These words mark the halfway point in my contract with the Herald-Leader, the fourth of eight columns I promised I would deliver to the paper. Having a few personal thoughts printed in a paper read by more than a hundred thousand people every day has been a hoot.
The day my first column ran, a young man waiting tables in a Richmond restaurant recognized me and wanted to talk about what I said about police roadblocks. I hate the very concept of these random police checks, but the youngster working his way through Berea College thinks they have their place. We talked about the behavior of law enforcement officers and a few other things.
His beliefs mostly seemed to reflect a classic liberal stance reminiscent of say, U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy or former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder. We didn't agree about much; but at the end, we shook hands, and he wished me good luck with the column.
And that brings me to what's on my mind now.
That roadblock piece and, more recently, my comparison of former President Jimmy Carter to the current occupant of the White House drew a surprising volume of e-mail. In each case, more than a few disagreed with what I said.
The differing tone of the exception-takers was interesting.
Mail from those who didn't like my take on police stops read like MADD brochures ("If roadblocks stop even one drunk driver ...") or safety-first pamphlets written by one who believes a somewhat heavy hand from government can save us from ourselves. ("When the police announce they'll be doing random checks, people drive better than they usually do. That's a nuisance we should all be willing to tolerate.")
The roadblock writers were quite civil. All of them.
On the other hand, those who took exception to my contrast of Carter with President Bush tended to be anything but civil. One compared the Carter piece to the rants of an alcoholic. (I answer everyone who responds to my work, but made an exception in that guy's case.)
Another called me a Marxist who would be more comfortable living in Cuba. Yet another squeezed from his keyboard a few remarks about my appearance in the photo that accompanies these columns, as if a beard and longer hair (that were cut off even before the columns began running) are somehow meaningful or relevant to the subject at hand.
Why the difference?
When did rudeness and lame insults become a defining element of political discourse? Why do so many resort to witless personal attacks rather than talk about issues or ideas? Is it only my imagination that this vitriolic display most often comes from the right?
For what it's worth, it wasn't a tit-for-tat thing. The column about Bush and Carter didn't call anybody names.
An instant resort to name-calling isn't limited to column responses. Back when this nation's latest military adventure was still theoretical rather than recent history, one woman in Northern Kentucky withdrew from an Appalachian Internet discussion group she helped found, citing "value systems conflict" with those who were suspicious of the government's rationale for invading two countries.
And on her way out that virtual door she flung a string of insults.
A friend insists Fox News is behind this trend toward insult over substance. One of the best things my wife did on moving into this house was insist that the cable to the TV be cut; but in the course of a recent visit to my father's, I watched a couple hours of Fox. Maybe it is part of what's happening.
I'm told it's the favorite network of Bush supporters, and what I saw that evening mostly consisted of so-called commentators shouting insults at people foolish enough to accept such behavior.
This manic, mindless drivel from people who would rather display a lack of creative wit than talk about an issue is pathetic, certainly nothing to get angry about.
It's just sad, for them, and for what lately passes for our American culture.