To whom it may concern: We write to draw your attention to a rising concern.
We are overdoing the open letter.
And by “we,” I also mean “me,” which is to say one of the undersigned, only you don’t know which one. This is only the start of the trouble.
This week brought two very serious examples.
First was from the University of Notre Dame colleagues of Amy Coney Barrett, several dozen of whom issued an
to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee on the occasion of her confirmation hearings. They wanted her to call for a halt to the nomination process until after the November 3 vote, even as they openly admitted she would almost certainly not. But they were determined to ask it anyway, for all to read in their open letter.
“We’re asking a lot, we know,” they wrote. “Should Vice-President Biden be elected, your seat on the court will almost certainly be lost. That would be painful, surely. Yet there is much to be gained in risking your seat. You would earn the respect of fair-minded people everywhere. You would provide a model of civic selflessness. And you might well inspire Americans of different beliefs toward a renewed commitment to the common good.”
Then came the
on Wednesday, a more global concern. At first glance this sounded very Hollywood, as Jon Snow is a dashing character in Game of Thrones. John Snow, however, was a pioneering epidemiologist in Victorian London, who was invoked as a namesake for this open letter of scientists, which provides an overview of the coronavirus illness, and endorses a strong coordinated response to suppress and contain the pandemic, while rejecting strategies that rely on a hypothetical “herd immunity” from uncontrolled natural infections.
This similarity of names is a silly coincidence, but it matters, because the purpose of this open letter, like all of them, is to grab the attention of literally everyone. So open letters benefit as much from a catchy hook as from a convincing argument.
“The evidence is very clear: controlling community spread of COVID-19 is the best way to protect our societies and economies until safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics arrive within the coming months,” reads the John Snow Memo. “We cannot afford distractions that undermine an effective response; it is essential that we act urgently based on the evidence.
Canadian signatories to the John Snow Memo include David Fisman of the University of Toronto’s Division of Epidemiology, Paul McLaren of the University of Manitoba’s Department of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, and Jillian Buriak, Canada Research Chair of Nanomaterials for Energy at the University of Alberta.
As authoritative as it is, John Snow was more reaction than action. To the public, it appeared as a hastily drafted response to another highly publicized open letter, published a few days previously, with the more ye-olde-timey name of the Great Barrington Declaration, named for a quaint town in Massachusetts where the authors held a meeting. Its three authors, professors of medicine from Oxford, Stanford and Harvard, brought together by a libertarian free-market think tank, argue against lockdowns and drastic pandemic containment measures because of their physical, mental and economic costs, proposing instead a more controlled response they call “Focused Protection.”
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was the first big pandemic open letter of the second wave, the strike to John Snow’s counterstrike, and it has caught wide attention. It has many more signatories than John Snow, although with lower vetting requirements, so low in fact that signatories include “Dr. Johnny Bananas” and “Harold Shipman,” a dead English serial killer physician.
Its tone of utmost seriousness, therefore, is a threat to its effectiveness as an open letter.
From its name to its capitalization of “Focused Protection,” the Great Barrington Declaration tries to sound grand, and as usual, the public has seen an opportunity to mock. Another signatory, for example, is “Prof. Cominic Dummings,” a tribute to Dominic Cummings, right hand politico to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who became a villain of Britain’s lockdown by secretly driving all around the country, leading to a police investigation but no charges.
As in the open letter to Coney Barrett, which only pretends to address her, the main demand of the Great Barrington Declaration reads like wishful thinking.
“Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal,” it reads.
People have been objecting to open letters for ages, for their haughty impersonal tone, or their stroppy self-regard. There was a peak to this complaining, likely driven by the rise of social media as a vector for open letters, between five and ten years ago. “Nowadays, calling something an open letter seems like redundant, repetitious repetition. After all, what isn’t open anymore?” wrote Linton Weeks for NPR in 2012
Stephen Marche wrote in Esquire in 2013 that open letters matter less with each one published. He lamented the “false sense of intimacy” in a trend that, according to a Google Trends search, had just seen a major spike in interest as a search term.
A couple of years later, Charlotte Alter in Time magazine noted a “flowering” of open letters, and how much more fun it is to read mail addressed to someone else.
“The open letter is the pinnacle of modern communication: a public announcement posing as a private gesture,” Alter wrote.
But those were mainly open letters by actual people to actual other people, such as Sinead O’Connor writing to Miley Cyrus, Jeff Bezos writing to the staff of the Washington Post in the Washington Post, and literary high points like Ta-Nehisi Coates book-length open letter to his son, Between the World and Me.
What has happened since is that the open letter has become primarily a group affair, written by many people, aimed at everyone else. Their effect is therefore diluted, such that the modern open letter is pretty weak tea. It has become a clichéd literary form, a familiar template for online content right up there with the Listicle and the “It Happened to Me” story. We know what to expect before we even get past the salutation.
So now, not only is the addressee not the real audience, but the signatories are not even the real authors. Not all of them, anyway. Most were asked to sign a more or less finished product. Some probably contributed ideas, lines, examples or edits. There was no doubt a discussion and a consensus, maybe even a private vote.
But dozens of people cannot write a letter together any more than they can ride a bike together. Someone is always behind the curtain of an open letter because writing is solitary, no matter how many people endorse the finished product. Declarations are no greater when they pretend otherwise.
National Post Staff