On getting cranky emails

Hi fellows,

If you’re like me, watching the news has become painful. We’re seeing rank examples of bad behavior that once seemed wholly inappropriate for public life: unapologetic sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and personal ambition stretched to the breaking point. All of this is being diligently reported but, discouragingly, large sections of the U.S. population have been conditioned to distrust the media, giving them license to dismiss or deny any reports that contradict their worldview.

The current state of affairs is depressing on a grand scale, but it also raises a germane question for what we do as public intellectuals. If so many people in the country aren’t ever going to listen (or consider us shills for a government/media conspiracy), what’s the point of putting information out there?

I have struggled with this question, too, and it leads me back to the same place: now is the time when it is most important not to give up. Now is the time to double-down on the good, honest, fact-based labor that has been essential for progress in every time and place.

The outgoing Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said the following: “Throughout human history, in any great endeavour requiring the common effort of many nations and men and women everywhere, we have learned it is only through seriousness of purpose and persistence that we ultimately carry the day. We might liken it to riding a bicycle. You stay upright and move forward so long as you keep up the momentum.”

That means you keep saying the things that need to get said, even in the face of scorn and ignorance. A quick personal story: I finally got an essay about Trump and evangelical complicity placed after a few rounds of rejection. Then I tried to find a few regional newspapers to reprint it, mainly church publications. Here’s part of an angry response I got from a guy named Dwight Widaman who publishes the Metro Voice in Kansas City.

“I found your mocking tone about the thinness of his personal faith distasteful and sophomoric–lacking grace and forgiveness. If this is how you would encourage your child to write an election speech against his or her competitors for Student Council, then shame on you. You apparently have become what you seem to hate most about Donald Trump–a bully- though you are hiding behind a by-line on Christian Post while desperately seeking a national audience.”

Wow, dude. Cranky!

Seething thoughts like this to the contrary, I see nothing wrong with seeking a national audience for messages in need of dissemination, and while the current puerility of the national dialogue may seem hostile to thoughtful commentary, I urge you not to let it bother you. This miasma will pass. What remains is the willingness of committed thinkers and scholars to keep saying the well-informed, reasoned and careful truths that a nation needs to hear.

With admiration,

Periodically we share wisdom from our team with our community. The above letter was sent as a weekly missive to the Public Voices Fellowship cohort at Dartmouth University from leader Tom Zoellner.


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