Saturday, September 12, 2009

"You Lie!"

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) uttered what someone called "the jeer heard 'round the sphere." This would not be worthy of note in many other countries, but here it occasioned three days of screaming and cringing. A lot of people who agree with what Wilson said have commented that he was wrong say it on that particular occasion, and right to apologize for doing so -- five times, so far -- afterward. His apologies so far have included a telephoned one to the President and a written one issued to the press. Many have insisted that this is not enough. Some (a group of House Democrats) demand that he also apologize on the floor of the House. Others (including Sen. Spector) have said he must apologize the the President in his actual, physical presence.

We absolutely must, the idea seems to be, respect the president.

Why? I am reminded of H. L. Mencken's comment on the strange insistence people have that you respect their religious opinions: “There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get.” Surely, the four most recent American presidents have deserved no more respect than the average American, and probably a lot less. In Clinton's case this was mainly because of his swinish private life, in the other three it was because of the increasingly damaging content of their policies.

I know, you are supposed to "respect the office, not the man." But there has to be a reason to do so. In a court of law there is plenty of reason to show respect for the office of the judge. There is a very strict code of etiquette and violations are punished or otherwise prevented instantly. This is important because someone is on trial for their freedom, their reputation, and possibly even their life, and it is important that the high standards of evidence customarily applied in such a proceeding be followed as calmly and scrupulously as possible.

A parliamentary discussion is nothing like this. The standards of evidence, if you can call them that, are about as low as can be. Obama's speech was a case in point.

Besides, the American presidency is actually, like most people's religious opinions, actually ill-deserving of respect. As a number of people pointed out during the debate over the ratification of the constitution, this office is basically as sort of elected monarchy. It now serves to hoist clowns and miscreants to the position of the most powerful human being on Earth.

The person who wields this power should feel resistance, not unearned, irrational "respect."

The British have a better system in this respect. They have the same all-too-human desire to express groveling reverence for earthly authority that we do, but they get it harmlessly out of their system in their relations with the monarch. If the Queen gives a speech, they sit in silent respect. This is harmless because the Queen can't give a speech that might wreck the economy, trash the currency, or kill their children in a pointless war. The Prime Minister, of course, can. But if he gives such a speech to the House of Commons, he is apt to hear a wild commotion all about him. And he jolly well ought to.

The Democrats had the right idea when Bush was president. Too bad they forgot it:

Added Later: I just noticed this article, which points out that House rules of decorum quite explicitly forbid members to ever refer to the President as a "liar." In that case I of course am objecting to this rule. They apparently also forbid criticizing his sexual behavior. Why wasn't this rule used during the Clinton impeachment proceedings? Well, the answer is obvious, I suppose: the rule is clearly silly.
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