To: Warren St. John, The New York Times<$> 

From: Bruce Dobie, Nashville Scene

I should have known you were contemptible when you first called two weeks ago to say you were concerned about a caption appearing under your photograph. In fact, by the third phone conversation (or was it the fourth?), I was having my suspicions. To say you were concerned is an understatement. Actually, you were pretty much a total wreck, saying there was "nothing worse that could actually happen to a person" than to be the victim of such a caption. Which was this: "Warren St. John uses race in the worst kind of way: to make himself look honorable."

Our story was a review of your book about the Alabama Crimson Tide football program. In our first conversation, you said the review itself was actually okay, though there was one paragraph you disagreed with. Mostly what it all boiled down to, you said, was that photo caption. It was the extremity of it, the moral horror, the original sinness of the race thing.

You were here on a book tour, and this was the first city you were visiting. What a way to kick off the tour, you told me, to have a paper as smart as the Nashville Scene—your assessment—say this about you. Before we hung up, you and I agreed on a next course of action. Our book editor would call you. So far so good? When I called you back to see if there had been contact, you said the talk with the book editor had gone well. Still, it was so awful, this caption. I said I could understand your point of view. Not only that, having taken another look at the story and the caption, I said that the caption could have been better. Given that the review itself was positive, pulling out the one negative observation wasn't entirely fair. I meant it. We could have—should have—written something more in line with the piece. At the time, you thought that was pretty big of me; you said you're not even sure a paper like The New York Times would have been willing to acknowledge something like that. Thanks, Warren.

Next step: We agree that the book editor would write a little something about the caption—nothing huge, but something to clear the air. About an hour later—perhaps the hotel had no health club? your TV was broken?—you called yet again. This time, you simply wanted to reiterate the indignity of it all. "Do you understand how awful this is?" you asked. I said I did. I said I understood how race is the all-consuming horrible issue of this American experience and that when you get wrapped up in it, it hurts. I said since you, Mr. St. John, are from Alabama, and I am from Louisiana, we can both appreciate the Southern burden placed upon white people by Yankee academics who assume you're a racist until you prove otherwise.

You then volunteered that since this was the first stop in your book tour, you feared that word might get out in other cities about what we'd written. Well, not necessarily what we'd written, but about the caption. The remarkably misleading and unfair caption. It seemed a stretch. I said, "If it's any consolation, we're not in those other cities. Nobody reads us there." Really, it ought to go without saying that people in Oxford and Atlanta and Tuscaloosa don't routinely read Nashville newspapers. But you were upset so I pointed out the obvious: That really bad, unfair caption wasn't crossing any borders.

So imagine my surprise when I read your solipsistic account of your book tour this morning in Slate. I particularly enjoyed your assessment of me, my paper, my reviewer.

"The reviewer's point is contrarian if ultimately ridiculous. He suspects that I saw countless racist outbursts, and that I kept them out of the book to pander to RV-ing football fans, to sell books. In fact, I put the scene in because it happened, and because it showed how fleeting and tenuous the bonds between fans can be—how quickly the line between Us and Them can change. I call the editor of the Scene in a panic, and, though, sympathetic, he says there's little he can do at this point, before trying to calm me bysaying that no one reads his paper anyway."

Now get this, Warren: You screwed me. Okay? You twisted what I said and stuck it where the sun don't shine. How strange all this has been, huh, Warren? Like a bizarre Mobius strip of journalism. We get it right to begin with, saying you'd used race as a way to make yourself look honorable. You call to complain. We say, yeah, we probably stretched the caption. You then ream us in Slate by misinterpreting my own words so as to make yourself look honorable. What a beautiful con job! You really are capable of offering only part of the truth, the part that burnishes your own image of yourself.

I'm perfectly fine with the fact that it's all about you, Warren. By the time this appears on our website, you'll be pissing on someone else's leg and mentioning the rain. In the final analysis, I should have guessed you couldn't be counted on to talk about race with any dignity. Never once in our repeated conversations did you talk about race with any poignancy, any sense that the real victims of racism aren't liberal white boys from Alabama on a tour to promote a book about football, nor any understanding of the ways in which racism is endemic in college athletics.

Then again, that caption about you certainly presented itself as the great moral issue of our day, didn't it? So please try to understand this: When I said nobody reads us in Topeka, or Los Angeles, or Miami, or in those other cities in which, if you're bored, you'll tell the front desk the towels aren't fluffy enough, or send your pasta back because it's too dry, or maybe kill time by engaging in a great human dialogue about a photo caption, what I meant to say was that nobody reads us in those cities. They do read us here in Nashville, however. And now they know the truth about our conversation.

All of this is to say that you, Warren, are very much smarter than I am. But somewhere along the way mama forgot to learn you about decency.


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