9/10/2009

Don't Turn Your Back on a South Carolina Boy

"You lie!" That was Rep. Joe Wilson's histrionic scream last night during President Obama's address to the nation and Congress on Health Care Reform. Never mind that President Obama was refuting a GOP lie that "illegal aliens" would not only get free health care but get it before citizens. Never mind that it is in black and white in H.3200 that those in the country illegally are specifically excluded from health care proposals. Never mind that the only lie at that moment was coming from Joe Wilson's own mouth.

His red-faced snarl and gesturing were caught on camera. Attendees noted that those around him tried to get him to calm down. Obama gave him "the look" and Nancy Pelosi looked stunned. It was a moment of shocking discord in our rather staid halls of government.

Erudite political observers were quick to point out that it was nothing really. "Happens in Parliament all the time. Sure it was unusual, but let's move on." Of course, had Wilson said that in Parliament there is a pretty good chance that, being a personal attack on character, he would have been "named" by the Speaker and held up for reprimand or censure.

But really, what's a little yelling? When it comes to Representatives from South Carolina yelling is the least of your worries. Take the case of Rep. Preston Brooks. Brooks took great offense at Senator Charles Sumner's (MA) comments about South Carolina senator Andrew Butler and his support of Kansas as a slave state. So, Brooks slipped into the Senate chamber and walked up behind Sumner carrying a light cane with a silver handle. He struck Sumner in the back of the head and as Sumner lurched around the chamber he continued to beat him with the stick. After Sumner had collapsed to the floor and Brooks landed a few more blows he quietly walked out of the chamber and returned to his office.

Preston Brooks did not even receive a censure for his actions. In South Carolina he became a hero with people sending him canes and notes of congratulations on his violent action. In fact, Preston Brooks is still a hero to many older South Carolinians.

When I was in grade school and junior high studying history, we were told this story and Brooks was always portrayed as a heroic figure defending the honor of a fellow Carolinian. My teachers seemed to tacitly approve that Sumner's characterization of slavery as "Butler's Mistress" was sufficient cause for him to be ambushed and beaten on the floor of the Senate. It was only in high school that I learned that "Mistress" was a rhetorical flourish and Butler was not being accused of adultery. Were my early teachers ignorant or were they indoctrinating their students into believing that a man who should be a national pariah was justified in his violent act?

But, Joe Wilson yelling "You lie!" at the President during a speech before Congress is just par for the course when it comes to those holding onto the Old South mentality. Joe Wilson said in his half-hearted "apology" that his emotions got the better of him. But what were those emotions?

First of all, South Carolina has seen a rapid increase in immigration in recent years. Before I moved to Arizona my hometown that previous had consisted of two races since colonial times had exploded with a vibrant Latino community. Stores began carrying items labeled in Spanish. Mexican restaurants flourished (real Mexican restaurants - not Taco Bell). No longer were students taught Spanish in school with a Southern drawl but by native speakers. Medical personnel had to learn basic Spanish to care for many of their patients. It was a radical shift in an almost 300 year old culture based on a black-white dichotomy.

Many older South Carolinians have had a hard time with this. They've never like African-Americans and aren't shy about expressing that dislike, but these new immigrants seemed worse to them because they didn't even speak English and weren't "American."

Joe Wilson is the embodiment of those people. When Strom Thrumond's daughter came forward in 2003, Wilson led the attack against her. He accused her of lying then he said she should shut up and not bring up Thurmond's extra-marital affairs. This is despite the fact that Thurmond, that poster child of the Old South and segregation had supported his African-American family for decades. It was the plantation system writ modern! Joe Wilson could not fathom his hero of anti-miscegenation laws and segregation would love an African-American woman and father a daughter by her whom he provided for. Joe lashed out.

Flash forward to 2009 and we have an African American President at the podium giving a speech to cheers and applause. He begins to talk about immigrants and Joe Wilson cannot stomach it any more. Joe Wilson is invested in hating immigrants, he's invested in hating African-Americans and opposing anything an African-American President will do. It was too much.

It may have sounded like "You lie!" when he yelled it but what we really heard was the Old South still crying out in its death rattle.

Mr. President, you can accept his apology, but take a lesson from Charles Sumner: Don't turn your back on a South Carolina boy.

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