Friday, September 11, 2009

A different perspective on "You lie!"

Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst of “you lie!” during the President’s health care speech has garnered a lot of media attention. But the most interesting thing about the outburst was not the fact that it happened, but the topic that sparked the outburst in the first place: President Obama’s explanation that health care reform would not pay for illegal immigrants’ health care.

In his apology, Rep. Wilson claims that the outburst was “emotional”:

This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the President’s remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill. While I disagree with the President’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility.

The emotional nature of the outburst is crucial—this wasn’t a calculated political ploy, but rather a gut-level reaction to someone who challenged his beliefs. What’s interesting is that, out of all the bombs lobbed at health reform, “coverage of illegal immigrants” was the one that triggered his most visceral reaction. What does that say about Joe Wilson?

First, he is at least unconsciously racist. The President debunked a number of incendiary claims (including death panels) that night, and the one that got to Wilson the most was… health care for illegal immigrants? The thought of forced euthanasia of old people was less worthy of an outburst to Wilson than the thought of helping sick Mexicans get medical care? It doesn't make you racist to oppose tax dollars for illegal immigrants - it's a legitimate position - but when Wilson reacts to the prospect with that kind of fury, it does raise some questions about WHY he is so viscerally opposed to it. Like these town hall protesters, this guy has some serious issues to work out.

(This also raises the moral question of whether we should cover illegal immigrants. Sure, it seems wrong to spend taxpayer money on people who shouldn’t be in the country, but is it really right to turn away a dying person who can’t pay for treatment just because they came here illegally trying to make a better life for themselves and their family?)

More interesting is how Wilson’s outburst shows just how utterly facts have no place in the right-wing worldview. A number of dubious claims have been made about health care reform, from “death panels” to a “government takeover of health care,” but these are at least “truthy”—they are distortions of something that has basis in reality rather than outright fabrications. “Death panel” rumors do stem from language in the bill related to funding for end-of-life counseling, and a reasonable person could argue that a public health insurance option would force private insurers out of business. If there was a time to shout "you lie," it was when President Obama said he would refuse to vote for any bill that added "one single dime" to the deficit - even I'll admit that sounded like a whopper.

The statement which Rep. Wilson did single out as a “lie,” however, is completely, 100%, factually correct; the bills being considered would in no way fund health care for illegal immigrants. All you have to do is look at the actual text of the House bill, which explicitly forbids this:

Nothing in this subtitle shall allow Federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawful ly present in the United States.

Does Wilson think the text of the bill is lying? Worse, when he apologized for his incivility, he explicitly did not apologize for being wrong—in fact, he reiterated his belief that the bill will cover illegal immigrants, saying that “I disagree with the President’s statement.” Sorry Joe—you can’t “disagree” with a fact.

And that’s what’s so disturbing: this is only one instance in which conservatives have “disagreed” with known facts as if they were opinions. Because in the right-wing of the conservative worldview, there are no such things as facts and knowledge, only opinion and belief. A friend once asked me if I “believed” in global warming. I responded, Do I “believe” in global warming? Well do you “believe” in gravity? Do you “believe” that the earth revolves around the sun? We’re talking about science here—that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet is a scientific fact that we can prove to be true, not an opinion that you can choose to “believe in” or “disbelieve in.”

A core American value is the primacy of individual choice, but the modern conservative movement has elevated it too far, extending choice power over knowable truth. The First Amendment guarantees the right to choose your beliefs about God, morality, and the proper role of government, but you don’t “choose to believe” that 2+2=4: it simply is.

The reduction of facts to mere opinion is incredibly dangerous, because it means that no amount of rational argument can persuade you to accept different policies. Admittedly, liberals can be stubborn too, and indeed, almost everyone tends to discount facts that don’t support their preexisting worldview. The difference is that most liberals will at least usually engage with the other side’s facts—we may not change our mind, but we’ll at least counter fact with fact. Some conservatives, on the other hand, will discount facts out of hand without even considering that they could be possibly true. (Of course this is not all conservatives - although I do predict that the thoughtful, open-minded conservatives will gradually be pushed out of the Republican Party as the anti-intellectual Palin/Limbaugh wing takes over completely.)

Hence Rep. Joe Wilson’s reiteration that he “disagrees” with the President’s statement, despite the bill’s itself explicit prohibition on funding for illegal immigrants. How do you respond to someone like that? (Similarly, check out the comments on this WSJ blog post, covering a study showing that cap-and-trade’s benefits outweighed the costs. One comment says, “Complete nonsense. I cannot believe this garbage is being reported in the WSJ.” TWO others say, “What is this, Mother Jones [a liberal magazine]?” The commenters aren’t saying that the study is wrong based on its factual merits, but that it CANNOT be right because its implication would support policies the commenter disagrees with.)

Now, it’s entirely possible that Rep Wilson does not actually believe the bill will cover illegal immigrants, and he is simply lying about it to score political points by continuing to “disagree” with the President. But what’s telling is the nature of the outburst during the speech. This was not political calculation, but an uncontrolled outburst. He has so completely convinced himself that the bill will fund illegal immigrants’ health care that the debunking of that claim transformed into a challenge to Wilson’s deepest beliefs, triggering a visceral emotional reaction.

In any case, given the reaction to his outburst (Republicans and Democrats booed him, and the outburst has netted his opponent $175,000), I don’t think it was a premeditated move. This is not the face of political calculation:

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