Injury In the Insults
Not so long ago, Rep. Joe Wilson's verbal assault on the president -- "You lie!" -- might have produced a much different outcome.
Instead of the U.S. House rebuking Wilson, we might be entertaining the prospect of a duel.
In early America, calling someone a liar wasn't a childish insult but a direct challenge to one's honor, an appropriate response to which varied by region. Where dueling was common -- as in Wilson's home state of South Carolina -- so were insults.
Here's how an 1882 New York Times article described the thinking of the time as it related to a Mr. John Goode, who had called a certain Mr. Bailey a liar.
Writing that "Nothing but blood can wipe out this insult," the author noted that although the laws of chivalry were supposed to be dominant, "language used in attacking individuals is much more gross and insulting than in regions where the duel is not invoked as the final arbiter betwixt the man who has been insulted and the defamer.
"In the North, we are supposed to be a lily-livered and pusillanimous race. Yet we very much question if any legislator or public man would dare to denounce another as 'a liar.' Nevertheless, in the South, where the code of honor prevails, the exchange of such epithets is possible, and the men who fling these names at each other live and prosper."
Last week, I spoke too soon when I wrote that Wilson might have lost his audience through his boorishness. Projection will get you in trouble every time. Instead, Wilson has become a cult hero, rolling in dough. Both he and his opponent for reelection, Rob Miller, reportedly have raised more than $1 million each since Wilson's eruption.
Who would have thought that a congressional race in South Carolina could become a referendum on the Obama administration? Two relative unknowns suddenly personify two dueling worldviews: The You-Liars vs. The Truthers. Death-panelists vs. Hopers-Changers.
As Americans have picked their side of civilization's breach the past few days, some have justified Wilson's words because they think they were true. Sure, one can make a slim case that some of Obama's assertions weren't 100 percent accurate, but Wilson's behavior can't be justified. It isn't done. Period.
And why not? Because civilization is a fragile and delicate idea, held together by a few mere threads, bound together by little more than a wisp of mutual consent. Frays in those threads are daily apparent -- from the rude tantrum of Kanye West at the Video Music Awards to the profane threats of tennis star Serena Williams when she disagreed with a line call.
Across the spectrum of society, people are behaving badly. Even those at the very top of their games, who enjoy wealth and status, no longer can be relied upon to carry the standard of exemplary behavior. If ever there were one place we might hope to find people of respectful temperament, it would be where those elected to govern convene to hear the president.