - from birthplaces in villages and barrios to East LA, Glendale, or Long Beach, their writing will be crowded with ancestors whose grievances cannot be dismissed by our longing for perpetual adolescence.

I had recently moved to L.A. from the East Coast. I read Waldie and thought, yeah, he's right. I gave up writing fiction - my responsibility, not his - and stuck to trying in part to chronicle stories told by people like he mentions.
The issue has come up in your blog of think tanks having to fill a conservative void left by liberal academia. Is there merit to this claim? I didn't say that. But back in April - TTLA featured a Q&A with Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Institute. Brook all but said that. His group is far from the political mainstream, but they offer provocative, often contrarian ideas and they make good copy. Also, to state the obvious - it's easier to start a think tank than a university. So if conservatives felt academically excluded and aggrieved, then throwing money at tanks is a smarter short-term investment.

People are hot on grass roots movements these days. Is expertise, provided by organizations like think tanks, an undervalued asset in the 21st century?
Not to go all "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" here, but that depends on what you consider "grass roots." Many prominent think tanks provide institutional homes for politicians and other former government employees - from military officers to state department pros to budget wonks. I don't suppose you'd consider John Podesta to be 'grass roots'. Not in the sense that here in L.A., Marqueece Harris-Dawson and the Community Coalition are grass root. Think tanks have a great deal to offer locally, nationally, and internationally. The job of a tank's staff is to do research, offer solutions, and make those ideas public. Then it's up to all of us to take, or to leave, those ideas.

How do you figure out which tank to trust, and which not to? Like anything else, every idea from every tank ought to be evaluated on its own merits. Sure, consider the source and its political leaning, if any. Ideas themselves, though, are non-partisan. Professor James McGann spoke to TTLA about who works at tanks and why - among many other topics he covered. McGann was last year to this blog what at least some think tank execs and staffers are to the media at large: an independent arbitrator.

Some critics have stated that the political might of private think tanks is inherently undemocratic. No one, after all, elects these men and women who propose important policy changes. Would you defend or refute this criticism?
There are two think tanks in North Korea. Those are most likely inherently undemocratic. Stateside, though, think tanks aren't star chambers or shadow governments. They aren't K-Street lobbyists. They are somewhere between consultancies, colleges, and publishers. And okay, maybe for a handful of folks, a political purgatory. By the way, here's a story you might like. A guy once said to me, "Think tanks? Those are the two worst words in the English language."

What happened next? He wound up doing a lot of the original illustrations for TTLA. But hey, fair enough - even the think tanks don't always like being labeled as such. Michael Rich, RAND's executive vice president, said during his TTLA Q&A that his organization is uncomfortable with the term. He uses, "research organization," "non-profit," or "objective research organization." This naming convention is more art than science. The L.A. Times identified one local joint recently as a "think tank," and a year ago one of the principles at this place scoffed to me at that same notion. Also, do a web search for "action tanks" and you'll get plenty of results. Many of them having to do with shoulder-baring apparel or combat vehicles, but some about more aggressive public policy advocacy.

Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. My pleasure. And thanks to everyone at KCET Local. If you're reading this and able to make a pledge in support of this website, please do.

Thanks so much to Jeremy Rosenberg for his insightful comments in this installment of Better Know a Blogger. For even more insights into Los Angeles think tanks, check out Think Tank L.A. right here at KCET.org.

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