The Economics of Disrespect

Representative Joe Wilson‘s much discussed “You Lie” outburst last Wednesday during President Obama‘s health care speech has been compared to the 1856 savage caning that Representative Preston Brooks delivered to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (for example, see here and here).

The Wilson and Brooks incidents have some superficial similarities. Both Brooks and Wilson were representatives from South Carolina. Both were responding to powerful orators who were speaking about central policy issues of their day (indeed, both events even concerned the rights of migrants, as Sumner was speaking about the rights of slave owners who moved to Kansas). It repays reading Sumner’s original “Crime Against Kansas” speech, which included an incendiary Don Quixote metaphor castigating South Carolina Senator (and Brooks’s kinsman) Andrew Butler as well as Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas:

I must say something of a general character, particularly in response to what has fallen from Senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs. I mean the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Butler), and the Senator from Illinois (Mr. Douglas), who, though unlike as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, yet, like this couple, sally forth together in the same adventure. I regret much to miss the elder senator from his seat; but the cause, against which he has run a tilt, with such activity of animosity, demands that the opportunity of exposing him should not be lost; and it is for the cause that I speak.

The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentimcuts of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight; I mean the harlot, Slavery. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote, in behalf of his wench, Dulcinea del Toboso, is all surpassed. The asserted rights of slavery, which shock equality of all kinds, are cloaked by a fantastic claim of equality. If the slave states cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution in other words, the full power in the National Territories to compel fellowmen to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction block then, sir, the chivalric senator will conduct the state of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight! Exalted senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!

In contrast, Obama’s rhetoric seems rather tame.

Both Brooks and Wilson were reacting to what they felt were lies in the political speeches of others. And finally, both Brooks and Wilson responded to the uproar with limited apologies. Brooks, in resigning from the House, defended his actions. And while Representative Wilson has apologized for the timing and manner of his outburst, he has not apologized for the substance. It is possible that in shouting “You lie” (after Obama said “The reforms I am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally”) that Wilson himself was misrepresenting the truth.

But to my mind the differences between these two events are much greater than their similarities. Brooks’s intervention was clearly premeditated. Indeed, he sought counsel from Laurence Keitt on whether Brooks should challenge Sumner to a duel. Keitt convinced Brooks that dueling was reserved for gentlemen and that caning was the appropriate punishment for social inferiors. You can see Representative Keitt preventing other senators from coming to the aid of Sumner in the background of this famous J.L Magee cartoon:

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And by far, the greatest dis-analogy between the 1856 and 2009 events is the savagery of the Brooks’s violence. There is a huge difference in disrespect between beating a man to within an inch of his life and two syllables of interruption.

In some ways, a closer analogy is the more recent and less violent interruption of Muntader al-Zaidi who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush in 2008 during a Baghdad press conference. Al-Zaidi, who was released this week after serving nine months in prison, called out in Arabic during his attack “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog.”

What unites all three stories is the outpouring of support that Brooks, Al-Zaidi, and now Wilson have received as a consequence of their disrespect. Brooks was sent dozens of canes after the attack and, after resigning, was easily reelected to the House. Al-Zaidi has received offers of marriage, employment, and a Mercedes limousine. In Tikrit, a three-meter copper statue in the shape of his shoe honors his heroism.

I imagine that Wilson would be appalled to learn that Al-Zaidi profited economically from disrespecting the president of United States. But in some ways, Wilson has too. The Washington Post reports that Wilson received more than three-quarters of a million dollars in campaign gifts in the 48 hours following his “you lie” outburst. Indeed, it is inevitable as day following night that we would see bumper stickers extolling the event:

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Of course, expressions of disrespect can also mobilize the opposition. Wilson’s Democratic challenger, Rob Miller, seems to have raised even more money in the last week. (Full disclosure: Rob Miller is one of the very few House candidates to whom I have contributed in the past. By bizarre coincidence, I am close friends with his uncle.) Still, the stories of Brooks, Al-Zaidi, and Wilson raise the possibility that disrespect and the violation of social norms might, at least in the short run, be a good career move.


Laserlight

I'd have put "There is a huge difference in disrespect between beating a man to within an inch of his life and two syllables of interruption" at the front; otherwise the reader might be distracted from the article by wondering if the author is one of those pundits who don't understand that difference.

Kavan Wolfe

I think a little disrespect may be warranted if, for instance, someone is actually lying in a political speech. The problem here is, Wilson was incorrect. There is no provision for healthcare for illegal immigrants in the bill. The story here is not that Wilson was disrespectful, it's that he was wrong. More holistically, the problem is that most of the opposition to healthcare reform is deeply misinformed about the issues.

kip

@Laserlight: I was distracted by trying to figure out if he literally meant caning, or if it was some kind of metaphor, until I got to that sentence.

Joe

Charles Sumner delivered personal insults about Butler (who had a speech impediment, which caused him to drool), so he was much more of a jerk than Obama. The most personal attack Obama made in his speech was to call out the lying pundits as liars.

Also, Brooks allegedly waited to attack Sumner because there was a lady in the room; Brooks was a Southern gentleman who didn't want the lady to see the attack. There was nothing Southern-gentlemanly about Wilson. It was just ugly.

Joe Smith

The Republicans have not accepted that Obama won the election.

Thalia

Brooks was a coward, who beat up an unarmed man, who was seated. When someone he later challenged to a duel accepted, he refused to follow through with his own challenge (because he was afraid of the other guy).

Wilson is just a jerk.

QB

Wilson would have gotten more mileage out of just laughing out loud instead of shouting.

