Look who’s coming to campus!

After canceling a visit scheduled for last March due to severe weather conditions, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va) is set to give a lecture at the Michigan League on Monday. The event, sponsored by the Ford School of Public Policy, will be free and open to the public.

Cantor was planning to make a similar visit to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania last Friday. According to the school’s newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian, Cantor was slated to deliver a much-anticipated speech on American income inequality titled “A Fair Shot at the American Dream & Economic Growth,” the text of which can be found on the newspaper’s website. Given recent reports on the widening gap between the rich and poor in the United States, such a speech would have been timely.

But Cantor never got around to delivering that speech.

The Daily Pennsylvanian reports that Cantor’s office was under the impression that only those affiliated with Penn — namely, students and faculty — were invited to attend. But after learning that the event would in fact be open to the general public (the first 300 people in line would gain entrance) Cantor called off his appearance, apparently fearing that protesters from Occupy Philadelphia — an extension of Occupy Wall Street — would fill all the seats in the lecture hall.

The abrupt cancellation has sparked debate at Penn and in the media. Charles Gray, a student at Wharton and president of Penn College Republicans, accused Occupy Philly demonstrators of “hijacking this event and making it into something that’s a bit hostile.” Politico writes, “the cancellation in the face of protests is the most recent example of how Cantor… has emerged as the chief object of ire for the left.” One unidentified Penn student is quoted saying, “I think it’s a little too much to bring the protest to a college campus.” And on Twitter, the liberal political blog Think Progress dryly wrote, “Eric Cantor is eager to speak on income inequality as soon as he can find a venue that can guarantee no poor people will be admitted.”

Where some have deemed Cantor a coward, others place blame on the protesters. That much was inevitable. According to Mike Morill, director of the liberal advocacy group Keystone Progress and one of the protesters at Penn, demonstrators had no intention of disrupting Cantor’s remarks — they were simply there to protest outside the building.

We’ll never know, of course, what would have happened had things gone as planned. But I find it unfortunate that Cantor didn’t give protesters the opportunity to prove their civility. Rather than face them, he disengaged altogether. Cantor canceled because he presumed that Occupy Philly demonstrators in the audience would disrupt his speech and/or ask him questions for which he was unprepared — in any case, he comes out looking like an out of touch politician, and rightfully so.

What does this mean for his visit to Ann Arbor, then? Quite a lot, actually. Here’s my take.

First, we should consider Cantor’s visit to the University of Michigan a privilege. That means respecting him, his beliefs and his opportunity to address our community this Monday afternoon. This is particularly important for those of us who oppose Cantor’s conservative ideology. No matter how much you might disagree with him — and trust me, I do disagree with him — this lecture marks a rare opportunity for students to hear firsthand from one of our country’s most prominent political figures.

If I’m fortunate enough to be in his audience on Monday, I’ll be there to listen. I have no intention of infringing on Cantor’s ability to deliver his lecture in its entirety — no heckling, chanting or interruptions of any kind — and I’d hope my peers feel the same. We would win no sympathy and make no gains if we resort to insolence. I don’t want to be cannon fodder for the likes of Fox News. We’re better than that.

So let’s make Cantor live up to his word and tell us how Republicans plan to address inequality in America. Let’s defy his expectations of us and be civil. Let’s give him no excuse to cancel his visit to another college campus. I hope to see Cantor face down a respectful, level-headed, informed audience capable of calling into question his extremist rhetoric and flawed economic policies — policies that have contributed to the growing inequality of wealth and opportunity in this country and the perversion of the so-called American Dream.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu.

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