Republican Congressman Joe Wilson has already apologized for his lack of civility in last night's joint session of Congress, after shouting "you lie!" at President Barack Obama during Obama's speech about health care reform. Wilson is unsurprisingly being raked over the coals by fellow politicians, the media, and indignant bloggers and Twitter users, but I'm not sure we don't also owe him a word of thanks.
To be sure, I think the President (and any President) deserves an unusually high level of courtesy in that particular setting, and that Wilson's actions were unusual and historically unprecedented in their dis-courteousness. But I don't think they represent some aberrant, isolated flare-up on the part of a single person. Instead, I think Joe Wilson has highlighted the fact that much of the conversation about health care reform - and much of the way politics are done in Washington in general - is driven not by respectful dialog, but instead by emotionally charged, disrespectful outbursts that come in many forms. As unfortunate and ill-considered as his shouting was, we can at least commend him for acting from the heart, where as his peers in Congress typically reserve their uncivil comments for settings where they know they won't be held as accountable to them, masking their failure to engage in real dialog with feigned respect and disingenuous, emotionally manipulative exchanges.
By yelling out at the President during the speech, Joe Wilson showed the true colors of the way most politicians are approaching the health care debate: interrupting, yelling, disrespecting, misrepresenting, trying to get a laugh or a jab in without ever engaging the substance of the issues at hand, and with so little concern for the people actually affected by the conversation that you'd think they weren't actually agents of democracy, just people who play them on TV.
It's not clear to me why we entrust such an important conversation to such ineffective, duplicitous people. Is it clear to you?
There are some exceptions to this phenomenon: politicians, issue advocates and community organizers who are actually trying to engage the substance of the issues and work for a real solution that actually addresses real needs. You don't hear from those people too much - they certainly aren't interrupting Presidential speeches or inciting hateful speech at Town Hall meetings. They're too busy trying to get something done, and sometimes, the broken systems and processes in place actually move aside enough for those people to succeed. But we know that's rare, and certainly not as exciting to talk about on cable news as death panels, abortion funding and illegal immigrants stealing your soul in the night.
In this sense, then, it might benefit us all for members of Congress to stop pretending and speak from their hearts like Joe Wilson did. If you follow that to its natural conclusion, you know it would get pretty messy before it got any better, but perhaps it would be a step forward in creating a process that honors real dialog and integrity, instead of political convenience and artificial appearances.
I would be happy for our representatives in Washington - who often hold life and death issues in their hands - to show us their true colors on live national television every day. Wouldn't you?