Joe Wilson’s problem with progressives

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To a lot of people, Joe Wilson deserves credit not just for speaking his mind, but for speaking theirs. “He blurted out what many other Republicans probably were thinking,”  one commentator put it, while Rush Limbaugh said: “I was shouting, “You’re lying,” throughout the speech at the television.  You’re lying!  It’s a lie!  Joe Wilson simply articulated what millions of Americans were saying.” 

Well, not quite. However many Americans were moved to tax the President with dishonesty as they listend to the speech, it’s a safe bet they expressed themselves the way Limbaugh did, in the present progressive — “You’re lying.” Whereas what Wilson said was “you lie,” revisting a use of the simple present that parted ways with ordinary conversational English a couple of centuries ago. “You lie” — it’s a sentence you expect to hear finished with “sirrah,” and not the sort of thing that anyone says in a moment of spontaneous anger. (–“I really meant to put the money back.” –“You lie!”)

I don’t mean to suggest that Wilson’s effusion was planned, but it’s hard to believe it was unrehearsed: it has the sound of something he had imagined himself saying to the President in numerous idle reveries, maybe as he struck a heroic pose drawn from his recreational reading:

“You lie!” Jim did not draw. He stared at Hurlburt, his eyes unwavering. Louis L’Amour, Riding for the Brand 

You lie! Ben Ide is no horse thief,” flashed Ina, hotly. Zane Grey, Forlorn River

But in a postmodern age, most of us associate that use of the simple present less with earnest melodrama or romance than with pastiches and send-ups of the genres. Which is why, quite independent of the generic impertinence of Wilson’s remark, it sounded such a (Rocket J.) squirrely note. Limbaugh is just one of any number of people who are ready to excuse or even sympathize with Wilson’s issues with impulse control, but my guess is that a lot fewer of them would want to share that particular aspect of his inner life. 



73 Comments

  1. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    For more along these lines, see Neal Whitman’s post on Literal-Minded:

    It also seems to me that You lie somehow carries more vehemence, maybe because it sounds like archaic language, from a time when the progressive tenses weren’t as developed, language that’s only pulled out now for special and serious occasions. Not too archaic — Thou liest! would just sound like a joke — but just archaic enough.

  2. Haamu said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

    It seems like some sort of opportunity was missed in this post, given the pun in the title.

  3. Carl said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    Maybe he meant to say, “You lie habitually, and this is just one more instance of that tendency!” but he got too nervous after the first two words.

  4. Mathias said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    Strictly speaking, Obama probably should have answered Wilson’s “you lie!” with “yes, I do, but not right now”.

  5. Vance said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

    I must differ. I suspect it’s a colloquialism.

    I grew up in the South and in my youth “you lie” was a generally understood complaint/insult. It was also elaborated into “you like like a dog” and then “you lie like a rug”. I suppose it may have morphed into something like “you like like a cheap toupee” these days.

    Anyway, activate your informant network and see if it’s not still current in South Carolina. If not, the Hon. Joe may have been harking back to a schoolyard taunt. Not that a Hawaiian would get that nuance.

  6. Jonathan said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    I agree with Vance. You might want to check up on your dialect geography before extrapolating too much from the senator’s words.

    For what it’s worth, I have several times heard the phrase ‘you lie’, not as a regionalism but as a kind of slang, which I imagine has gained currency from its ‘cool’ archaism, rather like ‘i kid you not’. Maybe we should all go back through our issues of American Speech to find whether someone hasn’t already studied this phenomenon. Whether Mr Wilson was using it as slang or dialect I don’t know.

  7. rootlesscosmo said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    flashed Ina, hotly

    An illustration of the wisdom of Elmore Leonard’s advice: when writing dialogue, don’t use any verbs in place of “he said” or “she said.”

  8. Roger Lustig said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    Another vote for Vance. I’ve heard the “you lie” idiom since heaven knows when, and I’m from DC–that odd enclave, linguistic and otherwise.

    Mind you, “sirrah” was not the word that Mo Dowdhttp://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/opinion/13dowd.html?_r=1&ref=opinion considered implicit…

  9. John Lawler said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    Straighforwardly enough, You lie is simply a sentence with a generic verb, often called a “habitual” generic sentence. There are generic verbs as well as generic nouns in English; they tend to be uses of active verbs in the simple present tense.
    What Joe Wilson was saying was that President Obama is a liar, not necessarily that any particular utterance of his was a lie; as far as Wilson is concerned, they’re all lies, apparently. Are we dealing here with Cretans or cretins?

    As Geoff pointed out, the way to talk about something that’s going on in the present is to use the present progessive; if you use simple present with an active predicate you’re likely making a general statement of tendencies, like Bill drives to work or That dog bites.

    Wow, two posts on two different kinds of generics in two days! A new record. Incidentally, these and other varieties of English generic were described in greater detail a long time ago here.

  10. Mark F. said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 11:52 pm

    John Lawler — That’s the thing about this particular idiom. “You lie!” isn’t taken in a habitual sense. It really does refer to a specific utterance. (I’m also from the south, FWIW.)

