Mr. Wilson Revisited – Breakin’ All The Rules

September 16, 2009

Well, the wonderful thing about politicians is that you rarely need to wait any length of time for them to prove you wrong. Previously, I had made a case that Congressman Wilson was not being uncivil, predicated on the point that he was bound by, and immediately followed, the required protocol and policies that all Representatives and Senators tacitly agree to when they take their oath of office.

Well, Joe decided that he was above the rules. His motivations were many, but chief among them are money and power. I guess when faced with playing by the rules or making a ton of money in contributions; the easy decision is to apply partisanship to your perspective of fair play.

Mr. Wilson stated that his apology to the President “was enough”. Not really. Not according to the code of conduct that Mr. Wilson agreed to abide by when joining Congress. His offense, while directed at the President, was in fact a violation of a Congressional code of conduct. When the leadership of the House and Senate decided to apply pressure and discipline, Mr. Wilson rejected it out of hand and then conducted autograph signings of his now famous angry face.

And, as with many things political, the entire incident has highlighted the near universal lack of understanding of how our government works. Many people have declared that Joe Wilson has a First Amendment right to call the President a liar. As a corollary to this flawed theory, they also say that Mr. Wilson is justified in his remarks because they are true. In the latter instance, the application of “school-yard-bully logic” seems to be at play. Being right doesn’t necessitate or pre-determine the need to break the rules or be uncivil. There is this concept called “civil disobedience”; and it is called civil for a reason.

For those who style themselves champions of free speech, I expect little consideration of the following point. The freedom of speech is not an inalienable right. Here is the actual text of the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment is a civil liberty. The pursuit of life, liberty and happiness are natural, or inalienable rights. The freedom of speech is a conditional liberty. This is why the Supreme Court spends a substantial amount of time determining what is protected speech and what is not protected under the First Amendment. A lawyer in Florida was recently disciplined by the Bar for having blogged negative comments about the judge presiding in his case. The Bar and the Florida State Supreme Court ruled that the attorney had no protected speech rights, because “When you become an officer of the court, you lose the full ability to criticize the court.” As stated by Michael Downey, a professor of legal ethics at Washington University law school.

And, why are lawyers restricted in their ability to criticize the court? Because they have agreed to a code of conduct, just as our Senators and Representatives have. Because a courtroom with out civility would function just as well as a Senate floor without civility.

So, ultimately, money and power and the selective application of our own Constitution have been used as excuses to justify uncivil behavior. Our problem in America isn’t the disappearance of civility, it is the continued justification that incivility is acceptable. Many people are calling Mr. Wilson’s discipline an insult, because everyone else in Congress – Democrat or Republican – is just as corrupt or behaves just as badly. So, we determine when, or if, we will be civil only if someone else is being civil? Maybe when we stop making excuses for being bad, we can start being good.

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Mr. Wilson’s War – On Class

September 11, 2009

CaningSumnerJoe Wilson is not uncivil. There, I said it. While this statement is out of step with the barrage of coverage on civility in the past 24 hours, it actually offers a clarification of that most tricky of arenas for the practice of civil behavior; our government.

Civility, in its most basic form, is a set of boundaries and constraints that an individual or community agrees to in order to function as a unified whole. These boundaries and constraints are enforced through culture, tradition, protocol and laws, both written and unwritten. Now, the Congress is a Pantheon of protocol. The written rules of procedure are staggeringly complex and decidedly arcane. These boundaries exist for a very specific purpose. Our founding fathers and subsequent generations intuitively understood that a group of Type A personalities whose vocation was elected office would never get anything accomplished (or decidedly less than they do now) if there weren’t some type of controls in place.

While it may seem strange to many Americans, Mr. Wilson’s outburst was completely within the established and agreed upon border lines of the protocols of the Senate and House.

Was it boorish? Yes.
Rude? Yes.
Low class? Yes.
Disrespectful? Yes.
Uncivil? No.

Mr. Wilson operated within constraints of his community. In fact, Mr. Wilson perfected the example of the behaviors expected of a US Congressman when he immediately wrote a letter of apology, called the President to apologize and will most likely receive some form of rebuke from his own party and the House as well.

By comparison, Vice-President Cheney’s behaviors have been blatantly uncivil. In Mr. Cheney’s case he, with malice and intention, broke a 230 year tradition of former Executive branch officials. Mr. Cheney has repeatedly denigrated President Obama’s administration, and has made a decision that 230 years of boundaries and constraints do not apply to him.

Mr. Wilson made an embarrassing error, but quickly sought forgiveness. President Obama didn’t hesitate a moment to personally accept that apology. Mr. Cheney’s actions are completely without repentance. He is breaking the long standing expectations of his office, with no apologies. Unrepentant bad behavior is an act of incivility.

I will tend to avoid writing about politics in the future, because it is simply too easy of a target. But, this event is certainly of the type that can’t be ignored when civility is a subject that I am passionate about. As I close today’s entry though, I think it is important to mention that the feigned and faked horror on both sides of the aisle is laughable. As I mentioned earlier, the US House and Senate are truly a special case in American culture. Even with the rules and protocols, the chambers of our Congress are not meant to be tread by the weak of heart and short of constitution. “You lie” pales in comparison to the large number of certifiably uncivil acts that have occurred within those chambers. To put things in perspective, consider the case of Congressman Brooks and Senator Sumner. On May 22, 1865 Mr. Preston Brooks entered the Senate chamber and walked up behind Senator Charles Sumner. Mr. Brooks proceeded to beat Mr. Sumner savagely with a cane. Senator Sumner took years to recover and many modern historians believe he suffered brain damage from the attack.

Sticks and stones will break those bones, but words will never hurt within the walls of our Capitol building. Words, even when inappropriately interjected during a Presidential speech, are still considered part of the civil discourse within that community.