From Siegfried Sassoon to Sinead O'Connor, those who write open letters know their power

A whole lot of young men and women have just had their first introduction to concepts like women’s sexual freedom, structural oppression and liberation, and mental health stigmas by means of the Miley/Sinead debate.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

The boldness of this passage; the opening sentence of Siegfried Sassoon’s public letter to his Commanding Officer, still has the power to shock. I know this because several years ago as an A Level student I opened my set text, Regeneration by Pat Barker, and seeing these words was taken aback by their frankness and courage.

In making this ‘act of wilful defiance’ Sassoon knew of the risks he was taking. Lauded as a war hero and decorated with the Military Cross, he was now risking not only his reputation, but also his life - he only avoided a court-martial because he was deemed to be shell-shocked and not in his right mind. Yet Sassoon was in his right mind, and did know what he was saying. He was trying desperately to bring to an end the slaughter of his friends, his comrades and of similar young men fighting on the other side.

The letter, which was read out in parliament and printed in The Times, did not bring about an end to the war. It did, however, create unease and tension by drawing attention to the brutal realities of World War I.

We care about this letter now as a historical document, a reminder of why we wear poppies on November 11th - but there is more to it, I think, than that. It is also a cry against suffering and war. Its continued power is its timelessness - it is at once very specific to the war that Sassoon fought in and simultaneously something which can be applied to many conflicts, highlighting the terribleness of lives wasted for an inch of land.

43 years later, another letter would be written which would become representative of the ways in which Open Letters can effect change. The letter, written in a cramped jail cell on the margins of a newspaper, became known as Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this letter its author Martin Luther King addressed his fellow clergymen, responding to a letter they had written calling for an end to anti-segregation demonstrations, claiming these were ‘unwise and untimely.’  The response was to leave a far greater impression than the piece it sought to answer.

The letter, gentle yet unyielding in tone, perfectly mirrored the spirit of non-violent resistance which it advocates: ‘You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.’

It was published in The New York Post, The Christian Century and Atlantic Monthly, becoming one of the most influential texts of the Nonviolent Resistance movement. The letter, alongside King’s other work, doubtless played a part in bringing about an end to segregation in America. We care about this letter today as an example of the power of the written word - it is much anthologised perhaps because it proves true the old maxim about the pen being mightier than the sword. It demonstrates that the open letter can absolutely work as a convincing polemic.

But there is something going on with open letters which takes them beyond the traditional remit of a polemic. Rather than opening with a direct assertion, an open letter lays its ground. It addresses an individual or a group, addressing the correspondent at once directly, through means of the letter, and indirectly, through the public and other commentators who will read and have a reaction to the letter.

Open letters are designed to provoke discussion, and therein lies much of their strength. There is also something defiant about the open letter as though it is saying ‘I defy you not to respond.’

This was very much the case with Émile Zola’s famous letter to President Félix Faure. The words ‘J’accuse’ blazoned atop the front page of leading newspaper Aurore, was deliberately and importantly provocative. It had to be were it to succeed in its goal - that of drawing attention to the horrible injustice done to Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who had wrongly been convicted of espionage and exiled to the evocatively named Devil’s Island.

By pointing the finger at those responsible in a public address, reciting J’accuse before a list of names like an incantation, Zola set himself up to be challenged, knowing this was the only way to lead to Dreyfus exoneration. Soon after the letter Zola was erroneously found guilty of libel and fled the country, but the tale of Dreyfus’ unfair conviction was out there and could not for long be suppressed.

Do we still need open letters and should we still care about them? Was last weeks open letter from Sinead O’Connor to Miley Cyrus important, or was it, as it has been widely portrayed, a salacious 'catfight' between female celebrities?

I would like to argue that yes, we should still care about open letters. The freedom to express oneself, thanks to the internet, is greater than ever, but this does not need to dilute the discourse or stop the momentum of the important open letter. Open letters nowadays, if anything have more momentum because they can reach a wider audience.

Was O’Connor’s letter to Cyrus important? Perhaps. It is not a letter which will spark a revolution or dramatically change society, but it raises issues which we need to talk about. Does the music industry exploit young women? Do young women feel compelled, by society, to behave in a certain way? Should we be concerned about young stars?

That the letter has opened up discussion on these fronts is important. A friend who is studying for a sociology doctorate made the following point - ‘Ridiculous bickering and bantering notwithstanding, a whole lot of young men and women have just had their first introduction to concepts like women’s sexual freedom, structural oppression and liberation, and mental health stigmas by means of the Miley/Sinead debate.’