  11. John Lawler said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 12:33 am

    Yes, in that usage it’s very archaic, as Geoff pointed out.
    But even that is not just an accusation of one-off lying; it’s also an insult much stronger than that. 200 years ago (and probably considerably more recently than that in some places) it would be a challenge to a duel. That’s not just whistlin’ Dixie.

  12. John Cowan said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 12:55 am

    Not really on-topic, but perhaps interesting to this community: my post on the seven degrees of the lie.

  13. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 1:05 am

    The accusation “You lie” sounds familiar to me — a native Texan — so I suspect the commenters who have said it’s colloquial or a regionalism are correct, as far as they go. However the only time I remember hearing it used regularly was back in the seventh grade. Which is to say, I suspect it’s a juvenile colloquialism.

    The real irony here is that it was Mr. Wilson, not the President, who was lying. Of course, that was fairly common among the seventh graders who used it, too.

  14. Peter Metcalfe said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 1:47 am

    I recall “You Lie” being used in a Garfield Cartoon quite a few years back (well something like two decades back….)

  15. joanne salton said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 2:31 am

    If I ever repeatedly abuse our prime minister in public I think it might be a tough choice. Shall I go for the local dialect and give my abuse an earthy kind of edge, or shall I stick with formal standard English for a more intellectual seeming heckle?

  16. MikeyC said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 2:57 am

    I think you’ll find that a lot of folks in NW England still say “You lie!”, and I’ve never hear them add “Sir/Sirrah”.

  17. MikeyC said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 3:01 am

    In NW England, it normally means “You are a liar!”.

  18. Karl said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 3:05 am

    Another vote in favor of this being perfectly reasonable modern usage. I will concede that I read a lot more than I talk to other human beings, however, and am fond of quite a lot of things that some might call archaic.

  19. Herb Zimmerman said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 3:59 am

    It would have cost Joe Wilson a million dollars to buy TV time to cover the entire US, and say that the president was lying. It was a very efficient way of sending his message.
    It was like a “Shot heard ’round the world.”

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 4:02 am

    Just for fun, I searched Google Books for instances of “you lie”, retaining only the hits where those two words are a self-contained phrase. The first ten:

    Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo: “You lie ! ” said the Abbe Busoni, with a tone of irresistible authority.

    Michael Crighton, Timeline: “You lie, you lie, you lie!” Oliver spun, stamped his foot, stared off at the siege engines. “Look to the plain. See how they make ready.”

    Anne Rice, The Vampire Armand: “I did it for you.” “Oh, you lie. you lie in your heart,” I said.

    Sir Walter Scott, Waverly: “You lie, traitor ! ‘” was his frantic reply”

    C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: “Ape,” he cried with a great voice, “you lie. You lie damnably.”

    Michael Swanwick, King Dragon: “You have no choice,” the dragon said complacently. “The door is locked and you cannot escape; Moreover I am larger and more powerful than you. This is the Lex Mundi, from which there is no appeal.” “You lie! You lie! You lie!”

    Anecdotical Memoirs of Emperor Nicholas I: “The Russian army has taken flight.” “You lie!” cried Nicholas with a frightful explosion of anger.

    George Henry Boker, Francesca Da Rimini: PEPE. Do you believe me? LAN. No! PEPE. You lie! you lie! Look at the dagger, cousin — Ugh! — good-night! (Dies)

    Maxim Gorky, Dead Souls: PEPEL. Ha! I’l ruin the lot of you — devils — just watch! MIEDVIEDIEFF [confused]. You lie! You lie!

    Arthur Miller, The Crucible: TITUBA. (Starting to weep.) He say Mister Parris must be be kill! Mister Parris no goodly man, Mister Parris mean man and no gentle man, and he bid me rise out of my bed and cut your throat! […] And I say, You lie, Devil, you lie!

    Q.E., I think, D.

    Like some other commenters, I recall use of “You lie!” as a playground challenge — and I grew up in rural eastern Connecticut, well above the Mason-Dixon line. But boys in those mostly-pre-television days were avid consumers of Dumas, Scott, Zane Grey and their imitators.

  21. David Cantor said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 4:22 am

    The NYTImes columnist Maureen Dowd has hypothesized (13Sep09) that Joe’s comment was a shortened version of “You lie, boy!” i.e. a racial epithet. Hard to see how one could prove or disprove the hypothesis.

  22. Graeme said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 6:25 am

    You’re all mistaken. There was a subtle pause in the interjection.

    ‘You. Lie!’ the congressman demanded, unused as he was to hearing the truth.

  23. Mark Liberman said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 7:11 am

    As a control, here are the first 10 hits from a Google Books search for “you’re lying”, again retaining only the cases where it’s a self-contained phrase:

    Ellen Wittlinger, Hard Love: “You’re lying. You don’t deserve to have such a wonderful mother, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

    E. E. Charlton-Trujillo, Feels like Home: “You’re lying,” she said, not lilting her eyes from the flavor-of-the-month quiz.

    Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities: “You’re lying!” She gave him a hideous smile.

    Myrna B. Sure, Thinking Parent, Thinking Child: “You’re Lying!” Running through the living room, your ten-year-old broke your favorite flowerpot. “It wasn’t me!” he cries, blaming his brother.

    Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment: “You’re lying, you damned Mr Punch!”

    Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides: “You’re lying, Tom,” she said with conviction.

    Bruce Weber, As They See ’em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires: H: You’re lying. W: No, you are.

    The works of Saint Augustine: a translation for the 21st century: You’re lying, because you don’t say with your lips what you believe yourself to be in your heart.

    Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education: You ‘re lying, you wretch ! You ‘re jealous of her.

    Ira Levin, Rosemary’s Baby: “You’re lying,” she said. “I don’t believe you. You’re both lying. … You’re lying. You’re witches.

  24. Brett said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    I just wanted to note that among the Google Books examples, there are a few glaring problems with just the author/title metadata. C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle is mis-labeled as The Chronicles of Narnia, and Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece Dead Souls is attributed to Maxim Gorky.

  25. sleepnothavingness said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 8:42 am

    FWIW, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered “You lie” as a hypothetical, unlike “You’re lying”. The latter is often used as a placeholder for “I refuse to acknowledge statement X”, “I don’t believe you”, or as a less than forceful suggestion of duplicity.

    With “You lie” there is no doubt left as to the directness of the challenge of wrongdoing.

  26. Acilius said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    I don’t believe that Professor Liberman’s Google results give us any evidence for the relative frequency of “You lie!” in colloquial American English in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries.

    I think they would provide good evidence for a claim that contemporary novelists are less likely to have their characters use the expression “You lie!” than were nineteenth-century adventure writers. If that claim were validated, surely the most straightforward explanation for it would be that contemporary novelists are less likely than were nineteenth century adventure novelists to put in the mouths of their characters retorts that are neither inventive nor obscene. I doubt that it would even be necessary to know how frequently “You lie!” was used in colloquial speech in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to test that hypothesis.

    [(myl) I didn’t mean to suggest a temporal distinction (though I believe that there’s good evidence, independent of all this, for a change over time in the force and frequency of simple present vs. present progressive). What struck me was a genre distinction — and there are plenty of 20th- and even 21st-century writers of (a certain style of) adventure stories who fall easily into the “you lie” mode of writing.]

  27. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 10:52 am

    I can think of other examples of the simple present that would sound grammatically natural to me in the given context. Things like “You stand there, and you tell us all these things, and you expect us to believe them!” I don’t think it’s reserved for a verb like “lie”.

  28. Lou Hevly said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    I’m from the Pacific Northwest and “You lie!” doesn’t sound unusual or archaic to me either. “You’re lying” can be taken less than literally, but “You lie” are fighting words.

  29. Michael Straight said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    In my peer group in Ohio, “You lie” was a friendly retort when someone is boasting, truthful or not. Often especially responding to a truthful boast, followed by a fanciful put-down detailing what “really” happened.

  30. Boris said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    @Skullturf, in your example, it’s the “and you expect us to believe them” that makes your example ok. I’m not a linguist, so I can’t explain what that’s called. Remove that part of the phrase and it sounds awkward again. “You lie and expect us to believe you” also sounds ok, but neither this nor your example mean “you’re lying” exactly.

  31. Liz said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    Well, English from the North West, and I would take this as a general statement of blanket disapproval, not a complaint specific to the occasion.

  32. Jesse Hochstadt said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

    The relevant question with respect to Joe Wilson’s word choice (well, phrase choice) is not what most people would say or how the usage of the phrase has changed over time or place. Rather, it’s Wilson’s dialect, or even something closer to his idiolect: the language he grew up around, especially among his family and neighbors (and that he perhaps has failed to “unlearn”).

    Now, if you want to talk about how most people would interpret that phrase, that’s a different question. And even there, Geoff Nunberg’s intuition’s – or those of any other individual – are irrelevant. It’s surprising to see Nunberg making such a blanket statement on a blog where so many other contributors insist that others back up their linguistic arguments with evidence. (As Mark Liberman states, his text-querying doesn’t address the issue.)

    That said, I grew up in the Northeast US (Brooklyn, to be specific) and am pretty sure I’ve heard people say, “You lie!” without following it with a “sirrah,” a “rapscallion,” or a “Barack Obama, Esq.” My sense is that it’s used more among teenagers or younger people, and it expresses incredulity more often than it represents a direct accusation of lying – but that hardly means there aren’t other usages out there.

  33. James C. said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    In Hawaiʻi the representative might have said “no bulai!”, or perhaps the more verbose “no bulai you!”.

  34. SP Hoyle said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    I live in England, and “You lie” sounds melodramatic to me (as well as rude). But the perceived melodrama may arise from an American source, which is one of my earliest memories. I lived in New Jersey in the late 1940s and was the proud owner of a set of 78rpm records of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (not I think the Disney version, but I could be wrong). Anyway, about the only line I can recall from it is the Wicked Queen’s reaction to what the mirror tells her. She screeches: “You lie, you wretched mirror, you lie!”

    I loved it, and years later so did my children when I rendered it for them.

    Perhaps the Wicked Queen was from Georgia? Just a thought. Or perhaps this Wilson fellow also owned this seminal reecording, and has the line lying around in the lumber-room of his memory? It would make his behaviour even worse, but I’m just wondering.

