This afternoon as I was thinking about the political scene, I suddenly remembered Joe Wilson, the Republican House member from South Carolina who vaulted himself to national notoriety by yelling “you lie” during one of President Obama’s speeches to Congress in support of his health care proposal during 2009. Congressman Wilson was rebuked by many politicians and commentators for his lack of civility during a presidential address, and he made an apology and moved on. The rebukes and the apology were appropriate. It is bad manners to shout things at speakers during public events–bad manners to the speaker, who has a legitimate desire to complete his arguments, and to the listeners, who want to hear them.
Most of the commentary at the time was about Wilson’s lack of civility, and whether this was representative of conservatism and Republicanism more generally. Very little attention was given to the question whether the president was in fact lying about some parts of the heath care proposal he was putting forward. But it turns out that it would have been helpful if the mainstream media had been as interested in the latter issue as in the former. Because now we know–and people on all sides are admitting–that the president was dishonest in his presentation of the health care law while it was pending before the Congress and the public.
Wilson shouted “you lie!” when the president said that some people were saying, but were saying falsely, that the law would extend benefits to illegal immigrants. Wilson may have been wrong to characterize that claim as a lie, but it turns out that the president was not being honest in his claim–made repeatedly and with total earnestness–that his plan would have no effect on people who were already insured, that they would be able to keep their plan and their doctor.
There is an interesting irony here. When Wilson interrupted Obama to accuse him (wrongly) of lying, Obama was in the act of complaining about other people lying about his plan, while at the same time he was evidently lying about other parts of it in other speeches.
The episode was also interesting because of the light that it sheds on contemporary liberalism’s influence on our public culture. Of course, the person primarily to blame for Wilson’s heckling was Wilson himself. At the same time, liberalism cannot disclaim all responsibility for such a thing, because it has been praising or at least tolerating such uncivil outbursts of self-righteousness for decades. The student left on certain left-leaning universities have on many occasions (even very recent ones) tried shouting down visiting speakers with whom they disagree. In general, liberalism over the last fifty years has not tended to support old fashioned respect for authority. But that decline in respect for authority makes such outbursts seem more acceptable. If undergraduates don’t have to listen respectfully to the police commissioner, then why should a congressman have to listen respectfully to the president?
You could see evidence of this, too, in the terms in which much of the left criticized Wilson. They said he was a racist. There was not much hard evidence of this (other than that Wilson is a southerner, which is evidence enough for some people), but the charge was pressed with vigor. But in a sense this charge, or something like it, had to be made, because liberalism had deprived itself of the more obvious charge: lack of respect for constituted authority. Lack of respect for authority is not a vice that contemporary liberalism takes very seriously, but racism is a vice that it does still take seriously.