Listening #15

One of the nicest things about communicating online is the potential for immediacy. One person can offer up a statement, another can respond within seconds, and voilà: instant town hall.

Nicer still, print magazines are now relieved of all pretense of dialogue, the first casualty being those stupid fake advice columns: "Dear Editor: My amplifier has insufficient bloom in the lower mids, and I'm thinking of replacing it. What do you recommend?" Such a letter would require at least three months to be read, edited, proofed, set in type, laid out, proofed again, printed, and distributed to readers alongside its doubtlessly insightful and witty response—during which time any real audiophile who had something wrong with his amp would have either taken his own life or committed a serious crime, probably involving hostages. Goodbye, advice columns, and good riddance.

Still, I worry that some hobbyists are being left out. In particular, every month I receive a number of letters responding to things I say in these pages—but either because of space constraints or because such mail was sent directly to me instead of to editor John Atkinson, they've gone unanswered in print. That means the rest of our readers have been denied the pleasure of actually sharing these letters, some of which range from ire and petulance all the way to dander, conniption fit, rage, spitting rage, murderous rage, and awful spitting murderous rage.

One might argue that a nice magazine like this shouldn't stoop to publishing outbursts that aren't fit for a sport like Naked Jaundice Paintball, let alone a gentle, artistic pursuit such as home audio. I disagree. As Chris Matthews is reputed to have said of Valerie Plame, this is fair game—so here are the letters from the past year that might have otherwise have fallen between the cracks.

You ain't got no friends on your right
No sense beating around the Bush: The thing that really irks some readers is when I make references to current events and social issues. At least six readers have suggested to The Management that liberal politics have no place in the pages of a hi-fi magazine. When I see it written out like that, I have to admit that they have a point.

Of course, one could also say that conservative politics have no place in the pages of a hi-fi magazine. One could, but one never has: In my column and reviews for Stereophile, during 2003 alone, I have: lambasted liberal educators for lowering the bar in the teaching of math and grammar, and for their ridiculous and culture-rotting campaign against "Eurocentrism" ("Listening," October 2003); ridiculed National Public Radio for placing insufficient emphasis on competence in the hiring of their newsreaders and engineers ("Listening," November 2003); poked fun at gay men for their fascination with police officers' hats (ibid.); insinuated that lavender is an insufficiently manly color for buttons on a remote handset (Linn Klimax review, June 2003); taken a swipe at Bill Clinton for lying about Monica Lewinsky (Reference 3A review, December 2003); and continually made good-natured fun of liberal males as bald, beret-wearing Francophiles who drive rusty Saabs adorned with GreenPeace stickers. How many liberals wrote in crying that bad old Art Dudley was "at it again"? Zero. I guess some guys can take a little poke without going all to pieces like...well, like a girl.

In a truly free society, people can think, say, or write whatever they want. I do. People can also choose what they do or don't wish to read or listen to. You should. If, every few months, a 3000-word column in Stereophile contains 16 words that go off message, and if those 16 words spoil the whole thing for you, then you should definitely avoid reading that column. But before you bail on me, take a peek at the following, sent to us via e-mail on April 17, 2003:

"Mr. Atkinson: I have completed reading the May 2003 issue of Stereophile magazine. In the contents section I read the following: 'Art Dudley continues to inspire controversy amongst our readers...Bravo!' I must tell you that I pay a subscription cost to this magazine because I wish to read about audio equipment and sound reproduction, not political leftist propaganda. I have no desire to be insulted by people who depend on my subscription for their livelihood. [Who, then, if not me—AD] Therefore, I will wait three issues before canceling my subscription unless the situation changes. Dudley does not have to change his political beliefs in order to write for an audio magazine, but he should leave them out of the copy that he types."—Chris Henderson, BS, MA, MIS

Okay. Fair enough. Mr. Henderson and I don't see eye to eye, but at least he's not insisting that I come around to his way of thinking, and at least he's not trying to insult me—except where he finds it necessary to refer to the expression of viewpoints other than his own as "propaganda." But, in all fairness, I see people on every side of an issue doing that all the time, so I'm not going to have a hissy.

But imagine my utter shock when we received the following letter—sent November 18, 2003, a full seven months later:

"Mr. Atkinson: This letter is a note to let you know that you have lost another subscriber due to the leftist-socialist agenda being promoted in the magazine of which you are the editor. It has been disheartening through the last several years to read within the pages of Stereophile leftist propaganda. You and your writers may have the notion that your articles are cleverly written and therefore amusing, but I am afraid that many are not laughing.

"I have a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees and am a firm believer in the Holy Bible as God's only written account given to man. It is the foundation of the United States' Rule of Law. When Mister Dudley writes his witty little articles, he may fancy himself as something of an entertainer. Unfortunately, the only readers that he appears to be aiming his barbs at are Bible-believing Christians. How sad that Stereophile has decided to pursue this slippery slope of slanted prose. This has led to the devolving of the reviews of stereo and other multichannel sound-reproduction equipment into an assault on the United States' traditional Judeo-Christian values.

"As far as can be seen by the consumer, sound-reproduction equipment has no political ethos associated to it. It may indeed be that the designers and manufacturers of sound-reproduction equipment are a conglomeration of leftist radicals supporting an anti-Biblical agenda. [I doubt this. Most radicals are too busy keeping their old Saabs on the road.—AD] If this magazine is nothing but a reflection of the sound-reproduction industry, then you and your writers are doing a portion of your readers a service by unmasking an undercurrent of anti-Federalism of which we as consumers had no prior knowledge. Many of the rest of the world's countries may find a socialist agenda intriguing and a good match for their nation, but the United States is a Federal Republic and not a Socialist Democracy. Do read this letter understanding that there are others who have let, and are letting, their subscriptions lapse due to this bias.

"I understand that you are from Great Britain and that that country has a socialist government. Please remember that your main audience consists of those from the United States, not the United Kingdom [footnote 1].

"Regards,"—Chris Henderson, BS, MA, MIS

Note that he closes with "Regards," not "Kind regards." This guy was really mad.

As much as I'd love to blow a couple thousand words questioning Mr. Henderson's interpretation of the Bible, the United States Constitution, and Western history, I'd prefer to trust the intelligence of our readers. People who are inclined to think this sort of letter just plain nutty—especially the penultimate paragraph, which is best enjoyed with Wagner's Siegfried's Rhine Journey playing in the background—won't need any prompting from me; people not so inclined probably wouldn't be open to my point of view in the first place. In any event, here are a few brief observations:

1) In his second letter alone, ostensibly submitted for publication, Mr. Henderson subjected Stereophile's readers to more words on religion and politics than I have in a year of columns.

2) At the time we received that letter, I'd worked for Stereophile for less than one year—not "several." (It only seems like several, Chris.)

3) Most of my "witty" articles aren't "little" at all. Some have been almost 4000 words long.

4) Although it's no one's business but my own, and although I resent the sort of McCarthyesque rhetorical bullying that forces decent people to "confess" their faith—again, cue the Rhinemaidens—let me observe for the record that I'm a practicing Christian, albeit one who knows that pride and intolerance are fundamentally anti-Christian characteristics.

Footnote 1: On a point of order, I should point out that while I was born and raised in England, I am an American citizen. Not that either fact has anything to do with how I edit Stereophile.—John Atkinson