Friday, September 11, 2009

A Not-So-Brief Thought on Congressman Wilson

There isn't much that I can say about Joe Wilson - the South Carolina Congressman who rudely interrupted President Obama's health care address by shouting out "You lie!" - that hasn't already been said. Even so, I shall reiterate the most basic and obvious points:

1) His actions constitute a galling breach of political decorum. No matter how unpopular a sitting president may be with the opposition party, no commander-in-chief in modern history has had to deal with heckling while addressing a joint session of Congress. Just to put this in perspective: In 1974, when President Richard Nixon addressed a predominantly Democratic Congress that was determined to put him in jail, he did not have to endure heckling; in 1999, when President Bill Clinton addressed a predominantly Republican Congress that was likewise determined to throw him behind bars (or at least remove him from office), there were no hecklers; and in 2007, when a Congress that had just been reclaimed for the Democrats after fourteen years of Republican rule was forced to listen to President George W. Bush defend his bloody and costly Iraq war policies, there were no hecklers. Indeed, the last president to be heckled while addressing a joint session of Congress was in fact the very first president - George Washington, who was so outraged at the abysmal reception he received at the hands of federal legislators that he swore to never directly address either branch of Congress again. From that day forth he submitted his State of the Union addresses in writing rather than in person, a tradition that was continued by the next twenty-seven presidents until Woodrow Wilson (a staunch admirer of the British parliamentary system) decided to end it in 1913. Since that time, American presidents have been treated with the utmost respect when delivering addresses to Congress, if for no other reason than they are technically not obligated to say anything to them at all.

2) Representative Joe Wilson was wrong. Not simply wrong in the sense that he behaved like a loudmouthed boor, but wrong in the sense that the position he was taking was at severe odds with the facts. To better demonstrate how this is so, let us revisit that now infamous moment in presidential oratorical history:
OBAMA: There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.
WILSON: You lie!
OBAMA: It's not true.
Now here is a passage from the proposed health care bill. It refers to "Individual Affordability Credits" (i.e, the means through which those who cannot afford private insurance can be made eligible for a government insurance):
Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States.
In short, Joe Wilson accused President Obama of being a liar when Obama was, in fact, telling the truth.

To these two ridiculously self-evident observations, I would like to add a couple of my own:

1) Racism is the only possible motivation for Wilson's actions, and to suggest otherwise is either naive or willfully ignorant. No matter how acrimonious the relationship between a president and his congressional opposition has been in the past, this is the first time in American history that a sitting commander-in-chief has had to endure heckling not from an inflamed public, but from his own colleagues in Washington. Considering that his policies are hardly more left-wing than those that have been proposed by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton (all presidents who never had to endure the indignity of being heckled while delivering a joint congressional address), the only other plausible reason why he received this treatment is because he, unlike his predecessors, is black. The fact that Joe Wilson is a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, a right-wing organization rumored to include the involvement of the KKK, makes this plausibility into a probability.

2) We need to actively condemn those who wish to promulgate ideas based on falsehoods. The current political and cultural climate in America is one that believes that everyone has the right to express whatever opinion they wish, and that it is not only wrong but un-democratic to question their right to say it. Well, this is true - all Americans DO have the inalienable right to assert their points-of-view without fear of persecution. Yet somewhere along the way, we as a society began to believe that the right to "free speech" meant the right to "free speech without having anyone challenge the legitimacy of your opinions". This societal error is not only erroneous, but downright dangerous, for two reasons:
a) It allows opinions that are based on falsehoods to be given the same weight among the general public as opinions that are based on fact, thereby muddying our culture's ability to come to intelligent conclusions about the world in which we live.
b) It intimidates people who wish to point out factual errors in the assertions of the factually challenged from actively doing so, out of fear that they will be accused of being "oppressors" or trying to violate other people's right to free speech.

Because the idea that all opinions are made equal has become so widespread, the consensus view on Joe Wilson's outburst is that he was guilty of social impropriety but that the veracity of what he said merits further discussion. It does not merit any further discussion, and any journalist who does not preface an article about Joe Wilson's comment with the explicit mentioning of its indisputable inaccuracy is unforgivably derelict in his or her duties to the American people. As I have said before, No good is done by having truth and lies occupy the same rhetorical ground and forcing them to compete with each other for survival; the lies will always have an unfair edge, for they can mutate in form and substance any time they want and perform all sorts of nifty sneak attacks that truth - which by its very nature pursues an honorable course - cannot. Truth will then inevitably be taken advantage of, to the detriment of both itself and its natural corollary, justice.

This is an issue that transcends Wilson's juvenile outburst. It encompasses the willingness of the media, political pundits, and even elected officials to take seriously charges that President Obama is a secret Muslim or that he was not born in the United States. It has provided comfort and support to those who wish to make the public skeptical of absolute truths so as to promote their political agendas, such as Dr. Caroline Crocker, who tried to teach creationism as a lecturer at George Mason University, and David Irving, who has made a career denying the Holocaust, and Noam Chomsky, who attempts to advance his anti-American Communist ideology by minimizing and/or denying the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Most disturbingly, it has been used to undermine much needed health care reform that could help guarantee the God-given right to "life" to all of America's citizens (and for those who want to extend this to incorporate an anti-abortion position, I have a rebuttal here:

If conservatives have legitimate concerns about Obama's proposed health care reform legislation, then they have every right to be taken seriously when they bring it up. Yet when they actively promote arguments based on lies (which is a fact, and not just my personal opinion) - such as by claiming that the bill includes a death panel, that it would cut Medicare benefits, that it would deny coverage to the disabled, and yes, that it would cover illegal immigrants on the taxpayers' dime - they need, not only for the sake of the quality of our national dialogue but for the sake of real health care reform, to be treated with universal contempt.

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