  35. Maria said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    I grew up in northern New Jersey, and in the late 90s when I was in school, “you lie” was either a playful, mostly sarcastic response or fighting words. Wilson’s comment didn’t sound archaic or odd to me.

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    More data for the dialect survey? When I were a lad in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, even most of the white kids spoke or imitated AAVE, and the normal way to say a boy was lying was “You a lie, boa”. (That last word, meaning “boy”, was pronounced something like [bɔɘ].) I never asked whether this was closer to “You lie” or “You’re a liar.”

    Here in New Mexico, I used to hear “Liar!” a lot. This was appropriate when you think someone is lying, or teasing you, or wrong, or telling you something that you very much want to believe or disbelieve. However, once one of my students, not seeing some piece of equipment where I said it was, said, “You lie.”

    (Now, in these situations, it seems I hear “Shut up!” or “Shut the fuck up!” more often.)

    In Ankh-Morpork, which I think is dialectically near southern England, some people correct themselves by saying, “I tell a lie”—again a generic-looking present tense.

    In keeping with Mark Liberman’s search results, I don’t remember ever hearing or reading “You lie” as a generic. It always means “You’re lying” or “You just lied.”

  37. Nathan Myers said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    I’ve spent most of my life in Hawaii and on the west coast. I’ve read “you lie” many times, but I’ve only ever heard it spoken aloud in an ironic or humorous mode, e.g. in response to an obvious or apparent exaggeration, or expressing wishful thinking. When I hear it, I expect a punchline from one or other party. The effect, for me, in a political context is simply comical.

  38. John Lawler said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    Not to disagree, but it’s actually a pretty complicated situation. There are some (I guess I should call them idiomatic) phrases in the simple present (e.g, X lies like a rug) that don’t work so well in the progressive (?*X is lying like a rug), and most of them also mean “X is a liar”.

    Generic verbs are not always universal (like Bill walks to work), and don’t even have to refer to more than one event, especially when dealing with dangerous or strongly disapproved-of events — That dog bites, for instance, needs no more than one event to be generically true.

    Lying is similar. If someone is a liar, that fact in itself does not mean they always lie, so Epimenides’ paradox doesn’t arise here. A liar is simply someone who is willing to lie ad lib; pathological liars are, well, pathological.

  39. Douglas McClean said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    Jonathan, @7:10, said:

    “I agree with Vance. You might want to check up on your dialect geography before extrapolating too much from the senator’s words.”

    Jonathan, you might want to check up before promoting Representative Wilson to Senator.

  40. DaveK said,

    September 14, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

    I remember the phrase from my boyhood back in the late ’60s. It was used all the time as the sort of challenge pre-teen boys love to throw at each other (“Oh, yeah?” “You gonna make me?”). I expect it gained currency because it was a lot punchier than “You’re lying”–none of them fussy little unstressed syllables for us, dude.

    Ah, the halcyon days of childhood…

  41. Dan Holden said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    My students are fond of the phrase, “you a lie.” The intended meaning is, “you are a liar.”

    On a side note, when you look up liar on m-w.com the google ad is for Joe Wilson’s campaign.

  42. Allan said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    @ 9:05 pm & @ 12:33
    John Lawler prescribes!

    Doesn’t usage evolve? Or are you a prescriptivist? (Not fighting words, just a request for information. Speaking of which, two hundred years ago, I think “You lie” would have been a provocation to a duel, not a challenge. They were very careful about those things. If what you say were true, Wilson would be expecting Obama to challenge him to a duel.)

    By the way, one would think also that someone in a group weblog dedicated to language issues would have access to a modern speech corpus rather than relying on a Google Books search.

  43. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    A similar (perhaps) use of the simple present in a fixed phrase:

    “Surely you jest.”

  44. Geoff Nunberg said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    From the comments, I can see where Wilson could have intended “you lie” as a colloquial way of giving somebody the lie, not in friendly banter, but as if he were calling somebody out in a street quarrel. Contempt breeds familiarity, too, the kind that leads utter strangers to toss T-forms of pronouns at each other in Paris traffic jams. If that was the story, Dowd was right to imagine Wilson’s ejaculation tailing into a vernacular deprecation — “boy” isn’t a bad guess in the circumstances, though “Sparky” would have been more than impertinent enough. And in that case the simple present “you lie” would have had its origin in a very different kind of reverie, one at once more vulgar and more accessible to Limbaugh and a lot of Obama’s right-wing critics, though it took Wilson’s exceptional lack of impulse control to voice it in that room.

  45. George said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 6:26 pm

    If that was the story, Dowd was right to imagine Wilson’s ejaculation tailing into a vernacular deprecation — “boy” isn’t a bad guess in the circumstances, though “Sparky” would have been more than impertinent enough. And in that case the simple present “you lie” would have had its origin in a very different kind of reverie, one at once more vulgar and more accessible to Limbaugh and a lot of Obama’s right-wing critics, though it took Wilson’s exceptional lack of impulse control to voice it in that room.

    Of course. He was a southerner, and what’s more, right-wing, so of course he’s a racist. What other possible interpretation could there be? Oh, and Rush Limbaugh, too!

