You send letters; Tom has responses

It's always good to be self-aware. And after receiving dozens of e-mails expressing outrage about a column I wrote concerning questions that we liberals should ask ourselves and others in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I can honestly say that I'm self-awarer than ever. Indeed, the sheer volume of vitriol may have bumped me up to a whole new level of self-aware-iosity.

Among the things I learned from the torrent of e-mails:

· I fell in love with and married my (Hispanic) wife of 27 years simply so that I would be able to say that I'm down with people of color.

· I'm a racist.

· I'm not really a Catholic.

· Personal responsibility is only for Republicans, of which I am of the closet variety.

· I'm a racist. (I got that a lot.)

First off, my wife has wonderfully dark hair and eyes, but the words "skin" and "color" don't really go together for her. I was once thinking of holding a telethon to help buy her some melanin. Let's put it this way: Her skin has a high pH (pale Honkie) factor.

As for the reason for marrying her, if I had simply wanted somebody to give me standing in the ethnic community, I could have just married Hattie McDaniel. Of course, she had been dead for a couple decades when I reached adulthood, but I would have had a wife of color, and I wouldn't have had to be reminded that I missed the hamper.

Now, about being a racist: There's not a whole lot one can do when that accusation is sent flying, except to feebly answer back, "No, I'm not." So (with gusto): No, I'm not.

However, to give equal time, T.Z. wrote: "You're the worst kind of racist, one who doesn't even KNOW that he's racist." C.G. added, "I'd like to see you go down to the ghetto and try to explain your views." (It's nice to see that some people still use the term "ghetto" as a noun and not as an adjective, as has become the custom.) And J.S. said, "You've probably never even met a black person in your life."

Damn, Hattie would've come in handy.

My favorite came from a guy who took me to task for mentioning an extended family I had seen on TV from the Astrodome. The group included a 44-year-old grandmother, her 28-year-old daughter, and that woman's six kids, the oldest of whom was 13. For that, P.F. called me a racist and then accused me of "deepen(ing) common and despicable stereotypes of 'black women with several children.'"

There's only one problem with that: I never mentioned the race of the family in question. Oops.

A few people questioned my faith. One said, "Your claims to be a Catholic is (sic) a huge lie ... not an iota of Catholicism in you." Another said, "I always thought you were lying about being a Catholic." And a third wrote, "I hope you burn in hell." Well, if I'm not Catholic, I don't have to worry about that last thing.

The uproar about personal responsibility really kills me. How did we get so turned around that the concept of being responsible for one's own thoughts and words and actions is somehow a negative thing? Is not responsibility the twin sister of freedom? If we can't control ourselves, then we probably deserve to have somebody else control us.

T.S. wrote, "Your constant ranting about 'personal responsibility' exposes you for what you are--a closet Republican who doesn't have the guts to publicly switch sides." B.W. added, "The only people I see on TV talking about 'personal responsibility' are smug, white, right-wingers. Are you happy that you're on their side?" And A.C. asked, "You don't really believe that poor people can work their way out of poverty simply by making up their mind to do so, do you?"

Well, yeah, I do.

And it's not simply a matter of personal experience; there are millions of Americans who pulled themselves out of poverty through a combination of hard work, sacrifice and keeping their eyes on the long-range goal. It's not easy. People get sidetracked with bad habits and dreams of quick fixes. Plus, life is unfair, and, sadly, it doesn't work for everybody. But, for most people, there is a way out of poverty. The road is uphill, but the path is well-lighted.

The biggest question we need to ask is: How did personal responsibility become the sole province of the Sean Hannity crowd? If we're going to settle for being the party of excuse-makers and enablers, we might as well have the minority-party designation chiseled in stone.

There were some vicious letters, and I took the time to respond to every one of them. One guy absolutely excoriated me, but after a couple weeks of back and forth, we agreed to meet for a game of chess.

One other guy, however, went too far. He accused me of being "George W. Bush's intellectual cousin."

Now that's just wrong.

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