The self-poisoning debate in Madison’s opinion sections.
Image: A historic illustration of James Madison’s estate, Montpelier.
Someone in Wisconsin had a racist, misinformed, and just plain bizarre opinion, and felt the need to write it down and send it to a newspaper as a letter to the editor. It happens dozens if not hundreds of times a week. This in itself is not shocking. What happened next is deeply unsettling: This particular newspaper, The Capital Times, decided to publish this particular letter to the editor, under the headline “Presidents were benevolent slaveowners.”
In the letter, a malformed consciousness calling itself Dave Searles of Brodhead argues that the Madison Metropolitan School District should not rename James Madison Memorial High School. The impetus for the renaming process, already well underway, is that James Madison, fourth president of the United States, owned slaves. Searles essentially argues that for this, Madison—and other presidents!—should get a pass, and roots this argument in a statement so baldly untrue, so thoroughly absurd on its face, that no self-respecting editor should have ever let it see the light of day: “Madison, like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, did not choose to be slave owners,” Searles writes. We are to believe that these educated, wealthy men who helped establish a new nation, defied one of history’s mightiest empires, and compressed the traditions of Enlightenment thought into the Constitution were simply helpless under the circumstances.
The letter goes on to claim that these founding fathers treated their slaves better than most, yet it does not even try to reckon with how violent and monstrous slavery truly was. Searles describes as “very benevolent” a man who we know repeatedly raped at least one of his slaves.
Let’s be clear that this letter is excusing powerful men for their role in one of history’s great atrocities, and minimizing the fact that people carried out that atrocity deliberately and knowingly, for centuries, for the sole purpose of building wealth. And of all publications, the one putting this opinion before an audience is The Cap Times, which proudly traces its lineage back to the progressivism of Fighting Bob La Follette, which in turn traces its own lineage back to the anti-slavery roots of the Republican Party.
Worse, this happens just as today’s Republican Party pushes measures in state legislatures and school boards across the country to bar students from learning about slavery and its legacy. The letter adds nothing to the debate over renaming a school, except for wild factual misconceptions that are almost astonishing in their creativity. This is not the kind of thing you can disagree with in a constructive or intellectually stimulating manner. It doesn’t make you stop and think, “Hmm, maybe there could be a good reason for keeping the school’s name.” It’s just poisonous nonsense.
In subsequent responses the Cap Times has published, UW-Madison professor Brigitte Fielder, UW history scholar Miles Wilkerson, and my good bud Alice Herman have already laid out all the important reasons why the letter itself is wrong. Perhaps, in the solipsistic logic of American opinion journalism, we should be satisfied with this outcome: A debate was had! An opinion was met with robust counter-opinions! A “progressive” newspaper tolerated a regressive opinion! But it’s beneath us (at least most of us? I hope?) to keep having debates over whether it was wrong for people to own other human beings and work them to death. A letter that implodes in its second sentence should not be an equal contestant in the arena with responses that make coherent arguments based on the historical record.
The unfortunate thing is that such equivalence is acceptable in too many corners of local media.
The Cap Times and the Wisconsin State Journal collectively publish several dozen letters to the editor per week. Many are dumb and bad. In fact, the State Journal has published several more letters recently about the James Madison Memorial High School renaming—most of them in just about the same vein of hectoring grievance. At best, they champion a kind of “civics” that is really about protecting this country’s founding myths. The predictable “why not just rename the whole city!?” argument shows up, as if this place isn’t already called something else. I mean, the world wouldn’t end and some of us would have to buy new URLs? Big deal.
The events of the day do not offend these people on principle, but merely interrupt their relentless pursuit of a selfish, small-minded existence. And even when these letters aren’t just being boorish for the sake of it or advancing an outright lie about police funding, there often just isn’t much to them. A lot of the columns and editorials these two papers produce in-house aren’t much better. Instead of a robust, stimulating clash of opinions on important issues, we get a simply cluttered one.
Newspapers justify this barely filtered, vision-deprived slurry of commentary in terms of free speech and open debate. The basic premise of a mainstream newspaper opinion section is that readers should get a range of competing opinions, encounter viewpoints they disagree with, and get a sense of what other people out there are thinking. The greater goal behind this, if someone has actually thought about free speech in context, is that foolish opinions will be debunked in the cold light of day, and sound, noble opinions will triumph. But if you are careless with your platform, you turn this sifting process into a grotesque feedback loop.
