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Incivility typical in Internet age

My e-mail lit up last week. After I wrote a column defending the organizers of Coretta King's funeral for allowing former President Jimmy Carter and the Rev. Joseph Lowery to deliver partisan speeches, I felt a wave of contempt from some readers that I had not experienced in years.

I have never received so many venomous messages from a single column.

To be sure, several e-mails praised the Carter-Lowery piece as sensible commentary. Others contained courteous and sound arguments that Carter and Lowery spoke out of turn. Perhaps, in the end, those good folks are right. I appreciate their comments as well as their dissenting opinions. As I tried to say, however, deciding the program for the final rites was a private family matter.

As far as I know, Rush Limbaugh was not privy to the arrangements, though he had plenty to say. My e-mail critics let me know that once again the Pied Piper of the right was dead on. Carter, Lowery and other hated Democrats (read black leaders) were way out of line.

Despite e-mail assertions to the contrary, my relationship with both Carter and Lowery has ranged from poor to worse over the years. I am not a buddy of either, and I have written critically of both.

Nevertheless, the harsh e-mail was instructive. I occasionally forget who's out there. Reaction to the King essay was a wakeup call. The electronic age has invigorated incivility. Cordial discourse is on the wane. Mean-spirited epithets are in vogue.

Two e-mail writers addressed me as "a--." One "dear a--" writer went on to describe himself as "an educated person."

Another fellow informed me that he was a "Georgia Bulldog" who "played four years of football for Wally Butts." I am not certain how that information related to the King funeral, but he took me to task anyway. I should have asked if he played with his helmet on or off.

Two writers advised me that I was "too old." Hey, nobody knows that fact better than I. Several writers invoked Jesus as they wished me ill luck. I was taken aback.

I will not bore or shock you with all the bitter invective, but every critical e-mailer assailed Carter in such harsh terms that I winced. In fact, they hit Carter harder than me.

At least four e-mails brought up "Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick" in connection with Carter and hinted at some dark alliance.

Kennedy and Carter? Surely, the correspondents jest. Carter detests the senior senator from Massachusetts. My guess from the former president's books: Carter still blames Kennedy's political opportunism for depriving him of a second term in the White House.

In his eulogy, Carter's pointed criticism of wiretapping was aimed as much at the Kennedys as at President Bush. Robert Kennedy as attorney general signed the order to tap the phones of Martin Luther King Jr. way back in the 1960s.

Still, why are all these men (yes, all the hate stuff was signed with male names) so ticked at Carter 25 years after his presidency and 31 years after he served as governor?

Perhaps they never forgave him for misleading them by hinting that he was a segregationist. Or maybe they are mad that long after his elective career ended, he re-established himself as a high achiever and advocate of peace. He may have stepped out of bounds a couple of times in his post-presidential roles, but such behavior is hardly a reason for apoplexy.

As for Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, that tragic loss of life occurred in 1969. It destroyed forever Kennedy's career beyond the bounds of his home state, even if he did try to mount a presidential campaign later.

In cursing Kennedy for the loss of a life at Chappaquiddick nearly four decades ago, not a single respondent noted that 2,500 young Americans have been killed and 16,000 seriously wounded in Iraq in recent months. Many thoughtful citizens are still uncertain of the reasons for such sacrifices.

Don't get me wrong. I love mail of all kinds. It lets me know that people still read and get mad. It serves to keep me mostly in the center of the road.

Yet this batch of e-mail carried a couple of never fully articulated messages. The first one concerns the perceived disrespect shown President Bush at the ceremony. That is fair comment.

The second and more disturbing signal dealt with the condition of racism in our state. It's still alive and well, thank you.

One other thing: For years now, extremists from both the left and right have decided that they can intimidate and silence unaligned moderates, especially in the press, by bombarding them with unrestrained ad hominem insults and implied threats.

I have a feeling such kill-the-messenger tactics are backfiring. (See Cheney, Dick, and benefit of the doubt. There were two ways to handle the Cheney shooting story. The secretive, media-baiting vice president received the unsympathetic Plan B treatment, even from his supposed TV allies. It was payback time.)

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.