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!

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

15 thoughts on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”

  1. Mark supposes his readers are idiots. I mean, are we supposed to forget the last 8 years? Should we stroll through the archives to find Mark's disrespect for the former occupant of the White House? It won't be hard to find examples. Similarly, it isn't hard to find examples of prominent Democrats calling the former occupant a "liar" and a "loser". One prominent Democrat–one who worked in the Obama White House–even accused Bush of orchestrating the murder of thousands of Americans. Mark wasn't bothered by all this, he participated in it. Now he says it's racist to treat the new occupant in a much milder manner. What a joke.

    What should we make of the outburst last night? Calling someone who is lying a liar isn't rude; it's accurate. Interrupting someone who has been invited to speak and has the floor is rude, and Wilson should apologize for that. That's the sort of misbehavior more common to the thugs on the other side, like the Obama campaign worker who interrupted McCain's speech at the convention last year. There's no reason for the right to go down that ugly and thuggish path.

    The bills allow illegals to purchase insurance on the exchange; more accurately, they require it. What the bills say is that the subsidies available to citizens aren't available to illegals (except of course whatever subsidies flow through the government option). But Mark's friends are committed to making sure that's not enforced, which is why they voted against an verification provision. The question isn't just one of perfect enforcement, but also of how to deal with families of mixed citizenship and the resulting eligibility questions. Obama took the position that asserting that illegal aliens will be allowed to purchase on the exchange and will have at least some access to subsidies–that is, asserting things that are demonstrably true-is lying, and Wilson responded by saying that lying about that is a lie. I think it's rude of Obama to call someone who's telling the truth a liar, and I think it was rude of Wilson to interrupt Obama.

    Finally, it isn't clear to me that the House rules are applicable in joint sessions. Just as Wilson can rightly call Obama a liar today, he seems to have been within the rules in calling him a liar last night.

  2. I agree with Mark's post, for all the reasons he presents. Also, if we are going to start dissing the president (as some bloggers who admire the British House of Parliament are advocatubg), don't start it now with a Democratic president. Set the start date sometime in 2016 where the insults can fall to either side (since the future is indeterminate).

  3. "Most Americans still have respect for the Presidency as a national symbol," says Mark.

    Maybe so — for small values of "most". Fifty-two percent of us voted for Obama; presumably we repect him; so if 52% counts as "most" then Mark is correct. However, a goodly portion of the 48% who voted for McCain do NOT respect "the Presidency", but only Republican presidents. My "goodly portion" is no more precise than Mark's "most", but no less, either:)


  4. I taboo against calling someone a liar in Congress goes back to the British Parliament. It is based on the notion that to lie to Parliament is a very, very serious infraction of the rules and, as a result, to call someone a liar in Parliament is to be implying that the target has broken those rules.

    In the British system, the flip side of this tradition is that if someone does lie to Parliament and this is proven then that person must immediately resign. There are numerous instances of Cabinet ministers having to resign on being discovered in a lie to Parliament.

    Supposedly the same reasoning applies to Congress.

    But both sides of the coin must be present for the rule to make sense. It is only infamous to call someone a liar if being a liar is equally infamous. This is one of the most serious sins of the Bush Presidency; seeming to make lying respectable, at least to some.

  5. When the Queen, as Head of State, opens Parliament by reading — or having read — the Queen's Speech, she is not liable to the same heckling as the PM in Question Time, even though the PM, or his staff, clearly writes the frankly partisan Queen's Speech.

    The president is both Head of State and head of the government of the day. In which capacity is he functioning when he addresses a joint session of Congress?

    I suggest the former. You may have noticed that Biden, in his Constitutional capacity as President of the Senate, and not Reid, in his partisan capacity as Majority Leader, was in the Chair with the Speaker of the House.

  6. Henry, thanks for noticing the error; "Wilson" has now been substituted for "Davis" throughout.

    Thomas, I'm sorry you don't understand the difference between the role of a blogger and the role of a Congressman participating in a ceremony.

