"You lie!" Joe Wilson hollered out in the middle of Barack Obama's address to Congress. Talk of racism quickly emerged. People who hate Obama or were frightened by the thought that everyone might get health care all ran to Joe's defense. But even the Republican Party elders rebuked Joe, who then called Obama to apologize.
I hope that Joe's outburst is a harbinger of things to come. I say this for two reasons: one, presidents need to be treated more like regular people and it is time for some face to face debate.
I thought that President Clinton was great, thought President Bush was awful, and am hopeful for President Obama. But one thing they all had in common was this incredible swagger once they'd been in office for any length of time. It's hard to remember that you're just a guy when you are the leader of the free world. But Clinton screwed up (and I don't just mean with Monica), Obama is stumbling and Bush had his moments when he did the right thing. Nobody is the simple label we affix and it does no one any good to sustain the odd tendency towards deification or vilification. (After World War II, more than half of the Japanese thought that their Emperor was descended from God, or gods. An even higher percentage of Brits thought the same thing about their queen. Think we're smarter than that? The painting in the Capitol dome is of George Washington transforming into a god, titled The Apotheosis of Washington. Some part of the reptilian brain loves to deify victims and heroes. It might be the same part of the brain that loves parades.) I loved that Joe Wilson basically said, "Look, you might be president but that doesn't mean we have to applaud every inane thing you say."
And that brings me to my next point. A president makes a statement to Congress and he gets applauded throughout. Even for the most gratuitous comments. And then once the speech is over, the Republicans group over in one corner, the Democrats in another, (and Independent Bernie Sanders, presumably, goes off to play solitaire on his computer) and they reinforce the views they came in with. What's lost is the opportunity for real dialogue, for exploring alternate views while sitting face to face with each other.
After Joe Wilson's little outburst, some commentators said, "It was like British Parliament." Well, other than the wigs, I think that the spirited debate in Parliament would be the one thing that I would most want to import from Britain. Done right, spirited discussion can actually bring people together. It is one thing to disagree. It is something else entirely to not even understand or hear others.
Sadly, Joe Wilson's little outburst didn't further the idea of debate between opposing worldviews. Rather, it just led to more firmly defined lines of battle. I'm just a lowly blogger, Joe, but let me say, from the other side of the debate, that I like what you tried to do.