Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mr. Wilson's Breach of Decorum

Far too much has been said already about this Representative's outburst during President Obama's speech the other night. I wouldn't add to it were it not for the fact that much of what is being said is so ... shallow and ignores the fundamental issue that Mr. Wilson's behavior raises.

It's the character issue, of course. No one likes this subject because even most of those who write about this stuff don't like to be held accountable for their lack of it. But this needs to be said, whether anyone likes it or not.

First, character really is important. Before a watching world, populated in part by young, impressionable school children, a man elected to high government office shouted at the President (who had the floor) and called him a liar. To President Obama's eternal credit, he displayed for the watching world the good character to ignore the outburst and move on with the important business at hand. Mr. Wilson's statement was disrespectful, to say the least. And let's make sure that we understand that when Mr. Obama used the "lie" word, with respect to untruths circulating about his health care plan, he did not name names or impugn the character of any individuals. And on the other hand, he was careful to give credit for the ideas he was presenting to those who deserved it (including his rival for the Oval Office, Mr. McCain.)

What people in high places do sets the tone for our entire society. If we cannot model healthy discourse before a watching world, particularly the younger and more impressionable part of it, then we have already lost the battle for the future. Unfortunately, we've come to expect disrespectful talk from rappers, late-night talk show hosts, self-styled political pundits and the like. So its no surprise that elected officials are getting into the act. Mr. Obama, in contrast to Mr. Wilson, was an example of how to make a strong, forceful statement without being personally disrespectful.

Now the free-speech lobby will have a hey-day with that. They don't think it right to impede speech of any kind. So let's move on.

Second, the reasons Mr Wilson's outburst is an example of bad character go far beyond the issue of disrespect. His friends could argue, "Well, it's true. Obama is lying." Well, let's suppose thy could prove that (I don't for one minute believe they can, but let's just suppose, for sake of argument.) What of it? The House rules specifically forbid any House member to call the sitting President a liar in the House chamber. It's a breach of House decorum. Mr. Wilson and all his colleagues swore — they took an oath — to abide by the rules of the House. For that and that alone, the House was bound by oath to discipline Mr. Wilson (it should have been a unanimous vote) and, if he were a man of good character, he would accept the rebuke and apologize to his colleagues for breaking the rules to which they all solemnly agreed. We're not big on oaths today. We're not bound by our word anymore. But people of good character are. If we care about our future, so should we all be bound.

Here, we also go beyond the issue of character to the issue of respect for law — something we have far too little of these days. If you want your constituents to respect and abide by the laws you create, then Mr. Wilson, you first must set an example. You didn't, and you owe your colleagues and the American people something better.

Third, Mr. Wilson's behavior made yet another large contribution to America's truly pathetic addiction to "15 minutes of fame." Mr. Wilson's behavior deserved to be ignored during the speech, disciplined quickly afterward and briefly mentioned on the news the next day. But Mr. Wilson has become a star. The media made him one, and the surge in his campaign coffers the next few days indicated that the cult of celebrity, even negative celebrity, has permeated just about every walk of American life. Why should anyone be respectful or follow rules of civil discourse when it's far more effective to be infamous for disrespect? (The only bright side to the news on this was that Mr. Wilson's opponent raised more money. I guess that's something.)

The media decision makers share a large proportion of the blame here. Pundits (left and right) have had a field day with this adolescent outburst, and news editors have allowed coverage of Mr. Wilson's new found right-wing stardom to overshadow coverage (again, as they did with the town hall disruptions, earlier) of the substantive issues Mr. Obama was attempting to address. The American people deserve something far better than this, too.

Mr. Wilson now joins the guy who who threw his shoes at President Bush in the negative celebrity Hall of Fame. The message to our kids? Being bad works. Disrspect sells (look at the multi-millionaire rappers, for example.) Disrupt a town hall meeting. Shout obscenities during speeches. Tell your teacher to go to hell. That'll show 'em.

And when you "grow up," you can graduate to taking a semi-automatic to a high school library or flying an airplane into a tall building.

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