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You've Got Hate Mail

The Times' op-ed writers, in adding e-mail addresses to their columns, have unwittingly dared to rouse a rabid beast -- and one with a lot of time on its hands. Trust me, I should know.

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The Times op-ed page has taken the unlikely step of putting the e-mail addresses of some of its columnists at the foot of their columns. The page has always been unapproachable in any sort of over-the-transom fashion (if you call up the op-ed department, you'll get a bigger brush-off than you would from the teenagers in my house -- a sullen, monosyllabic, what-planet-are-you-from? brush-off). So this is a major attitudinal shift -- apparently engineered by Gail Collins, the page's new editor -- letting readers write directly to a Times columnist. It's one-on-one, which is very un-Timesian.

I bring this up, however, not to praise the op-ed's new attitude but rather to warn, as someone with long experience with an open e-mail address, the Times' columnists (Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, Nicholas Kristof, William Safire, and Bob Herbert offer their addresses, whereas Tom Friedman and Maureen Dowd apparently aren't interested in being one-on-one) about the nature of instant feedback and what happens when you rouse the beast out there.

What is notable about the new e-mail-empowered America is not just the sheer numbers of people who can be counted on to send you mail, or the quality of their anger -- obsessive, rigid, hysterical -- but the amount of time and work they seem to put into considering American politics and its associated heresies.

"I probably spend at least three hours every day reading both sides of the issues facing us today and without a doubt the article of yours I just finished is the most unbelievable I have ever read," says a recent correspondent of mine from Texas. I believe it -- you have to be diligent to get as worked up as these people do. "May your recovery be long and difficult!" he adds, more or less ominously (it is unclear whether the correspondent believes I should be institutionalized or is on his way to break my legs).

The ear-bending tendentiousness and monologuizing are Fox News- and talk-radio-like, but the difference is that on the air it's clearly show business. Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh, even Bill O'Reilly, are, after work, probably pretty normal, nonraging guys. But with an open e-mail address, you begin to have some firsthand idea of what a deep vein they're mining -- or what kind of alarming voice they've spawned. Some samples from my inbox last week:

You deserve to be hit by the next terrorist strike. And after we're done with the Taliban it's time to start on clearing out the real terrorist threat to America . . . the Left.

Too bad Osama doesn't have a suitcase nuke to finish off the rest of New York. Hitting the NY Times would be a good start and one of the best things to happen for the good of the country.

If there is another terrorist strike I hope it hits your home, your city, your children's school, your families airplane, and not mine. (It would also be fine with me if they'd wipe out Berkley.)

The subject lines fly by: Get over it . . . Pinko . . . I bet you loved Slick Willie . . . I guess having two skyscrapers fall on you isn't enough . . . Bitter person . . . Watch out . . . You're a jerk! . . . 89% approval rating, you lost, deal with it . . . Asshole!

The themes of the e-mails are surprisingly consistent. Anything liberal is bad -- "you are a LIBERAL fuck!" is a sufficient accusation. People in the media ("quasi-intellectual, elitist snobs"), or what's thought of as the liberal media, are bad -- "Little pee-ons like YOU are who make ME sick!!!!!!!" says one correspondent, adding "FU clymer," which I assume refers to the Times political reporter Adam Clymer (another e-mail adds, "please give dad clymer my best regards"; another says, J'accuse-like, "You are Maureen Dowd!"). Bill ("President Buttface, to many of us") and Hillary Clinton are bad; indeed, the presidency of Bill Clinton ("the perverted/treasonist that preceded President Bush") is one of the most grievous political calamities of the twentieth century.

Conversely, George Bush is possibly the best thing that has ever happened to this nation ("Who is George Bush? an excellent president. What is he? a decent, honorable man who is also good at what he is doing and the right man for the job at this time"). Manhood issues are a major theme ("Stop your hideous whining and stand up straight . . . " "I bet you have never done anything to defend this country in time of need . . . your time in the Girl Scouts doesn't count." "Nice to see you with your panties in a bunch grasping for meaning in this world").

The column I wrote a few weeks ago about the president netted nearly a thousand of these.

What's the deal?

It's love-it-or-leave-it sixties stuff at a moment that, it would seem, could not be further from the sixties. The president and military enjoy great support, and the war is going great guns. Where's the beef?

As it happens, my mail, overwhelmingly, does not come from readers of New York Magazine ("This is the first time I've read one of your columns and also the last time. It doesn't take me long to spot an asshole!"); nor, when the Times columnists rouse the beast, will mail come from op-ed readers. In large measure, our correspondents have no idea what exactly they're reading -- or, often, even where what they're reading might be from. Sometimes they've seen, and have been passed, only offending paragraphs -- print, in the digital world, is reformatted into sound bites. Friends and fellow ideological hobbyists collect and pass them on. Heresies are served like candy.

