September 13, 2009

Joe Wilson: Reality and Civility

The Honorable Joe Wilson of South CarolinaImage by Mike Licht, via Flickr

If you read yesterday's post about Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) being the idiot of the week, you may assume that I think he should apologize to his peers in Congress, something he is under tremendous pressure to do. However, you would be wrong. I do not believe Rep. Wilson should have to apologize to anyone unless he decides that he wants to do so. I also disagree with those on the left who seem determined to make Wilson's outburst about Obama's race, although I do acknowledge that it fits into the broader critique of Obama that does appear to be race-related.

In parsing Rep. Wilson's outburst and the varied reactions to it, I find two issues worth addressing: civility in political discourse and the interface of reality and politics. Aside from these two areas, I am content to ignore the entire spectacle.

Let's start with the easier of the two issues, the role of reality in politics. As I have argued previously, I believe that U.S. politics desperately needs a dose of reality. Political propaganda is absolutely toxic to democracy, and it should not be tolerated from either party. Rep. Wilson's mistake was that he accused the President of lying when he was not in fact lying. In other words, Wilson was wrong. Loudly and uncivilly wrong to be sure, but it is the wrong part that matters most.

I was disappointed by Obama's bluff that he will "call out" those who spread lies about whatever health care bill emerges from Congress. I do not believe this for a second. He's already shown me that he lacks even a basic willingness to stand for justice against those who tortured in our names. Until he rectifies this, I do not expect him to be a moral actor. But more to the point, the responsibility of calling out those who spread lies, misinformation, and other forms of propaganda is a responsibility we all share. I may not care whether Obama calls anyone out, but I care deeply whether the rest of us do so. When someone spews lies, including those cloaked in religious garb, they must be called out.

The second issue, that of civility in political discourse, is admittedly more complex. The argument from free speech has great appeal even if it seems somewhat naive. Let Rep. Wilson say what he wants, and let his critics respond as they wish. Out of the debate, truth will emerge. The slippery slope claim also holds appeal. By allowing our political discourse to become decreasingly civil, are we not opening the door to the end of meaningful debate? Imagine that what began at the Palin rallies and has now devolved into teabagging, "birthers", and "deathers" continues unabated. Should this continue to bleed into Congress, it is difficult to imagine our fragile democracy surviving.

Of course, the counterarguments are compelling too. Perhaps if we had seen more incivility during the Bush years, we wouldn't be in the mess in which we now find ourselves. Perhaps if the Democratic Party had grown a pair during this time, they'd now be able to lead competently! And doesn't all this whining about incivility make us sound like a bunch of...(gasp)...Christians?

Yeah, I can see both sides of this one quite clearly. So, how to I come down? In the particular case of Rep. Wilson, I am not bothered by the incivility he demonstrated during his outburst. On the other hand, I think we should all ask ourselves about the purpose of political discourse and debate. If we believe that it functions to move us closer to the truth, then I think it is appropriate to expect at least a minimal level of civility. If, however, we no longer care about approaching the truth - if we care more for being heard without regard to how wrong what we have to say might be, then it is indeed bedtime for democracy.

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