Why I Write Letters to the Newspaper
Peggy Brayfield


ince retiring from Eastern in 1997, I have pursued my dream of seeing the world. In 2004-05 I served in the Peace Corps in the Republic of South Africa; I have taught in English language immersion programs in China and Tanzania, and have visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Last summer my granddaughter and I spent a week in Morocco.

I still live on Jackson Street across from Kiwanis park. I have done stints as a volunteer for CASA, Hospice, and Head Start. I regularly sing alto in local and regional Sacred Harp/Shape Note singings. I have a YouTube channel where I post video clips from these events, along with a few of local bluegrass, travel videos and the like. And of course, I write letters to the paper.

Twelve years ago, both my parents passed away. Among the personal effects they had preserved over the sixty-plus years of their marriage I found a large brown envelope containing newspaper articles, mostly dating from the 1950s and mostly clipped from the small town weekly paper my dad published. I knew what was in those articles without looking at them: they were my mother’s memoirs about our family (seven children), along with her observations and opinions about anything and everything in that small town community. Since none of my siblings wanted this "treasure," I took the envelope and stashed it away for several years without so much as a peek at the writings inside. I could recall my acute embarrassment at having these items published and read by almost everyone I knew when I was in high school and, like most adolescents, thought my parents were making fools of themselves.

A couple of years ago I overcame my inner adolescent and opened the envelope. What a surprise to discover that my mother’s writings could be at times so charming, and overall, so civic-minded and progressive. As to the personal memoir pieces with all their anecdotes about what cute things we kids had said and done, which Mother entitled "Life With Mel," my daughter enjoys them, characterizing them as "Grandmother’s Blog," and pronouncing them "before their time."

Maybe I write letters to the newspaper — and comment online to internet postings — because my genes and early environment predestined it. Like my mother, I always had opinions, liked to shape them into words, and rightly or wrongly, thought that they deserved to be heard. Over the years, I regularly sent off my opinions to newspapers, and often saw them published. Perhaps my children thought I was making a fool of myself, and perhaps that was true. The first few times I saw my signed opinion in print, I suspected as much myself. But I got over it, having decided the risk was worth taking.

During the election cycle of 2004, I was serving in the Peace Corps in the Republic of South Africa. The American war in Iraq was often in the news; I especially recall the shock I felt when the photos of Abu Ghraib appeared. Negative opinion of the role of the United States in the world was pervasive. Upon returning home in 2005, I was again shocked to learn that the issues of the 2004 election had been so-called "values" questions. Abortion. Gay marriage. School prayer. What a different list of issues had seemed important in that election, viewed from my vantage point in Africa!

Another shock came when I renewed my subscription to the local newspaper. Considering the problems of the nation and the world, how could the editorial page be filled with letters attacking the idea of evolution, expounding on the Bible, damning homosexuals, bashing Al Gore’s message on global warming, proclaiming God’s support for the Bush administration, and even slamming local businesses who dared to wish "Happy Holidays" or "Season’s Greetings" to their customers, instead of "Merry Christmas"?

Furthermore, there was a new feature - a column of snippets from the online blogs, consisting mostly of crude attacks and insults aimed at whoever and whatever their writers did not approve. Why this stuff was considered worthy of publication was beyond me! The tone seemed to grow more uncivil by the month, writers remaining anonymous under cover of "user names" to vent their anger and hostility without restraint, all showcased in our local newspaper.

In the years after retirement, I had retreated from the fray of the public forum somewhat, reasoning that if the younger generations cared about social problems and the world in general, they would have to make their case themselves. I had served my time. This changed during the 2008 election cycle, when I again felt the old urge to marshal words to try to influence events. I began again to send letters to the local paper. I even ventured onto internet sites where candidates and issues were being

The author explains to a friend why writing letters to the editor is a patriotic duty.
attacked and defended in rude, crude terms. I took on bloggers whose vocabulary mainly consisted of permutations of the f-word, which served them as noun, adjective, every other part of speech, prefix, suffix, and syllable to insert into longer words. I tried to engage whatever idea I could discern from their postings, and to address it politely and reasonably. It seemed that fairly often, my more civil tone inspired more civil answers, and drew in comments from others who wanted a more reasonable dialogue. Some even thanked me for my courtesy.

This has become my reason for sending letters to the newspapers. I told myself: "If you don’t like the ugly, cynical, unreasonable, or hostile tone of what you see on the opinions page, try to get something more constructive published there. If the blogsters attack your letter, don’t get baited into incivility yourself. 'A soft answer turneth away wrath.' Don’t let the angry and the cynical dominate and set the tone. Be the change you want to see."

So how's my hopey-changey thing workin' out? I don’t know. But it sure feels better than sitting silent on the sidelines, abandoning the public forum to incivility, anger, cynicism and unreason.

"In the beginning was the Word . . . And the Word was God . . . All things were made by him." I admit, quoting this is pretentious, but it is related to my theme. Whatever the mystical and religious interpretations may be, to me, this quotation means that the world we experience is created by language. If we can imagine something, and put it into words, perhaps we can make it come into being. Words have created the current social climate of anger, hostility, and cynicism. Why not imagine that words can be instrumental in changing it?

And that’s why I write letters to the newspaper.

* * *

April 21, 2009
To the Editor:
Re: Why paying taxes is my cup of tea.

