Friday, September 11, 2009

Yelling at the President

As much as it might be good for a few laughs to mock Joe Wilson's boorish buffoonery, Glenn Greenwald is right. During the last eight years the president was treated by his flock as monarchy. This would also be laughable if it weren't for the reality that this had concrete results such as in actions the administration took where criticism was silenced as disrespectful and impolite, or in Cheney's attempt to eviscerate congressional checks on the Executive. Joe Wilson's outburst is hardly shocking in this context, or in the context of the wildly paranoid claims we've been hearing from the right for the past few months. But just as Bush obviously wasn't royalty, neither is Obama. Lefties are probably by definition less inclined to think such things, but it bears reminding anyway.
Eugene Robinson today absurdly calls the GOP's disrespectful behavior at Obama's speech "un-American." Right-wing contempt for Obama is often petty, deeply emotional and ugly -- just like right-wing leaders themselves. But the demand that the President be venerated and treated as royalty is far more "un-American" than disruptive transgressions of etiquette. Wilson's heckling was juvenile and dumb, but that's all it was. If only a fraction of the media dismay devoted to his two-second breach of "decorum" had been directed to, say, rampant presidential lawbreaking, or the implementation of a torture regime, or the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people in our various wars, we would be much better off. The American Right is indeed dominated by crazed extremists who often seem barely in touch with basic reality and who are at war with core American political values, but Joe Wilson's irreverence is one of the least significant examples of that, if it's one at all.
And then this common observation:
As long as one adheres to Beltway decorum, one can advocate the most amoral and even murderous policies without any repercussions whatsoever; it is only disruptive and impolite behavior that generates intense upset. Beltway culture hates "incivility" (public use of bad words) but embraces full-scale substantive indecency (torture, lawbreaking, unjustified wars, ownership of government by corporations, etc.).
If you've spent significant time in the city, you know it's unfair to constantly lump everyone who lives in DC under the pejorative "Inside the Beltway." Yet, when you come to live here in DC, you get this point pretty quickly about its political/media side: decorum trumps substance. The most respected of political commentators, policy experts, etc. are those members of the species who exhibit the seemingly grandest propriety.

This fact echoes philosopher Harry Frankfurt's famous definition of bullshit (in the 1986 essay, "On Bullshit") as that which is neither telling the truth nor lying (which, by definition, requires an awareness of what the truth actually is), but which is, rather, speech and character entirely indifferent to truth/falsity. The bullshitter has no interest in how things really are.

Sarah Palin is perhaps its current poster child because it's so transparent in her case. Her speech struggles and ultimately fails to construct, or at least seed, that blessed image of decorum. Her speech fails her because its randomly scattered assertions and self-flattery have few anchors in reality to help organize them into some coherence.

More importantly, however, bullshit also operates in subtle and insidious ways that often go viral. Washington decorum may be one instance. Both decorum and bullshit serve to create a sphere of activity in which potentially anything is acceptable as long as it's said or carried out with the proper, monarchical decorum. We've had enough of that. But, frankly, we've also had far more than enough of the shouting.

UPDATE (9/13):

Important point from John McKay:
What struck me was the point that brought Wilson to his feet. The Republicans and Blue Dogs object to many aspects of the proposed reforms, and some object to the very idea of health care reform. There are lots of points for differing opinions, interpretations, and preferred solutions. The one that caused Wilson to be overcome with emotion was the very idea that undeserving others might be taken care of when they get sick. This level of meanness has always lain deep below the surface of conservatism. It doesn't often come into the light like this.


troutsky said...

It's all in the context of the "town halls". I think a discussion on civility could prove interesting but more interesting would be a real examination of the health care amendments the nuttos keep citing regarding aliens.

helmut said...

Well, I agree, you know. But we can help carve a path through the jungle of sturn und drang to the clearing of actual policy discussions.

Unfortunately, to some degree this ends up being reactionary in the sense that the right creates a really unhelpful and wasteful shouting match that serious policy discussants then have to wade through and help others wade through.

MT said...

It's fair and productive to express outrage when it is sincere and to the point. Wilson's sounds staged and bratty. To civility, how about we add sincerity and good faith? Sometimes it's hard to know how stupid a person is being, or what they need explained, until we see what makes them angry. At least, in a natural argument or fight. Nowadays what we see in public is more like jousting. It's debauched.