  7. Thomas: If you are ever in a courtroom and you think you hear a witness tell a lie just jump up and yell out your oppinion and see how that works out for you.

  8. Insult has another effect, for the psychological reasons given by Mark: distraction. Here we are, writing about one yahoo rather than say a triggered public option. Wilson has weakened, a little, Obama's campaign for health care reform, whether or not he pays the price he should.

    And Thomas, courtesy is about context. I can call Rep. Wilson a yahoo here, but not if I met him at a cocktail party. If he challenged me there, I'd say (I hope) something like "I stand by what I wrote, Congressman. I think you were totally out of line."

  9. Mark, you also criticized the "teabaggers" supposed rudeness, didn't you? Didn't you draw a line from them to Wilson? Is there a difference between behavior on a blog and behavior at a protest? Isn't the real difference you're getting at the difference between rudeness you like–even rudeness you engage in here, like calling your fellow citizens "teabaggers"–and rudeness you don't like? Isn't that the lowest sort of principled difference?

    James, we're talking about Wilson because the Obama administration thinks it's to their advantage. They may be mistaken about that–thankfully, I think they are, and that this is yet another example of their hubris and misunderstanding of America. And yes, courtesy is about context. If someone says you're telling lies when you aren't, it isn't impolite to call him a liar. There's no escalation in rhetorical rudeness in that exchange. Perhaps you should take up the initial bit with Obama, and persuade him and his that his that calling his opponents liars isn't a winning tactic.

  10. Thank you, Mark Kleiman, for addressing why it felt so shocking when I heard this heckling in the moment, and how it is part of a greater campaign to delegitimize and engender disrespect for this president. I'm relieved that President Obama took command of the discussion again with his speech, and demonstrated once again much of what is best about the character of our country.

    And like thousands of other Americans, I have gone to ActBlue.com and contributed to Wilson's opponent for the 2010 election cycle as my small way of helping to be "prickly" on President Obama's behalf.

  11. Mr. Wilson isn't the first South Carolina Congressman to dramatically impinge on the decorum of the American Congress. In 1856 Preston Brooks beat the crap out of MA Senator Charles Sumner. Brooks broke his cane in the process, and was apparently sent many more as replacements by admirers. Brooks was in part showing the exact kind of disrespect for Sumner's status that Mark mentions in the post. Brooks chose to beat Sumner instead of challenging him to a duel because he did not consider Sumner a social equal. Brooks was not even censured by the House of Representatives for his conduct, and he never faced any criminal charges.

    Someone once described South Carolina as too small for a republic and too large for an insane assylum. I think that description was and is apt. Many in the state have never reconciled themselves to the fact that they live in a country that can elect people like Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama to the presidency. The psychic wounds of the mid to late nineteenth century run very deep in that place, which is both literally and figuratively a fever swamp.

  12. I assert that calling someone who is lying a liar when that someone is making a speech before a joint session of Congress might be simultaneously accurate _and_ rude. Nonetheless, Obama was not lying, and Wilson knew or should have known that.

  13. "Thus Wilson has enough of a talking point to blunt any attack on the substance."

    And kudos to you for admitting it. But no kudos for this:

    "but clearly that rule won’t be perfectly enforced, any more than the rule against hiring illegals is perfectly enforced"

    "Perfectly"? That's massively disingenuous: Our laws against hiring illegals are not subject to occasional, inadvertent failures of enforcement. They are, as everyone is aware, subject to deliberate, systematic failures of enforcement. Enforcement is a rare event, engaged in only to maintain the most threadbare illusion that the law is real. And, I suppose, to maintain enough fear among the illegals to keep them suitably quiet about any labor law violations committed against them.

    Heck, the feds get quite exercised about it if state or local governments try to enforce those rules effectively.

    The rational expectation is that any rule against providing subsidized health care to illegals will be similarly enforced almost entirely in the breach, only enough to keep the illegal population nervous enough to be worth hiring in preference to citizens.

    So, yes, Andrew, Obama was lying. He was just doing so with a very thin, lawyerly gloss of deniablity.

Comments are closed.