Thursday, September 10, 2009

Joe Wilson's War

OK, let's get this straight. Joe Wilson (R-SC) made himself look like an idiot when he shouted "You lie!" in the middle of Obama's speech last night. For one thing, it's a rule of Washington etiquette to not interrupt the President when he's speaking. For another, the section he chose to yell at - a part of Obama's speech in which he said that his health-care bill does not include benefits for undocumented immigrants - was not an opinion or a stretched truth but an absolute fact. It'd be like a kindergartener shouting "You lie!" at the teacher who just said that two plus two equals four.

But somehow I just can't bring myself to be anything more than amused at the whole thing. See, if this had occurred in Britain, it wouldn't have even been remarkable. I mean, have you ever seen question time? Heckling is a way of life there.

Here's the thing. In the name of "civility" we have condemned anyone who dares speak a contrarian point of view in a somewhat unorthodox manner. Journalists love calling partisans on both sides uncivil. Problem is, those partisans frequently have a point, and by condemning protests we narrow the range of debate so much that we start to crowd out alternative viewpoints. The fact that Wilson's outburst was just plain wrong is not the point. Anyone with an Internet connection and the slightest ability to do research can ferret that out. But by forcing artificial rules of "civility" on people, we allow actual honest-to-God lies and distortions from the powerful to go unquestioned and unpunished.

Let's look at it this way. What if a Democratic Congressperson had yelled out "You lie!" in response to Bush's claim that Saddam had WMDs, or that he was responsible for 9/11? Wouldn't we on the left consider that a good thing? It would have been a challenge to Bush's obvious lie, whereas Democrats keeping to these artificial rules of civility allowed Bush to say these things pretty much unchallenged.

So while I'll condemn Wilson for being stupid and wrong, I just can't condemn Wilson for speaking his mind in a manner that contradicts established rules of etiquette, which seems to be the consensus condemnation of the day. He didn't prevent Obama from finishing his thought or actively prevent others from hearing what Obama had to say (unlike, say, the town-hall protestors who have frequently done just that to their Congresspeople). In his mind, he saw bullshit and called it. While Wilson's bullshit meter is apparently broken, I just don't think we ought to be too hard on someone for using theirs.

Of course, this doesn't make Wilson immune from mockery. Such is the lot of the protestor whose position is ill-thought-out...


Miguel said...

I think the "You Lie" might have been more appropriate after Obama claimed he could enact his plan without adding one dime to the deficit. Because that was certainly the most blatant falsehood that came out of his mouth last night.

But leave it to republicans to get hung up on their silly pet issues rather than the stuff that matters.

Mike said...

No kidding. I love how some liberals are now using Wilson's outburst as representative of the entire Republican party.

In general, I'm a fan of the relative civility shown during presidential speeches, as it shows a healthy respect for the office and an elected representative of the people. (Though I do wonder if the respect for the office allows it to get away with too much. No, I don't wonder, I know.)

And yes, Miguel, the constant claims that we're somehow gonna manage to enact this sweeping health care reform and not drive us further into debt are laughable at best.

Ben said...

Jeff - it seems to me you don't reject rules of civility. You simply have different rules of civility: It's okay to heckle someone as long as others get to hear what the person you're heckling has to say. I'm sure the town-hall protesters believed they were calling bullshit on congresspeople and that accusations that THEY were uncivil were simply attempts to muzzle dissent. What's the difference?