Steve Almond’s resignation from Boston College [“Demagogue Days,” January 2008] certainly left no discernible dents in the armor of the so-called right-wing “hateocracy.” At least Almond is candid about his complicity: He knew going in that he stood little chance against conservative media pundits, and that they would steer the conversation off topic or shout down anything logical he might try to say. These shows can’t teach people anything; they can only reaffirm what viewers already believe.
The most illuminating part of Almond’s essay is that he was courted by television and radio shows in the first place. The point was not what he and the pundits would argue about or who would win. No, the real action was on the sidelines, where men in suits place bets on neither lion nor Christian, but on how many Romans will come for the show.
I appreciate Steve Almond’s scathing wit and his demythologizing of National Public Radio (NPR) as a “left-wing” news outlet.
I was an NPR commentator for almost three years. Two days after 9/11, I sent a commentary to my producer. I’d walked my southwestern town and listened as my neighbors — an old rancher, a teenage convenience-store clerk, three people in the post-office line — all expressed hope that our government wouldn’t retaliate with violence. My producer called back and said she couldn’t use the piece. When I asked why, she said, “We can’t undercut the president.”
I am grateful to Steve Almond for his outrage and insight, flaws and courage. And I hope he doesn’t mistake this letter for liberal self-congratulation. The hatemongers excel at stifling any opposition. I grew up during the Reagan era and still feel lonely and hopeless in my work for social justice. Almond’s self-described “pissant gesture” gives me hope that there are strong, eloquent fighters on our side.
It is not only front-page heroics that count. Almond’s hero Joseph Welch delivered the decisive blow that brought down red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy, but his words would have accomplished little if they hadn’t been backed by widespread dissent. Quiet support is as much a part of our resistance as twenty-five seconds of blessed free speech on Fox News; it all adds up and eventually tips over into change.
I would like to know what Steve Almond hoped to accomplish with his essay “Demagogue Days.” This piece is so filled with hatred and name-calling that it is indistinguishable from the hate-mongering Almond condemns on the Right. How can he expect positive change to result from what he wrote?
Radical change comes from loving one’s enemies, not vilifying them. Love begets love; violence begets violence. We all have opportunities every day to choose love or hate, and our choices shape our society. The “hateocracy” Almond decries will perish only when we all choose love.
I take issue with Steve Almond’s assertion that no one else but “thugs and buffoons would choose to work in the noxious, self-deluded environment of Washington, D.C.” I’m a political-science grad student, and my goal since adolescence has been to work in government and help guide my country down the correct path. This dream of improving America has sustained me through years of all-night studying sessions, menial internships, and peanut salaries. It’s hard enough for me and the people I work beside without a supposed progressive like Almond disparaging us.
Almond may have lost faith, but millions of young people at universities, governmental agencies, and think tanks across the country have not. If America can heal from slavery, the Great Depression, and Vietnam, it can heal from Bush and his ilk — but only if young people continue to go to Washington and work for change.
Steve Almond responds:
I wish I could second the noble sentiments expressed by Peter Solet. Love should beget love. In our finest moments as a species, it does. But what happens when the love inside us becomes distorted into evil? When it takes the form of greed and bigotry and childish self-regard? Does the vast record of humankind suggest that these tendencies dissolve in the face of sustained love?
The conservative movement of this country has succeeded not through an honest pursuit of political goals, but through a tireless appeal to the worst impulses of the electorate. We have seen its apotheosis in the sickening regime of George W. Bush, which has sought on every available occasion to excite our fear and rage, to reward the wealthy, to punish the poor, and to extinguish our collective sense of mercy.
What should a patriotic American do in the face of such behavior? Can we honestly expect that Bush, or Exxon-Mobil, or the right-wing demagogues who peddle grievance on their behalf will be cured by love? No, bullies don’t respond to love. They lack the imagination necessary to distinguish love from approval. Turning the other cheek doesn’t discourage them from striking. Punching them in the nose does.