  46. Douglas McClean said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    George,
    Other evidence that he is a racist (ignored by your blase assertion that only his place of residence and political affiliation are leading to the accusation) includes his membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and his forceful advocacy for continuing to fly the Confederate Battle Flag over the South Carolina state capitol.

  47. George said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    Douglas,

    I haven’t ignored any evidence. He may very well be a racist, although I tend to doubt it. In any case, it’s irrelevant to the topic at hand. His shouted “You lie!” was a flagrant breach of decorum, regardless of whether it is true, but is simply not a racist act, even if Wilson is a racist. Not all confrontations between people of different races, even between racists of different races, are racist. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes politics is just politics.

  48. Douglas McClean said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

    George,
    That is silly. You said (sarcastically, I’m certain you’ll agree?): “Of course. He was a southerner, and what’s more, right-wing, so of course he’s a racist. What other possible interpretation could there be?”

    The clear implication of making this statement is that you blame others for jumping to the conclusion that he is a racist on those grounds. Such a claim ignores the evidence that there are much stronger reasons for believing Representative Wilson to be a racist.

    Among those reasons, of course, is a well documented 2003 incident in which Mr. Wilson decried Essie Mae Washington-Williams for “smear[ing] the image that [Strom Thurmond] has as a person of high integrity” by announcing that she was (is? he was then deceased. there’s a whole language log thread to be had here) his daughter, telling the South Carolina newspaper The State that even if her claim was true (it was long-rumored, and we now know that it in fact was true) she should have kept it to herself. How could such an announcement be a “smear,” you might reasonably ask? Well, because Ms. Washington-Williams’ mother was an African-American maid in the employ of Mr. Thurmond’s father. If this doesn’t constitute prima facie evidence that Mr. Wilson is (or in 2003 was) a racist, please kindly advise us of what would.

    Whether or not the outburst was a racist act, is, of course, utterly irrelevant to this point. For that matter, what a “racist act” might be and whether such a concept is even well-formed is utterly irrelevant to this point.

    Further, you said that the question of Wilson’s racism is “irrelevant to the topic at hand.” If you search this thread for the words “racism” and “racist”, I’m certain you’ll find that you brought it up (although I admit that plausible interpretations of Geoff’s remarks come close).

  49. George said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    Douglas,

    “Plausible interpretations of Geoff’s remarks come close”? The only point of Dowd’s column is to accuse Wilson of racism and so to make race a major focus of the conversation. There is no other reason to bring up the column. I don’t really care whether Wilson is a racist or not in this context. I wouldn’t vote for him if he were running in my district for reasons that have nothing to do with race or racism. His foolish comment during President Obama’s speech had nothing to do with race or racism. The phrase “You lie” has no racial overtones. And of course I was being sarcastic. Geoff’s comment deserved sarcasm. That all sides in the health-care debate routinely lie (the president included) is not helped by adding racial nonsense to the mix.

  50. Terry Collmann said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 7:29 am

    Would Wilson have shouted: “You lie!” at Joe Biden? If “yes”, the shout was not a racist act. If “no”, the shout was a racist act.

  51. Billy Tormus said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    So the only possible reason that someone might do things differently with two different people is race. Got it. Unfortunately, I lack the necessary materials to perform this experiment. Any suggestions?

    [(myl) To start with, I’ve never seen anyone claim that “the only possible reason that someone might do things differently with two different people is race”. But in answer to your question, you might try looking into “matched guise” experiments, in which scripted interactions are systematically varied along dimensions of interest (age, sex, regional or class identity, race, and so on), and the resulting reactions are compared. For example, you can use such techniques to show that Americans who are not from the south tend to rate people who speak with a southern accent as less intelligent than non-southerners saying exactly the same thing.

    I think it’s plausible that the negative reactions to the previous president (George W. Bush) were channeled through negative attitudes associated with this regional stereotype, and I’ve said so here on many occasions over the years. Could some of the reactions to president Obama be modulated by racial attitudes and stereotypes? That’s also plausible.

    In the case under discussion, Rep. Wilson’s outburst was clearly a violation of the behavioral norms of congress, as well as false to fact. Did race play a role in his failure to control himself, or in whatever political calculation he may have made in deciding to behave like what his wife called a “nut”? This is a reasonable question to ask, especially given his history. ]

  52. Geoff Nunberg said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    Look, Wilson didn’t simply say Obama was lying in a grotesquely inappropriate context, he said it — ex hypothesi — with an offensively familiar turn of phrase. When a white person addresses a black man with impertinent familiarity, there’s always a presumption of racism, all the more so when the target is someone whose age or station ordinarily entitles him to respectful deference. When the speaker is someone whose history includes defending the continued official use of the Confederate flag and accusing Strom Thurmond’s black daughter of “smearing” his image by revealing the relationship, well, the presumption becomes a pretty strong one.

  53. Billy Tormus said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    To start with, I’ve never seen anyone claim that “the only possible reason that someone might do things differently with two different people is race”.

    That’s pretty much what Terry Collmann claimed in the previous comment. He said that if Wilson would have treated Biden differently than Obama, it would have been because of racism, period. Perhaps he didn’t intend it as a general principle, I suppose, but that doesn’t seem likely to me.

