[Note: This column was first published on Wednesday, November 23, in the Capital City Weekly. As usual for the past two years, the column was accessible online through the Juneau Empire website. But then the next day, the column was removed from the Empire website, and the link to the page led readers to a notice that the “requested page could not be found.” The Juneau Empire seems to no longer support freedom of the press.]
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row.
The Sunday before Election Day I decided to quit writing this column. After the Empire published the Morris Publishing Group’s endorsement of Donald Trump, I needed to do something in protest, so I called my editor at the Capital City Weekly and told her that I quit.
The endorsement of Trump seemed a blatant insult to the denizens of Juneau, to all of us really, but especially to those who find themselves caught in the wide net of Trump’s bigotries—the misogyny, the racism, the absence of any ethical sense.
And because Trump so often targeted Mexicans as the cause of the nation’s problems (and his personal legal problems, as well), the endorsement seemed to me to be particularly insulting to Juneau’s Latino community (which, incidentally, we got to glimpse from the inside at last week’s Mudrooms when Manni Guillen told the moving story of his parents’ journey from Mexico to Alaska).
I enjoy writing this column, and not a week goes by without someone stopping me on the street to say how much they enjoy it. But in the face of that endorsement of Trump, I felt that I could not keep writing for—and taking money from—the Morris Publishing Group.
Then the unimaginable happened on Election Night. And the following morning, I changed my mind.
From the very first column, I have wanted to change the way we think about writing. I wanted to explore the philosophical and ethical implications of the fundamental elements of style—the words we choose, the way we shuffle them into sentences, the way we shape our sentences into paragraphs.
And as my own understanding of the ethical dimensions of style deepened with each new column, I found myself looking at writing from an increasingly personal perspective.
Writing is like shopping at Fred’s. Wandering the aisles lost in your shopping list, you’re a nobody in search of garbanzo beans. But then you run into a friend and start chatting. And the conversation opens you up. You become yourself.
And you still can’t find the damn garbanzo beans because the food shelves at Fred’s were laid out by people of unsound mind. But the chance encounter with a friend changes the experience, brightens your day, puts you in better spirits, etc. That’s writing: it gives us a way of being in the world that we can’t discover without our readers.
Writing creates a relationship with our readers, and those relationships change the way we think, the way we act, the way we are. The ethical character of our writing depends on the quality of those relationships.
One problem with the kind of writing that tends to get churned out at the office—so-called “bureaucratese”—is that it deliberately seeks to avoid creating relationships with readers. It sets itself apart from conversation. It strives to sound unlike anything ever spoken by creatures of flesh and blood and brains—as if the vitality and immediacy of real experience compromise any administrative authority or technical objectivity. They don’t.
Like Trump, bureaucratese is ethically vacuous. It doesn’t sound like it gives a damn. And in the face of the incoming administration’s ethical vacuity, we have to. Our writing has to care about our readers. We have to make a greater effort to meet the ethical and philosophical responsibilities of writing, whatever we write. Writing that doesn’t care about readers is bad writing, and it’s unethical.
For the next four years, here’s the challenge whenever we’re writing in the public sphere: let’s cut the crap. Let’s try to sound like someone who gives a damn. Let’s try to sound like someone we’d enjoy running into at the store.
This is something we can do right here, right now, sitting at our computers. Whatever the bureaucratic task at hand and however technical and complex the subject, we can work harder to keep our writing spare and honest and to speak as directly as possible to our readers. We can take more time with each sentence to make sure it’s a sentence readers can easily read and readily comprehend.
Such writing isn’t easy. Sometimes the whole “spare and honest and direct” thing seems like a radical departure from business-as-usual in the work world. But that’s what we have to do. Right here, right now.
Me, I’m going to keep writing this column for as long as they let me—for the next four years if I have to.
And as for the money, I’m putting it where my big mouth is. Whatever money I make for this column from Morris Publishing—and it’s not much, but after a year it can start to look like real money—I will be donating to Jesuit Refugee Services/USA to benefit Syrians and others forcibly displaced from their homes.
Postscript: At Mass the Sunday after the election (“Apocalyptic Sunday,” he joked), Father Pat Casey at the Cathedral of the Nativity reflected on some of the apocalyptic literature of the Bible and, implicitly, on the desolation many of us were feeling at the election’s outcome. The doom and gloom, Father Pat reminded us, are a cause not for despair, but for vigilance. “This is a wake-up call,” he said. “And the clock is running.”
The time for complacency is past. It always has been.