|Five Butterflies, by Wenceslaus Hollar (1646) Metropolitan Museum of Art
A lepidopterist is, as any Nabokov fan knows, a butterfly collector. It is fitting that the colorful stationery bearing Alan P. Leonard's latest missive to this column has butterflies on it. Because I always think of myself as a lepidopterist when it comes to processing hateful mail. I try to bring a connoisseur's discernment to their ravings, a protective measure to keep the poison within from raising a welt on my delicate mental skin. I net the odious thing, put it carefully in the killing bottle, using tongs, then pin the little corpse to a board and admire its patterns, its grotesque variegation.
We met Mr. Leonard last year, with three emails I dubbed "The Era of Contempt." As with the one below, they were informed by fear of those whose sexuality is at variance with his.
You may find them here, here and here, if you are so inclined.
They proved decidedly popular, as freak shows often do.
Then two months ago, he was back, with a racist screed decrying the looks of Michelle Obama (an revulsive scrap of classic 1859 bigotry that one just doesn't expect to see expressed publicly by someone proudly signing his name. A shocking anachronism, like finding a child with rickets).
This one, as he makes clear, is in reaction to my June 10 column about Boston's idiotic "Straight Pride" parade. The twist is that he doesn't sign his name, perhaps forgetting that he has written four times before, with the same stationery and his distinctive block printing.
As before, I paused, wondering if it were somehow cruel to share Mr. Leonard's thoughts, to stretch the term. The man is afraid, as haters are at core. A shameful fear he has to share, trying to alleviate it. The usual terror of his correspondence ratcheted up a notch as, for the first time, he signs his letter with a nom de guerre, "A normal person." As if it were normal to write anonymous notes to newspaper columnists, venting your bile and your sexual insecurity.
Which it sorta is, sadly. But still. I don't have to take the bait. Isn't posting the letter itself a minor cruelty? "When battling monsters," as Nietzsche reminds us, "make sure not to become a monster."
Perhaps. But if so, it is cruelty with a higher purpose. It is not monstrous to print a letter sent to a newspaper, nor to note that hatred is an acid that, increasingly, eats up the possessor more than the object. I believe airing it is therapeutic, if not for him, obviously, at least for us. Don't be like this.
And lest we feel too superior, lest we chuckle too much, remember this: these are the people running our country now. These are the people we let take charge.