Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Mr. Wilson didn’t say

When South Carolina Republican Rep. Joseph Wilson shouted “You lie!” at President Obama last Wednesday, during a joint session of Congress watched by 32 million Americans and millions more around the globe, it was an unwelcome display of partisan cheek. People and politicians on either side of the aisle seemed to agree on that much immediately; indeed, Arizona Sen. John McCain was one of the first Republicans out of the gate, ready to run the chastising machine, demanding that Wilson, his colleague, apologize to Obama shortly after the president’s address.

Democratic leaders, most vocally House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, plan a House vote this week to admonish Wilson if he doesn’t formally apologize on the House floor.

That it was a case of toweringly bad manners is obvious. But there’s a deeper subtext to Wilson’s heckling. A study of Wilson’s voting patterns on discrimination-related legislation, and a look at how racism itself has evolved in America, strongly suggest race was at the heart of his outburst, just as race has been at the root of efforts by conservative extremists and their enablers to paint the new president as an outsider, an accidental leader — “the other.”

What Joe Wilson said was bad enough; it’s what he didn’t say that raises other, deeper national questions.

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Listening to Wilson’s day-after explanation reveals that his apology really wasn’t his apology. Pigeonholed by reporters on Thursday, Wilson said he had been contacted “by the leadership” and instructed to apologize to the president. Implicit in that statement: this wasn’t his idea; he was apologizing under orders from the Republican leadership, apparently making a gesture of contrition he wouldn’t have made on his own.

Wilson’s tirade has caught the attention of scholars, two of whom detect the wider social pattern beyond Wilson’s flash of temper.

“[T]he consistent branding of President Obama as ‘other’ by his opponents has created a context within which it is perceived that Obama need not be treated as other presidents have been treated,” wrote Stephen Maynard Caliendo, a professor of political science at North Central College, and Charlton McIlwain, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. “The creation of that ‘otherness,’ while possibly motivated by racial animosity, is certainly rendered more effective as a result of deeply held negative predispositions about African Americans. …”

“So we need not know Congressman Wilson's heart to know that his behavior is reflective of a broader racist criticism of President Obama.”

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Not that Wilson hasn’t provided ammunition for making that assumption. There’s the matter of his personal associations. He didn’t mention it recently, but Wilson is now or has been a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an increasingly confrontational Southern heritage organization that favors secession, condemns interracial unions, and defends slavery as a biblical sanction. The Southern Poverty Law Center noted a shift in the group’s philosophy toward racial extremism back in 2006.

And then there’s Wilson’s voting record to be reckoned with. According to On the Issues.org, the Web site that monitors congressional votes, Wilson voted against prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation. Wilson co-sponsored a bill that would declare English to be the United States’ official language, voted in the affirmative to build a fence along the Mexican border; and the congressman (in an action that puts last week’s outburst into context) supported legislation that would have reported illegal aliens who receive hospital treatment.

It would be some perverse comfort if Wilson’s slander of the president of the United States was an isolated thing. But his outburst has its disturbing parallels elsewhere in the country.

Recently, a video posted on YouTube, one that received thousands of reactions, showed Pastor Steven L. Andersen of the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., conducting a rant disguised as a sermon. “I hate Barack Obama,” the pastor says on the video, “and I’m gonna prove this from the Bible tonight why I should hate Barack Obama, why God wants me to hate Barack Obama, why God hates Barack Obama.”

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Ironically, that sense of “other” cultivated by conservatives has been assisted by the mainstream media. Earlier this year, CNBC’s Jim Cramer, host of the “Mad Money” program, referred to Obama as a “Bolshevik” who is “taking cues from Lenin.”

And Last November, about ten days after Obama was inaugurated, the Associated Press, the world’s leading newsgathering organization, announced a change in its style of first-reference address of the American president.

Previously, The AP ruled that the last name appended to the word “President” was enough to identify the leader of the United States. The first name was deemed unnecessary, maybe as a way of reflecting a kinship or a national familiarity with the leader of this country. For Americans, The AP long reasoned, the last name was enough.

The AP’s new style rule is that the U.S. president be fully identified — President Barack Obama — on first reference, along with the names and titles of other world leaders.

The AP’s decree arrived with, at the least, a curious timing. Coming days after the most dramatic and possibly transformative evidence of American exceptionalism, the world’s biggest global news operation adopted a style policy that homogenizes the perception of our nation’s leader, flattens the distinction between the chief executive of the United States and other leaders.

The AP’s new first-reference rule may have been intended to foster a sense of global unity in how it addresses world dignitaries. But because of it, there’s nothing to distinguish the leader of this country as first among equals. That distancing effect — that breaking with the past familiar titular relationship with our top national leader — reinforces the ambience of “otherness” that led, directly or indirectly, to Wilson’s outburst on Wednesday night.

With two words, Joe Wilson spoke volumes last Wednesday. But that’s the topsoil. What was left unsaid, what remains largely unexplored, is the depth of a disquieting animosity, an extremist rage that’s percolating deeper underground.

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