It's a pandemic

Russell Baker

June 23, 1993|By Russell Baker

MR. W.C.T. of Otisville, N.Y., has a grievance against "names." They don't answer his letters. He has sent me a letter complaining about it.

What Mr. W.C.T. means by "names" is that small group of Americans who do all the talking, or writing, or performing, or bossing. Then there are "ordinary" people, meaning people who get the epistolary cold shoulder from the "names." Or as Mr. W.C.T. puts it:

"I want it to be known that there is a pandemic in this land of 'names' who simply refuse to devote resources to providing the courtesy of a reply to an ordinary person."

He says he generally writes a letter a month, usually to a "name." Among "names" who have not replied he lists Vice President Gore, Senator Moynihan, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, Charles Osgood of CBS News and Johnny Carson. The response to 20 years of sending 12 letters a year to "names" has been "nearly uniform: no response."

Something about this letter makes me suspect Mr. W.C.T. is trying to have a little joke with me, but I hope not. I want to believe he is really angry about this. Somebody ought to be.

It is rudeness pure and loutish not to respond to a civil letter. When "names" behave rudely to "ordinary" letter-writing people they contribute to the spreading barbarianism that makes American life increasingly crude.

W.C.T.'s complaint goes to the heart of a dangerous national problem. This is the growing frustration among "ordinary" people with a society that doesn't listen to them or even care what they have to say.

The small, privileged crowd with the luxury of being constantly read, watched and listened to is blessedly favored in today's America. Noblesse oblige, Mr. W.C.T. says, should compel its members to answer letters from commoner humanity. He has a point.

The only way most Americans can get an audience nowadays is by listening carefully when they talk to themselves.

There are radio talk shows, of course, but the people who screen callers usually look for somebody likely to provide entertainment value. This puts a premium on a willingness to rant, be clownish or perhaps be insulted by the host.

And what is the host? A "name." Since he wouldn't answer a

letter from you, you'd be daft to suppose he's giving you two minutes of his precious air time because he thinks you can say anything worth listening to.

This is show biz, Ernie, and you're not Prince Hamlet, nor George Bernard Shaw, nor even Sam Donaldson, but just another spear carrier.

Why do "names" fail to answer letters from "ordinary" people? Many reasons. Illiteracy, for instance. No "name" wants to betray it to "ordinary" people by sending them mail filled with graceless sentences.

Many "names," though once literate, have lost their writing know-how after years of communicating only by telephone and fax. "Names" who communicate by mail are swiftly stigmatized as behind the times, which can be death to a "name's" reputation.

Would Connie Chung be sitting beside Dan Rather today if People magazine had reported that she always wrote letters because she couldn't learn to fax right?

Some "names" who could write an intelligible letter if forced at gunpoint to take pen in hand tell me they never do so because stamps are prohibitively expensive. Ten responses to "ordinary" people cost a "name" $2.90.

Admittedly this is not bankruptive to the average "name," but suppose we're talking of the kind of "name" who receives 5,000 letters per week. That's $1,450 a week. Baseball players can afford that, but most "names" cannot.

I, for one, certainly cannot. Since you classify me as a "name," Mr. W.C.T., let me make it clear that, "name" or no "name," I cannot afford $1,450 a week for stamps.

True, I do not receive 5,000 letters a week. Last week there were only three. I would have answered them all, but one must consider his reputation. The three people getting those responses might think any "name" who had time to answer his mail couldn't be a 5,000-letters-a-week "name," but must be a very negligible "name" indeed. Still, to fight the spreading barbarianism, I might answer one next week. Not Mr. W.C.T.'s, though.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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