In an appearance on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) made a revelation that caused 80 percent of the liberal and tech-obsessed world (and its substantial overlap) to require medical treatment for strain caused by eye-rolling. Graham has never sent an e-mail, he said, adding: "I don't know what that makes me."
The answer is: an online pariah. At Reddit, the story's most popular headline looped in Graham's position on the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law. It's done well, with the comments broadly reflecting what you'd see elsewhere on social media.
The answer to Graham's question also is: a member of a population that comprises one-eighth of American adults. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that 15 percent of Americans older than 18 don't use the Internet, including e-mail. Of course, those people commonly cited access as the stumbling block, something that a relatively well-to-do member of Congress with a government-provided office probably can't claim.
Here's the thing about e-mail: Using it tells you very little about how the system works. It's one of the oldest communication systems on the Internet, one that still uses the term "CC:," which is short for "carbon copy." (Have you ever used carbon paper to duplicate a document? No? Well, here's how you do it.) E-mail is probably slightly more complicated than sending a text message, but not much. Sending an e-mail doesn't tell you about e-mail headers, or TCP/IP, or how to ensure your e-mail is encrypted or any of that. Suggesting that sending an e-mail tells you much of anything about how e-mail works is like suggesting that you are a pretty good mechanic because once you rode in a cab.
You know who has used e-mail? That guy whose address is email@example.com and the one whose subject lines start with "FW: FW: FW: FW:" and ends in "you'll see all day!!!!!1" Are those people more capable of serving on the Senate subcommittee as a result? (And, while we're at it, let's not blow the significance of being a tertiary member of a Senate subcommittee too out of proportion.) Graham's past comments on the Senate floor show that he knows what e-mail is and how it works as much as having sent an e-mail once or twice would inform you.
To Bloomberg News's Dave Weigel, Graham explained why he doesn't use e-mail. "I've tried not to have a system where I can just say the first dumb thing that comes to my mind," he said. "I've always been concerned. I can get texts, and I call you back, if I want. I get a text, and I respond not by sending you a text, but calling you if I think what you asked is worthy enough for me calling you."
That's perhaps not terribly in vogue, but for an elected official, it's not stupid. Perusing Jeb Bush's e-mails from his time in office shows some of the offhanded goofiness that Graham probably would like to avoid. Graham's office clearly has an e-mail system, and his staff certainly uses it. And he, unlike your grandmother or someone who can't afford a computer at home, has people with him all the time who can pass along information as needed.
So one last answer to Graham's statement that he doesn't know what it makes him: It is another way in which the job he does is very different from the job you or I do. He can get by without e-mailing. We can't. Given the sorts of e-mails we all get, our response might more legitimately be envy than scorn.