Clicking through a stack of e-mail from readers indignant over something I’d written about President Bush recently, I began to think about ways in which his popularity and mine seem linked. At least in the minds of his still-numerous, if dwindling, fans.
And then I began to wonder: Is it just my imagination, or is the American public becoming less articulate, less apt, less coherent in direct proportion to its growing stridency? Is everyone now a verbal kamikaze, or at least a little Mr. or MissNomer?
Take “Buddy.” He wrote: “I believe that your reporting is along the lines of Jerry Springer and has about the same significance. Enough!” Anthony M. was slightly more restrained, offering me what I took not to be a straightforward compliment: “I enjoy reading your slander. We have a respectable team in the white house. Sorry they are not quite as sleazy as you want … god bless america.”
Under the subject line “Twisted Mind,” Voyle T. was apoplectic: “Shame Shame on you. You say a lot with out any proof. How did you get to be so ‘ sick ‘?”
What had I done to earn such diagnoses? I had written an article for the online opinion magazine Slate (which bounced to a wider audience on the MSNBC Web site) that documented, rather soberly, I thought, cases in which the Bush administration suppressed economic data. My editor had, perhaps injudiciously, tried to enliven the piece by rechristening administration officials as “Bushies,” but other than that the essay was almost boringly factual. I didn’t even assign blame for the country’s recent economic woes. Many of the 257 readers who gave me feedback, however, detected greater crimes on my part.
“You sound just lick Clinton,” wrote J.W. Adams (perhaps a typing-challenged descendant of our second President). “I have heard lots of BS in my lifetime but uoy are one of the worst I have ever heard.”
James L. Jr., who seemingly had me confused with Joe Conason or James Carville, wrote with little accuracy, less sense and absolutely no proof: “For 8 years prior to this Administration … you fought to prove that the President should not be held to a higher standard of conduct. Murders, lie after lie, adultery, fellatio in the White House …. You allowed it, now live with it.”
I was a bit flummoxed to get so many letters from people ignoring or entirely misconstruing what the article was about. Are the great masses now so out of touch with reality, I pondered, that any journalism not “Fair and Balanced” in that peculiar Fox News mold registers as anti-American?
I soon learned what Paul Krugman surely knows-nobody appreciates the guy who rains on a patriotic parade. “[S]uch actions only tend to discourage, tear down and destroy what our soldiers, past and present have fought for and delivered to us,” wrote “Roger in Dallas.”
Many letter-writers seemed to share a continuing obsession with the Clinton witch-hunt and a determination to compare Mr. Clinton’s sexual misadventures with any controversy surrounding his successor, no matter how unrelated.
Barry L. inquired: “Do you think Intern player Billy was perfect?”, while Robby E. ventured: “You must have been an intern in the Clinton Whitehouse!”
“Scott South Carolina” argued: “You say Bush is hiding information and that is wrong but when the Clinton Admin. did the same thing, you sayed it was his right to privacy. Get off your high horse and get a real job.”
Soon I was hearing from readers who associate suppression of economic reports with virtuosity. John D.: “After I became a family man, I suddenly realized that values, morals and testicular fortitude matters …. [W]hat Clinton had done, was too much to stomach …. George Bush will remain popular no matter what it is you write, or say! Why do you ask? Because he has morals, values, and enormous brass tacks!”
Certain correspondents were inspired to action. Al R.: “I started a new group of Hispanics … [which] is growing daily because of the … lies that you and your liberal friends tell thru the elite media and I have collected information and facts about what Mr. Bush is doing and information about what you (liberals) have said during the last 10 years. This way I can prove that you people are liars and full of hate for Mr. Bush.”
Various individuals, finding no other rational basis for an argument they wished to have, took shelter in euphoric self-interest. “I have made more money the last 2 years in this so-called bad economy then ever before,” wrote Rick H., a.k.a. “Crusher of Liberal Bull.” “In fact everyone I know is doing better than ever …. Where did you get your economics degree? Cracker Jack U? …. Email me back if your not scuurred to do so.”
After attacking me for what I had (not) written, many readers graciously wished me a good day. More took a moment to profane me. Still others seemed to endorse expansion of the Patriot Act. Frank E.: “I wish that there were a island somewhere that all you liberals where put on and could not get off.” Robert H: “I wish you lived in one of the middle east countries so your ass could be put in jail or worse.”
Out of this swirling mass came one particularly bracing confession. Having politely criticized me about something or other, Jonathan W. appended his observations with: “Sorry if my thoughts were jumbled, I didn’t have time to process fully, but I wanted to write before I lost your email [address].”
So what does all this teach us, you might ask? I emphatically have no idea. Still, I’ll hazard a few conclusions. 1) Despite the constant lip service paid by politicians to the ineffable wisdom of the ordinary person, there is some truth in Plato’s famous doubts in that regard. 2) Folks have always been foggy thinkers, imprecise articulators and miserable at spelling, grammar and usage. Now, though, they’re especially deadly, armed as they are with IITFS-Internet Itchy Trigger-Finger Syndrome. 3) With so many amateur insta-pundits out there happily shooting up the political barroom, we professional pundits ought to learn some humility and self-restraint.
We ought to, but we won’t. Not as long as we also keep hearing from people who actually like-really like-what we write. Readers typified by Julie M., from “Harry Truman’s Home town of Independence, MO”: “I just read your article about the President’s creative bookkeeping and … wonder … 1) why it’s not on the 10 o’clock news and 2) are you running for office? I’d vote for you!”
Wow-much obliged, Ms. M. I’ll admit to dreaming every now and then about public service. Except that I keep hearing from readers sharing the views of Heath K., whose message line read “Hey Asshole.” He had excellent advice: “Get over it.”
Thanks, Mr. K. I think it’s safe to say that I am now over it.