Madison publications often like to over-correct for what they imagine is an extraordinarily left-wing audience, which in practice means we get a lot of letter writers and center-right columnists whining about how left-wing Madison supposedly is. This is condescending in the extreme. It shows very little regard for the actual substance of debate and even less respect for the audience. It’s all about the hollow pageantry of discourse, which leaves out questions like: Is this letter writer insightful enough to be worth our audience’s time? Is this bad enough to insult readers’ intelligence? Do these arguments make any sense, even on their own terms? Are the factual assertions on which the argument depends actually true? Would a decent person find this morally repugnant?
Yes, you should be able to read an opinion you disagree with and engage with it thoughtfully, and yes, it is often even valuable to publish or elevate opinions you disagree with. This assumes that the writer is arguing from a common, accepted set of facts, and interpreting those facts in different ways with different priorities. (Some editors will try to wave off factual errors or omissions in opinion pieces by reminding you, smugly, that they are opinion pieces! These people are dishonest and bad at their jobs.) It assumes that the writer is acting in good faith and making an actual effort. It assumes that the writer actually wants to have a substantive debate. It assumes that the writer doesn’t do or say things that undermine the basic humanity and dignity of others. It assumes that the writer respects the intelligence of the reader. It assumes that the writer isn’t asking you to accept absurdities and lies.
If you can’t argue your point in a way that upholds those assumptions, it shouldn’t be my problem or a newspaper’s problem or anyone else’s. But right-wing, racist opinions are bound up in so much political power that it’s become customary for the press to grade them on a curve. Right-wingers (and many liberals) believe all sorts of things that are factually untrue and/or that just don’t hold up under any kind of meaningful challenge, yet we keep on recirculating these beliefs on platforms that are supposed to be credible. Thus, our discourse is about as healthy as a body that feeds on its own shit.
Another justification that’s out there for publishing repulsive, insane opinions is that people need to know such opinions are still out there. If you’re an American with an internet connection, I don’t see how you could fail to be constantly aware that there are people out there who have foolish beliefs. Don’t worry, we’re not going to forget. There are constructive ways to talk about these sorts of opinions, but publishing them unfiltered isn’t one.
The Madison.com letters trough hit another notable low in June, when the State Journal published one opposing Gov. Tony Evers’ decision to fly a pride flag over the state Capitol. Again, this contributed absolutely nothing to public discussion. The letter, published as pride celebrations began around the country and around the world, depended entirely on familiar homophobic garbage blaming “LGBTQ lifestyles” for the fall of society or whatever. Publishing this sent the message that going through the motions of “debate” was more important than the dignity of queer readers and community members. Whether that message was intended is irrelevant—people who communicate to the public for a living should be able to understand when they’ve made a hurtful mistake. The State Journal‘s editorial page editor responded to the outrage by noting piously that “We actually give preference to publishing views we disagree with. Our editorial board endorsed gay marriage 2 decades ago.”
That justification is all about the performance of a sporting gesture. It has nothing to do with the right and wrong of the thing, or with respecting readers’ intelligence. It shows no self-awareness that decisions about what you publish have moral significance. To put a homophobic letter and a pro-gay-marriage editorial on similar footing misses the point entirely. It’s one thing to exercise journalistic independence and foster open debate, quite another to abandon all sense of the real-life stakes of an argument in favor of moral neutrality. Especially when we’re dealing with arguments that innocent people have paid for with their lives.
When a newspaper comes under fire for publishing some deeply backward, evil, or just plain lazy piece of commentary, journalists have a tendency to think that it’s the audience that’s being unreasonable. If people are that upset, they must be blinded by rigid ideology, ignorant of the civic role journalism plays, or unaware of the (problematic and arcane) distinctions between news and opinion pieces, right? I get the defensive impulse, and some blowups genuinely do come down to media illiteracy and bad-faith outrage. But some of them come down to people understanding quite well what media is supposed to do and getting frustrated when media falls short. People aren’t upset about the pride flag letter or the slavery letter simply because they advance an opposing opinion—they’re insulted because these pieces are not fit to read.
Most local journalists, including at these publications, know better and do better within flawed cultures. It doesn’t have to be this bad. As a Cap Times subscriber and a friend of several folks on staff there, I would like it if the paper’s sundowning mess of an opinion section would stop embarrassing an all-around outstanding crew of journalists who produce important investigative stories, helpful reporting on local government, and the deepest arts and food coverage of any Madison legacy publication.
I hope the Cap Times will do more than publish a few of responses to the “benevolent slave owners” take, pat itself on the back for representing a diversity of opinions, and carry on as usual. Look at the assumptions, processes, and people who got you to this point, Cap Times, and get rid of them.
There’s more where this came from.
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