Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.
Sometime back in the 20th century — You remember the 20th century, don’t you? Back when George W. Bush hadn’t become president yet, Johnny Cash was alive and kicking, and everything was good? — the humorist Martin Mull wrote a song called “The White Man’s Blues.” I’m paraphrasing a little bit here, I’m sure, but the song opened with a verse that ran something like, Woke up this morning/Both cars were gone/Made me feel so bad/I threw my drink across the lawn.
Presumably, Mull was pinpricking upper-class white folks — the One Percent, if you will— but perhaps this is where we get down to a definition of terms. Get past the upper echelons and wealth, or the perception thereof, becomes highly relative. Got a roof over your head? Food on the table? Your kids go to decent schools? If you get sick, do you go to the doctor? Did you take a vacation this year? If you answered yes to all, or even any, of these questions, then by somebody’s standards, you’re doing pretty well for yourself.
My point is that we all indulge in the all-too-human tendency to define things in terms of ourselves — our own circumstances, our own hopes and fears and beliefs and prejudices. Consciously or not, and in most cases without an ounce of condescension or malice, we find ourselves coming to the conclusion that what is interesting to us and what is good for us is interesting to and good for everyone.
Pursuing this line of thought further, let me shift here from the “we” to the “I.” As the publisher of a website and a weekly newspaper, I am in the very fortunate position of having space in which to set down my thoughts in writing for public consumption. That good fortune comes with the responsibility of making sound decisions about what to write, about what is compelling and informative and, it is to be hoped, of use to readers.
It also comes with the obligation to listen to readers, most especially when they offer constructive criticism and shine a light on shortcomings in the choices I make as a writer — and of Weld’s content in general. I am especially mindful of this in light of some recent communications from some very thoughtful and discerning readers, from which I am moved to share a couple of excerpts.
One came in response to my recent column about the value of protests, in which I took the opportunity to rake state representatives John Rogers and Mary Moore over the coals for a multitude of sins. Let us stipulate here that those two are easy targets for those who want to bemoan the state of politics and government in our community — witness how often they are the subjects of commentaries in our local soon-to-be-non-daily newspaper; but that cut no ice with one correspondent, who took Weld, the News and pretty much every other media outlet in town to task for shooting at the easy targets and shirking a task that is considerably more problematic.
One of the things that [local media] do not bring to the table, he wrote, is an understanding of what motivates people that elect the likes of [Rogers and Moore]….When we say that the people’s representatives have their heads up their asses, we really are accusing the people that elected them…To the extent that we have reporting that fails to convey to the rest of us the lives and thinking of the majority of voters in Birmingham…we have an incomplete picture of what is going on in our city.
Much the same point came to me from a different perspective. When I responded with positive comments to a Facebook post from a black man who was challenging young black people who have moved to the suburbs to re-engage with the politics and civic life of the city, I received a retort that I did not expect.
Mr. Kelly, it went, I was surprised and honored that you read my post. But I was shocked that you liked it.
Now, on the one hand, I was a little shocked myself to find that all of the writing I have done about the need for civic engagement and biracial — or, for that matter, non-racial — approaches to the issues and opportunities before us had not made more of impression on this person. On the other hand, it put me immediately in mind of something a friend of mine said to me several months ago.
“I really like your paper,” she said. “But part of the reason I like it is because I’m white and I live downtown. I guess I’m your target demographic.”
As Weld moves into its second year of existence, therein lies our challenge. I can talk about the fact that we’re a startup company with a small staff and limited resources. I can swear to our good intentions, or explain our strategy for developing a strong base of readership from which to expand our scope and reach.
Or I can take comments like these as a challenge to strive continually to provide broader and deeper coverage of our community. I can embrace the realization that until we do that, Weld is only going to be part of the way to its goal of giving Birmingham something it never has had — an editorial voice that helps Birmingham tell its own stories, and that speaks of our community and not just to it.