In Which a Teacher Writes Back to His Congressman, Gently Correcting His Writing and Thinking Errors

Categories: OC Bookly
Thumbnail image for campbellimages.jpg
I am this Sunday morning postponing my terrific and much-anticipated (by me, at least!) reviews of a first novel by OC's own Peggy Hesketh, the new short-story collection by Gary Amdahl of Redlands, and Gold Line chapbook award winner Alisa Slaughter's short stories to offer--completely unsolicited--a modest public service.

I confess to a chillingly unfamiliar, if welcome, shiver of sentiment a few weeks back, standing in sight of San Diego's County historic Administration Center on the waterfront, a gorgeous 1938 Works Progress Administration complex bearing the unshy motto, "The noblest motive is the public good."  So, blame FDR for this week's post, my public open letter cum critical evaluation of the rhetorical offerings of my pathetic congressman, above with -- yes, of course, naturally -- the flag. 


The quotation that caused me to tremble is attributed to Virgil. The San Diego Supervisors may hold different motivations. Our democracy is a sometimes weak gesture in the way of any kind of good at all, but I stood there nonetheless, adjacent the bay and the strolling tourists, and tucked those words away in my head, where I found them today while rereading the woefully inadequate, even insulting letter I received from Representative John Bayard Taylor Campbell III after mailing him a Valentine's Day post card asking his support for the president's modest initiatives toward gun control. Campbell, whose cozy spot on the beach got taken in redistricting, now represents me and my canyon community.  He has moved east a bit courtesy of the brave citizen activists who tried to de-gerrymander South Orange County, a national political-sacrifice zone despite their good efforts. Still, I imagined, after years of the odious and criminal Representative Gary "Civil War Dress-Up" Miller, Campbell would at least be different, maybe even better. At least somebody who might engage his constituents. This guy doesn't even recognize them, it turns out. And here's the really funny part. In my day job as a booster of civic literacy and teacher of critical thinking to undergrad writing students who don't even know that John Campbell exists (lucky them), I assure these kids that one way to participate in our government, its institutions and democratic process is to write -- write letters and arguments, and, yes, write them well. Hard not to reconsider this pedagogical strategy in light of what I reproduce below.

Yes, it is with genuine and sincere (adjectives I am loathe to embrace too often) disappointment that I review and share excerpts from the truly remarkable email epistle sent to me by Congressman Campbell. And with no small amount of real sadness. Granted, this is Orange County. Granted, he is a Republican. Granted, it's possible he didn't actually write this silly Reader's Digest homily himself. Granted, he is a former car salesman, and yes, he likes to substitute-host The Hugh Hewitt Show on right-wing AM talk radio. I mention that because I made the mistake of tuning in on a recent afternoon when Campbell was behind the microphone, only to be disappointed when Mr. C. gave most of the show to Paul Ryan, the newest boy-Newt of the GOP, followed by an obnoxious (is there any other kind?) gloat-fest about the Congress member's allegiance to a famous local rich kids' university whose mascot is, inexplicably, a prophylactic. Fight on, already.

Big thinker!
In his Feb. 28 letter to me, Campbell first thanks me, alludes to his "daily prayers" and suggests we have a "reasoned and serious debate about . . . causes and potential solutions."  Then he says he is not going to make the argument that gun control itself causes (!) gun violence, instead relating he will "leave that argument for others to make" and moves on to his next paragraph with "So, there is no record of gun control in this country resulting in less gun violence" and offering in his "humble opinion" that "the real problem here is that there is something societal going on."  Let's pause here to observe with awe and disbelief that this is like saying there is something oxygen going on, but let's not linger there, no, because the incredibly humble Mr. Campbell further offers that there has been a "behavioral shift . . . a result of an interconnected web of conditions in society that has changed . . . how we view the world around us."  Something is happening, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

News flash. In case you didn't know that the former car dealer wasn't trained in this variety of elevated critical thinking, here is his helpful caveat:  "Now, I am no social scientist, but I will offer up six conditions that I believe have changed during my lifetime [sic] in the culture of America that are directly contributing to the violence we are witnessing."  Not a social scientist?  

Shampoo. Then condition six times  
But before we get to the Six Conditions (patent pending), let's recap. Gun control probably causes violence and does not limit it; the culture of America has changed -- imagine that! --  since John Campbell III was born in 1955; and no, he is not going to talk about actual guns, gun control, a semi-automatic weapons ban, unregulated sales at gun shows or the president's appeal. 