The recent "Tea Parties" initiated through that bastion of unbiased journalism, Fox News, inspired some thoughts I’d like to share. Unlike the tax protesters attending these demonstrations, I believe that paying taxes is a patriotic duty, and that it is also our duty to inform ourselves as to what our taxes are paying for, and to require a fair tax system, as well as good stewardship of our tax money by our public officials.

My reasons? Well, if I were to argue from the history of modern capitalism, I would cite the "father" of free market theory, Adam Smith, and his work, Wealth of Nations. He wrote "The subjects of every state ought to contribute to the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state." He further clarifies by saying that the goal of taxation should be to "remedy the inequality of riches as much as possible, by relieving the poor and burdening the rich."

I am willing to pay my share, in proportion to my income.

Or if I were to argue by reference to a recent guru of Conservatism, the late William F. Buckley, I would quote him: "For all our individual endeavors, we owe a debt to the free society that nurtures us and affords us opportunities." Part of that debt we owe to our society is to pay taxes in return for the many benefits we receive, including infrastructure, education, sanitation, a justice system, and the social safety net that cushions our fall when ill health, old age, and hard times threaten our well-being.

Or if I were to assume that, as some claim, our country was established to uphold "Christian values," I would quote the teachings of Jesus, whose main command was that we love our neighbor as ourselves, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, the widow and the orphan, and free ourselves from selfishness and attachment to material riches, which , he taught, are a great hindrance to the spiritual life.

These are all good reasons to favor of a public policy that uses tax money to pay for such benefits as health care, old age and survivors’ benefits, public education, aid to families with dependent children, disaster relief, and other human services often spoken of scornfully as a "federal welfare system." These arguments also support the idea of asking the wealthy and privileged to contribute in proportion to their means. None of us has really acquired their wealth solely as a result of their own merit and hard work, and many who have worked hard all their lives have not acquired enough to protect them from ruin, should some stroke of hard luck, ill health, accident, job loss, or the like, demand more resources than they alone command.

Without taxation, we could not have whatever public benefits we all enjoy. Therefore, even if the cup of tea tastes bitter and strong, it’s OUR cup of tea and we should do our patriotic duty. Pay our share of the cost of all the benefits our country provides.

Peggy Brayfield

* *


To the Editor, Charleston Times-Courier:

I am a senior citizen who supports health reform.

I believe our current system is basically unjust, in that the ultimate decisions on who gets health care are based on money; the money to get good insurance, the money to pay the deductibles and co-pays, or if uninsured, the money to pay cash for care. Some of that money comes through tax-funded government agencies - Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans’ benefits, military medical service. Those not covered by any of these means do not get health care.

Like most seniors, I have children and grandchildren, and this is the health care system we bequeathed them. My self-employed children cannot afford to buy insurance. One son pays premiums on a bare bones plan with $5000 deductible, and would lose even that if laid off from his job. My grandchildren have just graduated college, no longer eligible to be covered by student insurance. Would our children and grandchildren be better off with the proposed health reforms? You bet they would! Would I even be willing if necessary to pay a little more, or take a little less of what I’ve got, to make that possible? You bet I would!

Perhaps it’s only human to think first, "What’s in it for me?" That’s why the great religions and ethical systems teach us to consider others’ welfare, not just our own and that of our own families. No religious or ethical teacher ever made "Look out for number one" into a commandment. All the great religious and ethical traditions stress our moral obligation to consider the needs of others. Human society could not exist without some sense that "we’re all in this together."

Health reform would mean the self-employed and uninsured would have access to affordable insurance, with financial help if the premiums were beyond their means. It would mean no exclusions because of pre-existing conditions. It would mean our children and grandchildren could get health care as they need it, and pass on the benefits of improved well-being to their children and grandchildren.

Whatever this costs, doing nothing will cost more. And not all ‘costs’ can be counted in dollars.

Our Constitution was adopted, in part, "to promote the general welfare." And if we are "one nation under God," as we hear so often, then we must consider, not just our personal welfare, but the welfare of all our people.

That’s why we should support health reform now.

Peggy Brayfield

* * *

[Unsent so far]

To the Editor, Charleston Times-Courier:

Harry and Louise— the Sequel

Remember Harry and Louise? The couple that helped sink health care reform back in the Clinton era?

Well, I called Louise the other day to see how things were going. Not so good, she said. Harry passed away a couple of years ago. He had chronic health problems. They had insurance, but either his problems were found to be pre-existing conditions, or the treatments their trusted doctor prescribed were ruled "not medically necessary." He and his doctor went through all three steps of the appeal to the insurers, but at each step, the experts at the insurance company determined that they had been right all along.

After Harry died, Louise was no longer covered by his insurance. And his medical bills left her nearly bankrupt.

She said that she had been in touch with her old friend, Thelma. Thelma had a bone to pick with the health insurance system too, it seems. She had had a sort of bare bones health insurance plan through her job, and luckily, had been in pretty good health all along. But then last year she had some bladder problems. When she applied for insurance benefits, the insurance company checked her health history all the way back, discovered that she had wet the bed when she was two, and determined that her bladder problems were a pre-existing condition. And then, she lost her job because of the recession, and with it, her health insurance (which wasn‘t much better than nothing anyway).

Louise is with Thelma now.

Rumor has it that Thelma and Louise are heading to Capitol Hill, and that they are armed and dangerous.

I don’t put much stock in the "armed and dangerous" part, but I do know this: they are madder than two wet hens, and Congress had better listen up!

P. Brayfield


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