As a curmudgeonly critic of government and politics who hopes pointing to systemic flaws can lead to systemic change, I'm often intrigued by reader reaction.
Two reactions just before Election Day, thoughtful though decidedly different, captured my attention. So much so that I'm sharing them, because they're too long for letters to the editor.
One was in response to a column on the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shootings. I asked where we are as a people and nation.
Michael T., a Philadelphia lawyer, answered. Here's an excerpt.
"Compassion died last week. She was preceded in death by her longtime partners, civility, decency and understanding. They all died a slow but inevitable death, from many causes … but the primary cause of their deaths was freedom."
He argues freedoms we cherish "have turned our world into one of hate."
He writes that the right to free speech has "swallowed and digested whole the right to common sense and decency. …We yell. We curse. We claw. We lie. We lie so baldly and blatantly we do it without embarrassment.
"It is now acceptable … the norm in not only political campaigns but in ordinary social discourse. It is now our right to not just speak, but to speak falsely. And loudly. And with great conviction and anger. The Constitution allows these things."
He writes of guns, too.
"The Constitution favors guns … a freedom guaranteed. … It's become almost an obligation to own them, shoot them, to place their possession above other rights, silly little rights, like the right simply to live, to worship, to go to school. The right to own a gun has become more important than all others."
He adds, "It's hard to say we've exercised the freedoms gifted by our forefathers responsibly. Or that we're deserving of them. Maybe once we were, and perhaps we will be again, but not right now."
Another response caught my eye. It was to a column urging everyone to vote that included my usual rant about outdated election laws.
Philip B. moved to Center City 18 months ago after living in Switzerland more than a decade, and before that in Rhode Island.
He asks, "You tell me to go vote, but why?"
He says living in a part of (overwhelmingly Democratic) Philly, where general elections aren't competitive (true throughout Philly) means this: no sense of "the democratic ideal of an election in which informed voters make a choice between candidates stumping and competing for their votes by taking positions on the major issues of the day."
Nobody rang his doorbell or left flyers. No candidate signs in windows or on sidewalks in his neighborhood. Got "exactly two" pieces of mail from candidates or parties seeking his vote. Had no idea whether there was a Republican running in his congressional district (there was). And wasn't made aware of any chance to meet or communicate with candidates or representatives at the state or federal level.
And, yeah, OK, there's this internet thing where voters can get lots of info. But the guy has a point. Is a one-party town good for democracy?
He goes on.
"When I vote," he writes, "my vote will disappear into an electronic voting machine that can be hacked and will leave behind no paper record that can be recounted, if necessary. I can't even be confident that my vote will be recorded."
He notes that I (regularly) advocate reforms: voting over several days, including weekends; same-day registration; open primaries; early voting.
He suggests bigger thinking.
He writes that in Switzerland even non-citizens can vote by mail in local elections without being registered if they've lived in the country for eight years.
Three U.S. states — Colorado, Oregon, Washington – allow mail-in voting in all elections. Why, he asks, can't every state adopt such a system?
Our rights, our votes, how we use them always are worthy of thought and discussion.
These reader thoughts came just before midterm elections that ended up drawing record-breaking turnout. Even Pennsylvania reportedly topped 50 percent.
But that means half the electorate opted out. Which is why our rights, our votes, and how we use them always are worthy of thought and discussion.