Here, then, à la every self-help huckster ever, every erroneous zone salesman, every pulpit pounder, religious scold or snake-oil salesman, the Six Conditions offered by an actual elected official in America -- a "moderate" Republican -- in the early part of the 21st Century after the deaths of dozens in just months by way of ignoring, rejecting and dismissing the mostly benign call by President Barack Obama to please do something to stop gun deaths.  I kid you not, summarized and quoted here (mercifully excerpted), with brief responses from Mr. Bib. Again, this is real, folks, not fiction by George Saunders or some clever, sarcastic social commentator or send-up scribe.

Good driver, societal. With beard
1.  The "Me" Society.  (Cribbed from the Me Generation, maybe?) Campbell offers that he is originally from Los Angeles and offers that when he started driving, road rage was rare.  Today, people cut other people off, which is naughty and selfish.  That's why it's called the "me" society.  Connection to gun violence?  You decide!

2.  The Irresponsible Society. John the C complains, "Nothing that goes wrong is our own fault any more" and, "Others get success by luck, and my [our, your] failures are their fault. This is increasingly the thinking of a society that continues to diminish the concept of personal responsibility. With this comes the desire for revenge."  No kidding?  Revenge.  Revenge? On gun owners?  By gun owners? Hard to know. But, fear not, there are four more. . . .

3.  The Secular Society.  I know you saw this one coming.  Too easy, but Campbell can't resist.  He says that "regular attendance of church or synagogue has declined in recent decades."  And, sisters and brothers, we know what that means! Rhetorical interrogative flourish:  "Has removing God from so much of our lives today created a nurturing environment for evil to take root?"  Well, has it, friends?


4.  The Non-Family Society.  Hearkening back to the 1950s, when he started driving--in Los Angeles!--and people were nice, our own Dr. Wayne Dyer of the U.S. House of Representatives offers, "A village [clever right-wingy dig at the former Secretary of State, get it?] cannot fully replace the emotional support of a family and neither can friends."  Lesson:  Family "unit" good, village bad. Relation to guns?  Well, actually, most people get shot by somebody they know, Dr. Dobson. 

More religion, please. 
5.  The "Just Win Baby" (sic) Society. This is a new one on me. Be afraid, sports fans.  Just Win Baby?  Or does he mean, Just Win, comma, Baby? Either way, this might mean you.  Baby. In this section, Mr. C. asks if the ends justify the means and laments, "In the financial world, it seems many play by these rules."  No kidding. And your position on regulating Wall Street and the banking industry?   

6. The Violence Society.  No surprises here.  TV shows, movies, song lyrics "have changed over the decades.There is much more celebrated and gratuitous violence." I can just see the young JC driving politely and listening to the radio, softly.  And not cutting anybody off or pulling out an Uzi and shooting them dead.  And, no, he doesn't like Quentin Tarantino, in particular, in case there were any questions about that.  

There's more God.  Lots more.  Besides not being a sociologist, Campbell admits he himself is no saint.  No shit!.  He says there are absolutely no laws we can pass to deal with these societal problems.  No gun control laws, that is.  But here's the big take-away from the Reverend Johnny Campbell:  

"The confluence of the six societal characteristics that I described above lead to a lot of angry people making rude gestures or using bad words. But, without question, for a few people, this anger drives to pick up a weapon and use it."

I dare you!
Road rage and divorce, and the next thing you know, Columbine or Sandy Hook.  And,no, there is nothing we or anybody can do about it except invoke even more God and "confront the difficult problems" above. So, no, nothing about actual public policy; about gun violence as a safety or public health issue, economic or regulatory problem; about the success of a murderous industry or the power of the gun manufacturers and their stooges, the National Rifle Association, or the good work of the Brady Campaign; none of that.  Or of Gabby Giffords, his House colleague.

There's more. My editor suggested sharing the entire letter. I'll spare you that and conclude instead with a Campbellian doozy:  "Societal norms, which in the past would have restrained such an extreme level of reactive behavior, seem to no longer exist." Norms? Norms is a coffee shop, thank you. Societal norms might once have required an elected 
Condition Seven
official to seriously address an urgent problem of powerful and well-funded and organized violence-pimps bullying the rest of us. Societal norms might have demanded that a representative of our health and safety speak out against gun thugs. Societal norms might anticipate a constituency calling a silly and hypocritical elected official on his failure to act on their behalf to save lives.  Just sayin', as they say on FOX News.

My composition students in Writing 39 C, "Argument and Research," will have a jolly time this week assessing Campbell's profound misunderstanding of the "rhetorical situation," his totally inappropriate tone, his total lack of evidence, his lack of citation or appeals based on credibility or fact, not to mention failing to construct an actual argument. If he were a student in my class, he'd fail. 

Representative John Campbell
20 Pacifica, Suite 660
Irvine  CA  92618
(949) 756-2244

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday-night, literary-arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPKF-FM 90.7 in Southern California.

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