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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Safety Net: More, please! Democracy depends upon letters to editors

Friday, April 13, 2007

I owe a big thanks to Dennis Gessling and Whitney Kerr.

They are two of the key players in the fascinating controversy springing from what appears at a quick glance to be a conflict over how to manage the co-existence of pig stink and historic towns.

There is much more to the issue than that, as readers of The Marshall Democrat-News Perspective page know well. We have published more letters on the subject of concentrated animal feeding operations and the larger issue of whether more regulatory authority should be placed with county or state government than on any other subject this year.

Whatever generates letters is good in at least one important way: It fuels the community's public conversation. The headline above is not intended to be an exaggeration. Public conversation is essential to the health of our society.

But I worry whether we're losing our touch.

When I arrived in Marshall the first thing I did was park the car. The second thing I did was buy a copy of The Marshall Democrat-News. The third thing I did was turn to the Perspective page to see what people were talking about.

Nothing, apparently.

To my surprise, there were no letters to the editor in the paper that day. To my chagrin, there were no letters for weeks thereafter.

In fact, even with the heroic efforts of a small group of regular letter-writers -- mainly Hubert Kiehl, Chuck Hird and Bob Woodward -- there often are many days between letters. Too many days, to my way of thinking.

I want more.

I have several reasons. One is self-interest. Letters to the editor draw readers -- and that's good for business. Also, letters are interesting to read -- I learn from them. Reading letters -- when we get them -- reminds me of a quote from Richard Goodwin's "The American Condition:"

"A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity; the changeable temper of a thousand spirits by whom every object of discussion is broken into an infinity of sense and significations -- all these spring into being, and then are spent."

His next line is "And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public" but I think it's a pretty good description of the Saline County public, too. We just seem to have gotten out of the habit of publishing bits of our conversation is all.

But a bigger, more glorious reason to invite more letters is the role they play in a free society. Just as a free press is the cornerstone of democracy, the public participation in that free exchange of ideas pre-dates the Constitution that enshrined the principle.

Letters to the editor, in fact, played a key role in the forming of the free society we live in. In "The Marketplace of the Revolution," T.H. Breen notes the role letters published in newspapers played in unifying public opinion against British taxation policies, providing the means for the political argument to take shape and mature. But also giving the growing resistance movement the voices that would become its essential to its identity.

Letters, then, have a long history as one form our public conversations take. As Charles Ferguson put it in his 1948 book, "A Little Democracy is a Dangerous Thing," "Democracy must not end with the discussion group, but it cannot begin anywhere else."

So I issue an invitation to our readers to send us your thoughts, ideas, pet peeves, arguments and observations. Letter writers need not wait for Big Controversies to provide the genesis of their literary efforts. Life provides stuff to write about all the time.

What I hear sometimes from people who admit to having ideas and viewpoints but are reluctant to publish them is that they worry that they can't express themselves elegantly enough or that they will receive negative reactions.

It is risky to enter the fray of a public conversation, there's no getting around it, but the risk is worth it. There is a certain exhilaration that comes from getting a response, whether from family and friends or other letter writers. Disagreements will occur, but even they can be fun and edifying if people maintain the habit of disagreeing respectfully.

In addition to an invitation, I'd like to issue a challenge. I'd like to see at least one letter from a Saline Countian on every Perspective page we publish.

That would be fun. And interesting. We would soon have a grand conversation going, and a conversation with good momentum is something to behold. As religious thinker and philospher Michael Oakeshott put it: "Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, no[r] is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure."

Safety Net