Sam Smith

So Joe Wilson is a jerk. That’s no excuse for his critics to get all prissy about his calling Obama a liar during his congressional speech. After all now you know Joe Wilson is a jerk.

That’s the way it’s meant to work, but does less and less, in part because America has become so sanctimonious about proper political behavior and so indifferent to good political policy. One reason is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to discuss what Wilson said than what is in the health care legislation. Politicians, the media and the public love these diversions. They’re so easy to talk about and make it so easy for others to keep doing the real stuff behind the scenes.

I blame C-SPAN for some of this. I suspect the network is one of the main reasons we now have covert filibusters without the need for anyone to make a fool of themselves for 12 hours on national TV.

But it is also a larger part of our society, a growing emphasis on propriety even as our culture deteriorates. That’s not uncommon. Think how stuffy the Brits got before their empire fell apart. The politesse of collapse.

If politics was as pompous and priggish as it is today, I never would have gotten interested in it. It’s one of the reason I prefer watching the British parliament to the U.S. Congress; its members haven’t given up their humanity just to look better on TV.

And it’s not just Britain. Here are some news quotes culled from a number of countries:

[] The Legislative Assembly in Tonga has accepted apologies from two members before its two week adjournment. The apologies came from Akilisi Pohiva and Etuate Lavulavu for contempt of the house stemming from deliberations over a proposed bill on the rights to protect a person’s name for commercial purposes. Mr Lavulavu said the bill followed false accusations that King Taufa’ahau Tupou had 350-million US dollars in his personal possession and the bill was drafted to protect him. Member Uliti Uata responded by saying the king was already protected by Clause 7 of the constitution. Mr Pohiva then picked up a law book and threatened to throw it at Mr Lavulavu over his reasoning for the bill. Mr Lavulavu then challenged him to throw the book so he could then hit Mr Pohiva. The Assembly is now adjourned for two weeks for the annual visits of members to their constituencies.”

Parliament descended into high farce today after the word lying was banned in the Lower House. Acting speaker Brenton Best ruled that no member of the Tasmanian Parliament could use the words liar, lie or lying anywhere within the House of Assembly. Twice the parliament went to the vote to test Mr Best’s unusual ruling, with the Government using its numbers to defeat the Greens and Liberals who disagreed with the ban. Past practice in parliaments around the world is that while no MP can call another a liar or accuse them of lying, the words are able to be used in general debate. But this afternoon Mr Best ruled that none of the words relating to the act of lying could ever be used in Tasmania’s Lower House, in any context of any debate. . . Both the Greens and Liberals objected violently and loudly to Mr Best’s interpretation of the standing orders that disallowed the L-word ever to be used in the House. “This is extraordinary; we can’t use the L-word ever?,” Mr Booth asked incredulously. . . “You lot are bringing this House into disrepute; this chamber should be a bastion of free speech – [how can] you suggest the word lying cannot be used at all?” Mr Gutwein said.”

Catcalls and charges echoed through the West German Parliament today as it gave a rowdy and heated foretaste of the domestic political struggle shaping over German unity. Among many exchanges of insults, opposition Social Democrats called Chancellor Helmut Kohl a rabble-rouser and accused him of handling reunification as his private business. Members of the Chancellor’s party, the Christian Democratic Union.”

A scuffle broke out
in Taiwan’s rowdy parliament over an opposition bill on Tuesday, with lawmakers exchanging punches and a flying mobile phone leaving one with a bloodied eye. The fight erupted as lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and its ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, tried to stop a vote on an opposition bill to create an independent media watchdog. Chang Sho-wen, a lawmaker from the main opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, was hit in his left eye by a mobile phone, witnesses said. Blood gushed from his face and the lawmaker was rushed to hospital.”

In what appears to be a continuing trend from the Australian House of Representatives Question Time session November 2, a further six Federal Opposition members and one Government member were ejected during and just after Question Time. Anthony Albanese, having been warned earlier to Question Time was the first removed, and after Opposition members had interjected “Boring, boring!” to an answer from the Australian Treasurer Peter Costello describing the Opposition stance on the industrial relations reform as a “scare campaign”, the Speaker Neil Andrew issued a “general warning”. . . Edwards said “You’re a fraud, Abbott!” and he was also removed.

India’s Parliament on Wednesday elected its first-ever female speaker, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and an untouchable – a member of India’s lowest caste. Meira Kumar, 64, was elected unopposed and immediately assumed her post. . . Lawmakers thumped their desks to cheer Kumar as she was congratulated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. . . The speaker’s job is a difficult one in India’s often rowdy Parliament. Previous speakers were often forced to issue sharp reprimands or walk out when members shouted slogans and bickered, especially over contentious legislation.

The telecast of the question hour
in Malaysia’s Dewan Rakyat (parliament) is to continue despite rowdy scenes being caught ‘live’ during a 30-minute coverage. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he was “ashamed” after the first television coverage of parliament proceedings last week, when the new session began on a chaotic note following the March elections. . . However, Indian origin lawmaker Karpal Singh said the public outcry at the parliament’s proceedings was “unwarranted” and that it should be “seen in a perspective”. “We need a parliament which is robust,” he said. According to him, lively exchanges and repartee enliven what would otherwise be mundane and dull proceedings. “I have been a member of parliament for 26 years. One of the dullest places on earth is the parliament,” he said.

Months of political crisis for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reached a climax Friday, when lawmakers headed by the country’s conservative opposition party voted to impeach him for violating election law and for incompetence. . . The vote Thursday followed two days of high drama, involving the reported suicide of a businessman Roh accused of corruption, the attempted suicide of a Roh supporter, the setting alight of a car on the Assembly steps, and brawling inside the chamber. Overnight, rival groups of lawmakers tussled for physical control of the speaker’s podium in the Assembly – the only location from which the speaker can call for a vote, according to national law.[]

Philip Rucker and Ann Gerhart of the Washington Post added some poignant moments from our own past in a story about Wilson: “Wilson’s surprising moment drew renewed attention to the Palmetto State’s history of colorful politics. Historians recall the state’s then-Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond wrestling Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Tex.) in 1964 over a civil rights nomination, and Rep. John W. Jenrette (D-S.C.) and his then-wife Rita having sex on the Capitol steps in the 1970s. . .”

Today every politician learns first and foremost how to be appropriately insincere. And when they screw up, they say they “misspoke” or used a “wrong choice of words.”

One of the problems with this is that it makes it harder to tell the fools from the wise ones. When everyone uses the same spin, when everyone – if you will – lies, then how do you tell them apart?

Which is why, for all their other faults, I still bless the British for their parliament. In Britain at least, the prime minister doesn’t just pay only occasional visits totally spun and rehearsed and with no questions allowed. And it was in Britain where the speaker of the House once issued one of the finest parliamentary pleas ever: “Order. Order. Order! . . . Your behavior disfigures our proceedings.”


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