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Open letters have become ransom notes

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

In the States, the ‘open letter’ is enjoying quite the formal renaissance. Curiously, recent examples of this newly popular epistolary genre exhibit striking similarities to the ransom note.

During June’s riots following George Floyd’s murder, a beloved independent bookstore in Denver called The Tattered Cover posted online that the shop would be politically impartial, the better to remain a neutral space for customers. Cue local outrage. Cue the store’s immediate volte-face: fulsome support for Black Lives Matter.

The reversal proved unsatisfactory. Signed by miffed patrons and authors, an open letter to the owners listed ten demands. Among them, the shop must hire more ‘individuals from marginalised backgrounds’, especially at management level, which would presumably entail sacking existing staff; re-configure its stock of books to ‘adequately reflect’ US demographics; donate 10 per cent of its paid promotional space to minority writers; never call the police when disruptive customers are black; and install a ‘voting-empowered board’ of ‘relevant community members’ to control programming. So much for being an ‘independent’. As my brother emailed: ‘Maybe they should burn down their own bookstore in solidarity.’

Meanwhile, the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation expressed formal camaraderie with ‘the black community’ and denounced ‘systemic racism’. An open letter decried this statement as ‘worse than the bare minimum’. Signed by hundreds of beneficiaries — poets whom the Foundation had awarded grants and whose publication it had facilitated — the letter listed five demands. These included: replace the president with someone ‘affirming for people of colour, disabled people, trans people, queer people, and immigrants’; drastically diversify staff (thus firing current employees); and redistribute ‘every cent’ of the Foundation’s ‘massive wealth hoarding’, directing the bulk towards literary work that is ‘explicitly anti-racist’. Contemporary poetry can be a slog at the best of times. Teetering stacks of ‘explicitly anti-racist’ collections could kill it for good.


However incredibly, the Poetry Foundation is rich. More incredibly still, the shakedown worked. Resignations followed, and the promised $1 million backhander is doubtless just the start.

Now, open letters are often blackmailing — if we can use that term — universities. Online diatribes decry a school’s shabby racial record and issue the now-standard list of demands. The letter to Princeton’s provost, signed by more than 350 of its own faculty, itemised 48 demands — some symbolic (statues, building names), some substantive (more steroidal affirmative action).

But the open letter to Stanford takes the biscuit. Each crammed with a host of sub-demands, the 16 stipulations are distributed under the headings ‘Within six months’, ‘Within 12 months’ and ‘Within 18 months’. Signed by a host of student organisations such as the ‘Stanford Black Pre-Law Society’, the document might seem justifiably urgent were it to request ‘Please stop allowing the KKK to burn crosses on campus’. But we’re way beyond that.

Insisting that Stanford devote ‘at least’ $25 million to this purification ritual, the letter commands the administration to guarantee a job for 100 per cent of black postdocs and to provide two black career counsellors for every ‘marginalised’ grad student. The school must not only assist but finance black protest movements (sorry, ‘nonviolent liberatory practices’). No less than $3 million must bankroll ‘improved quality of life and well-being’ for black students, including: campus shuttle service to black spiritual meetings; one black therapist for every five black grad students (while any ‘non-black therapists at Stanford must complete training to address white privilege’); more on-campus black fitness instructors, black-owned restaurants and ‘black estheticians skilled in caring for and styling black hair textures’.

Further, annual anti-racism training for the entire Stanford community must last a minimum of eight hours and ‘go beyond traditional training (i.e. implicit bias and microaggression)’. Any individual reported for acts of racial injustice ‘must complete an additional unpaid40 hours of anti-racist training as a first warning’.

As I can’t do this extraordinary document justice, masochistic readers should check out stanforddaily.com. Calling for wholesale affirmative action substantially in excess of minority percentages of the population (one online comment stressed ‘There is nothing too extreme’), this open letter also has the texture of a ransom note — if, given its prolixity, from kidnappers with time on their hands. Implicit, then, is ‘or else’. Or else what? Why doesn’t Stanford tell the signatories to stuff their arm-chancing extortion letter where most of us stash last night’s dinner?

What’s baffling about these petitions for massive transfers of educational resources into (demonstrably counterproductive) anti-racism training, huge administrative expansions and levels of personal support for minorities that no students of any race are ever offered? American universities are going broke. In Plague World, lucrative international students are withdrawing, and domestic students are delaying admission. Schools dependent on funding from state governments that are also going broke are in for an ugly surprise. At Stanford, hiring is already frozen, discretionary spending forbidden.

The Poetry Foundation’s large endowment makes it a tempting mark. But bookstores closed for months can’t afford to become charities. Universities with devastated enrolments can’t lavish vast sums on racial gesturing. Indeed, the entire BLM movement seems to be fomenting in a parallel universe — fiddling with ‘white fragility’ while Rome burns. Both the American and British economies are perched on a precipice. The US unemployment rate in June was more than 11 per cent, and with state re-lockdowns that number could readily soar beyond April’s near-15 per cent. For black Americans, unemployment is already more than 15 per cent. Rather than insist institutions feed an opportunistically thriving anti-racism industry, activists might best save their contumely for when there’s really something to complain about. They won’t have to wait long.

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