December 26, 2014

Why don’t Ukrainian Americans write?


A few weeks ago a Ukrainian journalist asked me just why so few Ukrainian Americans write for the U.S. press and policy journals. Why don’t they try to affect the policy debates? Why don’t they try to influence the discourse?

I’m rarely stumped in interviews, but this time I was. To tell the truth, I have no idea why the number of people who regularly contribute to American op-ed pages and policy journals can be counted on the fingers of one hand. After all, the vast majority of Ukrainians born in the United States have higher educations, speak English fluently and say they’re concerned by events in Ukraine. They certainly know how to write. They certainly have opinions worth expressing. And, with unrestricted access to the Internet, they certainly know a great deal about Ukraine. Moreover, they fully understand that the last year has been critical to Ukraine’s survival and that the next few years will continue to test Ukraine.

They also appreciate that anti-Ukrainian opinions still get expressed all too frequently and remain unanswered. Well, not quite unanswered. As the furious listserv debates and blog commentaries attest, a very large number of people actually take the time to write rebuttals to views they consider wrong or offensive. So, in fact, Ukrainian Americans do write, but they write for the wrong places. Instead of writing articles for the American press and thereby trying to affect policy, they confine their efforts to fora that have absolutely no impact on what transpires in the real world.

In a word, Ukrainian Americans understand that affecting public opinion is critically important and they have all the objective abilities to do so. And yet they don’t. Instead, they waste their time on intra-communal commentary or electronic mudslinging. Personally, I despair. Several times I’ve suggested via listserv discussions that their readers stop talking to one another and start talking to the world. To no effect whatsoever.

So what might the reasons for this reticence be?

Perhaps people don’t have the time to write? But if they have the time to write extended diatribes on the Internet, surely they have the time to write measured articles. Besides, how long does it take to write a 600-word op-ed piece?

Perhaps people don’t know where to write? That can’t be it, as they religiously follow debates in the U.S. press. And besides, you can easily find information on journals, newspapers and websites and their submission policies on the Internet.

Perhaps people don’t know what to write? That, too, doesn’t wash, since they follow the debates and surely know that the U.S. media are happy to run interesting articles about everything ranging from politics to culture to literature to economics to gender.

Perhaps they don’t know how to write for the press? That may be it. Most academics, regardless of ethnic origin, are dreadful writers incapable of escaping the structure and logic of academic jargon and writing for broad educated audiences. Of course, the inability to write is no excuse. How does one learn to write for a general public? By trying to write for a general public. Over and over again until you finally succeed.

Which raises an interesting question. Perhaps the Ukrainian American educated class is afraid of rejection? As someone whose manuscripts have repeatedly been turned down, I can attest to the unpleasantness of the feeling. And yet, that, too, is no excuse. We’re all adults. We can surely take a string of no’s – especially for the sake of a good cause.

Consider the following. There may be 500 educated Ukrainian Americans out there with the ability to write for the public. Imagine that each of them wrote just one article per year. The mind boggles.

Meanwhile, those of you who are not in the business of writing can make a difference by asking those of your friends who are: Just what have you written lately?

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and has a weekly blog on