I think she makes a brilliant point.

Was Sinead O'Connor really just one half of a 'catfight'? Image: Getty
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French voters face a choice: Thatcherism or fascism

Today's Morning Call. 

Francois Fillon has been handed the task of saving France from a Marine Le Pen presidency and, by extension, the European Union from collapse, after a landslide win over Alain Juppé in the second round of the centre-right Republican party primary, taking 67 per cent of the vote to Juppé's 33 per cent. 

What are his chances? With the left exhausted, divided and unpopular, it's highly likely that it will be Fillon who makes it into the second round of the contest (under the French system, unless one candidate secures more than half in the first round, the top two go to a run off). 

Le Pen is regarded as close-to-certain of winning the first round and is seen as highly likely to be defeated in the second. That the centre-right candidate looks - at least based on the polls - to be the most likely to make it into the top two alongside her puts Fillon in poll position if the polls are right.

As I explained in my profile of him, his path to victory relies on the French Left being willing to hold its nose and vote for Thatcherism - or, at least, as close as France gets to Thatcherism - in order to defeat fascism. It may be that the distinctly Anglo-Saxon whiff of his politics - "Thatcherite Victor vows sharp shock for France" is the Times splash - exerts too strong a smell for the left to ignore.

The triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the United States have the left and the centre nervous. The far right is sharing best practice and campaign technique across borders, boosting its chances. 

Of all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most avoidable, so I won't make one. However, there are a few factors that may lie in the way of Le Pen going the way of Trump and Brexit. Hostility towards the European project and white  racial reaction are both deeply woven into the culture and politics of the United Kingdom and the United States respectively. The similarities between Vote Leave and Trump are overstated, but both were fighting on home turf with the wind very much at their backs. 

While there's a wider discussion to be had about the French state's aggressive policy of secularism and diversity blindness and its culpability for the rise of Le Pen, as far as the coming contest is concerned, the unity of the centre against the extremes is just as much a part of French political culture as Euroscepticism is here in Britain. So it would be a far bigger scale of upheaval if Le Pen were to win, though it is still possible.

There is one other factor that Fillon may be able to rely on. He, like Le Pen, is very much a supporter of granting Vladimir Putin more breathing space and attempting to reset Russia's relationship with the West. He may face considerably less disruption from that quarter than the Democrats did in the United States. Still, his campaign would be wise to ensure they have two-step verification enabled.

A WING AND A PRAYER

Eleanor Mills bagged the first interview with the new PM in the Sunday Times, and it's widely reported in today's papers. Among the headlines: the challenge of navigating  Brexit keeps Theresa May "awake at night", but her Anglican faith helps her through. She also lifted the lid on Philip May's value round the home. Apparently he's great at accessorising. 

THE NEVERENDING STORY

John Kerr, Britain's most experienced European diplomat and crossbench peer, has said there is a "less than 50 per cent" chance that Britain will negotiate a new relationship with the EU in two years and that a transitional deal will have to be struck first, resulting in a "decade of uncertainty". The Guardian's Patrick Wintour has the story

TROUBLED WATERS OVER OIL

A cross-party coalition of MPs, including Caroline Lucas and David Lammy, are at war with their own pension fund: which is refusing to disclose if its investments include fossil fuels. Madison Marriage has the story in the FT

TRUMPED UP CHARGES?

The Ethics Council to George W Bush and Barack Obama say the Electoral College should refuse to make Donald Trump President, unless he sells his foreign businesses and puts his American ones in a genuine blind trust. Trump has said he plans for his children to run his businesses while he is in the Oval Office and has been involved in a series of stories of him discussing his overseas businesses with foreign politicians. The New York Times has detailed the extentof Trump's overseas interests. 

TODAY'S MORNING CALL...

...is brought to you by the City of London. Their policy and resources chairman Mark Boleat writes on Brexit and the City here.

CASTROFF

Fidel Castro died this weekend. If you're looking for a book on the region and its politics, I enjoyed Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat, which you can buy on Amazon or Hive.

BALLS OUT

Ed Balls was eliminated from Strictly Come Dancing last night, after finishing in the bottom two and being eliminated by the judges' vote.  Judge Rinder, the daytime TV star, progressed to the next round at his expense. 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Helen reviews Glenda Jackson's King Lear.

MUST READS

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.