An Open Letter to Walter Kirn About Ohio

By Jonathan Peters

Dear Walter,

I teach journalism courses at the University of Missouri and Ohio University, and every semester I help freshmen and sophomores write their first stories. Many of them struggle. They don’t know what to include, where to put things, how to edit for clarity, and so on. As they fight the blank page, they learn how to write and how not to write. I show them stories to illustrate best and worst practices, and now I’m indebted to you and your Ohio essay in The New Republic. It’s a major contribution to the body of knowledge of how not to write.

Among other things, you wrote that Ohio is the “very cradle of American mediocrity and overzealous lawn ornamentation,” that “the soul of Ohio is its utter soullessness,” that in Ohio “nothing– and nowhere–ness is the whole premise,” that “[h]uman beings of vision and vitality will do almost anything to leave Ohio,” and that the “Ohioans [you] know (mostly uncles and cousins) understand … that their existences are bound by the mall, the municipal baseball field, the turnpike toll both, and the finished basement.”

Like you, I grew up in Ohio. I attended two public universities there, I teach at one of them, and I didn’t recognize the Ohio you described (read: caricatured) in your essay. I didn’t recognize it because your essay painted with too broad a brush. It stereotyped, overgeneralized, condescended.

Ohio has big problems, and you hinted at some of them, such as rural decline and the so-called brain drain. I won’t pretend Ohio is the Garden of Eden, and stereotypes tend to have some truth behind them. That said, Ohio is not the “very cradle of American mediocrity,” whose “nothing- and nowhere-ness is the whole premise.”

Ohio is home to the third-largest university in the nation. Ohio has won five Governor’s Cup Awards in six years based on business growth and development. Ohio ranks sixth in the nation for job growth in a clean-energy economy. Ohio has sent seven of its native sons to the White House. Ohio hospitals consistently rank among the nation’s best. Ohio has hundreds of museums, theaters and arts organizations, many of them considered among the nation’s elite, like the Ohio Theater, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Toledo Museum of Art.

And more personally …

My dad is a retired professor at Ohio University, my mom a retired teacher at Morrison Elementary, both in Athens, Ohio. My uncle is a retired factory foreman in Jackson, Ohio. My cousin is the police chief of MacArthur, Ohio. My best friend is a lawyer in Toledo, Ohio. My old hockey coach is a lab tech in Cleveland, Ohio. My mentor is an editor in Columbus, Ohio. Each one is a “[h]uman being of vision and vitality,” and on their behalf, I invite you to take a long walk off a short pier (into Mirror Lake).

Your essay was a self-indulgent, masturbatory exercise of arrogance and derision, in the same family as the essay Stephen Bloom wrote about Iowa for The Atlantic, roughly 10 million times removed from Jonathan Chait’s classic case against Delaware in The New Republic. Which is why it was so disappointing that The New Republic stamped yours with the imprimatur of commentary, satire, whatever you intended it to be.

I mention satire because I corresponded yesterday with one of your family members (you might remember her from your essay as an Ohioan “bound by the mall, the municipal baseball field, the turnpike toll booth, and the finished basement”). She said you reached out to certain family members to apologize and to explain that the essay was “meant to be sarcastic and satirical.”

First, I have a hard time believing it. Bloom said the same thing after readers pilloried him, when in reality he just wanted to deflect criticism. That sort of post-hoc evasion reminds me, really, of what I used to do in elementary school. If I liked a girl, I would find her on the playground and tell her I liked her. And if she rebuffed me, I would tell her I was kidding.

In the writing context, it can be an appealing approach because it shifts the focus from writer to reader, insofar as it permits the writer to say the reader doesn’t understand or doesn’t have a sense of humor. Well, if the reader doesn’t understand, often that’s the writer’s problem (more on this below), and Ohioans do have a sense of humor. We’re home to the Cleveland Browns.

Second, if the essay was “meant to be sarcastic and satirical,” I’ll be the first to call P.J. O’Rourke and tell him his job is safe. I mean, in general, satire combines the use of wit and humor for the purpose of social commentary. Some of your remarks were witty and humorous, but mostly they were caricature for the purpose of mocking. I’ve written satire, and to me it seems plainly ineffectual to ridicule a populace (Ohioans) to make a point about a systemic failure (swing states and the electoral college).

But what do I know?

I spend most of my time overzealously ornamenting my lawn.

Sincerely,

Jonathan

Jonathan Peters is a media lawyer and the Frank Martin Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he’s an adjunct professor at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He blogs about free speech for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written on legal issues for The Atlantic, Slate, The Nation, Wired, PBS and the Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him @jonathanwpeters on Twitter. 


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