Friday, September 11, 2009

Joe Wilson and Presidential Decorum

The kerfuffle surrounding South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's health care speech seems to be devolving away from the core issue. Instead of really asking ourselves whether his behavior was appropriate, the incident has bifurcated into two separate debates; was it tactically wise in terms of money he can raise vs. money raised for his opponent, and is it justifiable because of the vitriol of the attacks launched at President Bush during his time in office.

The first seems to be a wholly separate question to me. He could have done something far more egregious (courted a white separatist group for donations a la Tony Perkins, then senatorial candidate, now head of the Family Research Council), and we could have that same discussion about tactics and their consequences. (Perkins, though not a Senator, is now arguable far more influential as a consequence of his appeals to the far-right. The same may come about for Wilson, whether this stunt costs him his job or not.)

The second question has been hijacked by the debate about whether the attacks on Bush were equally personal. In this case, the logic seems to be that if the left misbehaved, it excuses misbehavior on the right. At that point we're hardly elevating the tone of the national dialogue on an important issue. But even this poor logic overlooks an element of the discussion; is it worse to call someone a liar than to call them stupid or evil? And, more importantly, do these charges take on different moral weight if they are accurate?

During the Bush Presidency I admit I said many angry things about the man in the privacy of my own home. I am not a sitting representative, and certainly would have behaved differently in the public eye, let alone in the well of Congress. But, as a thought experiment, let's imagine that Wilson said something arguably derogatory about the President which was also demonstrably accurate. This is not the case here. A provision of the health care reform legislation which will certainly be included in any final bill will state that illegal immigrants will not be covered. I can't imagine that piece, which exist in at least one of the bills, not making it through to the final one. The contention on the right is that there is no enforcement mechanism, no demand that proof of citizenship be presented to get care. At that point, one could make a rational case that the law might need strengthening to prevent illegal immigrants from being covered, but since it explicitly states that they will not be covered, you can't reasonably call Obama a liar for stating exactly that. But what if Obama had said, "This legislation will magically turn the sky purple with pink polka-dots."? If, at that point, Wilson had shouted, "You lie!", would it be different, or does the setting prevent that from ever happening? And if it's only the setting that prevents it, would Joe Wilson have been allowed to leave the well of Congress and call the President of the United States a liar at a press conference, or chant it in a rally. I think most people would agree that, in that case, he would be getting off scott-free.

Which makes me think that the defense of the right, that people on the left made personal remarks about George Bush during his presidency, a particularly weak argument. No Democrat ever shouted anything untoward at Bush from the well of Congress during his two terms. So, already, we're dealing with something analogous to Joe Wilson making his accusation outside the building. In that case, we would want to know if liberals, like Joe Wilson in our thought experiment, might actually have been making claims which were demonstrably correct.

Now, I'm not sure if it could be proved that George Bush was either stupid or evil. I know that some attacks against him were hyperbolic (comparisons to Hitler or other Fascists when his administration only emulated some of their behaviors, but certainly not all). But when it comes to the question of his intelligence or moral character, I would argue that some of us on the left, at least, wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt out of deference to the office. Consequently, I honestly, publicly wrestled with the question of whether Bush was evil or stupid. You can find this very question in previous blog posts. In the context of Wilson's outburst, I am reminded of those posts, and of the various other liberal writers and bloggers who asked the same questions. Now I wonder if the terms are simply so broad that they can never be evaluated rationally. Somehow, I doubt that. We do believe that intelligence exists. We also believe that it's not evenly distributed. Thus, if stupidity exists, it's not necessarily inaccurate to describe someone as such. Similarly, most people, especially those on the right, believe in good and evil. If these moral qualities exist, someone could be described as evil not as an insult, but simply as an accurate description, right?

When I wrestled with these terms, I wasn't shouting at George Bush, or trying to hurt his feelings. I believed, and still believe, that he didn't have a great deal of concern for my personal opinion of him, and even if he had, I wouldn't have set out to make the man cry himself to sleep at night. Instead, I really did want to understand the motivation behind some of his decisions. I also wanted, out of deference to the office, to believe that he represented the less egregious of the two. I simply couldn't figure out which was worse.

To me, if Joe Wilson had come out of the chambers, and had told a reporter he couldn't figure out if President Obama were actively deceiving the American people or was misunderstanding the consequence of the lack of an enforcement provision in the legislation, and wanted, out of deference to the office, to presume that Obama is simply misinformed, we wouldn't have much to talk about. The setting clearly separates him from a what's-good-for-the-goose-is-good-for-the-gander defense. But. in this case, I think he's also separated by the fact that his charge of lying is obviously a personal attack, while it is possible that a question about Bush's intelligence or moral motivation could possibly be a legitimate attempt to describe and understand observable phenomenon.

I'm not trying to defend all the personal attacks made against George W. Bush. Some were just that (and some made by me, yelling at my TV). These would have no place as heckling from the well of the rotunda. But if the defenders of Joe Wilson's outburst want us to accept a tit-for-tat defense, they demand that we explore the variable that the veracity of the claims adds to the equation.

What Obama said simply can't be described as a lie. He said illegal immigrants wouldn't be covered. The bill will say illegal immigrants aren't covered. Nuance that however you want. Claim some illegal immigrants might cheat the system. Obama's statement still isn't a lie.

On the other hand, maybe George W. Bush was smart, and maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was evil, and maybe he wasn't.

Is this really a debate the defenders of Joe Wilson want us to have?


@bdul muHib said...

Hear, Hear! (Bangs shoe on desk top.)

Anonymous said...

I kind of like it. Now if only we could devolve into fisticuffs we'd be that much closer to the British Parliament... (Bill - if the comment didn't clue you in)

patsyjean said...

Love the reasoning there, Ben. If only neo-cons could use logic, they might understand what you're talking about. Sadly, it is not their strength.

patsyjean said...
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