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Epitaphs for Thought

Letters to the Editor

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, October 22, 1997.

As always, the views expressed are my own and bear little if any resemblance to those of KGNU’s staff, Board, volunteers, mental health professionals, militant extremists, radical hygienists, tree huggers, or Ernst Bivwak, our Audio Engineer, who just this week received his diploma from the Blue Spark Elementary Correspondence Extension School of Electric Wizardry and Storm Door Installation in Horst, South Dakota. Aside from being your local representative for The Clapper, Martha Stewart Chain Wear and Riding Crops, and Lava, Lava, Lava Lamp, Inc. Ernst apparently enjoys puppies, kittens, Uraguayan pit vipers, walks in the autumn rain, long extension cords, and production room earphone hum frequencies sufficient to geld a Brahma bull. So, working without a net here...

Suffice it to say that with an election coming up next month, the air is turning blue with informative, accurate political commercials, restrained and tasteful, and bolstered by the coherent and non-inflammatory Letters to the Editor of our educated and deserving electorate. It’s always an exciting time, watching the Great American Plant life fluff itself up and trundle off to the voting booth, again giving credence to Mencken’s soothing maxim: Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard.

So let us take comfort in the knowledge that, if nothing else, local newspapers will have their editorial pages read for the first time in two years by more than incontinent parakeets, read by readers thrilled to see their own names in print. For those who have never worked a political campaign, especially a political campaign in a city that views itself as educated and, well, frankly literary and rather stylish if push came to shove, you may not know how much effort goes into getting your team’s shills to write letters to the editor. It’s quite a bit.

I, in fact, earned money for a few years writing spontaneous letters of outrage from concerned citizens on local issues. In one memorable Sunday edition, I had three letters published in one newspaper, all from different people on different topics. It was blissful, knowing that I had helped people shade meaning in so many different areas, and all under the guise of hallowed Democracy, a reading public that doesn’t exist, and the immense vanities of illiterate gas bags who would, with firm yet syrupy voices, intone that they themselves didn’t have time to write a ten sentence letter, an activity that would have occupied far less temporal currency than the phone call they would make to tell me they would like me to do it. And much effort went into making sure I spelled their name correctly, and they would suddenly discover memories of Carlisle and Shaw when I brought the effort by for them to sign, suggesting changes and what they considered improvements. It was an inspiring activity, I assure you.

So I still giggle when I read the Letters to the Editor column, and see numbing notes to the public that only the author, whoever paid for it, and sometimes the subject him or herself would read. Otherwise, it was a waste of wood pulp, for the only people who read letters to the editor are other people who write letters to the editor, and they only do so looking for their own byline. Even the Editor doesn’t read the letters, unless they come from someone important, and then they are engulfed within a frame and shading, a brief introduction, perhaps a photograph, and placed on the gray, gray page as an epitaph for thought. Letters to the Editor are of the same intellectual caliber as the press releases parents send out about their children’s travels and social activities: thinly disguised, but hotly denied, vanity publications.

In Boulder, we once had a City Councilman whose wife used a different name in life, possibly her maiden name, but I never knew. Whenever hubby did something heroic or controversial, the wife - posing as a coldly objective concerned citizen - would write in defending her man. I never, ever read her acknowledgment that this cross between Lincoln and the Cid was her legal husband, leaving that embarrassing task for her husband’s enemies, who with great rhetorical flourishes would drop that gem in their own letters to the editor. This went on for years, sometimes taking on the appearance of a personal, recondite correspondence uncovered by the press.

So if you have time tomorrow, if you are one of the rare folks who actually buys a daily paper, try to read at least one of these shill notes, secure in the knowledge that having done so, nothing you will read all day, not even something in TV Guide, will be worse. But you might be making a neighbor very, very happy.