As Americans, we must decide whether to face the looming crises of our epoch or to lead our species toward ruin. There is plenty in this effort that will call upon the better angels of our nature: our capacity to sacrifice, our compassion, our hope. But it will also require us to rise up and confront the forces within our own democracy that oppose moral progress. To do so is not a failure of love. It is a requirement of courage.
As for the political-science grad student who finds fault with my cruel words about Washington, D.C., I plead guilty to middle-aged cynicism in the first degree. She or he is absolutely right to suggest that young Americans should work toward positive change wherever they can. It was wrong for me to paint our capital with such a broad brush. That said, those who do noble work need not fear my disapproval. The “thugs and buffoons” I had in mind certainly don’t earn peanut salaries.
I loved reading Angela Winter’s behind-the-scenes story about bringing Sy Safransky and The Sun up to speed on the Internet [“Don’t Kill the Instant Messenger,” January 2008]. By coincidence, I had just renewed my subscription via the magazine’s website, and I’d taken notice of the clean, efficient, user-friendly design. And I was thrilled to find the December interview with Adyashanti [“Who Hears This Sound?” by Luc Saunders and Sy Safransky] on the website in its entirety. I immediately referred members of my meditation group to the piece. Most had not heard of The Sun before.
Having worked with a man of Sy’s generation at a nonprofit that grew in size, I can identify with Winter’s experience. Sy and my boss share some old-fashioned virtues I admire, such as integrity, preference for personal connection, and hands-on commitment. But they also share qualities that might hold an organization back, like fear of technology and a need for control.
It’s a challenge to maintain the delicate balance between keeping things intimate and increasing The Sun’s reach through modern technology. Sy’s dedicated, disciplined approach has made the magazine great, but I hope he’ll try more of the new communication tools out there. He might find he likes them.
After I’d read “My Marital Status,” by James Kullander [December 2007], this line stayed with me: “Wanda’s death put me in touch with one of the highest orders of human existence: to love others as though we are dying all the time, because the plain truth of the matter is that we are.” That one pure truth has changed my marriage, my friendships, and my priorities. Thanks to Kullander, I am a much kinder and more understanding man.
I come home late from work, after my wife and two sons are asleep. As on most days, I have been counseling clients for many hours. First I met with a sixteen-year-old with major depression; then with a fourteen-year-old who had swallowed a bottle of pills some years back; then with more children dealing with anxiety and depression. I’m ready to have some time to myself. Lucky for me, the December issue of The Sun has arrived; I run a bath and read the Readers Write on “Getting Ready” while I soak.
As usual, The Sun brings me to tears by revealing our capacity for both beauty and coldheartedness. I read, bathe, cry, feel a sense of connection, and prepare for bed. Tomorrow I will see more kids in pain, but The Sun has given me some strength and energy to continue to do this work for another day.
John O’Donohue, writer, poet, and philosopher, died in his sleep on January 3, 2008. He was fifty-three.
A little more than a year ago, I had the privilege of interviewing him for The Sun [“The Unseen Life That Dreams Us,” April 2007]. It was a thrill to ask him the questions I’d pondered while reading his books, and I found him to be a brilliant scholar with an inspiring breadth of knowledge. He made me want to keep learning and questioning and to follow the call of my own mystery.
But what really touched me in the time I spent with him was his deep and genuine kindness. He taught me to treat myself with tenderness.
When I heard of his death, I felt sad for days. Finally I turned to his book Anam Cara and reread some paragraphs that had soothed my soul, and I began to feel a sense of peace again.
These words, from the chapter on death, seemed especially appropriate:
If you live in this world with kindness, if you do not add to other people’s burdens, but if you try to serve love, when the time comes for you to make the journey, you will receive a serenity, peace, and a welcoming freedom that will enable you to go to the other world with great eloquence, grace, and acceptance.
I am grateful to have his books and his memory.