The wondrous window of a newspaper letters section
The wondrous window of a newspaper letters section

The wondrous window of a newspaper letters section

The whole purpose of democracy, after all, is to force our opinions on each other through argument, persuasion, voting and majority rule.

January 7 th 2011

Why do people say such things? In a letter published in a November 2010 issue of the National Post, John Kneeland of Hamilton claims that, in Uganda, numerous factors, including condom use, "played more of a role in declining HIV prevalence than abstinence . . . "

Mr. Kneeland cites a study presented at a recent international conference on retrovirals to support his claim. If any study actually did say such a thing, it wouldn't be worth publishing, never mind reading, never mind citing.

It is not logically possible for any factors to contribute "more" to the decline of a sexually transmitted disease than abstinence. It is like saying that new and improved ladders contribute more to a reduction of falling off the roof than does standing on the ground.

By definition, the thing that must contribute most to prevention of falling from the roof is not going up on the roof to begin with. Similarly, sexual abstinence, by its nature involves the transmission of nothing. How could potentially transmitting something possibly contribute "more" to the potential reduction of disease than transmitting absolutely nothing at all?

What Mr. Kneeland really means is that while nothing is more certain than abstinence in reducing—indeed, eliminating—sexually transmitted HIV, 21st-century ideology forbids us asserting a moral burden of abstinence on those who insist on taking risks. Instead, we must euphemize the realities of epidemiology in the prophylactic language of "realism" and write letters to the editor proclaiming things that can't possibly be true. Why?

The demise of the daily newspaper will close the wondrous window on the world that is the letters to the editor section. The comment capabilities of web sites and blogs will never come close to matching a good letters section.

The immediacy of the responses on most web sites means they are primarily the monopoly of 37-year-old cretins wearing only stained underpants in their mother's basements. The vast majority of what appears on them is illiterate, moronic or as energetically pointless as the advice of fans shouted from the nosebleed sections of sports stadiums. Letters to the editor, by contrast, go through filtering by, well, an editor, meaning they are the product of the citizen in the street abetted by an actively employed intelligence.

As such, they are a beneficial medium between the narcissistic blurts of professional pundits and the dregs of so-called "streeters" in which newspapers send out their greenest or laziest reporters to ask people in shopping malls what they think about the creation of the universe.

(One reporter I know, who loathed doing such "vox pop" stories, learned early to simply attribute invented quotes to members of her large extended family, taking care to re-mix first and last names so no one was ever the wiser. "I know what they all think—and they're citizens, too," she rationalized.)

It was fascinating to learn in that same National Post letters section, for example, that Joan Harper of Victoria, weighing in on the always-hopping topic of abortion, believes that "in a democracy, no one has the right to force their opinions on another". At the same time, in a gesture of magnanimity to her fellow citizens who oppose abortion, Ms. Harper allows that: "It is unfair to force people who object to it to pay taxes that support it."

Both her points are, if this is not too harsh, stupendously wrong. The whole purpose of democracy, after all, is to force our opinions on each other through argument, persuasion, voting and majority rule. Democracy is the peaceful way of getting our way even if others don't like it.

The catch, of course, is those "others" always have equal access to that democratic privilege. It means we end up endlessly awash in debating bombast but that is preferable to an endless series of detonating bomb blasts.

The absence of violence is precisely what makes it "fair" to expect citizens to pay taxes for the things they find disagreeable. Our power to peacefully change things in a democracy requires we surrender to paying for things we don't like as we're waiting our turn.

What's engaging about Joan Harper's erroneous thinking, though, is not her misunderstanding of the basics of our political system. It's that what she, as a citizen, believes can appear literately, concisely, prominently for us all to see through the wondrous window of a daily newspaper letters section.

I, for one, will miss it dearly when it's gone.

A day prior to these letters being published, I had the chance to listen to Ottawa writer Bill Brown read his wonderful short story "Folly" to a class at Marianopolis College in Montreal. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, a reminder of the true purpose of literature.

You did not, and as he said you will likely never, see Bill's name on the Giller Prize short or long lists. He's not waiting for a Governor General's jury to notify him that he has won the literary lottery.

What Bill does look forward to is getting up at 4 a.m. to write "painfully slowly" for three hours every day, crafting exquisite short stories that he makes public through the small press, Siren Song Publishing, or through the small magazine, Front and Centre, that he co-edits.

It is the approach of a genuine amateur in the full and true and best sense of that word: one who does what he does for the pure love of doing it. It is, as Bill told the Marianopolis students, a major part of the "blessed life" he lives.

Bookish gadfly John Metcalfe was pilloried in the 1980s and 1990s for insisting this is the authentic home of literature. Metcalfe argued to anyone who would listen (few would) that literature, particularly in Canada with its miniscule book-reading public, is essentially a "coterie" activity. He did not mean the word as a pejorative but as an accurate descriptor.

This is not to superciliously look down upon prizes, writer's grants, subsidized publishing and other accretions to literary activity as somehow impure or ignoble. They're not. They're as real a part of the writing life as pencils or word processors. What they can risk, however, is a kind of teleological warping so that they shift from support to sine qua non.

The enthusiastic reaction of the Marianopolis students to Bill Brown's reading showed what hangs in the balance. They sat in rapt attention while he read, asked thoughtful and in quite pointed questions afterward, then hung around for almost 40 minutes just to chat, have copies of their books signed, find out first-hand a bit more what this writer-fellow, and this literature business, is all about. For most, it was probably the first opportunity they'd had to do so. For some, it might be the only such opportunity they'll ever have.

It's a chance that might never have come to them were Bill not part of a "coterie" of writing friends that includes Zsolt Alapi, the teacher of the Marianopolis class and the brains behind Siren Song Publishing.

Friendship begets many great things besides itself. In this case, it created an opening for a class of engaged students in their college years to learn that literature is not, at heart, a matter of economics or theory, but rather a genuine gift of the human condition.

Reading it, hearing it read, writing it yourself, belongs to a blessed life.

This is a slightly edited version of an earlier blog entry by Peter Stockland, director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, who blogs at

Peter Stockland
Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland is Senior Writer with Cardus, and Editor of Convivium.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?