It's an Internet thing -- the result of forwarding and linking, cutting and pasting -- but it is also a specific sort of conservative broadcast technique. You juxtapose sensibilities. What can pass for reasonable discourse before one audience can, Roger Ailes figured out, inflame another audience. It's reverse targeting -- looking for the least receptive audience. (There are, apparently, people in America who don't know it's a commonplace practice to criticize the president.)

What seems to have happened with this recent Bush column of mine is that, within hours of its publication, it was singled out by right-wing literary agent Lucianne Goldberg and linked on her site. After that, it was linked on Drudge; it was picked up by Andrew Sullivan, the conservative gay commentator who, although he writes for The New Republic, has his own combative Website; and then, in violation of copyright law, it was reprinted in its entirety on Freerepublic.com. Presented this way -- highlighted and slapped up -- everything falls out of context. It's rendered literal and starkly offensive. It's how things must look to a censor.

It's a strange form of reprinting -- not, as is customary, by people who like your work but by people who don't like it. They publish to castigate. In fact, there's often encouragement to write to the various authors of the offending pieces that are quoted or posted or linked on these sites. It's punitive mail -- organized hate mail. You're not just being flamed in the Internet sense but, in some more or less formal ideological way, denounced. It's a fatwa.

While the advantage of e-mail is to be one-on-one (who doesn't read his or her own e-mail?), I suspect that the writer of an e-mail denouncement confidently feels that he or she is merely part of a greater American voice. (Often, when I have responded to some of this stuff, I've gotten an immediate, mortified apology -- as though the denouncer didn't quite realize that he or she was engaged in something more than a symbolic exercise.)

Indeed, you can begin to imagine that we've remained a relatively placid country because our media has been cleverly targeted. We've largely and wisely kept our views inside our own interest groups. Only the mass media, carefully inoffensive, has traditionally spilled over. The New York Times may be the paper of record, but at the same time, not that many people read it. Likewise, this magazine, no doubt regional in its personality, has mostly -- and fortunately -- stayed out of the hands of Texans and mountain people.

But it is not just right-wingers; you also have people who think they agree with you -- though the right-wing goons out-number the left-wing weirdos by probably four to one. The vilifying subject lines that sweep by are, actually, interspersed with their opposite number: Unmitigated bullshit . . . Incredible insights . . . You don't know what you're talking about . . . You are a mind-reader . . . Brilliant! . . . Dung!

The lefties certainly have their own tortured worldview. While the right wing's fundamental analysis, or at least the analysis of right-wingers who send e-mails, is manhood-oriented -- to be critical of the military is to be a homosexual, obviously -- the left wing, as helpfully, continues to believe that all military-industrial-intelligence motivations are the product of conspiracies and, almost always, wants to send you further information ("I want to share with you some things that would give you the biggest story in the world. And it is all 100 percent true and I have the facts to prove it").

What does this polarization and psychopathology mean -- if anything?

It may represent the fundamentally warped and scary nature of the American public.

Or it may just mean that there is a certain kind of micro media -- the Internet, cable, e-mail -- that, unlike most other forms of media, which need a wider audience, can subsist on the limited group that is interested in and passionate about politics. In other words, the e-mail we get is not remotely a representative response but a purely self-selected one. We've walked into a bar we shouldn't have walked into.

It may mean, too, as I've long suspected, that people who talk about politics (especially people who talk to strangers about politics), who believe this is a legitimate form of relating to another person, just have emotional problems. Our e-mail addresses open us up to the fears and loathings of such lonely people.

It may also have something specifically to do with the Internet combined with Bill Clinton. There's Lucianne and Drudge from the Clinton days, who have discovered that a particular kind of rage can be verbalized very efficiently (and pithily) here. It's an e-mail thing: You don't have to interpose much formality or ritual or process between your anger and your words.

But there is the possibility that the country is really split -- the red and the blue. Or that, really, the split is somewhat less than 50-50, hence the rage. The right-wing people, older, more rural, less rich (the Fox audience), have been subjected to a gentrified, yuppified, mediatized world and are mad as hell. And now, post-9/11, and with all this unity talk, there may be the sense that something can be grabbed back -- some former notion of God and country can be revived.

When we rub the beast wrong, it spasms wildly and the rage is great enough that it's easy to feel we've upset some precarious balance in the world.

But then, within a few days, it trails off and the inbox returns to normal: Prescriptions Without Doctors Appointment . . . Earn Serious Money from Home . . . Increase the size of your package -- Guaranteed! . . . Twenty cheerleader sluts and you.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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