Some of the most passionate writing in our newspaper can be found in the letters to the editor. And by passionate, I mean annoyed, irritated, indignant, infuriated and outraged.
These bite-sized nuggets of heated opinion -- no more than 175 words, thanks -- serve two important functions. They: a) allow readers to vent frustrations that might otherwise cause their eyebrows to catch fire; and b) provide those of us who digest them over coffee each morning a chance to learn what others feel strongly about.
On different days you will find different bones of contention: Israeli-Palestinian relations; medical marijuana dispensaries; the war in Afghanistan; runaway pensions; Congressional gridlock; the first lady's hairstyle (just seeing if you were paying attention).
The subject matter tends toward themes of major importance and high stakes. But there are exceptions.
Take last Thursday, for instance. In three of the five published letters, sandwiched between an attack on schoolteacher competence and a demand for stricter gun control, readers trained their sights on the weighty issue of our daily comic strips. It was not the first time this topic has come up.
"I object to the placement of Doonesbury and Non Sequitur on the comics page," one wrote. "They are political cartoons that belong on the opinion page -- if you publish them at all."
And another: "I wrote the editor last year, citing Mallard Fillmore's obvious bias as belonging on the editorial page. I have followed the recent discussion concerning its appropriateness on the comics page. ... "
Doonesbury is a left-leaning comic strip featuring a cast of characters who apparently never have an unspoken thought. Mallard Fillmore is a talking duck with a name reminiscent of our 13th president whose observations lean equally far to the right.
If either strip is intended to be funny, it's not the laugh-out-loud kind. The messages within are more like mini-lectures from warring worlds. Reading the two back-to-back is like switching from MSNBC to Fox News.
But, hey, they're comic strips. Who cares?
A lot of people do, according to Features Editor Lisa Wrenn: "I always thought of the comics as comfort food in the newspaper, but people take them seriously."
She recalled many years ago when the Times discontinued Marmaduke, a comic strip about a lovable, mischievous dog. A longtime reader who said it reminded him of a pet he once owned was crestfallen when the strip disappeared. It was almost as if a longtime friend had passed away.
The reader reactions this time are of a different vein. Some are annoyed that Doonesbury is so liberal, others that Mallard Fillmore is so conservative. Within the space of less than 11 column inches, these two comic strips manage to alienate constituencies daily on both sides of the fence, which is no easy accomplishment.
It's comforting to find readers with such fervent passion. Heck, these days it's good to find readers of any kind. And if voicing their objections in print helps clear the air, then by all means clear away.
Frankly, I don't think Doonesbury or Mallard Fillmore do much to move the political needle right or left. Of all the voters who arrive at a polling place with reference materials in hand, I've yet to see one consult the comic strips before filling out a ballot.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.