Let's revisit the matter of coarseness in our national dialogue. I have some heartening news.
Awhile back, I discussed the harsh mail a columnist receives. I described the tone of these letters as blunt fury. I could have said imbecilic, inflammatory and wholly unpersuasive, too. My point: There is too much unreflective anger and too little eloquence of thought in our civic disagreements. I included a sampler of churlish rhetoric from congressional Republicans to bolster the case.
Frankly, I wondered if some readers would think I was goading them. I expected e-mails declaring, "You haven't seen anything yet, buddy, try this one .... "
Next morning, my e-mail cue was loaded up, sure enough. And even now, correspondence is still dribbling in from across the country.
Instead of the ranters that you might hear on talk radio, though, I found myself encountering different readers. Or, more likely, the same readers, who were in a different frame of mind.
For instance, John Martin thoughtfully agreed that the tenor of our political conversations stink. But, he added, liberals can be blamed the same as conservatives and if I don't acknowledge it, "what you say is just more Democrat bloviation ... "
Bloviation! Bill Gates' spell-checker doesn't even recognize it. What a devastating word. What a splendid word. It means, "to speak at some length bombastically."
Guilty. Mr. Martin, you are correct. I succumbed to bloviating. My column let the Democrats off when they didn't deserve it. I should have spread blame to any of 50 or so liberal fire-breathers. I should have noted, as well, the resurgence of angry protests by anarchists who believe that no one is listening, Democrat or Republican.
I had had an idea in mind. Strong argument makes us wiser. Civilized debate ennobles self-governance. Anger begets anger, etc. Conservative readers proved my case. They didn't dismiss my premise, in fact they concurred by and large. But they caught me lapsing into partisanship by suggesting the blame lay in one direction. They questioned my effectiveness: Was I trying to promote civility or just kick a few conservatives in the pants? They did it with passion and with reason. And, obviously, to effect.
I am ordering up a half-dozen T-shirts for myself: "Don't Bloviate." In my defense, I could say that I focused on Republican anger because the GOP is the dominant party in Washington right now, and a Republican president has made civility an issue. I also happen to believe the political right overindulges its Cro-Magnons these days.
But readers made a better point. A civilized debate requires an attentive listener as well as a wise speaker.
Catherine Hitt, another keen-eyed critic, examined her own experience: "I suffer from bouts of blunt fury, too, and try to rant only to sympathetic friends and relatives, but occasionally blunder .... I was liberal when I was young, and became conservative gradually. I wanted to participate in and observe respectful, logical, fact-based political debate. I have mostly given up on that, and am surprised that I'm writing you this note. You ... gave me the impression that you might be open to a few thoughts from a conservative."
Obviously, Ms. Hitt hasn't given up entirely. Let's hope she doesn't.
Other readers, those of a liberal mind, agreed with me that right-wing hotheads deserve the larger share of blame for our malignant political discourse, if for no other reason than the dyspeptic assaults of hate-and-blame radio talk shows.
But whether liberal or conservative, a good many readers felt the urge to respond. What caught my eye is that, almost to a person, they expressed themselves by reaching up, not down. Yes, there is anger in the land. But there are plenty of people ready to meet the flailing of the club with the steady hand of the fountain pen.
Because there is no penalty for a columnist who dares sweeping generalizations from skimpy evidence, I'm inclined to conclude this: If you ask thoughtful people to be thoughtful, they just might. So, en garde, bloviators.