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Things that matter.

June 8, 2017

[This is a response to an op-ed in the Washington Post by Gary Abernathy, publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette, June 8, 2017. You should read that first.]

 

Dear Mr. Abernathy –

I wanted to write to say that  appreciated your June 8 op-ed in the Washington Post. As someone whose experiences bridge Trump country and the audience for the Post, I found your piece one of the most clarifying things I have read since the election. I grew up on a farm in nearby Madison County and was at the livestock auction in Hillsboro with my Dad on Monday, but I am now a college professor in the East. I have been working very hard to understand the current politics of the place I come from.

We likely do not agree on anything with respect to the current president, but I maintain faith that we have basic agreements about what matters. Your op-ed helped me to understand some of the president’s continuing appeal to people in your area – his America-first attitude, his straightforwardness, the way that the sense that he is embattled by a liberal media makes him more, rather than less, a hero. I am able to understand this and even to empathize. You eloquently echoed the complaint I have heard most frequently from my own family since the election: they resent what they see as the implication that they are ignorant racists just for supporting the president.

The one part of your op-ed that I do not understand, though, is the paragraph about what the people in your area are discussing and what they are not discussing. What you wrote was, “The negativity that permeates Trump coverage is a frequent subject of conversation here. Matters that are not frequently discussed: James B. Comey, tax returns, the Paris climate accord and the Russians. Instead, we talk about the heroin overdose epidemic ravaging our community.” Here, the paragraph moves through three things: negative coverage of the president in the abstract, a set of issues that are in the press, and the opioid crisis. This implies two things that I think are both dangerous for America and surprising positions for a journalist. The first is that coverage – any coverage – of Russian interference in American affairs and climate change must be motivated by a negative attitude toward the president. In this reading, reporting on evidence for things that reflect badly on the president cannot ever be factual, but only ever grounded in a desire for negativity. Can then anything negative be said about him, other than that (as you say) he sometimes gets carried away with being too honest in his tweets? What kind of a democracy would we have if no questions could be raised about the leadership? You do not need me to paint a picture of what kind of media this suggests we would have.

Secondly, as a journalist I am surprised that you would conflate, as I think you have, “things the people I know are talking about” and “all the things that matter.” Just because the people you know are not interested in something does not mean that it does not matter. Just because coastal elites do not care (in your view and, I’m ashamed to say, to a large extent in mine) about the opioid crisis, that does not mean that it does not matter, on a human scale and for the health of American democracy. If the president is a dangerous autocrat who has obstructed justice, it matters, whether or not the people you know are talking about it or want to hear about it. Ignoring evidence of a serious challenge to our principles because we have more immediately-pressing matters is dangerous for the long-term health of American democracy. These things should matter to patriotic Americans, and we are both of us that.

Thank you for the op-ed. You wrote for a presumably un-friendly audience in the hope of the sort of sustained discussion that we must have; I am responding in that spirit. I hope that we will all have more such discussions.

Best,

Seth Perry
Princeton, New Jersey

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