Yes, technically there is no provision for illegals to get healthcare but they get ER treatment paid for by Medicaid now and there's no provision to make that stop. Our ER's will still be inundated with sick or injured illegals getting free medical care - the SF Chronicle ran a great story on this last week proving that both Obama & Wilson are right...

dd

So the author thinks that Bush was the legitimate president (/ruler) of IRAQ
does most Americans think like that ?

Neil (SM)

#2 wrote >>The problem here is, Wilson was incorrect. There is no provision for healthcare for illegal immigrants in the bill.<< Not only that, there is a provision explicitly excluding illegal immigrants from the benefits outlined in the bill. Which makes Wilson's outburst quite baffling. It's as if he went out of his way to prove Obama's point that some of the major popular protestations to the bill are outright lies.

Bill

"It is possible that in shouting “You lie” (after Obama said “The reforms I am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally”) that Wilson himself was misrepresenting the truth."

I can see no reason for the words, "It is possible that" unless you are also trying to avoid a caning, shout, or tossed shoe. Wilson's accusation was mild in delivery but outlandish in substance.

Tony

@Neil

There is a specific provision barring illegals from receiving the benefits under the bill, but there is no provision to enforce it. For example, illegals are here illegally, yet there is no mechanism by which authorities are actually authorized to seek them out and deport them.

In the case of health care we are not allowed to provide them services as described in the bill, yet we are also not allowed to verify that someone is a citizen.

This is why it is a lie.

I would be happy to bet that wilson will be proven correct when this health bill passes.

enoriverbend

@wolfe:

"I think a little disrespect may be warranted if, for instance, someone is actually lying in a political speech. "

You see, that's the real problem. If politicians start calling each other on all the explicit lies they've told, where would it end? I think it would result in all Congressional and White House activities coming to an absolute halt while they discuss each other's lies...

Oh, wait. No, that would be OK, wouldn't it?

Never mind.

SebastianCMS

The article has many angles and different aspect that could be analyzed and commented upon. However I will limit myself to focus on the idea, or even a fact, that the author explains that people who have taken a stand in expressing themselves even in an improper and disrespectful manner for the moment and protocol, they have benefited economically from their outburst. It seems true that Wilson, benefited from his outburst by receiving donations to his political campaign of over three quarter of a million dollars, and he also got political capitol for being in the front page. From a short term analysis it seems that Wilson has gained from this uproar but if we look at his externalities cost like his opponent reaching one million dollar in his campaign donation, also his outburst will not gain him respect from other people in his profession, and furthermore the fact that he was wrong in his outburst since it is clear in the healthcare plan that illegal immigrants will not benefit from healthcare. Although Representative Joe Wilson might be enjoying his soon to be forgotten fame, and his temporary support, he will suffer because of his incompetence in the near future.

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J

"Oh, wait. No, that would be OK, wouldn't it?"

Yes, though I'd like to see it go to where they're getting into fistfights, like some of those videos we see from other countries. I don't see what the big deal is in the Wilson affair, and my guess is few people outside the journalism industry care.

In fairness though, I think it's safe to say Wilson was wrong in calling O a liar; I don't think Obama has any idea what's in these bills.

PeteB

I find it laughable that there are some people (even commenters here) that justify the "You lie!" epithet because it is possible for an illegal immigrant to get free health care at an emergency room and there is no provision to prevent that in the bill.
They appear to believe that anyone not a citizen or not here legally is so subhuman that they do not deserve basic care in an emergency.
In general the routine is you provide necessary care now and then worry about who's gonna pay later.
The ogres of xenophobia (or is anyone allowed to call that racism?) feel that before providing lifesaving care everyone involved must be presented with proof that the patient at hand is covered and legal.

Joanna Gibson

Freak article

DMS

As an aside I think it's interesting that an 1856 cartoon has the incorrect use of a possessive apostrophe in a plural context (c'mon someone was going to point it out) when most people who complain about that sort of thing say that it's an abomination (they're right) caused by poor modern public schooling (looks like they may be wrong about that).

Back on topic. Consider "Question Time" in Australia or the UK (and probably NZ and others). Head of State or not, if you lie some member (probably 10) will shout "liar". The speaker might get annoyed and name the interjectors if they were particularly rude. Joe (or Bruce) Public wouldn't bat an eyelid though, and in fact would be pleased a liar got called out. I make no comment on whether Obama lied; just adding some flavour (flavor) to the discussion.

Chris

@Tony

"In the case of health care we are not allowed to provide them services as described in the bill, yet we are also not allowed to verify that someone is a citizen.

This is why it is a lie.

I would be happy to bet that wilson will be proven correct when this health bill passes."

That's partially true. Current law does not allow you to ask about a person's citizenship (or virtually any other non-medical subject) before giving them emergency treatment and the bill doesn't (and, in my view, shouldn't) change that.

If the President said "after we pass the reforms I am proposing, those who are here illegally will not be eligible for federal health care funding." Then Wilson would be correct, but the President never made such a claim. He merely said that the reforms wouldn't apply to those here illegally, which is completely true since the reforms don't attempt to change the emergency care rules. It attempts to expand insurance access to more American citizens and legal residents, which will keep them from having to use those rules to receive care, but that has absolutely nothing to do with illegal immigrants.

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Mike

I agree with Tony that it won't be enforced.

Does anyone agree that the booing that Bush got in 2005 is similar in degree of disrespect?

This recent event just shows how quickly we defend our side and put down the other. This is why people don't vote.

JB

The only correlation between the two incidents is that both representatives were from South Carolina. I dislike that Wilson's breech in etiquette is being made into a racial incident by some opportunists seeking reelection next year.