Last Wednesday I sat down to watch President Obama speak to Congress and the nation about health care reform. Like many Americans over the last few months, I have been downright overwhelmed by all the health care hullabaloo, so I was looking forward to learning more about the president's plan.
Things were chugging along pretty well for a while. For the first time I could actually visualize what health care reform would look like. I learned I would be able to keep the same insurance I have always had, that we would not be adopting the Canadian model and that insurance companies would no longer be allowed to deny insurance to people just because they're already sick. Then someone started shouting.
I would like to think a 62-year-old man, with well over 20 years in politics under his belt, would know better than to shout at the president during a formal, live address. Unfortunately, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina proved me wrong, yelling "You lie!" as the president informed the public that illegal immigrants would not be insured by the new plan.
It's important to note that Wilson is a bit of a political oddity-in 2000 he voted in favor of flying the Confederate battle flag above the South Carolina state house-however, Wilson was hardly the only embarrassment that evening.
House Republican Whip Eric Cantor tooled around on his BlackBerry during the speech and several other Republicans passive-aggressively waved copies of their own health care bills over their heads from time to time. Seriously? Are we so divided we must resort to incivility?
At the signing of the Declaration of Independence Benjamin Franklin said, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." I wonder what good ol' Ben would've said if he had been sitting next to me when Wilson, for the first time in our remembered history, called the President of the United States a liar during a joint session of Congress. I think he probably would have readied the nooses, or tied a lightning rod to his head, because Americans were not hanging together that night, nor are we now for that matter.
The day after the speech the London-based Daily Telegraph wrote "Mr. Wilson showed an ugly side of America." Too right he did. Both Wilson's outburst, and the bad behavior during the speech, represent the breed of partisanship that immobilizes our government.
As students it's easy to feel all too far removed from the uncouth nonsense we hear about up on The Hill, but whether we like it or not, the actions of our leaders influence our behavior. Wilson and friends telegraph with their actions two clear messages: "We don't have to respect anyone-not even the president," and "neither do you."
At this point the ball is in our court. We can let stupid behavior penetrate the way individual Americans interact with each other, or we can try not to engage in the vicious cycle of "us versus them." I get it, when you're ticked off about politics, using ultra-left or -right rhetoric feels good. The problem is that extremism, neither left- nor right-leaning, does much for progress.
Certainly our founding fathers understood that there is a time and place for shouting in politics: see the First Amendment.
They didn't sit around sipping tea, affably musing about the future of our young nation. Those guys got so irate they blew their wigs off. In this country, passion and politics are like ketchup and mustard-more often than not, they come together.
However, there is also a time and place for shutting up, sitting up straight and listening.
In politics it's called "When the president is giving a speech."
Say whatever you please when the speech is over. March your right-wing hiney over to the Fox News cameraman and spill your guts, cry to Keith Olbermann for all I care-people died for you to have that right-but when the man the people elected is giving a speech, you ought to show some respect, even if you disagree.
As students at Emerson College, some of us future politicians, all of us leaders, we should learn from the poor examples set by our politicians, rather than follow them. We are too young to be part of this cantankerous and sinking ship.