It has been said that civility is an excellent conversation stopper. And it can be, because demanding civility has been a way to control or limit the voice of alterity or the unprivileged. When it comes to Joe Wilson’s now-infamous shouted remark at the joint session, the question arises as to whether the tone or style of this act was the important issue, or whether the meaning or content of what he said … the truth of his “You lie!” … is what should be focused on. In my view, the answer is: Both, neither, and you are missing the point.
I offer the following:
1) His incivility at this time was uncalled for and inappropriate. Those who wish to defend incivility (myself included) must do so intelligently, not blindly. Uncalled for and inappropriate incivility should be identified as such, and those who carry it out should be chastised. His incivility was a distraction, quite possibly calculated, offensive, and he should be willing to take the heat for it. This may seem like a contradiction. I will elaborate below. Yes, this will be hard.
2) There is no doubt that Joe Wilson has it wrong, and his wrongness is part of the wider Republican disrespect for the truth. It is easy in many instances to separate veracity from presentation, but worrying about that in this debate is our own self-imposed distraction. The right wing is systematically and strategically smearing the distinction between form and content for the purpose of keeping their argument afloat. They are not distinguishing between bald-faced lies designed to engender fear and loud-mouthed screaming also designed to engender fear. The liberal intelligentsia can speak for eternity on the validity of the argument vs. the style, the ad hominem vs. the rhetorical statement, and thus, do little more than play into this strategic distraction. Get over it. Everything they are doing is wrong. There is no right-wing/left-wing symmetry.
3) The argument between form and content ignores the ugly underlying reality: Joe Wilson’s outburst was principally an act of racism.
The assumption that civility is always bad is, of course, absurd, and I find it funny (not ha ha funny) that some of the least civil voices on the internet are often rather privileged individuals who seem mostly to use incivility for self-empowerment. Loud, screaming, (usually) white privileged (usually) males should really be more civil, n’est pas? But it is in the interest of those who uncritically use and promote incivility to paint all similar behaviors with the same color. It is a good crutch, it requires little thought, and if someone comes along and offers an alternative perspective, you just yell at them and call them an asshat.
(I hope I’m not being uncivil when I say that.)
In any event, it has been suggested that the civil vs. un-civil debate can be explored in reference to Joe Wilson’s outburst in congress. Maybe, but probably not. There are several reasons why this is not an example that one might want to pick to better understand modulating civility level in general discourse. Joe Wilson is a highly privileged individual who does not need to scream or taunt the speaker to get his voice heard. In the hands of the powerful, incivility is not a tool to alleviate repression. Rather, it is a bludgeon to keep down the repressed. In this debate, we are talking about adequate health care for people who do not have that now, and we are probably talking about very wealthy individuals and corporations being forced to profit less, or less easily, from that disparity. Those who argue that Wilson’s incivility should be ignored, and only the content of the message explored, probably have a reasonable, paid-for health care plan and should be just a little ashamed of themselves.
Wilson’s incivility was institutionally inappropriate in several ways. In other words, his outburst was against the rules. Well, incivility in the name of lifting the burden of repression on the huddled masses usually breaks the rules, and that is the whole point. But this is not what happened in the joint session.
Joe Wilson is a member of two institutions that officially rule against his incivility. He is a certified member of the South Carolina National Guard. Screaming, “You lie,” to President Obama is the same exact thing as screaming something similar to his commanding officer in the Guard during a speech by said commanding officer, a court-martial-able offense. Joe Wilson is also an elected member of the House of Representatives. When he screamed out his missive during the president’s talk, he certainly broke one, probably two, maybe three of the agreed-upon rules of the chambers. Not obscure rules no one knows about, but rules that are reviewed and re-initiated annually, and that the members of the House adhere to daily as part of their jobs. Again, this is a system he voluntarily participates in, and in particular (unlike the military system), a system that has rules specifically designed to eliminate privilege within the chamber. Or at least formalize privilege to previously agreed-upon categories, such as “chair” and “speaker” and so on. Joe Wilson was not expressing or representing a subaltern voice that would otherwise ever be repressed. Rather, he was acting against rules he signed on to, and making an utter ass of himself in the process.
His position in these institutions gives him power, the appearance of credibility (which he may or may not earn up to), and he would be the first to defend this power base and to tell others to respect it. The problem is, he broke several rules in systems of which he is part and is clearly not prepared to admit that conflict or take the consequences of his action. He wants to wear the cloak of institutional power, but he is not willing to suffer his own offense.
I’m not going to say much about the truth of his statement here. Clearly, he was wrong. Beyond that, the issue is more complex than he has suggested subsequently. Most Americans do want a public option, but if asked, most Americans do not want this bill to hand out free health care to non-citizens. In truth, health care is provided to non-citizens already, but in the most expensive way possible. I think most people would agree that the issue is not one of how to reform health insurance, but rather how to reform immigration policy. But screaming that statement about that issue during the joint session was not about the consideration of the laws that may apply. It was about generating fear. The message and the modality were one. Again, we can debate forever the validity of the slap in the face during a discussion, but as we do so, the empowered right wing operatives will continue with this very effective mix of strategies.
Anyone who is even vaguely aware of the situation … of Wilson’s background, of the nature of politics in South Carolina, of the recent demeanor of the right wing, and so on, knows that in no small way, this outburst was a traditional white racist telling the black man to shut up.
(No, I will not be addressing comments on how I’m playing the “race card” with these remarks. If that is your main response to this, then you have surely been left in the dust of the fast-moving events of recent days. Buy yourself a couple of current newspapers, find a coffee shop, sit down, and educate yourself.)
This would be less of an argument if Joe Wilson were not a member of the SCV, and if he did not involve himself in keeping the racist Dixie Flag flying in South Carolina, and so on. But he is and he did.
Indeed, South Carolina has a history that is ironic in its connection to the present case. Charles Sumner was a leading abolitionist (that is a person against slavery) from Massachusetts. In 1852, Sumner brought the issue of slavery to the Senate floor in a speech that reflected his prior published writings. South Carolina Senator Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery racist, confronted Sumner at a time when the chamber was mostly empty (Preston had a couple of friends with him) and beat Sumner severely with a metal-clad cane. The beating was so severe that Sumner’s chamber desk under which he was trapped came unbolted from the floor. Sumner, bleeding, fell unconscious, but Brooks kept up the beating until his cane was too broken to continue. Meanwhile, as help arrived, one of Preston’s buddies kept those who might intervene away while brandishing a pistol.
The beating of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks over the issue of Slavery is not funny.
It took Sumner three years to recover from this attack, owing to serious head trauma and other problems. Preston was lauded as having been properly and appropriately uncivil by his racist southern colleagues. Famously, he was mailed dozens of canes as gifts after the incident.
Joe Wilson is a racist, anti-American, anti-health pig and should be voted out of office. His outburst should not be proffered as a starting point for a discussion of subaltern empowerment. He should, and probably will, be censured. He was wrong in his content and his style, is message and his medium, his details and his demeanor. Except maybe in Bizarro Land where everything is opposite.
Indeed, any conversation about Wilson’s outburst that ignores the racialized side of this is playing into the hands of the “race-card-card” players. If that is the way you want to have this conversation, you may want to rethink. Or just think. And I say this with all due respect.
And now, for a little more history lesson that you may be ready for: