14 September 2009

"I scream with pain until you cry 'uncle.'"

Michael Kinsley - Democrats Need to Stop the Umbrage Game on Rep. Joe Wilson:

Umbrage is itself, generally, a lie. The ostensible victim of the offensive remark (call him or her the 'umbragee') is actually delighted at the opportunity, while the ostensible offense giver (call him or her the 'umbragor') is sorry to have wandered into this thicket, or is made to feel sorry as the umbrage game plays itself out. The rules of the game are perverse but simple: I scream with pain until you cry 'uncle.'
Ha! I love that last line.

I think it describes so much of the atmosphere kids operate in these days. They learn that the more aggrieved you seem the more likely you are to get your way, and they take that lesson with them into the adult world.

I have no idea whether the Democrats ought to back off of Joe Wilson, either tactically, strategically or ethically, but I do think Kinsley has a good analysis of "The Umbrage Game."

Here's what I think about Wilson's petulant little outburst:
1. Why would you shout "You lie" after one of the most true statement's of that speech? There were plenty of dishonest or self-contradictory things Obama said, so why not call him out for that?

2. This may, as Kinsley reports, have been a boon to Joe Wilson personally, but he makes every other ObamaCare critic look like a royal tit. Thanks, jerk.

3. I don't give a hoot that he interrupted the President of the United States in front of Congress. I care that he interrupted a man in front of an audience. It's just as low class to interrupt John Doe in front of the Local Association of Ditch Diggers. By the way, the real insult as I see it isn't to the speaker, it's to the people who gathered to listen to him. They didn't come to hear Wilson's outburst, and he doesn't get to supersede their choice in the matter.

4. I often wish American political discourse operated more like Speakers' Corner, but sadly it doesn't.* Someone needs to remind Wilson that this is not 'nam, this is politics. There are rules.
(* I wish our education system operated more like this as well. I'd sincerely love to see a weekly Speakers' Corner set up as a regular event on college campuses. I'd like to see professors require students to defend their ideas from a soapbox once in a while rather than in an essay. I'd love to see students required to take a debate-centric class in the same way they take discussion-centric seminars, even or especially if that debate is no-holds-barred Speakers' Corner style in front of not just their classmates but the rest of the campus. Let's raise some voices and get some blood pumping. Hell, I'd love to see professors and administrators get up there and mix it up too. Make them defend that op-ed they wrote, or the decision to give an honorary degree to whomever.)

Maybe my love for Speakers' Corner-style, rock-em-sock-em, down-and-dirty arguments is why I'm pretty sympathetic to even the more impudent rabble-rousers at the summer town halls. My mother's congressman canceled his scheduled town hall and instead scheduled three conference calls in the middle of the afternoon on weekdays to avoid the insolence of his plebeian detractors. I have vanishingly little respect for this course of action. I'd vastly prefer we had congressmen with the chops to get in a room and mix it up a little. If anyone thinks that's effectively impossible, you really ought to get to the corner of Hyde Park near Marble Arch on a Sunday and see what some of those guys can do with a hostile crowd.

Finally, a note on how I think Obama handled Wilson's outburst. (Here's a 30 second YouTube clip to refresh your memories.) I think the icy glare he shot Wilson at first was the correct response, but the avuncular tut-tutting "That's not true," sounded soft. Everyone else in the room was already chastising Wilson. Obama should have let them express displeasure for him. You're the President, you're on the fancy dias, you don't need to respond to a petulant accusation. I think his first reaction was the right one: stern glare, bit of a finger point. At that point you either pick up where you left off, or repeat the last line decisively while staring directly at the interrupter without wavering. I think he looked a little more like a school teacher than a ruler, and I find it interesting that his instinct was right, but he overrode it with some ill-advised gentleness.

(Via Jesse Walker.)

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