|Illustration by Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t|
ALEXANDRIA, VA. -Within the hallowed halls of government, the impressive edifices that dominate the topography of our nation’s capital, President Barack Obama gave an address before both houses of Congress. He spoke about the pathos laden debate over health care.
As the president spoke, dissent over his words started with one wing or another refraining from the many applause cues. As the speech continued, points of conflict endured and some boos were heard in the audience. The tension grew and the jeering increased as the head of the executive branch began to fire back at critics. President Obama then addressed the allegation that illegal immigrants would be covered by his health care proposal.
|Rep. Joe Wilson makes his feelings |
towards the President known.
Denying this amid Republican boos, a brief moment of silence manifested between sentences in the oration. It was there, in that moment of absolute quiet, a brief blink of an opportunity, that South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson shouted two words steeped in infamy: “You lie!”
It was followed by a chorus of boos and a raised finger from the president. Later on, a photo surfaced showing Rep. Wilson at the apparent moment of declaration, pointing his finger at the accused, making sure everyone knew who he directed his statement to.
After the speech concluded, the buzz was created.
Rep. Wilson, the white southern voice of dissent against the black president. Did he do it because of race? Many say yes. Was he just sick of what he kept hearing, things he took strong issue with? Others agree.
Offering no public apology, Rep. Wilson went back to work, with the House of Representatives passing a “resolution of disapproval” over his two word polemic, the vote tally falling almost completely along party lines. This was a light punishment for what many view as an unprecedented show of disrespect to a president addressing Congress. However, Rep. Wilson is not the first South Carolina Congressman to cause a great stir in the chambers of power.
Over 150 years earlier, the United States of America was on the verge of civil war. The slavery issue combined with questions on state’s rights was leading an increasingly violent dispute. Senator Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist and Massachusetts Republican, was delivering a speech. South Carolina Democrat Preston Brooks was listening and did not like what he heard.
So he got up, took his cane, approached the still speaking Sen. Sumner, and proceeded to assault him. Brooks severely beat Sumner, while the rest of Congress looked on in utter shock. Amazingly, though Brooks’ assault left Sumner in a coma the attempt to expel Brooks from Congress failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote! The overarching debate over slavery would continue and despite the beating Sumner outlived Brooks by many years and continued to push for racial equality after the civil war.
This historical anecdote can teach us many things. Brooks and Wilson have certain fundamental differences. Brooks was a Democrat, Wilson a Republican. Brooks was a slave owner, Wilson a lawyer. Brooks’ transgression was violent, Wilson’s was verbal. Regardless, both men concluded that it was acceptable to suspend decorum in Congress to denounce something that offended them, or maybe specifically their honor.
Brooks believed the reputation, the honor that is, of South Carolina was violated by Sen. Sumner. As he wrote to the South Carolina population, his constituents: “When I accepted, fellow-citizens, the commission to represent you, I felt that you had committed your honor to my care, together with your interests…On the 19th and 20th of May last past, a Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts falsified her history and defamed her character. I remembered my resolve, and performed my vow.”
Psychologists call it the culture of honor, a type of society in which honor is the highest virtue and violation of said honor can be met with violence. In many ways Southern culture, especially in the age of Preston Brooks, could qualify as being a culture of honor.
|Charles Sumner, 1874, Oil on canvas |
by Edgar Parker
Is Rep. Wilson a product of this environment? If true, it would not mean he was a racist. Plenty of liberals alleged that President George W. Bush was a liar, protested his speeches even when addressing Congress, and other vitriolic acts. When Jimmy Carter cites as evidence the many extremists who compare President Obama to Hitler and then says this is proof of racism, he has either forgotten or is willfully ignoring the countless times Bush was compared to Hitler, sometimes even by members of Congress. Was it because of his skin color?
Nevertheless, as Brooks decided that a session of Congress could not protect Sumner from physical assault, Wilson decided that a presidential address before Congress could not protect Obama from verbal assault. Maybe the inheritance of that Southern honor code is embedded in him, having encouraged him as it did Brooks to lash out at an offender.
There is one more troubling similarity between the two South Carolina Congressmen. After beating Sumner near to death, Brooks was proclaimed a hero by some and a villain by others. In the north, Brooks was seen as a barbarian, proof that Southerners preferred violence, that the institute of slavery had made the southern whites power crazy.
In the south, statues of Brooks were constructed, towns were named after him, and some people even mailed him canes embroidered with the statement “Hit him again.” Though denounced by most Democrats and liberals, usually with the ugly racism allegation, Wilson has become a hero for many conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans. Almost immediately after his interruption thousands of dollars were donated to his re-election campaign; when he finished speaking against the congressional punishment put against him, many Republicans applauded. Online many conservative bloggers stand with him and comments posted on YouTube videos showing the outburst have numerous comments cheering him on.
Why is this troubling?
Because the very divisive South Carolina Congressman Brooks signaled the arrival of America’s first civil war. Could the very divisive South Carolina Congressman Wilson signal the arrival of America’s second civil war? Hopefully not.
What Wilson and Brooks possibly show is a culture of honor, where restoring the violated honor of oneself or a compatriot supersedes the rules of governance. It would not be impossible that the cultural mindset that drove Brooks to beat Sumner drove Wilson to declare in congressional session the now infamous two word shout, “You lie!”
Joseph Gyboski lives in Alexandria. His column is exclusive to Local Kicks.