By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
An open letter to Trudeau. An open letter to those nervous about Trump. An open letter to the Chief Minister of Delhi. An open letter to fellow strait, white, men. An open letter to Trump. Another open letter to Trump. An open letter to my immigrant father.
How about an open letter to my trash can. That’s where open letters belong.
Dear trash can, here’s another jumble of words that have been assembled by a self-important writer who couldn’t take the time to formulate this into a well conceived argument. The author couldn’t take the time to write why something is wrong, they just think that their own, relatively unimportant, in fact infinitely inconsequential, views are important, not because of the content of those views, but because of who they are.
The open letter phenomenon has grown in recent years as blogging platforms proliferate, as people are rewarded for self-centeredness, rather than global, outlooks. Consider the absolute arrogance of some writer, often unknown, who wants to write an open letter to someone important. Or even an open letter to their father, their friends, or some whole racial group. The concept of using the foil and platform of the open letter is that either the letter was going to be sent privately but is of such great importance everyone should read it, or that the writer is of such great importance that it is in the public interest to read it. Why is it that Bob Bobson and his feelings deserves an “open letter” to “all white Americans.” There is no address for those people. He couldn’t conceivably write them a letter anyway. And they don’t care what he thinks. But wait. Rather than having the conceit to package the content of the letter into “why white Americans should reject Islamophobia,” the concept is that if it’s in a “letter” that is “open” that makes it more accessible.
That caters to the need to feel intimate with the writer, for the audience to feel they are reading something personal. But its utterly obnoxious in most instances. There is simply no compelling reason for so many open letters. It’s a lazy way to start an article. It allows the writer to get out of making stronger points by allowing the author to make it between “you” and “I.” One writer starts, “you are Jewish and you are an immigrant and you have an accept and they will never accept you.” This is a an easy way to get out of a more mature look at the subject. “For many Jewish immigrants such as my father acceptance into American mainstream society was difficult. It came with a price as will. I watched him struggle with the Austro-Hungarian accent. He was the son of immigrant.” Come on. It’s easier to just write “you…” and “I”.
Sometimes the writer doesn’t even use the open letter format that the reader has been teased in with. An open letter to Trump on behalf of “Americans with disabilities,” didn’t even have the intimate “you” and “I” feel to it. Americans will be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner, the author claimed. “As President, it will be an important challenge of your vision and leadership to help remind all Americans to embrace inclusion as a core value regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation and disability.” Well, since the President probably isn’t going to read this, the letter’s “open” nature was in fact designed to encourage people to care about those with disabilities. So why not drop the “your” and just keep it as is.
We need to be honest about “open letters.” The recipients don’t read them. The presidents or all the “white people” or whoever. And this is the essential nonsense behind them. If Martin Luther King, sitting in prison, had penned a letter to John F. Kennedy, that would have been a perfect time for the use of this style. He was an important person, the recipient was an important person, and because it was open not only can we be assured the recipient would read it, but the intended open audience would feel they are taking part in history. King did write an open letter from jail actually, from Birmingham in 1963 to his fellow clergyman. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Powerful, important words, that deserve the light of the public interest. Thoreau said something similar, although in a book, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Open letters are a “last resort” says Wikipedia. Well it should be revised to note that they are the most easy, banal, and often common form of opeds. Not last resort, but first resort. We’ve come a long way from J’Accuse and Martin Luther. No need to nail Ninety-five theses on any church doors.
McSweeney’s ran ‘An open letter to my cubicle.’ At least that captures the idiocy of it all. The cubicle is not going to read the letter. The public doesn’t care who the writer is. But it’s funny. Absent of something original like that, computers should automatically delete the word “open letters” when they find them in the headline.
Writers should disabuse themselves of this bad habit. Yes, we know, you’re a writer. You’re so important. You’re ideas are so great. Yes, you have to share them with the world. So make an argument. Explain yourself without the contrived intimacy of falsehood.