Fear and our fellow Americans
Here’s a fun fact: years ago, in the early 70’s as I recall, the Village Voice hired some kind of polling firm to determine what were the best-read parts of the paper. I’m sure it wasn’t done because the editors were thinking of covering more of the stuff that the most people read. If that was why they ran the survey, they would have probably quickly dropped the classical music criticism of the wonderful Leighton Kerner, the Voice’s critic in that area, who wrote of classical music as if he were conducting an orchestra of words in his head. No, I think the survey of readers was probably done at the behest of the display advertising department, who could then take the figures from the survey and adjust advertising prices based on how many people read the rock and roll or theater sections, for example.
Well, can you guess what turned out to be the best-read page in the paper? The letters to the editor column. The letters ran on page four, with Jules Feiffer’s cartoons across the bottom. There wasn’t any advertising on page four, but there was on page five, so they must have boosted the rates for the ads on the facing page. The letters page, of course, was the comments section of the era, when readers got their opportunity to vent, telling Voice authors what they thought of them, complaining that their favorite political issue, or their favorite entertainment venue, or their favorite playwright or artist or dance company wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.
I realize I’ve written about this before, but I got my start as a writer in the letters to the editor column of the Voice, writing cranky, rather conservative critiques of the stories I read. My first one drew counter-criticism the following week from an array of New York intellectuals that included Dwight McDonald, Paul Goodman, and Aryeh Neier, who at the time headed up the New York office of the ACLU and went on to become a founder of Human Rights Watch. Each of them gave the upstart cadet from West Point a good political spanking, which I replied to the following week in the letters column, of course. People turned to the letters column in the Voice first, it seemed to me, because that was where the action was – writers complaining about other writers, pissed-off old lefties lecturing new lefties who they found ignorant about the origins of this, that, or the other thing…you get the picture. Voice letter writers were uniformly smart, informed, and some were quite funny as they took on the established writers in the Voice.
You will no doubt recognize in the ferment of the Voice letters column a familiar ferment in our own comments section of this Substack newsletter. Although I don’t often reach into the comments and post replies, I read them with great interest. When I was on the staff of the Voice, I made it my policy not to reply to letters to the editor that criticized my pieces. I figured that I had the privilege of being in the Voice as a staff writer, and my pieces spoke for themselves. The letters column was for readers, not Village Voice writers. By and large, I treat the comments section the same way.
But for the first time the other day I posted a column opening a thread for readers, inviting them to comment generally about what was on their minds, and I also invited them to suggest areas they thought would deserve my attention. To put it mildly, I was stunned by the response. I jumped in and left replies here and there as I filled a couple of pages of a reporter’s notebook sitting next to me with a long list of suggestions for stories. Some just aren’t in my wheelhouse, as they say, and would be fine for another columnist to write about. Others, such as the one in the title of this piece, fit me like a well-made suit.
Ralph T. suggested that I consider writing about “the layers and layers of fears driving a majority of Republican voters.” Helpfully, he provided a list, which I will quote from selectively here:
Afraid of vaccines.
Afraid of voters.
Afraid of drop boxes.
So afraid of Democrats that they’re willing to believe they’re killing abducted babies in the basements of pizza joints.
Afraid to go out in public without an arsenal strapped to their flak jackets.
Afraid of LGBTQ folks.
Afraid of Black folks.
Afraid of Latin folks, especially the ones across our southern border who we desperately need in our workforce.
Terrified of Jewish folks.
Afraid of immigrants, although that’s what 98% of us are, having pretty much killed off the local natives when we got here.
Afraid of women, especially smart women.
Afraid of respectfully facing our past.
Afraid of the future.
Afraid of change.
Afraid of books, which I suppose comes from being afraid of reading, or simply not being able to read.
Ralph T. went on to list more fears many Republicans share, but that one stopped me in my tracks, and not because I’ve written books, write a column, and for more than 50 years have depended on readers in order to make a living.
Have you been in a house that has no books? No magazines, no reading material of any kind, with the possible exception of a cookbook or two? I have.
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