In Yard Work and Politics: Don't Get Personal

The other day I read a letter to the editor of the Rivertowns Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. The writer was a fellow named Hubert B. Herring and his subject was leaf blowers. Mr. Herring does not like them. Nor does he like getting to the point. He digresses, does Mr. Herring, using his disdain for leaf blowers as a springboard to rail about a lot of things that do not involve the mechanical rearrangement of the trees' fallen bounty. Here is how he begins:

"I try to teach my children about right and wrong. I try to teach them the perils of smoking, the evils of SUVs, the virtue of exercise and broccoli — and that they should never, ever vote Republican."

Never, Mr. Herring? Ever, Mr. Herring? Are Republicans as perilous as smoking, as evil as SUVs? Are they like no exercise and nacho cheese Doritos? Are there any exceptions? Ever?

"But it's hard" to teach his children about right and wrong, Mr. Herring goes on, especially "these days, bombarded as they are with images of sex and drugs and violence and seemingly sane people saying George W. Bush is qualified to be President. It's so hard."

Fifty million, four hundred fifty-six thousand, one hundred sixty-four seemingly sane people, to be exact, Mr. Herring. Might some of them actually have been sane? Might some of them live on your street, play golf on your course, own businesses that you are pleased to frequent? Might even a few of them coach those children of yours in soccer or baseball? Might virtually all of them take offense at being placed in the same category as sex and drugs and violence?

Eventually, Mr. Hubert B. Herring gets to the point, but as his venom is not yet discharged, his path is still not direct. You see, he considers leaf-blowing an anti-social act, and thus puts pedal to the metal for one more detour:

"Antisocial acts can be large — like murder or stealing elections — or they can be small. But they are all part of the same continuum. Those who learn small antisocial lessons while young run a grave risk of growing up to be Trent Lott."

I will probably never write a letter to the editor of the Dobbs Ferry Gazette. If I do, though, I will tell him that there is a graver risk than growing up to be Trent Lott. It is the public expression of bigotry, which may safely be defined as judging other people through labels attached by their foes.

I would tell him that there is a graver risk than Republicans. It is making politics personal, which is to say, berating decent and thoughtful men and women because they do not happen to believe as you do about the estate tax or defense spending or school vouchers. I would tell him that there is a graver risk than leaf blowers. It is condemning the machines in terms so offensively sweeping that even members of the Green Party might be tempted to gas up a few and clean off their yards.

And I would tell him of one more risk, yet another one, perhaps the gravest of all: the risk of being a child who learns his early lessons about the world in a household where intolerance masquerades as principle.

I do not know Hubert B. Herring of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. I do not know how old he is, how tall or how heavy. I do not know where he was educated, where or whether he worships, what he does in his spare time. I only know his job. He is an editor for The New York Times.