Dear Rep. Eric Cantor:
Like many of your constituents, I was looking forward to the presidential address to Congress on Sept. 9, especially because it concerned health-care reform, a subject about which you have often expressed strong opinions. During the speech, while CNN panned the chamber for reaction shots from the audience, I noticed that you were not reacting to the speech at all; you were instead quite absorbed by your BlackBerry.
I found myself surprised by how different the floor is from the classrooms of Virginia Commonwealth University, where I've taught creative writing for the past several years. Most college professors require their students to turn off cell phones and portable electronic devices before the start of class — we ask this because the use of such devices is distracting and even disruptive during lectures and class discussions. From time to time we encounter students who will ignore this rule and stealthily write text messages or listen to their iPods in class. These students tend to be the ones who sprawl lifelessly in the back of the room, the ones who have attitude problems that they've carried over from adolescence, the ones who lack a requisite sense of intellectual curiosity. They're also the ones who in the end up get low or failing grades.
They know their behavior is uncivil. They know that in doing this they're wasting the money of their parents and the taxpayers, but for some reason they'd rather just act out and pleasure themselves.
It saddens me that the man who represents my district displayed similar behavior — this during a nationally televised event that addressed a matter of utmost importance to our nation. Much has been made of Rep. Joe Wilson's heckling of the president during the speech. But in many respects I find your incessant use of your BlackBerry to be even more pernicious; at least Wilson was paying attention, however misguidedly. Your actions failed to meet even that minimum standard.
I know you have stated that you were using the BlackBerry to take notes on the president's speech. I know, too, that your campaign staff has quite vigorously denied the accusation of your opponent, Charlie Diradour, that you were tweeting during the speech. Forgive me if I find such explanations disingenuous. My students who get caught tweeting, texting or using their laptops to check out Facebook usually plead similarly earnest motives, but something doesn't ring true about their protestations. They utter various digital equivalents of the old “the dog ate my homework” line.
The 7th District has a reputation for being a genteel place, and as inhabitant of the West End I have sometimes felt that it's a bit claustrophobically genteel. But recently I've come to suspect that its gentility is being replaced by a sensibility that is distressingly uncivil. Last year we had to repeatedly replace our stolen or defaced Obama lawn signs. And within the space of the last few weeks I've seen some very expensive sport utilities and minivans sporting bumper stickers that proclaim messages that seem considerably more bellicose than the standard “NoBAMA.” They've ranged from “Socialism isn't cool” to “White Power.”
And the other day I had a hard time fathoming why someone in a swank new pickup would so aggressively tailgate me for over a mile of Monument Avenue. It seemed to have to do with my Obama bumper sticker. On his bumper was a red vertical line drawn over the letter “L.” It took me a while to figure out that the L stood for “liberal.” Congressman, it grieves me to think that your base may now be comprised not of genteel West End Republicans, but of people who have been mesmerized by the vitriolic rantings of Rush and the lachrymose paranoia of Glenn Beck.
You may not have caused the wrath and xenophobia of this group of your constituents, but using your BlackBerry last week, Twitter or no Twitter, helps to enable a climate of scary incivility. I'm distressed that your device showed such disrespect to our president, and saddened that you choose to so cavalierly ignore your house's rules of decorum. You are supposed to “refrain from eating, smoking, or using electronic equipment, including cellular phones and laptop computers, on the floor.” But I'm especially troubled by a suspicion that you broke these rules merely because you sought to pander to the baser elements of your base.
Wilson has apologized for his actions, though he's also taken back his apology more times than you can count. I urge you to make an apology as well — and a genuine one, not a dog-ate-my-homework excuse. S
David Wojahn is a professor of English and director of creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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