Thursday, September 10, 2009



I would be remiss if I did not write something about Representative Joe Wilson’s (R-SC) outburst last night during President Obama’s congressional health care address. I was genuinely stunned when I heard someone—a Washington politician, not some anarchist on the street or even a stealthy outside activist—call out “You lie” as the President spoke. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about disrespecting authority. But I have some standards about the time and place to do it.

For a moment, I thought that we had gone the way of the British parliament, in which acting politicians traditionally interrupt their colleagues as they speak. Yet there is something hallowed about Presidential speeches before Congress. They are not “routine debates.” There is an unspoken code of decorum when the President speaks during a joint meeting of government. For a brief moment, Congressmen and Senators put aside their everyday quarrels in deference to the Executive. When both parties sit and listen to the President—no matter his own party affiliation—it reinforces the notion that the government is united, even if only symbolically. To return to the British example, not even the cheekiest MP ever shouts at the Queen when she speaks.

Joe Wilson’s outburst destroyed even that fictional unity. And why? To protest President Obama’s contention that the Democratic health care reform plan would not cover illegal aliens. This man took an unprecedented step against congressional protocol to personally attack President Obama’s honesty in the very halls of government. Pundits on both sides will endlessly debate whether the President’s statement was “technically accurate.” But that is really not the point. Rhetoric is not science. It does not work when it bogs down in minuscule details. Statements do not carry as much rhetorical punch when they nitpick. Perhaps Obama did not remember every single proposed section in every single proposed bill about health care. Perhaps he even misspoke. I don’t know.

Still, misspeaking does not warrant the pejorative exclamation: “You lie.” Those are fighting words. They do not impinge upon technical knowledge. They impinge upon personal honor, integrity and decency. They are as much an insult as a critique.

In a way, Joe Wilson’s outburst does not surprise me. I have warned over and over again that Obama faces very real dangers simply because he is an African-American in a country with a longstanding tradition of intolerance toward African-Americans. I have warned that Obama’s mere presence courts danger in some parts of the country. His first months in office have borne out my warnings. Never before has dissent been so ominous as dissent on Obama’s health care push. Town hall meetings descend into shouting matches and fistfights. Republicans show up to Presidential appearances with loaded rifles. Opponents concoct absurd stories about “death panels” and suggest that President Obama is not an American citizen. Now Joe Wilson ignores traditional respect for the President’s office by calling him a liar on the floor of Congress.

These are not good omens. They show that Obama’s opponents not only do not respect him, but they are willing to put aside all civility in order to derail him. It is just a matter of time before heated words and sneering disrespect turn into violence. Worse, Joe Wilson’s outburst shows that not just private citizens adhere to these sentiments. So do elected officials. And they actually swore an oath to uphold the constitutional system.

Republicans will undoubtedly counter that Democrats showed no respect toward George W. Bush during his time in office. They will say that fiery partisanship is the order of the day in modern Washington politics. True, many private citizens paraded against Bush. They even threw eggs at his Presidential limo during his inauguration in 2001. Democratic politicians, too, reserved harsh words for Bush in public statements. But in no case did any Democratic Congressman ever interrupt President Bush while he spoke to Congress, let alone call him a liar in public. In this sense, both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of partisan politics. The difference is that Republicans willingly disrespect constitutional traditions in order to spew their bile.

I venture that Democrats had every reason to interrupt Bush for lying during his Congressional addresses. After all, Bush told Congress that African nations were supplying uranium to Saddam Hussein. He also manufactured stories to suggest that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in order to induce support for a foreign war. These were lies that led America into bloody armed conflict and bankruptcy. They were not casual misstatements about thousand-page health care legislation. If ever a congressman had reason to scream “You Lie” at the President in the Capitol Building, it was in 2002 or 2003.

Yet I applaud the Democrats for never doing so. Rather than disturb traditional respect for the President while he speaks to Congress, Democrats waited until after the speech to register their dissent. They observed protocol, if for no other reason than to maintain the fictional unity that the protocol is intended to generate.

Not so with Joe Wilson. Protocol meant nothing to him, nor did the importance of the “unity fiction in government.” What does this mean? I think it means that the national debate is flying off the handle. In recent months, rhetoric about health care has reached white-hot levels. It is as belligerent as it is unreasonable, misinformed and confused. Civility has no place in this debate. And Joe Wilson’s outburst shows that civility cannot even survive in the Capitol Building while the President speaks.

This is the state of our national debate. It does not bode well. Democracy only works when the losing party accepts the winning party’s rule. It fails when the losing party revolts and refuses to cooperate on anything. In ancient Rome, civil wars broke out whenever an Emperor died because there was no protocol for succession. In the United States, we peacefully transition power to winning Presidents, even though millions and millions of people voted against them. The losers do not rebel against the winner. They grin and bear their loss for the good of the Nation as a whole. They continue to dissent, but they accept some things as sacred. They know when and where to dissent. Even MPs in England know that.

Joe Wilson’s outburst seems to show that the losers don’t really think that way anymore. On health care, nothing is sacred. Civility is dead. Not even age-old congressional traditions and unspoken deference to the President during an official address constrain those determined to undermine ideas with which they disagree.

I have many objections about the American constitutional system. I do not shy away from expressing them. To use a hackneyed phrase, criticism is patriotic. Nonetheless, I would never get up and yell at the President, especially if I were an elected official who took an oath to serve our constitutional system. For all my sneering irony and sarcasm, I know my place. Not only that, criticism works best in private.

I do not believe that Joe Wilson is an isolated case. He spoke for a very real constituency when he yelled at the President. There are others just like him. They have even less respect for democratic traditions than Joe Wilson. They are regular guys with guns; and they do a lot more than call people liars.

This is what happens when reform-minded Presidents try to shake things up in the United States. And they weren’t even black.


SteveW said...

I don't support what Wilson did, but just for the record, the Democrats openly booed Bush during a state of the union address.

Timoteo said...

I watched the analysis of this on PBS tonight, and the consensus was that Wilson stuck his foot in his mouth there are loud calls for him to publicly apologize. An obvious black eye for the republicans, who can shoot themselves in the foot and put that foot in the mouth simultaneously.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

@ Steve: Fair enough. But I would distinguish between booing (ie, generalized disapproval concerning policy) and publicly accusing the President of lying during a speech in Congress (ie, a personal attack not necessarily involving policy).

SteveW said...

Agreed, this was more personal and worse in a certain sense. I actually think they should censure him - which doesn't really do anything anyway.

By the way - can you link the main page on my blog? You have it linked to the static arguments page, and it would be cool if you could link to the slightly less static main page. :-)