    When a white person addresses a black man with impertinent familiarity, there’s always a presumption of racism, all the more so when the target is someone whose age or station ordinarily entitles him to respectful deference.

    That presumption is, well, presumptuous. People are rude, even in “grotesquely inappropriate contexts”, all too often for many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with race. My presumption is that Joe Wilson is a rude jerk (he is in Congress, after all) who reacted to the perceived lying of the president during a speech in a way that rude jerks do. However, maybe Joe Wilson is a modern-day Simon Legree. That still doesn’t make this interaction racist.

  54. Killer said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    Stphen Crane, 1895:

    I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
    Round and round they sped.
    I was disturbed at this;
    I accosted the man.
    “It is futile,” I said,
    “You can never — ”

    “You lie,” he cried,
    And ran on.

  55. Peter Taylor said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    Douglas McClean wrote: “If this doesn’t constitute prima facie evidence that Mr. Wilson is (or in 2003 was) a racist, please kindly advise us of what would.”

    On the basis of what you posted (i.e. without doing additional research into the incident and its context) it could just as well be evidence that Wilson considers sex outside marriage incompatible with high integrity.

  56. Douglas McClean said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    Peter Taylor,
    I take your answer to mean that if a showing could be made that that was not the case in this incident, that a prima facie case the he is/was a racist would then exist?

    Or are you planning to play Hear-No-Evil to George’s See-No-Evil and continue with this ridiculous word game where nobody is a racist unless he has committed numerous “racist acts,” nothing is a “racist act” unless it is committed by a well known racist, and having a black friend or employee is irrefutable proof that a someone is not a racist?

    Billy Tormus said “My presumption is that Joe Wilson is a rude jerk (he is in Congress, after all) who reacted to the perceived lying of the president during a speech in a way that rude jerks do.”

    Billy, perhaps you’d care to explain why, in the previous 222 years none of the other “rude jerks” in Congress have acted in such “a way that rude jerks do”? Is it because no one has ever “perceived” (interesting way to duck the fact that the “perception” was total bullshit) the President to have been lying during a speech? Is it because Wilson is just a rude-r jerkier congresscritter than has ever before existed?

  57. George said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

    Douglas,

    Give me a break. My point isn’t that Wilson isn’t a racist. Perhaps he is. If you want to insist he is, fine. My point is that, even if Wilson is a racist, that doesn’t make his outburst racist. It is not racist to call someone a liar, even if the accuser is an unabashed racist and the alleged liar is black. “Liar” is not a race-based insult. Take off your race-colored glasses.

    You also seem to have little familiarity with the history of Congress if you think this isn’t just par for the course. Congresspeople have booed at, hissed at, thrown punches at, and whacked at people with canes throughout history of the institution. Shouting “You lie!” is hardly breaking new ground in incivility, requiring massive depths of racism to explain. And if it really is your perception that Obama spoke only the unvarnished and unassailable truth in his speech, perhaps you need to take the See-No-Evil plank from your own eye.

  58. Douglas McClean said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

    George,
    First, the statement in question was absolutely true. Whatever else may be said about him, Wilson was certainly incorrect. I’m under no illusions as to President Obama’s being a politician, and therefore engaging in varying degrees of lying.

    No, your point wasn’t that Wilson isn’t a racist. Your point was (snarkily) that the only reasons Wilson’s critics are claiming he is a racist are because he is a conservative and a southerner. Faced with the fact that this is plainly incorrect, you have elected to change the subject to the assertion (with which I am inclined to agree) that this outburst was not “racist” (in whatever way an act can be racist).

    Shouting at the President while he holds the floor in the Congress does appear to be unprecedented. Certainly boos and other collective signs of disapproval are not, I don’t dispute that. If you have evidence to the contrary, please present it because I actually do have a deep familiarity with the history of the Congress and would like to deepen it.

    Incidents of booing, punching, and beating-a-senator-within-an-inch-of-his-life-for-daring-to-suggest-that-black-people-shouldn’t-be-enslaved directed at persons other than the President may be interesting, but lack relevance to my point (on which I am open to being corrected by citation to an incident in which it has) that this hasn’t happened before.

  59. Douglas McClean said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    By “the statement” in my first sentence above I mean to refer to President Obama’s statement about the leading bill’s treatment of illegal aliens.

  60. George said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    Douglas,

    My point was not, contrary to your claim, that being southern and right-wing were the only reasons that Wilson’s critics are claiming he is a racist. I was reacting to the use of the specific word “boy”, which, although not used by Wilson, was brought up by Geoff in a reference to Maureen Dowd. Do you disagree that this particular word, used in this context, is primarily considered to stereotypically be used by racist white southerners? Why did Dowd use that word, or Geoff refer to it, in this context, otherwise? Dowd’s claim was that, although Wilson didn’t use the word, he is a southern white racist, and therefore, he probably thought it. Do you disagree that this is the thrust of Dowd’s column? Geoff then claimed that a racist attitude of this sort is “one at once more vulgar and more accessible to Limbaugh and a lot of Obama’s right-wing critics”, thereby tying right-wing criticism of Obama to southern racism.

