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Thank you for your expression of contempt

Responding to reader mail hints at a possible path out of our political dead-end of mutual disdain.

The U.S. Capitol fenced off and guarded by thousands of troops in anticipation of Joe Biden’s inauguration as president next week.
With the United States Capitol fenced off and guarded by thousands of troops in anticipation of Joe Biden’s inauguration as president next week, it is not too early to begin wondering how our divided nation can reconcile with itself.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Happy about Donald Trump being impeached a second time?

Me neither.

Don’t get me wrong. It was richly earned and necessary. But it also had an almost obligatory quality. The way a news report about a drunk driver plowing into a group of schoolchildren might end by saying the suspect is charged with six counts of vehicular homicide, plus driving while intoxicated on a suspended license and failure to yield to pedestrians.

You almost smile, ruefully, at that last bit and think, “Yeah, that ‘failure to yield’ rap is really going to haunt him.”

People were going on about the historic second impeachment. Oh boy, Trump sure is marinating in shame now! Two impeachments.

The first one barely registered; hard to see what doubling will do.

The problem is, once you start ignoring reality, the scope of the specific reality being ignored hardly matters. If you’re encased in your own willful darkness and can’t see an acoustical tile ceiling, you also won’t see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

That’s why I try to never argue with readers. First, for that very reason: they’re readers, and I truly appreciate their being here, reading, despite occasional geysers of toxicity. It isn’t that I coddle them, per se. But if they write in saying they subscribe and the moon is made of blue cheese, I might respond by observing that I like blue cheese on a steak salad.

Perhaps an example is in order. Here’s a representative email from a few days back. It goes on quite a bit, so I’ve compressed it:

”What a clown you are. Just another woke fool who can’t write about anything without bringing up racism. So the President contesting the election is ‘baked-in bigotry, the proud ignorance required to consider another human being your property’ ... When are you going to write about the bigotry of Joe Biden? Just a few from your racist hero! Biden had fostered with ‘racist’ politicians such as Sens. James Eastland, D-Miss., and John Stennis, D-Miss., Biden went so far as to praise Stennis — who signed the Southern Manifesto of 1956 opposing racial integration of public spaces — on the Senate floor in 1988. In 1977, Joe Biden stated ...”

There’s more, but you get the idea.

How would you reply? Here’s how I answered:

”I’m always glad to hear from another historically-minded person concerned about racism. As it happens, I’m writing about the very topic you bring up, and will try to share your perspective with my readers when I do. Thanks for writing.”

He raged some more and I blocked him. That’s the usual ending. But occasionally someone surprises you. Monday I got this email, noteworthy both for its brevity and use of euphemism:

”You and your writings, the Sun Times, and the entire media are worse than excrement.”

Replying, I went for pith:

”And yet you read, and for that I am grateful. Thanks for writing.”

His response was surprising. I’ll print it in full.

”Thanks for being a good sport. I’ve been reading the Sun Times since 1979. I will never read the Tribune. Regardless of how ‘woke’ the Sun Times has gotten, I still find some value. I just wish you weren’t all woke preachers. Keep in mind, I have always voted Democrat in my life. I haven’t voted at all in the last 2 elections b/c the Dems have b/c too woke. You’re ok.”

Isn’t that nice? I share it not to suggest that being kind to bilious Trump supporters in the aftermath of their defeat and shameful sedition will render them purring kittens, that we’ll all sing “Kumbaya” together and be friends. But that our country will continue with us, one people, like it or not.

“You’re a dupe in the thrall to a traitor,” though certainly true, is not the path toward reconciliation. Donald Trump was able to bend otherwise decent Americans to do his bidding by appealing to their worst, secret instincts and giving them permission to be as vile as some obviously hunger to be. I’ve heard from many, and they are not bad people in ways unconnected to their support of the president. Contempt is easy; kindness can be harder, but is not only the better path, but also, ultimately, the more productive one.