Remember the "Seinfeld" episode where "Kramer" wrote a "coffee table book" about coffee tables?
Since 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of my first letter to The Times, I thought it might be appropriate to write a letter about letters to the editor ...
In spite of recent "innovations" like Twitter and FaceBook, letters written by private citizens to newspapers remain a time-honored tradition in America. Like in today's online forums, it was the practice of early American correspondents to use fake names. Ben Franklin wrote letters to his own publication, "Poor Richard's Almanac," under the "nom-de-plume" of "Silence Dogood." Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay collectively used the pseudonym "Publius" in the series of essays written to newspapers to explain the purpose of The Constitution as it was being ratified by the states. Today, these are known as The Federalist Papers. Hamilton's untimely death was actually caused by a letter-to-the-editor that was sent anonymously to a New York paper, alleging that Hamilton had questioned the morals and character of former Vice President Aaron Burr. In retaliation, Burr challenged Hamilton to a fateful duel on the cliffs of Weehawken, New Jersey, that the first treasury secretary did not survive! In 1806, a series of letters to the editor appeared in an early Marietta newspaper, The Ohio State Journal, under the name "Querist" ("One who questions"). They were written by Harman Blennerhasset. The "question" was "Should Ohio and other western territories remain within the United States, or separate and become an independent nation?" Amazing as it sounds, today's newspaper correspondence is quite "civil" in comparison to that of the 18th and early 19th centuries!
A question that I'm often asked is "Why do you do it?" It's a good question, and I have often asked it myself! Many assume that I and others write letters mostly because we like to see our names in print. Sorry to disappoint, but, speaking for myself, this is most certainly not the case! It's too much work for mere ego-satisfaction! I do it because I'm an "idiot" - or at least a person who (perhaps foolishly) still believes all the stuff I learned in school (and, as a history teacher, tried to impart to others) about how "democracy really works" and how "each individual counts." I foolishly bought the corny premises of movies like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," where "newbie" Congressman Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) pontificated about "that lady on the Capitol dome" and how she stood for all the "little people" whose voice was often drowned out by money and powerful interests. My first letter was in defense of a young couple I knew who had written an antiwar letter to The Times, and who were then pounced on by several members of the local ultra-conservative "John Birch Society," that in those days dominated the "opinion" pages of all the local papers ... I didn't like bullies then, and I don't like them now!
I've continued to write for four-decades, and I've become oblivious to the praise I've received in some quarters, and the scorn and ridicule I've received in others! Throughout this time, my family members have been more than patient with my eccentric habit of speaking what I've considered to be the truth to those who might not be so eager to hear it. Also, I suppose - although I haven't been in a classroom for many years - I still believe that there are lessons to be taught! In recent years, I've been "inspired" by the numerous misconceptions, half-truths, and outright lies that seem to have proliferated with the advent of hate-radio and the toxic Internet. Space does not permit listing all of these in detail, so I'll pick a couple of recent examples and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course, in accordance with the policy of The Times, I'll omit the names of the letter writers, and let their own skewed opinions speak for themselves ...
A recent letter, "Stick to the facts in the debate about fracking" (March 26) is a perfect example of the type of letter that contradicts its own premise. Instead of "sticking to the facts," the writer simply (pun intended) put forth a series of silly, unsubstantiated anecdotes that readers are supposed to accept at face value. I've attended several forums on the topic of hydraulic-fracturing, and never heard any of the kind of ridiculous questions that this writer alleged. I did, however, once hear a gas company spokesman tell a "joke" that involved a fictitious, satirical chemical ingredient called "Califragilistics." While I thought it was funny, I didn't suspect that the same term would be attributed (by the aforementioned writer) as coming from a serious critic of the "fracking" process. It didn't! The writer inserted it to discredit all persons concerned about the public-health consequences of what (despite the writer's contention) is a new and sometimes risky procedure that is as different from traditional drilling practices as laptops are from typewriters ...
On the other hand, I had to chuckle at a more recent letter in The Times that called me out personally (and, despite the Times policy, mentioned my name no less than five times) for a letter that had never appeared in The Times. The gentleman, it seems, got his wires crossed and griped about a letter I had written about Rush Limbaugh (how dare I?) that was printed the same weekend in a Parkersburg paper ... I loved the part where he said that it made his stomach feel "uneasy"! It means that I did my job correctly!
Yes, I write a lot of letters to the editor!
It's a dirty job, but someone has to haul out the trash!
Fred O'Neill lives in Marietta.