By Zach Hagadone
Things are bad, folks. I say this not as a partisan for any particular political party, but as a son raised in a fuzzy melange of lapsed Scottish Presbyterian optimism and German Lutheran pessimism — as an unbaptized father whose faith lies firmer in the academic realism of political economy and history, raising a pair of free kids in a national mood that wants to make them less free in every respect.
I’m not going to lie: I have a lot of fear for the future of my kids, and it is well founded.
Lucky for me, I get to hear a lot about what other folks around me think about the trajectory of our community, whether it be at the level of city, county, nation or world. It’s usually not encouraging, but the fact that it occurs at all means we’re still kicking as a society.
That is to say, I might receive more “letters” than any person in Sandpoint. I put that operative noun in quote marks because they are almost always delivered in the form of emails, but do sometimes come as type- or hand-written missives, all addressed to me as “Dear editor.”
That is and has been especially true during election times, when my cup of letters runneth over, as community members put pen to paper — or more likely fingers to keys — to give their two cents on the candidate(s) of their choice.
I take this seriously, though many of those writers may not. I really do consider these epistolary submissions as addressed to me, and treat them accordingly: as a correspondence. I don’t always write back, but sometimes I do — especially when I feel a correspondent has outrun the truth with a claim, gone too far in condemning an individual or issue that they have issue with, or simply overshot the word limit (which was once 300 words, though during this election cycle dropped to 200 words, and will again return to its former robustness as of this edition of the paper).
If you’re a letter writer who has heard from me, you know what I’m talking about. Contrary to what some might think, I actually do read every one of these things — and fact check them when necessary, all while trying my best to guard the essence of the opinion contained therein, whether I personally agree with it or not. And maybe especially when I don’t personally agree with it.
We don’t “censor” opinions, insofar as they are supportable with evidence or valid interpretation. Nonsense gets the bin, and some people peddle nonsense one week and the truth the next. No matter, I treat them all with the respect they are due (which is sometimes none) as true expressions of a free people freely commenting on the world around them.
This is an age-old editorial duty that I feel honored to maintain. The convention of “letters to the editor” dates to the origins of newspapering itself, which can truly be traced to the late-15th and 16th centuries in what is today called Germany. Back then, being a reporter meant serving as a hired agent to keep local nobles informed of any happenings that might affect their various business and political interests.
Beginning in the late-16th century and continuing through the 17th century, in the English-speaking world this function of information dissemination became invaluable not just to aristocrats but country squires, who called it “intelligence,” which is why you may see newspapers even to this day employing the term “intelligencer” in their name.
How these early ink-stained wretches got their intelligence was through correspondence, and that correspondence often came through networks of well-connected letter writers.
During my graduate studies in early American history, I performed extensive thesis research on 17th and early-18th-century newspapering in Britain, the North American colonies and (to a lesser extent) the German states. Two characters who I came to especially admire were Daniel Defoe and John Campbell.
The first may be more familiar, as the author of formative novels including Robinson Crusoe. While being considered as among the first true novelists, Defoe actually cut his teeth as one of those “intelligence” gatherers (also as a spy) and, later, as the editor of The Review, a twice-weekly publication founded in 1704 in London that historians generally regard as the first modern newspaper.
For my thesis work I read hundreds of articles in just as many editions of Defoe’s Review, and they are filled with letters to the editor. Likewise, Campbell, who ran the Boston News-Letter, also established in 1704, spent days running around the backcountry of Massachusetts collecting “intelligence.” His dispatches even today ring with the exasperation and grudging satisfaction of a person who doesn’t know why the hell he’s doing what he does, but still does it out of a vague sense that “intelligence” is important. And it is, in all the ways of its meaning.
These are the forebears of what you’re either holding in your hands or reading on a screen, but they, as we, relied on you as readers — and writers. Thanks for writing, and keep reading.
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