As we remember the victims of the attacks eight years ago, we find ourselves reaping the strange fruit of its influence on American politics.
Representative Joe Wilson turned a joint session of Congress into a brainless town hall meeting, a Mission Accomplished photo-op, and a cynical 9-11-based justification for the death of civil liberties delivered in one very tight ball of that signature GOP swill: one part cynicism, one part fear, and two parts pie-eyed dogma. And all the man did was shout.
What was it the man said? "You lie!" That's it. What immediately preceded this ejaculation was an assurance from the president of the United States that health care reform did not include free medical assistance for illegal immigrants. The assurance was true. Wilson was mistaken.
It seems reasonable to ask that this man be punished, but Rep. Wilson is not going to be forced out by the Democrats, nor even censured. That's a shame, but we're learning to expect these missed opportunities on the Left. Had a similar attack been hurled at a speechifying Republican president addressing a joint session of Congress, the offending party would be unable to secure work as a greeter at Wal-Mart before a week had passed. Wilson does not deserve to walk the halls of power in our nation's capital.
The embarrassment we should feel as a nation when the words, "You lie!" bounce around the globe reaching folks in the wealthier nations who don't equate major health problems with financial ruin the way we do here, should be keen. It can also be a learning opportunity. The episode highlights a grave and growing tendency in the United States media: going where the drama is rather than the substance around which the drama occurs.
Wednesday night's speech was classic Obama. News outlets from across the political spectrum heralded the address as a sea change in the debate about health care reform. But was it? All the media want to talk about is Wilson. Drama! Excitement! Political peril! What did the president really say? You'd never know it from the coverage, but he said very little to move the needle any closer to a public option. I agree with my colleague Megan Carpentier that we're more or less right where we were last week.
The media reacted to the evening's two great performances. The one rendered by the president got pride of place. It was very good. Then there was Rep. Wilson's outburst. It was wildly dramatic. It raised questions that people just love to discuss. Is it okay for someone to shout "You Lie!" or "Liar!" during a presidential address? (It is not allowable.) Is this the beginning of a Jerry Springer era on Capitol Hill? Have the Tea Baggers finally got their pinstripes?
Perhaps all of the above Wilson-related possibilities are true, or some of them are, or maybe I'm wholly mistaken. It doesn't really matter. The drama of 9-11 is somewhere informative here, because it gave birth to a new way of seeing an overheated news cycle, and the ways it could increase both the value of advertising inventory and the strength of a political idea in the popular imagination. It was the first time modern media (minus social networking) had a huge historical war event to play around with; it was the first time a president had modern media to launch propaganda linked to a major attack on the homeland, and everyone made hay like mad.
9-11 added exponentially to the army of news addicts cable news had been amassing since its inception two decades earlier. No one doubts that it pays to feature stories with native drama--like tea parties and shout-fests at town halls--and to keep viewers hungry for information, not about the substance underlying the situation or issue, but information that increases a sense of expectation around "recent developments" at a story's surface. The breaking news chiron is now ubiquitous, regardless what's happened "out there." Enter the hellions. The news has to make bank even if the news cycle's dead. In the case of health care reform, the crazy activist stories replace the real drama that should be occurring in Congress, where Democrats should be pulling out all the stops in a heroic battle to secure a public option that would provide health care to all Americans. The story allows a lot of garbage information into the public sphere--tea baggers, birthers, truthers, the dead forest of stupid that prevails among charismatic amateurs--and the waters are muddied, and, more often than not, the (villainous) GOP prevails.
Most people rubber neck. If it bleeds, it leads. People are attracted to the harrowing moment, the outrageous lie, the astounding feat of (fill in the blank). The problem is this: too often we focus on the "what" at the expense of the "how" and the "why." We lose the issues in the hubbub. Substance disappears in the folds of a never-ending parade of different political styles that make their bread from the dough of human emotion, not human intellect, and while this may be entertaining, it is in the process now of sending this country, and every nation attached to it culturally, to hell in a hand basket.
Joe Wilson was wrong about Obama lying. That's one problem. The second problem is this: we're spending too much time thinking about Wilson, and not enough time discussing how absurd it is that Obama and this Democratic majority can't push through a strong public option.
Now for an ancillary problem attached to Wilson's glitch. Simple math, folks. We got us here a white, no-name congressman from South Carolina (I am a Yankee who thinks "Mississippi Burning") calling an African-American president a liar during what is most assuredly his only shot at national prime time television of this magnitude ever. He stole the nation's airwaves. For that, and the larger insult, he should have to pay.
Wilson now has bragging rights and hero-status with those crazed town hallers and all the other astroturf absurdity-swilling idiots who are bounced every which way Rush Limbaugh and his ilk happen to point their foul and explosive hindquarters. I am willing to wager an impossible to prove proposition: that this no-name shlub from South Carolina would never have interrupted a white politician.
I can't prove it, just like I can't prove the withering attacks leveled by Republicans at the current Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, would be more civil were that position occupied by a man. I may be wrong about Representative Wilson's worldview, (and if I am mistaken, I apologize in a general way with no desire to go further because I still think he's pig vomit), but when I thought about what he did, and tried to find an historical corollary for it, I was reminded of those postcards southerners used to send around of themselves attending the lynching of African American men in the South, people who were executed quite often for offenses that would have ended in a fist fight, or merely the hairy eye ball aimed across the room at a cocktail party, were the crux of the matter to have been located between two white men.
It would be nice to simply point out that Wilson was wrong--no current proposal includes free health care for illegal immigrants--but the point lies elsewhere.
There have been a few notable approaches to the story. Moral cretin extraordinaire John Podhoretz is someone I never read unless I have to. The Week made me do it. I read there:
Wilson "deserves censure" for his conduct, said John Podheretz in Commentary. There's "no excuse" for interrupting the president while he's speaking to a joint session of Congress. That said, Wilson "is about to become a folk hero."
Rahm Emanuel put the thing clearly: "No president ever has been treated like that, ever."
Michelle Chen, an Air America intern who also writes for RaceWire asked, "what else besides thin air might be informing Wilson's allegation?"
What else indeed! The hidden meme here was clear as day to the people Rep. Joe Wilson was trying to reach when he stole the nation's airwaves and used them to drag the country to new lows regarding public discourse and the honor due the president. It was pitch-perfect, dog-whistle racism. For the theft of air time alone, Wilson should be sent packing. For the offense he committed against America, he should be relegated to the rubbish pile of history.
With one idiotic, calculating, despicable, sneering shout, Rep. Joe Wilson may have harmed the presidency more than Bill Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinksy and when George W. Bush squandered all the good will of the world America had garnered after the attacks of 9-11, proclaiming that Saddam Hussein needed to be deposed because the guy tried to kill his daddy.
First published on Air America.