They All Lie!

With apologies to James Goldman: Of course he lies. He always lies. They all lie. It’s 2009 and they’re politicians.

The controversy over US Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) and his outburst during President Barack Obama’s speech on health “reform” to a joint session of Congress is two tempests in a teapot.

The first tempest is a matter of decorum, of “respect for the office” or “respect for the chamber.” It’s a bit of an American oddity, and a revealing one at that.

Anyone who’s ever watched a Prime Minister address the United Kingdom’s House of Commons knows that he’s lucky to get a word in edgewise. No backbencher worth his salt holds back when riled, and “you lie!” often falls to the gentle side of the language tossed the PM’s way.

Given the US Congress’s 19th century history of brawls — featuring fists, canes, and the occasional knife — it’s probably not coincidence that every US President from Thomas Jefferson to William Howard Taft (and some since, the last one being Jimmy Carter) elected to send a written State of the Union address over to Capitol Hill rather than delivering their reports orally to the assembled body.

These days, a presidential address to Congress, delivered from between the twin fasces adorning the House chamber, comes off a lot more like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s account of a Communist Party conference:

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference with every mention of his name). The hall echoed with “stormy applause, raising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who adored Stalin. However, who would dare to be the first to stop?

The penalties attending an insufficient display of reverence for Dear Leader are, for the moment, much lighter — one may expect to be pilloried in the press and pressured by party leaders to apologize, and forget that promotion in committee assignments you were hoping for. In Solzhenitsyn’s account, the first non-applauder went off the next day to ten years of forced labor.

If there’s a difference of degree as well as kind, though, there’s also a similarity. Creation of a cult, be it of personality or of office, is a signpost on the road of the state’s evolution toward totalitarianism.

The second teapot tempest, of course, is the matter of whether or not Obama was, in fact, lying when he said that “illegal aliens” would not be covered by the program he proposed. Since he was, by his own admission, describing a broadly outlined plan not yet codified in legislation, since the terms of the four drafts under consideration in Congress at the time varied on the issue, and since he has a history of breaking unequivocally proffered pledges (closing Guantanamo, and telecom immunity for participation in illegal wiretap schemes, for example), it seems to me that Wilson, even if he was shooting in the dark, had good odds of hitting the target with his allegation.

“You lie!” is almost never a false allegation when directed at a state functionary, at least if that state functionary’s lips are moving. And how could it be any other way? The state is built on a foundation of falsehood — “you need us!” — and like all falsehoods, that one requires a cascade, an eternal torrent, of additional lies (“Market failure!” “No new taxes!” “A war to end all wars!”) to constantly reinforce it and keep it from falling apart.

Joe Wilson’s outburst was, unfortunately, not a sign of blossoming revolutionary consciousness. Like his 434 fellow US Representatives, he too makes his living building palaces of prevarication and offers no sign that he’s been re-thinking that career choice.

Equally unfortunate is the public response. In a healthy society, the allegation that a politician had lied would be considered commonplace observation, not controversial claim — and demands for decorum in the presence of the liar, no matter how highly ranked that liar might be, would be dismissed with brevity and probably profanity.

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