    I never claimed that this was the only reason for a racism charge for Wilson. It was, however, the reason given in the previous comment by Geoff: Wilson is a southern white racist, so that’s the only interpretation of his comment. My objection has always been to this interpretation of his comment. Yes, Wilson’s a jackass. No, his shout is not racist.

    And, no, I don’t have any specific examples of Congresspeople interrupting a president with a shout. Is that really so different than interrupting with boos? Seriously? You think booing is okay, but a shouted “You lie” is just beyond the pale?

    And while it is true that the leading bill states that illegal aliens cannot benefit from the provisions of the bill, it is also true that no specific enforcement mechanism for this is indicated in the bill, despite attempts by some Congresspeople to get such mechanisms added. Therefore, it has been argued by many (and I am sure that Obama is aware of the argument) that, regardless of whether the bill says it excludes illegal aliens, without enforcement mechanisms, the bill will de facto not exclude illegal aliens. The truth of the matter is therefore not quite as straightforward as you would make it out to be.

  61. Douglas McClean said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 1:01 am

    George,
    You said Dowd said: “Dowd’s claim was that, although Wilson didn’t use the word, he is a southern white racist, and therefore, he probably thought it. ”

    This is a good precis, since her column includes the following reasons for believing Wilson to be a racist:

    “The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president.”

    In your comment on the matter, you neglected to ignore this and chose instead to chastise Geoff/Dowd/unspecified others for assuming that because Wilson was a southern conservative that he was a racist. You said “Of course. He was a southerner, and what’s more, right-wing, so of course he’s a racist. What other possible interpretation could there be?” To now claim that your “point was not [] that being southern and right-wing were the only reasons that Wilson’s critics are claiming he is a racist” is ludicrous. It plainly was.

    I didn’t say (and don’t believe) that it was “beyond the pale.” (Although it was against the rules.) I said it was unprecedented. You said I was ignorant of history. You now present no counterexamples to my claim that it was unprecedented.

    The bill prohibits illegal aliens from benefiting. By creating an insurance mandate, it requires them to pay their way. Acts of Congress regularly prohibit or require all sorts of things without specifying enforcement mechanisms. That Obama’s statement is a “lie” is nuts. The argument for more explicit enforcement is one that Wilson can, could, had, has, and will make in numerous other fora.

  62. Peter Taylor said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 5:24 am

    No, my point was that the evidence you supplied is reasonably capable of various interpretations and hence doesn’t make a prima facie case for anything. Provide an instance of Wilson responding differently to a white person making a high-profile claim to be the illegitimate child of someone he respects and you start to have a case. Provide any evidence that race was relevant to his statement and you start to have a case.

    But the evidence you’ve supplied so far does not on the face of it demonstrate any link between the ethnicity of Washington-Williams and Wilson’s response to her claim, and if you insist that a claim to be someone’s illegitimate daughter can be a smear on his integrity solely because it implies he slept with someone of a different ethnicity then I shall be forced to conclude that you are the racist.

  63. George said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 8:27 am

    Douglas,

    This is my last post on the matter, as you don’t seem to want to acknowledge that I know what my point was better than you. Again, I will spell it out. My point really was not that “being southern and right-wing were the only reasons that Wilson’s critics are claiming he is a racist”. I did not attempt to reply to all of Wilson’s critics everywhere, and don’t even pretend to know what every single critic of Wilson bases their beliefs on. I was replying specifically to Geoff’s comment, in which the confluence of racism, southernness, and right-wing politics were mentioned, and used to make insinuations about the phrase “You lie”. That’s it. That you read some attempt to rebut any and all criticisms in regards to racism of Wilson by anyone at any time into that is your mistake, not mine.

    The reasons you cite from Dowd’s column, by the way, while certainly prevalent among southern racists, are not exclusive to southern racists, by any means. They are not conclusive proof of racism by Wilson, although they are probably sufficient cause to want to look for real evidence. Do you have any? And in any case, these reasons were not mentioned in Geoff’s comment, which is what I was replying to.

    And that Obama’s statement is a “lie” is simply not nuts, your contention to the contrary notwithstanding. Acts of Congress do indeed regularly prohibit or require all sorts of things without specific enforcement mechanisms. And without enforcement, these provisions often mean little to nothing. Again, Wilson was in the wrong when he shouted “You lie” during Obama’s speech, but not because his claim was untrue. And it is only unprecedented if you insist on dismissing all possible precedents, because, for example, shouting “Boooo, boooo!” just can’t possibly be compared in any way to shouting “You lie”.

  64. Douglas McClean said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    Collectively booing during a speech is indistinguishable from individually shouting you lie when the President has the floor? If so, then why has the former happened many times, as you point out, and the latter only once? Is it perhaps because the written and unwritten rules make a distinction?

    Geoff was discussing Dowd’s column, which clearly gives several reasons beyond southern-ness and conservatism for believing Wilson to be a racist. You responded to it by ignoring that and accusing unnamed parties, above clarified to be Geoff only, of thinking “Of course. He was a southerner, and what’s more, right-wing, so of course he’s a racist. What other possible interpretation could there be?”

