politeness, protocol, military discipline

I personally found it offensive when Rep. Joe Wilson called the president a liar during a speech to Congress. That’s partly because the president was not, in fact, lying. (Even if some illegal immigrants might occasionally–and illegally–receive health coverage under the president’s plan, he was not “lying” when he said, “the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.”) The outburst also showed a lack of personal respect for Barack Obama. One of the reasons that I find such disrespect offensive is that Mr. Obama, as an individual, deserves a high degree of respect. Mr. Wilson and I evidently disagree on that matter, but I am confident he is wrong.

There is a separate question whether people in Mr. Wilson’s position are entitled to call any presidents of the United States “liars.” Many presidents have indeed lied, and some believe we should have less decorum in Washington and more “accountability moments.” The British House of Commons is a spectacle of abuse and recrimination that many find emblematic of democracy. I once watched a particular parliamentary exchange in England with graduate students from the developing world, who were stunned by the freedom it represented. The exchange went something like this:

    Front Bench Labour MP: “If the Prime Minister had spent eighteen years on Robben Island, like Nelson Mandela …”

    Labour backbencher: “As she should!”

    [General uproar, hooting, laughter, denunciations, etc.]

But successful organizations combine such frankness and openness with decorum. The British Prime Minister, for example, is enormously powerful and spends most of his or her time in venues that are completely decorous, controlled, and closed. Prime Minister’s Question Time relieves some pressure within this generally hierarchical system. That hierarchy–greater in some respects than ours–is helpful for obtaining progressive change when the Prime Minister happens to be progressive.

On our side of the ocean, there has been some decline in respect for official leaders. For instance, I’m pretty sure that thirty or fifty years ago, had a president chosen to address the nation’s schoolchildren, school administrators would not have thought it necessary to inform parents. And if they had sent a note home about the speech, most parents would have said, “Well, Johnny, you’d better pay attention in school tomorrow.” Now substantial numbers of parents are quick to attack both the schools and the president for indoctrinating their kids.

This trend is good, in part–reflecting an increase of freedom. It is also bad, in part, especially for progressives who expect the public to entrust more of their money to the federal government. That requires a degree of respect for high public offices and for those who legitimately hold them. Expecting people never to criticize the president would push “respect” much too far. But it seems a reasonable rule that Members of Congress should not blurt out personal attacks during formal speeches. George W. Bush deserved that level of decorum as well as Barack Obama.

Finally, Rep. Wilson is not only a Member of Congress but also a Colonel, US Army (ret.). I’m not sure what to make of Major General Paul D. Eaton’s comment that “Retired Colonel (Representative) Joe Wilson’s conduct last night is a breach of military protocol and represents a further departure from the historic good order and discipline I expected, in the past, to see from the GOP …” I appreciate that respect for democratically elected officials is an important ethic for uniformed military officers. But if military discipline is supposed to cover former officers who serve in Congress, I fear a militarization of this democratic space. Colonel Wilson was not allowed to disparage the Commander in Chief in any public venue. Surely Representative Wilson has a right to bitter attacks on the president, albeit not during a formal address to Congress. Barack Obama is not Mr. Wilson’s Commander in Chief (nor mine), although he is our president.