No doubt many RBC readers agree with Jonathan Zasloff that Rep. Joe Wilson should be criticized for saying something that wasn’t true rather than for insulting the President in a Joint Session of Congress. After all, says Jonathan, if more people had been willing to call GWB a liar, thousands of lives might have been saved.
And no doubt many more think that it’s pretty silly to be worrying about he manners of a short-horn Congressman when people are dying for lack of health care and going broke for lack of health insurance.
But to my eyes these viewpoints, with which I have emotional and intellectual sympathy, embody fundamentally false views about both human social organization and practical politics.
It all boils down to a nursery rhyme:
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names will never hurt me.
That’s sound philosophy, but lousy anthropology and worse political advice.
It’s wise to cultivate the capacity for not being emotionally bothered by insults: indifference to insult is the psychological equivalent of body armor, making you invulnerable to what would otherwise be a very damaging form of attack.
But human beings, like many animal species, are hard-wired for status competition. We have been trained to think of the wealth embodied in owning objects and financial assets as “real,” but past the subsistence level the great use of property is to acquire and maintain status. Your social capital embodies a far more important set of resources than your financial capital.
And human beings judge one another’s status – even if they learn to stop judging themselves – largely by how deferentially they see the others being treated. To say that more important people are treated more courteously than less important people is almost a tautology. (Cultural lag creates situations where people who fill formerly important roles, such as bishop or king, are treated with more elaborate deference than their actual importance justifies; even then, the entitlement to deferential treatment is an important personal resource all by itself.)
That’s the reason for all that royal ceremonial Americans, and especially sophisticated Americans, find so funny. Seeing someone treated with deference makes observers think he’s important: someone to look up to, someone it’s not safe to damage. Seeing him treated with contempt does the opposite. That’s why lèse majesté is the name of a crime and why Mafia dons and street hoods and politicians care so much about being shown “respect.” That’s why military courtesy, with its respect for rank, is such a central feature of military life. (And why some of Wilson’s fellow retired military officers were shocked at his rudeness to their Commander-in-Chief.)
Wilson’s outburst reflected – though it may not have been his conscious intention to forward – a mood on the Right in which “Obummer,” “Barry Soetoro,” “the Messiah,” “the Obamination,” isn’t really President – after all, where’s his birth certificate?- and therefore isn’t really entitled to the deference a President usually gets, even from his political enemies. If the country sees Obama being dissed with impunity, that mood gets reinforced and validated. To express an inchoate sense as a syllogism: if it’s not safe to insult the President, and if it is safe to insult Obama, then Obama must not really be President.
Being insulted in public is one form of “degradation ceremony,” and the damage it does to the status of the person insulted requires reparation, ideally by the degradation of the one who delivered the affront.
And of course Obama’s race plays into this; remember Rudy Giuliani’s reference* to David Dinkins as a “washroom attendant,” and remember who won that election. Since it’s surprising to find a black man in the White House, his grip on the respect that the office otherwise automatically generates is less secure than it would be were he white. That a former staffer for Strom Thurmond should grossly insult the first black President isn’t really surprising.
Obama has great dignity but not very much prickliness, and the country is the better off for it. But his supporters need to be prickly on his behalf. Conversely, the spectacle of Wilson in the Well of the House being scolded by the Speaker like a schoolboy who’s been throwing spitballs would be an elegant affirmation that our first black President is very much the President of the United States.
That’s one reason to make a fuss about Wilson’s rudeness, rather than the substance of his disagreement with Obama.
A second reason is that normal folks understand personal relationships much more clearly than they do policy debates, and care much more about them; that’s why People has a higher circulation than Foreign Policy.
The debate about the effect of health care reform on the availability of health coverage to illegal immigrants is both boring and technical. Yes, the Democratic bills, on their face, forbid anyone here illegally from joining the Exchanges, but clearly that rule won’t be perfectly enforced, any more than the rule against hiring illegals is perfectly enforced. Thus Wilson has enough of a talking point to blunt any attack on the substance. I disagree with Jonathan when he calls Wilson’s outburst “a lie;” I have no doubt that Wilson was being subjectively honest. Equally, Wilson had no basis for calling Obama a liar when Obama simply said what his proposed legislation does, rather than inserting a lengthy footnote about the risks of lawbreaking.
But the spectacle of one human being insulting another human being is instantly understandable to anyone above the age of four. And when voters choose politicians, and parties, perceptions of “character” count more than position papers.
Do you think that Wilson’s opponent could have raised $400,000 in 24 hours by criticizing Wilson’s policy preferences? Neither do I.
For the past forty years, the right wing has worked hard at convincing voters that liberal politicians are morally suspect, and they’ve won election after election on that claim. One of their specialties has been the three-day fuss about nothing: the Wellstone memorial service, the candidate ad in a Move-On contest likening Bush to Hitler, the “General Betray-us” ad. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fizzles (as with the “lipstick on a pig” imbroglio), but the message is always the same: Liberals, and especially liberal politicians, are bad, mean, rude, arrogant, and corrupt; they have the wrong set of values.
Most Americans still have respect for the Presidency as a national symbol. Most prefer (even if they do not always practice) good manners. So the spectacle of a Republican Member of Congress practicing bad manners toward the President on a ceremonial occasion will push them in the direction of thinking the same sort of thoughts about conservative politicians.
Moreover, though the details of Congressional procedure are too confusing for most voters to care about, the sense that too many politicians like to break the rules when they can get away with it is widespread. Not unreasonably, a voter might suspect that a Congressman who can’t keep track of his marriage vows, or writes rubber checks, also can’t be trusted with the power to make laws and, in effect, hand out money from the Treasury.
What Wilson did was clearly against the Rules of the House â – enjoining good order and forbidding some types of insult directed at the President – and opened him up to formal punishment by his colleagues. So he wasn’t merely rude, he was a rule-breaker. And his refusal to apologize to his colleagues for the disgrace he brought on the institution justifies punitive action.
I support those rules; yes, ceremonious courtesy can seem comic, viewed from the outside, and it would be great to live under a political system less tolerant of mendacity, but courtesy and civility can also be a great emollient. Moreover, the spectacle of Members of Congress acting like hooligans helps further lower the Congress in the public’s esteem. When Jason Likins writes “In other news: the House of Representatives apparently has “rules of decorum!” his snark illustrates the contempt in which unmannerly people are held. It turns out Wilson isn’t alone; another Republican simply walked out while the President was speaking.
This summer’s clown halls have illustrated the likely outcome of encouraging people to leave their manners at home when they enter the political arena. Insofar as Wilson’s rudeness can be tied back to the teabaggers’ rudeness, that will do more to damage the teabagger cause than a thousand analyses of how silly their talking points are.
The GOP pols understand this, which is why none of them is backing Wilson. Fortunately for our side, the right-wing fever swamp is full of people like Erik Erikson, completely ready to defend the indefensible and thus keep the controversy swirling. The more Joe Wilson’s name, and the clip of him yelling “You lie!” at the President, dominate this weekend’s news, the better.
* Update Misattributed. Thanks to a reader for the correction.
Second Update Maureen Dowd agrees:
What I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!