Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not Your Average Joe

Joe Wilson just had his wrist slapped by Congress. Voting largely along party lines, the final tally Tuesday was 240-179. Of these, 233 Democrats and seven Republicans voted to chastise Wilson, 167 Republicans and 12 Democrats opposed the measure, and five Democrats just voted "present."

While Republicans are calling the vote in the House a "witch hunt," I believe there is a deeper issue here. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md, said, "The resolution is...about the conduct we expect of one another in the course of doing our business."

Perhaps "business" is the right word. Since Wilson's outburst, both he and his opponent in the upcoming Congressional election have raised more than a million dollars. Incivility pays!

But I digress. Here is the heart of the issue. "Average" people have been getting downright nasty lately at town hall meetings for health care, slinging insults and epithets, some even carrying guns to the events. But Wilson is not your average Joe. He's a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Rules and procedures govern how our ruling bodies conduct business. After all, Congress is not the Jerry Springer show.

Have we so thoroughly lost our civility as a nation? By refusing to chastise inappropriate behavior in Congress, are Republicans implying that this kind of behavior is acceptable? Maybe so. Nobody censured Dick Cheney for telling Patrick Leahy, on the floor of the Senate, to "Go f**k yourself." Cheney later reported his outburst made him feel better. Perhaps it did, but is this the type of behavior we expect from the Vice President of the United States during official Senate business? Is this appropriate behavior from the party many Americans believe holds the moral compass?

Let's get back to Joe Wilson. Shouting "you lie" at the President of the United States shows a blatant disrespect for that office. It doesn't matter who is in the office; the office itself must be held in high regard. This is, after all, the leader of the Free World, the Commander-In-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. Like it or not, he was put in this lofty office by the American people. He is worthy of respect and civility, even if we disagree with his policies.

As a journalism major during the Nixon years, I had the opportunity to witness and reflect upon a pivotal time in our history. America was in Vietnam. The Equal Rights Amendment was a hot-button issue. Roe v. Wade had just sprung from the starting gates amid a frenzy of controversy. Protests were everywhere, from Washington, DC, to the cities of America. What distinguished the protests of that era with the protests of today? Only this: the protesters of those times went after issues. They did not engage in the character assassination of today's motley crew of haters. For example, a sign that demanded "U.S. Out of Vietnam" was focused on the issue of the day. It focused attention on a problem that lawmakers could do something about, rather than attacking the character of the President.

Is there much difference between the disrespect Joe Wilson demonstrated and the audacity of demonstrators marching with signs depicting the President as Hitler? What are these people thinking? Do they even know? Hitler was an authoritarian dictator who persecuted and murdered millions for their religion, beliefs, ethnic identity, and even physical and mental handicaps. President Obama does not advocate genocide or persecution, nor have any of his proposals indicated a desire to topple our democratic institutions in favor of an authoritarian state.

So let's connect the dots. If the President's detractors have nothing constructive to add to civil debate over the issues, they resort to character assassination. It's all a part of the politics of destruction. Hopefully, thinking people will see past the smokescreen and demand a return to issue-based civility in our political discourse.

What to do with Joe Wilson? Here's what I propose. If a hockey player demonstrates unacceptable behavior, he is put into the penalty box for a specified period of time. Since Joe Wilson obviously does not know how to behave on the ice, he should spend some time in the penalty box. Perhaps he should have to sit out the next few House votes, especially the upcoming health care vote. Too Draconian? You decide.

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