Not so long ago, Rep. Joe Wilson’s verbal assault on the president – “You lie!” – might have produced a much different outcome.
Instead of the U.S. House rebuking Wilson, we might be entertaining the prospect of a duel.
In early America, calling someone a liar wasn’t a childish insult, but a direct challenge to one’s honor, an appropriate response to which varied by region. Where dueling was common – as in Wilson’s home state of South Carolina – so were insults.
Here’s how an 1882 New York Times article described the thinking of the time as it related to a Mr. John Goode, who had called a certain Mr. Bailey a liar.
Writing that “Nothing but blood can wipe out this insult,” the author noted that although the laws of chivalry were supposed to be dominant, “language used in attacking individuals is much more gross and insulting than in regions where the duel is not invoked as the final arbiter betwixt the man who has been insulted and the defamer.
“In the North, we are supposed to be a lily-livered and pusillanimous race. Yet we very much question if any legislator or public man would dare to denounce another as ‘a liar.’ Nevertheless, in the South, where the code of honor prevails, the exchange of such epithets is possible, and the men who fling these names at each other live and prosper.”
Last week, I spoke too soon when I wrote that Wilson might have lost his audience through his boorishness. Projection will get you in trouble every time. Instead, Wilson has become a cult hero, rolling in dough. Both he and his opponent, Rob Miller, reportedly have raised more than $1 million each since Wilson’s eruption.
Who would have thought that a congressional race in South Carolina could become a referendum on the Obama administration? Two relative unknowns suddenly personify two dueling worldviews: The You-Liars vs. The Truthers. Death Panelists vs. Hopers-Changers.
As Americans have picked their side of civilization’s breach the past few days, some have justified Wilson’s words because they think they were true. Sure, one can make a slim case that some of Obama’s assertions weren’t 100 percent accurate, but Wilson’s behavior can’t be justified. It isn’t done. Period.
And why not? Because civilization is a fragile and delicate idea, held together by a few mere threads, bound together by little more than a wisp of mutual consent. Frays in those threads are daily apparent – from the rude tantrum of Kanye West at the Video Music Awards to the profane threats of tennis star Serena Williams when she disagreed with a line call.
Across the spectrum of society, people are behaving badly. Even those at the very top of their games, who enjoy wealth and status, no longer can be relied on to carry the standard of exemplary behavior. If ever there were one place we might hope to find people of respectful temperament, it would be where those elected to govern convene to hear the president.
Summation: People in positions of power and privilege have a duty to perform at a higher level. If not they, then who?
To settle the question of whether the president spoke inaccurately when he said nothing in “our reform effort” would pay for illegal immigrants or abortion, the answer, like H.R. 3200, is not simple. What’s true is that the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service concluded that nothing in H.R. 3200 precludes illegal immigrants from buying public insurance on the proposed Health Insurance Exchange. And, as fact-checking groups have confirmed, there’s wiggle room in the bill whereby public subsidies could be used to purchase insurance that covers abortions.
The Senate Finance Committee has tried to iron out these wrinkles in its version of the bill, but wrinkles they are – hardly cause for Wilson’s emotional display. If one were inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt, he was speaking of reform efforts, not a specific bill. In so doing, he created a political problem for himself because none of the bills thus far comes close to matching his rhetoric.
Meanwhile, there are myriad ways for a congressman to voice objection to the president’s ideas or his colleagues’ proposals. But dueling has been out of style for quite some time, even in South Carolina. If our will to self-govern is to prevail, then incivility will have to become equally unfashionable.