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Bad letters and debate theater

Some publishing decisions just have to be confronted.

Some publishing decisions just have to be confronted.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

Last Friday, I wrote about The Capital Times‘ decision to publish a letter to the editor that essentially gave James Madison and other Founding Fathers a pass for owning slaves, and argued that efforts to rename James Madison Memorial High School are an overreaction. A week later—practically a geologic age in screaming-internet time—the paper’s self-satisfied reaction to the backlash is still troubling.

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Cap Times opinion editor Steven Elbow also found the letter objectionable, as he explained in an edition of the paper’s weekly Opinion Roundup email newsletter with the subject line “Some views just have to be confronted.” Elbow wrote that “No government building should bear the name of an enslaver, but it’s particularly insidious when a public school is named for one,” and he acknowledged that the offending letter made a “tortured argument.” He also responded to criticism of the letter and of his decision to publish it. These criticisms took the form of responses submitted to the Cap Times, as well as social-media outrage. 

“Painful as it might be to read, we need to recognize that this writer is expressing views that are widely held,” Elbow wrote. “Not doing so allows them to go unchallenged.” 

This is exactly the kind of rationalization I was talking about in my piece: The idea that credible publications are justified in publishing vile, indefensible opinions—not just opinions people may find disagreeable or upsetting, but opinions that rest entirely upon lies and moral rot—because it sparks debate that then allows people to arrive at better ideas, and because people need to know there are vile opinions out there. If a debate is had, then a good day’s work has been done, and that’s that. 

Elbow notes in his email newsletter: “I get a fair number of letters concerning racial issues that never see the light of day. Full of lies, rage and overt racism, the delete button consigns them to oblivion.” He then goes on to say that the letter he ended up publishing “employed civil language.” 

I take this to mean that the letter did not use racial slurs or go out of its way to denigrate Black people per se. But it’s got lies. The second sentence states that “Madison, like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, did not choose to be slave owners,” which is not only an untruth but a logical impossibility, as these men clearly made that choice year after year, dollar after dollar. And it’s got overt racism. It is overtly racist to minimize a sadistic, centuries-long, premeditated and elaborately reinforced system of kidnapping, bondage, and economic extraction. Claiming, as the letter writer does, that there was a “benevolent” way to go about the enslavement of Black people is, on its face, just plain racist. Does the letter have rage? That’s harder to tell, but maybe a little. Crabby indifference, at least.

Who exactly “confronted” this opinion? When it initially published the letter, the Cap Times was simply giving it an open, unchallenged platform. There were no factual corrections or annotations, no editors’ notes pushing back on the writer’s distortions of history and basic logic. Instead, readers did the work of confronting this opinion, supplying counter-arguments and actual verifiable factual context in a handful of response letters and a guest op-ed. We could have had a cycle of opinion writing about school names that just skipped right to the good stuff, but the tortured logic of the legacy newspaper opinion section dictates otherwise. 

Nevermind that in the real world, the confrontation has been happening for a long time. The Madison Metropolitan School District is currently in the process of choosing a new name for James Madison Memorial High School. Antiracism protests have accelerated the push to take down Confederate monuments and rename all sorts of things and places. Efforts from The 1619 Project to this week’s observation of Indigenous People’s Day in states including Wisconsin demonstrate a renewed interest in a tough moral reexamination of the nation’s founding myths. The confrontation is even happening at historic plantations including Madison’s Montpelier and Jefferson’s Monticello. There is no shortage of opportunities to confront the misdeeds of this nation’s founders. There is also no shortage of reminders that we are still a society steeped in racism and denial. Anyone in Wisconsin with a brain knows that we’ve got racists in our major cities, racists in our small towns, racists in the suburbs, and racists in the countryside. 

Publishing one irredeemably bad letter doesn’t add anything of substance to this ongoing discussion. It just makes the Cap Times look tone-deaf and irresponsible. And at no point have I seen anyone explain why a newspaper should knowingly publish false statements in an unfiltered, unchallenged form. Yes, even in an opinion section—because you can’t really have a healthy clash of opinions if you’re not dealing with a shared set of facts. Come on, the delete button is right there!

I don’t envy the task of sifting through letters to the editor or its monstrous digital cousin, moderating comments. Some of this stuff is truly a hole from which no light emerges, unless you’ve got resources that are unheard-of for most publications. The opinion writers in the Cap Times are usually more in my political ballpark than most in town, at least when they’re not tripping over themselves to suck up to people they should be holding to account. The bulk of the editorial staff over there is clearly way smarter and more self-aware—I find way more to like than to criticize. That just makes this episode all the more bewildering. What we are dealing with is not just one letter. It’s an editorial blind spot, dressed up in the terminology of debate theater.

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