Page Two: Free to Be You and Me
'Chronicle' letter-writers and the editors who love them: a field guide
I don't know where I'm going next
I don't know where I'm gonna be
But that's the other side to this life I've been leading
But that's the other side to this life."
-- Fred Neil, "Other Side to This Life"
The summer invites melancholy, though this year's season is ennobled by rain. Instead of being lost in the sway of heat, I stand watching storms thunder in the distance. The Chronicle does not have nor offer any absolute truths. We insist on the dance and demand dialogue. We believe not in black and white, truth and lies, but in the flow and the rain.
This isn't the first time this column has focused on those who write letters to the Chronicle or post on our website, austinchronicle.com. In the past, though, the focus has been more on tone than on content. There is a variety of approaches writers take that is also worth considering, as are the strategies employed to gain the advantage over the Chronicle (including individual writers and editors). This last approach is essentially an attempt by writers to claim what is metaphorically the higher (or "power") chair while positioning the one(s) addressed in much smaller (more subservient) chairs; it is usually made boldly, with a condescending tone, a literary sneer, or inquiries as to the mental health, education, and preparedness of the Chronicle editors/writers addressed.
At its most basic, the Chronicle offers information and entertainment, but, just as importantly, it deals in ideas designed to engage readers as well. There is no rock-solid, partisan truth here -- no absolutely indisputable, ideological statements; objectively unobjectionable criticisms; and/or God's-truth news/event reporting. The driving conceit of this paper is that it features intelligent writing by knowledgeable and passionate critics, as well as news/political reporting that is most importantly fair and informed but which also clearly represents a point of view. Chronicle reporting is obviously opinionated, but there is no attempt to pretend that it is otherwise. Writers' positions (there is no cohesive Chronicle "house" position, but rather shared values and concerns, with writers very much free to express their points of view) should be overt, without any attempt to pretend the reporting is unbiased or "objective."
The drive is to invite thought and initiate debate. The Chronicle not only prints as many letters as will fit in the print edition but hosts lively and mostly uncensored discussions online. The more opinions and ideas we can present, the better. There is no attempt to impose our vision on the reader or to chide them if they have different takes; instead, the goal is a cacophony of differing voices.
At its core, the Chronicle exists because of and for you, the reader. If this publication were simply an exercise in vanity, created entirely for the purpose of egotistically showing off our opinions and our writing, it would have disappeared a long time ago. In this case, if the Chronicle were falling in the woods and no one cared, it not only wouldn't make a sound but would also evaporate. Engaged readers, who bring their own knowledge, ideas, and opinions to each issue, are the necessary dance partners to the contents of each issue. The Chronicle is not a free-floating authority or Wizard of Oz voice. This paper's basic existence lies in its interaction with the readers.
Now, our complicated relationship with these readers changes all the time. If those who cherish us at some point do not despair over our stupidity at another time, then our legitimacy leaks away. This should not be a paper that delights one group of readers all the time. Not only are we never sure of your fidelity, but because of what we are and because of who you are, we neither could nor should be. We should have to win your love again and again with each issue, always risking and regularly achieving your scorn and contempt as well. The relationship between paper and readers should never sink to stasis.
Now, given that we exist for debate and insist on discussion, the ways in which readers approach the paper is often entertaining. There are those who accuse us of being able to dish it out but not take it, usually because there is some kind of response to criticism. But because the idea here is not a formal debate, with each side limited to a number of timed responses, but instead a freewheeling, ongoing exchange, this charge really doesn't make sense.
There are any numbers of carefully thought-through strategies letter-writers favor that we've all come to appreciate here at the paper. Describing certain categories of these by necessity requires generalizations. There is no way to discuss the differing qualities of word choices, range of tone, and attitude evidenced within each category.
At the high end is that tone of utterly otherworldly condescension intended to represent a heroic effort to overcome Chronicle-induced ennui. Implied is that even if the letter is negative (as they almost always are), we should all feel thrilled that this person stooped to write it to a publication as undeserving as this one. Clearly, we should accept all its criticisms as truths and dance in the streets, passing out garlands to honor the weary and wearying effort of the letter-writer.
At the other end are those letters that declare that the writer has stopped reading the Chronicle. More moderate writers will acknowledge they still pick up the occasional issue but have quit reading our worthless reviews, listings, event recommendations, and/or some column. They point out that this is because the whole Chronicle or the part addressed has become so ___________ (irrelevant, square, boring, conceited, corrupt, intellectually bankrupt, etc.). Consequently, ordinarily they wouldn't be offering comments on something in the current issue because of their personal boycotts. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, they have again been forced to confront our idiocy. Sometimes, they were just walking along when an open Chronicle flew into their faces; other times, they were just reaching across a dining table for salt when they chanced to glance a neighbor's issue. Other times it was that, having run low on toilet paper, and with the Chronicle adequate for nothing else, they were scrunching up some pages when they noticed some outrage. Making it clear they are no longer readers, they then question our credibility, intentions, and more.
Since part of the purpose is to engage our readers, these folks are determined to give us neither satisfaction nor credence. They have to take us to task for our idiocy but want to make it perfectly clear that the paper serves no function, nor does it have any impact in their lives. In general, they assert, the Chronicle is worthless, with the particular item to which they are responding being extra-offensively stupid.
Some so hate a review of a film, CD, live performance, book, or whatever that, rather than just disagree with it, they go on to explain how it is not really a review. It's not just that the opinion it offers is truly ignorant and lacking in reason; it is that the overall review is not really even a review at all! Rather than cogent, it is chaos; rather than an opinion, it is a literary accident -- a collection of words grouped almost accidentally, lacking any guiding writerly intelligence. Evidently, floating about somewhere in the universe are tablets, similar to the Ten Commandments, that explain the rules as to exactly what a review is and isn't. Oddly, none of us here at the Chronicle has encountered the tablets; thus, ignorant of the rules, we don't follow them, which often drives our letter-writers to distraction, utterly frustrated that we can't follow these simple yet holy guidelines. The final result is that it is not simply that our critic has a different opinion from the letter-writer but rather that he or she has insulted common decency and demeaned civilization by violating divinely described criteria as to what exactly a "review" is.
The Chronicle editors, according to at least some letter-writers, are a motley bunch of clowns and morons, none of whom is anywhere near as wise as the letter-writers. As we have again and again let reams of incoherent blasphemy be published, it is truly remarkable that a staff of such stunning incompetents manage to get their shoes on every morning, much less publish a paper every week.
But perhaps this is not so surprising after all, given our true motivations. An idiot, perhaps, might think that a very community-oriented paper crammed with editorial that addresses politics and culture is actually well-intentioned, even if one disagrees with much of what it has to say. Aha! Then we would have you fooled: It's not just that we are a moral leper colony offering egocentric flights of fantasy and intellectual garbage, but that we are deliberately corrupt.
The main idea couldn't possibly be to publish the best paper we can! How foolish! First, despite the fact that we publish a large "Postmarks" section and many online forums, our real ambition is to shut up those with whom we disagree. Then we want to get sex ads into the hands of small children and tobacco ads into the hands of saints and to champion evil against those good and holy ones sworn to protect us. That and provide employment for the Moser family, of course.
Okay, so sometimes the constant stream of vitriol and vehement hostility wears a bit. The level of mean-spiritedness is just so ugly and unrelenting. Still, inherent in this vile river of intent and attitude, there is redemption. Despite all, there is an underlying insistence on the value of each individual reader and writer, of privileging the value of each and everyone's thoughts.
"I've been singing the blues and walking the cow."
-- Daniel Johnston, "Keep Punching Joe"