Thursday, September 10, 2009

Joe Wilson’s “he”

Congressman Joe Wilson spoke briefly to reporters this morning, looking and sounding like a kid who’s just been to the principal’s office. Well, that’s what happens when you act up during a school assembly. Watch and listen as Wilson meets the press. Do you notice something missing?

What I notice is not the absence of “I apologize,” not the absence of “I’m sorry”: what’s really noticeable here is the absence of any reference to President Obama by name. Note what Wilson says at 2:07: “When he stated, as he did.” There’s no earlier mention of President Obama in these remarks. Is it too much to expect Wilson to refer to the president by name?

I don’t think I’m making too much of this bit of reference. To omit a name often implies contempt. Remember John McCain’s “That one”? I’m reminded too, rightly or wrongly, of the way in which kids when angered and upset will refer to the offending parent only by pronoun: “Mom, he’s not being fair!” I think that any parent or child from a pronoun-using family can confirm this observation.

I for one really like the sound of “President Obama.” I like typing the words too. And I should note that Wilson’s written statement does refer to “the president.”

In other news, a website for Congressman Wilson’s Democratic opponent Rob Miller has raised $133,399 since last night. Correction: $133,424.

Related posts
Advice for Joe Wilson
Going to the meeting

comments: 8

T. said...

I was offended when I heard on NPR that Congressman Wilson only made the phone call to the White House at the urging of senior Republicans.

I think it may actually BE too much to expect Mr. Wilson to have the respect to acknowledge the president by name.

And this, when his accusation, "You lie," was itself a lie.

On a related literary note, have you ever read the children's books of Madeleine L'Engle? The idea of "naming" and "un-naming" is a theme in her work, particularly in A Wind in the Door, related to recognition of intrinsic dignity of the other versus the failure to do so: basically, the struggle between good and evil.

Michael Leddy said...

I suspect that the urging bit allows him to maintain his street cred — yes, he apologized, but only because they made him do it.

I wish I could say I had read Madeleine L’Engle, T., but I’ve read very little classic children’s lit.

thalkowski said...

Excellent observations (as usual)!

Numerous anthropologists have written about how names are seen by most cultures as sacred, powerful objects. (We can look, first of all, to Adam naming the animals in Genesis).

RE: the power of naming (or avoiding naming) I always think of the story 'Rumpelstiltskin'.
Wittgenstein (himself quite intoxicated by the power of names) reportedly loved that folk tale.

Michael Leddy said...

I didn’t know that about Wittgenstein (though I do know about his fondness for Carmen Miranda).

One story that comes to my mind re: names is Their Eyes Were Watching God, whose protagonist is called "Alphabet" in childhood — all names, all possibilities.

macon d said...

I think you're right on the mark here, and I also think that what's left unsaid by Wilson should be said. Actually, jimmy carter said it this week -- there's a lot of racism driving the attacks on Obama. The refusal, perhaps at an unconscious level, to see a black person as capable of leading the U.S. rings out loud and clear to me from Wilson's pronoun usage.

Michael Leddy said...

Do you think the White House is wise to stay clear of this issue, as Robert Gibbs did when commenting on Carter's remarks?

macon d said...

Wise? Well, that depends on what his goals are, I suppose, and what a "wise" course of action is toward achieving them. If the goal is racial justice and equality (which we clearly have yet to achieve), I'd like to see Obama step up and speak and act forcefully against the many forms of racism he surely knows exist. Having a beer with HL Gates and the cop who arrested him, for instance, was an apparent attempt to model a kind of racial reconciliation, but that's something in which most of his opposition has no interest.

But then, maybe his reticence about contemporary racism, including that directed toward himself, really is a way of dealing with it after all -- sort of, letting it expose itself, for one thing, and maybe also letting it flail away and ultimately burn itself out. All while demonstrating, himself, and hopefully with the non-white people he hires, the competence and effectiveness that counters racial stereotypes.

Still, I worry that if he and his administration keep letting the racism fueling much of their opposition grow, people will get hurt and killed along the way, including perhaps Obama himself. And Americans seem to like a tough-talking president, so maybe he should talk back to racism, or at least point it out--do many people, I wonder, see his reticence on this topic as a sign of weakness, or timidity?

But then I go back to thinking that even more people might get hurt and killed, and more would think of Obama as a biased, uppity, ungrateful black man, if he were to dive into the racial divide in any significant way.

So, I don't actually know if he's being wise or not. I can only hope so. What do you think?

Michael Leddy said...

I think that what you suggest in your second paragraph is close to the mark, Macon. Obama seems to me to be following one of the laws of the Internet: Don’t feed the trolls.

I’m not equating racism with online stupidity and snark. But my guess is that Obama suspects that there’s nothing to be gained — for his presidency or for the country — by responding to certain sorts of statements. I think that the talking back has happened (and will continue to happen) in contexts that don’t involve slurs directed toward him.