To the editor:
I read the letters to the editor section of your publication on a regular basis. On occasion, the spirited give-and-take, such as the series of letters between my friend Missy McKnight-Guiser and Mr. John Kauffman this spring, is what political discourse is supposed to look like - forceful yet polite, respectful of others' opinions even when they are the polar opposite of one's own; the debaters may agree to disagree, but they do so like adults.
Sometimes, however, a constructive conversation can be derailed by what seems like a willful stubbornness, an insistence on misunderstanding. A recent exchange of letters between John Brittain and Larry Baker about the exact definition of "socialism" never touched on the cogent point - what exactly has President Obama enacted that is truly socialist? The real Socialists say: Nothing. But at least the importance and power of words, and their power, and by extension the power of their misuse, was foremost in the conversation.
Then there are letters which make no attempt at politeness, or, for that matter, facts. I am thinking in particular of several letters by my fellow Juniata Countian, Sandy Rudy. Ms. Rudy has published a series of hyperbolic "wake-up calls" regarding President Obama. In her mind, President Obama is "a power-crazed madman" who has "disgraced and bankrupted this nation financially and morally," "totally ignored our Constitution, showing utter disrespect for the founding fathers of this country" and "corrupted the office of president as no other."
These are, of course, serious charges, and I have included only a small example of her voluminous output. One wishes that Ms. Rudy would have provided even a sliver of evidence to back up her vitriolic outbursts. However, there is none: Ms. Rudy, like many of President Obama's most outspoken critics, can't help but discredit her own message by going over the top into pure fiction.
The problem is this: Words have meanings. "Power-hungry madman," for example, has a specific definition, and by no stretch of even the most feverish imagination does President Obama fit the bill. And as much as I detested the previous administration, neither did President Bush. As for "corrupting the office of the president as no other," I believe Ms. Rudy, like myself, is old enough to remember Richard Nixon resigning the office in disgrace. I can't think of anything President Obama's done that comes anywhere close. I would think that Ms. Rudy herself, if she could catch her breath, might even rate Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions in the White House as far worse than anything President Obama, a solid family man, has done. A quick glance at the administrations of Warren G. Harding, Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Johnson show that both our current president and the last one have stiff competition in the field of corruption. My point is that words have meanings and Ms. Rudy is saying things which are easily disproven. Where does she get these ideas, and why does she feel the need to "warn" us all about them? What purpose is served by spreading these extreme untruths?
Of course, Ms. Rudy is free to submit her letters, devoid of truth as they may be, and The Sentinel has the right - some might say the duty - to print them. I really don't mean to single out Ms. Rudy - her letters just seem to be the farthest from reality. Mr. Kauffman's letters, although equally anti-Obama, made far better use of language. His most impressive letter was presented as a dream - if you haven't read it yet, please look it up in the archives. It's undeniably entertaining as a work of fiction (although the "it was only a dream - or was it?" Dallas denouement was a little dodgy) - but what is the purpose of this grossly exaggerated fantasy of a future dystopia? The ideas presented were just as devoid of facts to back them up as Ms. Rudy's. What in the world makes him think Obama wants to stay in office forever? But that's the way dream logic works.
Thankfully, for every journey into the wilderness of disinformation and untruth, there are other letter writers presenting opposing positions. Tracie Benner presented a thoughtful rebuttal to Ms. Rudy's Aug. 11 letter ("Reader issues wakeup call for all Americans"), and this week Teresa Hobbes did a true public service when she urged "all to become well informed before election." No one should vote before reading her letter.
Here I finally arrive at the crux of my letter. I believe, as did Thomas Jefferson (a guy claimed by both the Left and the Right), that an informed electorate is required to make our country work effectively. Historically, the duty of informing the electorate has fallen to the press. It's your job. It's your duty. So although I laud The Sentinel for providing a platform for political discourse, I must register my complete and utter disgust at your recent editorial: "A slap in the face to hard-working folks." Anyone who bothered to read President Obama's entire speech, or even just the rest of the paragraph, knows what he was saying. "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business - you didn't build that." It's obvious to most people that what you, the business owner, didn't build is "this unbelievable American system" and "roads and bridges." As Ms. Hobbs said, "President Obama's point was that everyone benefits from the successes and help from other people and the support of the government through infrastructure and programs. We are in this together, not alone." While I might expect Ms. Rudy and Mr. Kauffman to willfully misrepresent the President's unfortunate grammar gaffe, I hold the editor of our region's main newspaper to a higher standard. This non-issue was discussed and dismissed by thinking people a month ago, but the GOP already had the T-shirts and bumper-stickers printed, and had made it a major part of their convention, so it's still being fed to us. Is this how you inform the electorate? By pretending not to understand a fairly straightforward statement and then using your pulpit, for what its worth, to angrily denounce something that wasn't ever actually said?
What is the purpose of this willful misuse of words? It's certainly not limited to this publication. It's everywhere. It serves only to divide us. Instead of discussing things calmly, each side assures us that their opponent is Satan. And no one is willing to make a deal with the Devil.
In the case of your recent editorial, what the President was actually saying - and which you chose to misunderstand - was very similar to what Gov. Romney said at the Salt Lake City Olympics: "You Olympians, however, know you didn't get here solely on your own power. For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers, encouraged your hopes, coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them." This is actually an issue that both sides could agree to, if they chose to. Instead, in Tampa the GOP proudly declared "We Did Build That"... in a convention center built by union labor with government money. And way down the line, The (Lewistown) Sentinel parrots the Republican talking points in an editorial on Labor Day. Labor Day, a day commemorating the rights earned by labor unions - labor unions who support President Obama.
We have differences, but we're all Americans. We all speak the same language. Each of us should make an effort to make sure that what we say is true. Words have meanings. We can't communicate without them. And the local newspaper has a duty, a sacred trust, to use words accurately and to inform the electorate. You have failed on both counts.