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
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
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
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
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.
You may reach Russ Baker via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.