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Civility and Its Discontents

September 10, 2009

Pres. Obama addresses Congress on Sept. 9, 2009.

Pres. Obama addresses Congress on Sept. 9, 2009.

If you haven’t already learned the name of the person who shouted “You lie!” at the president during his address to Congress last night on the topic of health care reform, it’s Representative Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina.  His website is down at the moment, but I found his phone number and email address on another site.  Give his office a call or an email and let him know what you think of his outburst: (202) 225-2452;

Here it’s instructive, I think, to go back to something that Pres. Obama said back on Dec. 18 of last year, when asked at a press conference why he had invited Pastor Rick Warren to be a part of the inauguration ceremony.  The president answered:

… a couple of years ago I was invited to Rick Warren’s church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion.

Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak, and that dialogue, I think, is a part of what my campaign’s been all about, that we’re never going to agree on every single issue. What we have to do is create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.

Last night, toward the end of his speech, Pres. Obama returned to that theme: What is the character of America?  He said:

[Sen. Ted Kennedy’s] large-heartedness—that concern and regard for the plight of others—is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

And he continued:

[Our predecessors] knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter—that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

I fear that Rep. Joe Wilson, and the hysterical wing of the Republican party—the Limbaughs and Palins and Becks—have lost that essential something.  I don’t know.  I love the president’s rhetoric—I think it is honorable, and true, and thoroughly American—but I have begun to despair at anyone on the far right joining him in his reasonableness.  Just this past weekend I was at a wedding in the Adirondacks, and I was sitting with the father of the bride beside a campfire, and we were talking about health care, a conversation started by an article in The Atlantic that we’d both read.  Then he started talking about how Pres. Obama and the Democrats’ desire to create a supplementary “public option” health insurance plan would eventually kill off all of the private insurance companies and result in a single-payer system—which is what they have wanted all along, “because all they care about is power.”

I didn’t know what to say to him, how to refute that.  But I tried.  I pointed out Pres. Obama’s years as a community organizer, when he could have been making money and amassing “power.”  I pointed out the responsibility that we as a wealthy nation have to take care of our fellow-citizens when they get sick.  He didn’t listen, of course, and soon the conversation broke up and we went our separate ways, he I’m sure thinking I was a deluded and idealistic young person, me thinking he was nothing more than a rich, old white Republican.

We weren’t really talking, is what I’m saying.  It’s very difficult—as proven by the Republican grumbling and outbursts last night—to talk reasonably about anything political.  Everyone thinks the other side is malevolent.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this, or how to conclude it.  I suppose I just wish that the political debate in this country was more civil and less unhinged.  But, what do you expect when you have people bringing guns to town hall meetings, accusing the dominant political party of wanting to create “death panels” that would “pull the plug on grandma,” and questioning whether or not the President of the United States—probably the single person in the world about whom the most reporting and fact-finding has been done—was actually born in the U.S.

Call or email Rep. Joe Wilson.  Tell him to act like a grown-up.  Then call or email your local elected representatives—Republican or Democrat, because Democrats from conservative districts need support, too—and let them know that you support the president’s health care plan.  You can use this link to quickly find all of your elected representatives, and send them a note saying that you support health care reform. Hopefully this will get done regardless of whether or not the debate is reasonable.  I just wish that it could be.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 10, 2009 3:07 pm


    I started to make a comment on here but it got really long so I just made it a blog post of my own.

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