Editors Note: I generally average 10 or 12 emails each time an op-ed of mine runs in the newspaper. Reading them and responding to them, especially the not-so-favorable critiques, is part of the fun of being a columnist.


Emails Make It Worthwhile

“Fan mail from some flounder?”
Bullwinkle J. Moose  

 

An editorial page manager once told me an op-ed columnist’s job should be to educate the reader, “but you seem almost as interested in offending everyone you disagree with.” I’ve been at this since the mid-1990s, which amounts to lots of columns, so there’s been lots of offending and plenty of feedback.

Early on, it was calls at home. As the only person in the Stamford phone book with my odd last name, I was easy to find. One elderly member of an anti-defamation group chastised me for using the word “paparazzi,” which he felt somehow insulted Italian-Americans. I’m still clueless on that one. However, when he asked, “You wouldn’t use the word ‘mafia,’ would you?” my reply, “Only if I were writing about the mafia,” touched off a ranting tirade, during which I quietly hung up.

One night, I picked up the phone and heard a string of shouted profanity before I’d even had the chance to say “hello.” After that, I took my editor’s advice, and added my email address to the end of my columns, and the calls stopped. Cyberspace provides columnists a firewall against mouth-to-mouth confrontations with irate readers.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m somewhat left-of-center, with roughly the same interest in being fair and balanced as the Fox News Channel. Over the past 40 years, I’ve voted for only three Republicans: President Nixon (I was young and foolish), Congressman Stewart McKinney (he was a moderate) and Governor Lowell Weicker (he showed integrity during the Watergate hearings).

I typically offend conservatives and religious fanatics (which, these days, seem to be one and the same). Leftish, pro-choice, anti-theocratic agnostics who want to see all drugs legalized are unpopular with the Right. And, because I’m not liberal on every issue, I sometimes annoy people on the Left, who consider anything negative about affirmative action or anything positive about the death penalty a betrayal.

What will offend readers is often unpredictable. Surprisingly, the column that spawned the most-sustained outrage was one that merely supported the teaching of evolution, which is accepted science everywhere but the Red States and the Islamic world.

According to my unscientific statistics, reaction to my articles runs about 50-50. I’d have guessed that the people most likely to take the trouble to write would be those I’d annoyed, but about half my emails express approval. The other half — who don’t think I’m clever at all — tend to split 50-50 between thoughtful refutations of my positions and enraged and/or obscene abuse. Nonetheless, because I feel it would be rude not to, I respond to all correspondence, even that which is vulgar, hateful and scatological.

My rule of thumb is the more rude the email, the more polite my response should be. For those that are really abusive, I’ve developed a template for a pleasantly condescending response. First, I disingenuously identify the writer as a teenager (even though I doubt that any teenagers are actually writing, because so few read the op-ed pages, or anything else for that matter). Then I advise him that, when he’s older, he’ll realize that profanity weakens his argument, and learn that name calling won’t advance his position.

This often produces a sheepish response, although, in a few cases, it actually exacerbated the writer’s anger. Either way, it’s all good, but having written this here, I suppose I’ll have to discontinue this practice.

So, other than good manners, why write back at all? Well, one reader who commented positively on my articles eventually became a friend who’s spent the past half-dozen December 24ths at my wife’s annual Christmas Eve party for heathens. Another total stranger wrote snotty emails objecting to my snide assessments of Joe Lieberman. We ended up attending his wedding, and I watched the 2012 Super Bowl in his living room, drinking his beer and enjoying the Giants’ upset of the Patriots.

One far-right wingnut wrote me numerous missives over the years, rudely berating my liberal insanity. When I tried the “you’re a teenager” gambit on him, he indignantly informed me he was an octogenarian. Since then, I’ve received a hard-cover copy of his entertaining, self-published autobiography, as well as periodic emails containing jokes (some amusing, some racist) making fun of Obama specifically and liberals in general.

At present, there’s only one person I no longer respond to — a foul-mouthed, name-calling, right-wing fanatic whose emails I now delete without reading. You know who you are.

So, what would be the ideal response to receive? Probably an email from conservative columnist George Will. The gold standard of op-ed writers, he’s so good that, although I seldom agree with him, I find myself wishing I did, because of the way he makes his case. I’d want him to write, “I read your article. I disagreed with all of it. But I love your prose.”

That’s unlikely to happen, so I’ll just have to settle for continuing to annoy those whom I feel have earned it. As Monty Python’s John Cleese once famously said, “Some people need offending, and, if you’re not doing it, then you’re just not doing your job.”


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