At this point, congressman Joe Wilson's boorish personal insult - an unprecedented fit of insolence that violated several centuries of House protocol - has sufficiently saturated the airwaves. The moment itself need not be further recounted here. But there is still much to be said about the moment as metaphor.
In a narrow sense, the moment was truly shocking. No previous congressman in 220 years had personally insulted the president of the United States to his face during a House proceeding. Mickey Edwards, a retired Republican congressional leader, was sufficiently shocked to write that Wilson's behavior marked "a new low in politics," because "any real congressman would have known that such behavior is not permitted in a place where members are not allowed to call even other members liars without being publicly and officially rebuked." Indeed, even the typically raucous British Parliament does not permit such personal attacks; when one member calls another a liar or a coward or a traitor, or other words that are officially deemed "unparliamentary," the offender is promptly asked to withdraw the insult.
Nevertheless, in the broader scheme of things, the spectacle of a right-wing back-bencher behaving like a horse's ass was not shocking in the least. Joe Wilson wasn't doing anything new; he was behaving as so many of his brethren have behaved since the rise of Barack Obama. Because deep down they refuse to accept Obama as their legitimate leader, they naturally don't feel that they owe him the requisite respect.
This was clear even during the '08 campaign, when conservative crowds yelled things like "Traitor" and "Kill him," and no Republican bigwigs said a word about it. This was clear when liars insisted he was a Muslim. This was clear during the summer of '09. when liars insisted yet again that he was an illegitimate president who had been born on foreign soil. This was clear last spring when a Republican activist in South Carolina (Joe Wilson's state) joked that a gorilla that had escaped from a local zoo was probably one of Michelle Obama's ancestors.
So when Wilson yelled "You lie!" he was merely giving spontaneous voice to the current conservative id. Which is precisely why Republican leaders on Capitol Hill insisted that Wilson apologize; they were not comfortable seeing their most visceral emotions expressed so openly by one of their own. After all, that kind of exposure is so counterproductive; thanks to Wilson's outing of the true conservative attitude, Republicans over the past 36 hours have been forced to play defense. The Wilson story has stolen attention from the Obama health plan - and the legitimate policy questions about how to pay for it. Moreover, since Wedneasday night, Wilson's 2010 Democratic opponent has raised $700,000 from 20,000 ticked-off donors.
No, the elected Republicans would prefer that their true feelings not be exposed. They believe it's far more prudent to let Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh do all the heavy ranting, to let the town-hall foot soldiers lie with impunity and paint swastikas on Obama's photo. This way, the elected Republicans can lend their tacit support by simply remaining mum.
Such is the continued devolution of civic discourse in America. The incident on the House floor put it all in perspective. Actually, Wilson did us a favor. He cracked open the window, and gave us a peek inside the conservative mind. Thanks, Joe.
But wait...Let us not forget that his ire was also fueled by his stalwart opposition to what his website calls "government-run health care." It is certainly true that the plight of the uninsured is not exactly high on Wilson's priority list. Basically, he can't relate. Why not? Because Wilson, as a retired Army National Guard colonel, receives free medical coverage for life. Paid for by a government-run health care program.
So now we can add hypocrisy to the mix. Thanks for nothing, Joe.