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An Open Letter to Emily VanDerWerff

Ms. VanDerWerff

You spoke out about your colleague Matt Yglesias’s signature appearing on the Harper’s letter on free speech.  I know there is a lot of blowback coming at you for it.  Many people are arguing you are proving the point of the letter by telling your employer that Matt’s signature makes you feel less safe at Vox.  To be honest, I agree, but that is not the point of this letter.

I wanted to write and tell you you have my sympathy.  Not my pity because, as a friend taught me long ago, pity nearly always comes from a place of superiority.  No, you have my sympathy because of the burden you bear.  One, I sadly think you may not realize you bear.

I want to quote something you wrote because it is why you have my sympathy.

Matt is entitled to his own opinion, and I know he is a more nuanced thinker than signing the letter would suggest. 

He has never been anything but kind to me and has often supported my work publicly, all of which I am extremely grateful for.

But the letter, signed as it is by several prominent anti-trans voices and containing as many dog whistles towards anti-trans positions as it does, ideally would not have been signed by anybody at Vox, much less one of the most prominent people at our publication.

You know Matt.  You know he is a nuanced thinker so you don’t think he agrees completely and without thinking of those on the letter’s signature page you believe are a threat to you.  You say Matt has always been kind to you.  You say he has often publicly supported your work.

Yet somehow you are allowing his signature’s presence on a single letter override all that and make you feel less safe.  I find that very sad.

Today’s blog post was to be on the danger of allowing the idea that the personal is the political into one’s life because it allows people to excuse awful personal behavior because of their public support for virtuous causes.  It has been something I’ve observed four decades now from Christian moralists in the 80s to a variety of leftist activists today.  The post was angry and accusatory.

It was the same way I felt about you when I learned that you had written to management at Vox.  Then I read what you wrote, especially the part quoted above.  Once I read what you wrote, all I could feel was sadness.

I know neither you nor Matt.  I suspect there are very few public issues on which either of you agree with me on outside of my agreement with Matt about the Harper’s letter.  Yet, even if I disagree with both of you, the fact for you one public cultural and political act suffices to poison all the positive personal interactions you had with Matt cannot help but engender feelings of sadness.

It seems like Matt was a good colleague and perhaps even a friend.  I wish that was more valuable in your world than him never signaling something you disagreed with in public.  I wish it had at least had enough value for you to bring your concerns to Matt in private instead of airing them in a way which has poisoned not only your relationship with Matt, but with the entire staff.  

My second favorite part of Sunday liturgy is a prayer I used to hear Father Michael say before the procession.  I cannot find it in an online text so I can’t give an exact quote.  My memory is something like this ‘Lord God save those who hate us and those who love us.’  Now, I don’t think you hate me, although based on my beliefs I suspect you are predisposed not to like me.  However, I hope that something guides you to see the value of the good Matt does when he interacts with you and how that is more meaningful in day to day life than the fact that on a topic not directly related to trans issues he agrees with some people who are on the opposite side of you on those issues.  Matt, in signing the Harper’s letter, is probably not what people consider a “good trans ally”, but he seems like he has been a decent person to you and other trans people at Vox based on your own statement.  In my experience how “good” an ally someone is seems to be nearly in inverse proportion to them really standing by you.   They don’t care about you, they just want the ally cookie. The best allies seem to lose their voice and beg you to not make a scene, be the offense telling a disabled person to leave because of their service dog or someone who intentionally dead names you.

Based on what I know of Matt, including but not limited to what you wrote, I don’t think he would desert you in those situations.

Finally, thank you.  Your words reflected the anger in my blog post today at people who I disagree with concerning the importance of relative ordering of personal interaction and public political statements.  While you did not change my stance, you reminded me that those I disagree with on that topic deserve my sympathy and compassion more than any anger over that disagreement.

Respectfully,
Herbert Nowell


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