Editorial: Keep Those Letters Coming In, Folks

By Becky O’Malley
Friday December 28, 2007

Year-in-Review issues of papers like ours (well, there aren’t many papers like this one, but let’s say of any periodical publication) are anomalies. 

The events reviewed need to have been somewhat important to be mentioned, and yet regular readers can probably remember major happenings without our help. The holiday lull is supposed to provide us with the opportunity to step back and view the news from a longer perspective, but increasingly there is no holiday break in the hard news cycle. This past week alone brought the stories of the killing at the zoo by an escaped tiger and the assasination of Benazir Bhutto. 

Fortunately, neither of these tragedies took place at the local level in the news gap we spend most of our time trying to fill, so readers will learn about them from other sources. 

Here in the urban East Bay this year was a lot like last year. 

Underfunded and understaffed local governments attempted to cope with the big challenges, notably a shortage of affordable housing and public school systems increasingly unsure of their mission. Blaming the victims in both of these problem situations continued to be popular, and there are always enough victims and enough blame to go around.  

Berkeley politicians attempted to cope with the sight of homeless and crazed people on the street by trying to make them vanish, authorizing police crackdowns on anyone foolish enough to display basic human functions like sleeping and defecation in the viewspace of their more fortunate brethren. The state of California continued the fiction of running the Oakland public schools, while actually attempting to privatize as much of the educational function as possible and to sell off public property of the Oakland Unified School District in the guise of fiscal responsibility. None of this was “only in the East Bay”—San Franciscans were trying similar shenanigans.  

Crime continued to make headlines everywhere. State legislators piously clucked-clucked about it, and then voted to continue ducking the real causes of crime by building more prisons. In fact, as usual, when winners and losers are tallied, the real winner always turns out to be the building industry. There’s never been a problem that Californians didn’t try to solve by throwing cement at it.  

The University of California at Berkeley exhibited no shame at the revelation that most of its undergraduates seem to be taught by post-graduate teaching assistants instead of faculty members, but just continued its bricks-and-mortar (or concrete-and-steel) metastasis, oblivious of the Hayward fault. A major percentage of the school’s property has already been turned over to private for-profit research and development, and there’s a lot more of the same in the works, courtesy of the former British Petroleum, now coyly rechristened BP.  

The latest scam is the theory that we can build our way out of the desperate global warming situation. “Green building” is all the rage, despite ample proof that re-use is the greenest alternative in almost every situation. Converting drivers to using mass transit is said to require millions of dollars worth of “capital improvements”: constructing bus shelters, special lanes and concrete islands, instead of providing more frequent buses on more convenient trajectories. The logic here is that the federal government in its wisdom, tutored of course by the construction lobby, has allocated the money for building all this stuff, so why not use it? And while we’re at it, how about a nice new Bay Bridge, even though the old one could have been fixed? We can always borrow the money. 

And that’s the biggest—as yet uncalculated—new crisis for this year. Many observers think that the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market is only the beginning of a situation that could get a whole lot worse. Debt is accumulating on all levels: personal, municipal, national, international. The consequences are not clear, but some predictions are ominous.  

Americans, and especially Westerners, are not fond of The Big Picture. The study of history has just about disappeared from many public schools, and if they have it at all it’s American, just the short history of our little country not even three hundred years old. The long history of the vast continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, from which we might learn something about long-term survival, is barely mentioned.  

It’s stylish at this time of year for commentators to make fun of Christmas Letters, the inserts enclosed with greeting cards which started to appear with some frequency as personal computers and xeroxing became widely available. They seem to have peaked and are now on the wane—we only got one at our house this year, and that’s a pity.  

The writer of a holiday letter is confronted by the same problems as the editor of a Year-In-Review issue. What’s important enough to mention, what should be omitted, and how can it be analyzed? We used to get an annual letter from a friend who had a series of personal tragedies to report over several years, and not surprisingly she stopped writing after a while. On the other hand, too much Pollyannish good news is suspect, the frequent target of derogatory comments by self-satisfied sophists too busy to write letters themselves.  

When newspapers are in a self-congratulatory vein, they’re fond of saying that they’re the “first draft of history.” In fact, the first draft of history has mostly been written personal communications: letters. The invention of the telephone ended letter-writing for many of us, but holiday letters created a brief opportunity for some hardy souls to continue the tradition for a while.  

E-mail, while handy, is no substitute, since it rarely represents considered analysis, and we’ve yet to receive an email holiday letter. Most blogs, another promising novelty, read more like diaries than like letters, long on self-expression and short on attempted communication with envisioned readers.  

Central to the impulse to write history, whether in newspaper or letter form, is the assumption that someone, somewhere, is going to be reading it. We couldn’t—wouldn’t—do it without you, Dear Reader. Thanks for keeping up your end of the bargain. You make the whole effort worthwhile.