WASHINGTON -- Allow me to introduce myself. I am a traitor and an idiot. Also, my mother should have aborted me and left me in a dumpster, but since she didn't, I should "off" myself.
Those are just a few nuggets randomly selected from thousands of e-mails written in response to my column suggesting that Sarah Palin is out of her league and should step down.
Who says public discourse hasn't deteriorated?
The fierce reaction to my column has been both bracing and enlightening. After 20 years of column writing, I'm familiar with angry mail. But the past few days have produced responses of a different order. Not just angry, but vicious and threatening.
Some of my usual readers feel betrayed because I previously have written favorably of Palin. By changing my mind and saying so, I am viewed as a traitor to the Republican Party -- not a "true" conservative.
Obviously, I'm not employed by the GOP. If I were, they're seriously in arrears. But what is a true conservative? One who doesn't think or question and who marches in lockstep with The Party?
The emotional pitch of many comments suggests an overinvestment in Palin as "one of us."
Palin's fans say they like her specifically because she's an outsider, not part of the Washington club. When she flubs during interviews, they identify with that, too. "You see the lack of polish, we applaud it," one reader wrote.
Of course, there's a difference between a lack of polish and a lack of coherence. Some of Palin's interview responses can't even be critiqued on their merits because they're so nonsensical. But even that is someone else's fault, say Palin supporters. The media make her uncomfortable.
Or, it's the fault of those slick politicos who are overmanaging her. "Let Sarah be Sarah" has become the latest rallying cry among my colleagues on the right. She'll be fine if we just leave her alone, they say. Between prayers, I might add.
Not all my mail has been mean-spirited. A fair number expressed polite disappointment; others relief and gratitude. Still others offered reasonable arguments aimed at changing my mind. I may yet.
In the meantime, this assault and my decision to write about it aren't really about me -- or even Sarah Palin. The mailbag is about us, our country, and what we really believe.
That we have become a partisan nation is no secret. This week has provided a vivid example of where rabid partisanship leads with the failure of Congress to pass a bailout bill vitally needed to keep our economy from unraveling.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave a partisan speech, blaming the credit crisis on the Bush administration (omitting the Clinton administration's role in launching the subprime lending debacle). Republicans responded by voting against the bill.
Everyone's to blame, by the way.
Such extreme partisanship has a crippling effect on government, which may be desirable at times, but not now. More important in the long term is the less tangible effect of stifling free speech. My mail paints an ugly picture and a bleak future if we do not soon correct ourselves.
The picture is this: Anyone who dares express an opinion that runs counter to the party line will be silenced. That doesn't sound American to me, but Stalin would approve.
Readers have every right to reject my opinion. But when we decide that a person is a traitor and should die for having an opinion different than one's own, then we cross into territory that puts all freedoms at risk. (I hear you, Dixie Chicks.)
I'm sure it is coincidence that, upon the Palin column's publication, a conservative organization suddenly canceled a speech I was scheduled to deliver in a few days. If I were as paranoid as the conspiracy theorists are, I might wonder whether I was being punished for speaking incorrectly.
Unfortunately, that's the way one begins to think when party loyalty is given a higher value than loyalty to bedrock principles.
Our day of reckoning, indeed, may be upon us. Between war and economic collapse, we have enormous challenges. It will take the best of everyone to solve them. That process begins minimally with a commitment to engage in civil discourse and a cease-fire in the war against unwelcome ideas.
In that spirit, may Sarah Palin be fearless in Thursday's debate and speak her true mind.