It's been all over the news by now. While giving a speech to congress on health care, President Obama found himself interrupted by Republican representative Joe Wilson.
I'm not really interested in whether Wilson was acting inappropriately for shouting "You lie!" to the President of the United States in the middle of an address to the nation, or whether or not Wilson should have apologized for it (as he has actually done to the President himself, but seems to be refusing to do to the rest of the House of Representatives). I'm rather more interested in the fact that these kinds of outbursts are all but unheard of during such presidential speeches. What causes a person to break decorum and tradition to interrupt the president in such a way?
Yesterday at church, the pastor gave a sermon on the opening verses of Paul's letter to the Galatians. Although in most of Paul's letters, there is an extended opening whereby Paul gives thanks to God for what God is doing through the congregation, Galatians is different. In this letter, Paul launches almost immediately into a diatribe that includes suggesting that his opponents "be accursed" (KJV of that passage) not just once, but twice! What causes Paul to act with such anger and vitriol?
In the sermon, the pastor suggested that it is when we feel that our core values are being threatened, that we "feel the ground from beneath our feet begin to give way," that we often respond with the greatest anger. For the apostle Paul, it was the idea that people were beginning to follow a "gospel" that was not truly a gospel at all, much less the gospel to which Paul had dedicated his life, that caused him to respond so forcefully.
For Joe Wilson, I also expect that he was also responding to the feeling that his core values were being threatened. I don't think that it was necessarily about the idea that illegal immigrants might get health care benefits (the thing that he accused Obama of lying about when Obama said that they wouldn't), per se. Rather, I think it's bigger and deeper than that. We've seen a number of examples in recent times that suggest that the people who disagree with Obama the strongest really do fear (however irrationally) that his policies threaten to undermine their deepest values. Whether we're talking about immigration policy, gay rights, tax brackets, the bailout, or health care itself, there seems to be a group of people that are desperately afraid that if Obama gets his way, they will lose everything they believe is important.
While a more cynical person might argue that Wilson's response was carefully calculated, I think that the lack of precedent (in America, anyway. This kind of thing is more common in other countries) argues against this (to say nothing of Wilson's own statements saying that the cry was "spontaneous"). I think we saw a deeply visceral reaction here. Although it's hard for me to get my head around the idea that Wilson really believes that Obama himself is consciously trying to get a policy passed that will provide for illegal immigrants (Obama's consistent statements to the contrary notwithstanding), it's not hard at all to imagine that Wilson believes that Obama's plans, if passed, would have that ultimate effect. Faced with statements that denied that Obama's plans would do the things that so many Republicans deeply fear, but honestly believe, they would do, Wilson snapped. He let out a visceral cry when he felt his core values being threatened farther than he could stand.
Having cried out in a venue where such outbursts are not permitted, Wilson naturally apologized immediately. But the threats (whether they be real or imagined) to Wilson's core values remain. It's no surprise, therefore, that he's trying to be very careful at this point not to "give too much away." If he apologizes too much, he risks sounding like he doesn't really believe that Obama's policies are wrong, and that they won't do the thing he thinks they'll do. Too many apologies risk threatening the values that Wilson holds dear even further.
Often, when I decry the deeply divisive nature of current political debate, I probably sound like I'm asking "can't we all just get along?" There is definitely a sense in which I deeply wish that people would simply learn to act with better manners and greater decorum. Perhaps Wilson's response, if my theories as to why it occurred are correct, hints at why this is so hard to do. There is a not-insignificant number of people out there who positively hate our current president. The fact that a lot of the arguments made against him ("he wasn't even born in America," for example) have little basis in reason or fact is beside the point. People are honestly threatened by him. Until this situation changes, we can only expect to see more hostility in the future.