Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
— Winston Churchill
I try not to stew over things. Generally speaking, if something — or someone — is, whether intentionally or not, impeding my progress toward a given goal, or interfering with my ability to fulfill professional and personal obligations, or just plain bothering me for some reason or another, I tend to default to what has proved to be a fairly reliable process for dealing with it.
Step One in that process is remaining quiet for some period of time. That might seem counterintuitive to the idea of not stewing, but I find that concentrated observation of almost any (non-emergency) situation yields perspective and insight that inform subsequent actions. In other words, I try to give my problem the opportunity to solve itself without need of my interference — or to be solved by the intervention of events and circumstances that are, for the most part, beyond my immediate influence or control.
If given a modicum of time, a thing that looks highly, or even moderately, problematic today may soon be reduced to the level of mild irritant, if not complete irrelevance. What easier way to rid oneself of a problem than by not having to lift even a metaphorical finger? Even in small doses, time is a potent antiseptic, a purifier of perspective.
Of all people to have said it best, I put Aaron Burr high in the running: “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow,” the disgraced and scandalous Founder once said. “Delay may give clearer light as to what is best to be done.”
Now, we can debate the advisability of talking advice from a man who is best remembered today for killing his political rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel (for one thing, I suppose, no Broadway musicals are written about you, though Gore Vidal did write a very fine novel about Burr, in which Hamilton doesn’t come off looking so good). But that and some other peccadillos aside — to mention one, there’s his being arrested for (and subsequently acquitted of) high treason — Burr was a brilliant man, and one who was more willing than most to test the vagaries of politics, human nature, and fate.
Plus, to borrow from something an old lawyer buddy of mine used to say, this particular notion of Burr’s has the added advantage of being right. Hence, Step One in my process, which often enough ends up being the only step necessary.
Often enough. But not always. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to move on to Step Two.
Step Two involves action; specifically, the action of speaking up about whatever it is that’s sticking in my craw. In conversation with friends and associates, in response to questions that may arise in some public setting, and — yes, Lord help me — through the dubious miracle of Facebook and other social media, I’m willing to venture hypotheses, debate the merits of differing viewpoints, seek common ground with those with whom I disagree, and state my opinion, sometimes — yes, Lord help me — in the most uncategorical and even inhospitable of terms.
More often than not — especially in cases where one or more parties convey some amicable apologies or regrets — Step Two brings an end to the matter.
But not always. In those instances, there is Step Three, in which I am engaged by the typing of these very words. Step Three is writing about the thing that has remained stuck in my craw for what I consider an inordinate period of time, in a very focused and concentrated way. It helps, in that regard, to have a weekly newspaper column, as I hope it helps the reader to have my perspective on this or that issue or event or process or personality.
Step Three is it for me. A writer’s only weapon is his pen, to bastardize one of those sayings that no one knows who originated to begin with — and which, I guess, should be updated, with “pen” changed to the indubitably less romantic “electronic communications device.” O brave new world, and all that.
When I write a column, I am speaking for no one but myself. I’m not trying to win an argument. I’m not trying to suggest that I am more entitled to my opinions than you are to yours, or anyone else is to theirs. I’m not even trying to “convert” you to my point of view — not necessarily, anyway, which I say partly in memory of my late good friend, John Wright, who considered a little incidental proselytizing to be part of his job.
So what am I doing? I’m just giving you an honest opinion of matters at hand. I’m telling you what I think, along with some things that I know — and even, to varying degrees at various times, how I feel about the topic at hand. What’s more, I do us all the favor of going out of my way to draw clear distinctions between those things. I admit my biases, and disclose them freely and fully, with the knowledge that in doing so, I am providing a backdrop against which facts stand out as brilliantly as stars in a clear desert sky.
All of this, in my view, is the essence of commentary. In the description I’ve just provided, there is implicit a benefit that runs both ways — from me to whomever does me the honor of taking the time to read whatever is in this space on a given week — said benefit being the understanding that I’m giving you something that you can put to use in any way you please, including as a liner for your trash can or cat box (on that note, a fellow once told me — in what, I gathered, was intended to be taken as a compliment, or at least not a knock on our content — that a copy of Weld was the perfect size for the latter use, once he’d finished reading it; we’ve since begun trimming to slightly smaller dimensions, so we might have lost a regular reader there).
Where am I going with all of this? Well, frankly, in a different direction than I envisioned when I began writing it. I started with the idea of expounding on the specific thing that has been stuck in my craw for some days (namely, the unmitigated gall displayed by Birmingham Mayor William Bell in accepting a “Crime Stopper of the Year” award at a time when the city is more than two years into its worst run of homicides since the 1990s, and the apparent obliviousness to that fact by the organization that gave Bell the award).
But whether out of pure self-indulgence, or perhaps simply an underlying need to accord you the “privilege” of reading along as I work it out on paper — and while reserving the right to return to the topic of Crime Stopping at a later date — I’m finding that what this is really about is the relationship between reporting and commentary. It’s about the vital differences between them, and about their shared goals, objectives, and obligations to the reading public. It’s about how each informs the other, and in turn the reader, not just about what happened, but how and why it happened, its relation to other things, and what it all means.
It’s also about the role of a newspaper in providing both of these public services. More specifically, it’s about the role of this newspaper in providing them, providing reporting you can rely on, and commentary that adds depth and perspective to the topic at hand and promotes greater understanding of — if not always agreement on — the issues and opportunities Birmingham faces as a community.
Finally, it’s a about my role as one of the proprietors of a small media company that for nearly six years and counting has remained dedicated to the proposition that independent local journalism is essential to the life of Birmingham. A well-informed populace is the critical ingredient in seeing our community achieve its full potential, and filling that role is why Weld is in business.
It’s why I write. It’s why I speak. It’s why I comment and critique, and why I sometimes argue and prod and contradict and intentionally provoke. It’s why I lend my personal support — and, when appropriate, and when my co-proprietor concurs, that of our company — to organizations and issues and individuals who share my belief in the value of what Weld is, what we do, and why we do it.
Not long ago, my business partner, Heather Milam Nikolich, and I were talking to a small group of folks about just those things, about why we think Weld is important to Birmingham. We talked about our growth over the years, the strategy we have followed for expanding readership and distribution and increasing revenues, our plans for the future. We talked about why keeping our newspaper free to the public is a critical ingredient in all of those things.
“So, basically,” one of the group said, “Weld is a free public service.”
“Yes,” I replied. “That’s exactly what Weld is.”
And that’s what we plan to stay, in every sense of the term. We place a high value on the availability and accessibility of news, informed commentary, and timely and reliable information — most especially at the local level, where the availability of accurate, reliable news and information impacts people’s lives most directly — and we hope that you do, too.
And, now that my craw is cleared, I can get back to more substantive pursuits — like, among other things, assessing Mayor Bell’s success in stopping crime. But, to the undoubted delight of some, that won’t be until the March 23 issue of Weld, as I’m taking a welcome break — and, I’d like to think, one that’s well-earned — from the rigors of proprietorship…and reporting…and critiquing…and having an opinion about much of anything that doesn’t directly involve the having of fun, and the appreciation of life in all its wonder and mystery.