To Charlie Keller, re: “civil discourse”

Dear Charlie,

You mentioned that in terms of maximizing the Congressman’s outreach, a private meeting with, for example, four unhappy Democrats is not nearly as worthwhile as, say, an event with 100 professors at the W&L Law School. That’s a reasonable argument. But you may be missing some of the picture.

After Mr. Goodlatte met with three leaders of SAW (Staunton-Augusta-Waynesboro) last month, Jenny Kitchen posted a summary on her blog. She said: “At the end of the meeting he mentioned that he appreciated the civil discourse… Over all he is a very easy person to talk to, I just don’t agree with him.”

That’s literally the most positive description I’ve read about Mr. Goodlatte this year. And it was written by someone who adamantly opposes his political positions. Because SAW communicates with the range of other district 6 activist groups, Jenny’s comment also reverberated up and down the valley. A compliment from an opponent shared among other opponents—that carries a hell of a lot more weight than a visit with a high school class in Front Royal or with Buddy the Eagle in the Waynesboro Wildlife Center.

It’s also good strategy. Talking civilly with Democrats dampens the outrage so many constituents are feeling. You surprised me when you said you look at sites like Daily Kos. I get their email updates in my inbox (I presume I signed some petition back in December), but I’m turned off by their biased headlines and never click their links. These are often fundraising emails, so I understand why stoking outrage is useful.

It would be hard to feel outrage at a Bob Goodlatte who seeks out real conversations and listens sincerely with the goal of finding common ground. But that’s not the image Mr. Goodlatte currently has. Frankly, from a partisan perspective, that’s good for Democrats nationally. The more unreasonable the chair of the House Judiciary Committee appears, the better for the Democratic party in November 2018.

But I’m more opposed to political polarization than I am to the GOP. Civil discourse undermines the easy demonization that is the norm in our country right now. Civility, while good in itself, isn’t my end goal. It’s a means of achieving communication and eventually mutual change. I believe that only in our current environment of extreme polarization could Donald Trump have become president. I believe he’s a bad president not simply for Democrats, but for the country over all, and, ironically, Republicans especially.

If the Congressman truly appreciates civil discourse—and I believe he does—he could do more to promote it. I think if Republicans and Democrats sit down and sincerely listen to each other—from DC down to grassroots—the better off the country will be. I hope the Congressman will help begin that change.

I suggest a series of Facebook conversations. Mr. Goodlatte’s constituents—both Democrats and Republicans—would deeply benefit from seeing him talking meaningfully with non-Republicans. I don’t suggest live events—the opportunity for ambush is too high—but please consider recording conversations and releasing them afterwards. Since he already knows and had a good meeting with Jenny Kitchen, he might begin there. I just ask that he use his position to model civil discourse and reduce the demonization on both sides.

Thanks again for hearing me out.


Chris Gavaler

PS. Don’t worry, my next 200 emails won’t be to you. I just wanted to follow through on our conversation and what I see as real potential for progress. I will return to using the “Contact Bob” form on the Congressman’s website–though I do hope now that you have an actual person attached to my name, you will have more reason to take them seriously.


Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University where he teaches creative writing, contemporary fiction, and comics. He has published two novels, Pretend I'm Not Here (HarperCollins 2002) and School For Tricksters (Southern Methodist University 2011), and two nonfictions, On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa University 2015) and Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury forthcoming 2017).

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