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We care about this letter now as a historical document, a reminder of why we wear poppies on November 11th - but there is more to it, I think, than that.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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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.