    Pace Peter Taylor, racism is a state of mind. Unless you want fMRI studies of Wilson, it’s unclear to me what evidence you would accept as showing that he or anyone else is a racist. The evidence that you request (a showing of “an instance of Wilson responding differently to a white person making a high-profile claim to be the illegitimate child of someone he respects”) seems designed to be weaseled out of. He didn’t call such a claim a smear? Oh, it must be because he didn’t respect the subject of the claim in the same way he respected Thurmond. (Not to mention, of course, that the whole high-profile claim of illegitimate parentage thing just doesn’t happen very often to start with; how often does it happen to “someone he respects”?)

    Also, it seems that if, for the reason you hypothesize, it didn’t make him a racist then it would certainly make it a moron. Why should she (not a party to what Wilson perceives — ex hypothesi — to be the wrongdoing of out-of-wedlock-conception) have to keep her mouth shut just to protect Thurmond, who he — also ex hypothesi — respects despite said wrongdoing, from having his wrongdoing revealed? The mind boggles.

    My central claim here (that George’s drive-by at Geoff was undeserved, since in fact reasons had been given apart from southern-ness and conservatism) is not predicated on the epistemology of proving Wilson to be a racist beyond any last shred of doubt. That’s a project in which I have no interest, especially in a debate where the definitional goalposts are on wheels the way they are here.

    “Acts of Congress do indeed regularly prohibit or require all sorts of things without specific enforcement mechanisms. And without enforcement, these provisions often mean little to nothing.” Interesting sleight of hand there. Of course “without enforcement” a provision means little to nothing. But “without specific enforcement mechansims” specified in the law, there can still be vigorous enforcement. Witness, say, the entire criminal code which, despite declining to specify mechanisms by which the police should enforce it, nevertheless is enforced rather well. It’s almost as if the legislature expected the executive branch to execute the law! Shocking.

  65. Nathan Myers said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    George and Douglas are arguing past one another because George is trying to stick to the facts, where Douglas is defending those who feel they have earned the political right to what Digby (http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/) calls a “hissy fit”. Republicans seem able to muster them on demand under the most incidental circumstances, but Democrats rarely try, and when they do try, often don’t get one. (The most epic fit in recent memory was over MoveOn’s ad condemning General Petraeus; the House and Senate puerile response to it earned MoveOn hundreds of thousands of dollars in impromptu contributions.)

    It’s clear that the facts of the matter don’t, by themselves, merit a charge of racist action. However, politically, Wilson and his newly ardent supporters deserve much stronger condemnation than a mere accusation of rudeness. Racism is a stronger accusation, these days, and it might have been made to serve.

    Personally I am astonished when anyone pays any attention to what Maureen Dowd writes.

  66. Douglas McClean said,

    September 17, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Agreed, Dowd is an idiot who is not worth reading or listening too, and I don’t know how she keeps her job.

    Incidentally, George’s original claim is a claim that Geoff is biased against southerners and conservatives. By the standards he and Peter want to use, such a claim requires a showing that Geoff has behaved in the opposite way when a non-southern non-conservative undertook the same actions. Can George make such a showing?

    I’m not defending the hissy fit. The censure resolution, while correct on the merits, was unnecessary and petty. I also think that Dowd and the putting-invented-words-into-Wilson’s-mouth game is juvenile and lame in the extreme.

    What I *am* saying is that there are strong reasons for believing Wilson to be a racist, outlined by the Dowd column to which Geoff was referring, and to boil down Geoff’s claim to “he was a southerner, and what’s more, right-wing, so of course he’s a racist” ignores those reasons for rhetorical advantage.

  67. Rebecca said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 2:32 am

    @ Vance, I grew up in the south and “You lie” sounds pretty familiar to me too, but what I heard more often was “You a lie,” which I could never imagine Joe Wilson saying.

  68. Peter Taylor said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 5:50 am

    Racism is discrimination or prejudice on the grounds of ethnicity. To show that someone is a racist it is necessary and sufficient to demonstrate such discrimination or prejudice. So, for example, one should have no qualms on calling the British National Party a racist organisation on the basis of this extract from its constitution:

    2) (b) The British National Party stands for the preservation of the national and ethnic character of the British people and is wholly opposed to any form of racial integration between British and non-European peoples. It is therefore committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring, by legal changes, negotiation and consent, the overwhelmingly white make up of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948.

    And on the basis of their support for that constitution all officers of that party are either racist or seriously deluded, and there is a prima facie case for calling any party member a racist.

    However, in the case of someone who has not explicitly invoked ethnicity, discrimination must be observed by contrasting two parallel situations. I was not designing a test “to be weaseled out of” but to provide a valid control in which only one variable changed. If you can contrast two situations in which multiple variables change, one of which relates to ethnicity of a person to whom the subject is reacting, then absent explicit racism the best you can do is find evidence that the subject is possibly a racist, which is not the same as evidence that the subject is a racist.

    As to your comment:

    Also, it seems that if, for the reason you hypothesize, it didn’t make him a racist then it would certainly make it a moron. Why should she (not a party to what Wilson perceives — ex hypothesi — to be the wrongdoing of out-of-wedlock-conception) have to keep her mouth shut just to protect Thurmond, who he — also ex hypothesi — respects despite said wrongdoing, from having his wrongdoing revealed?

    What does the hypothesis as to why Wilson considers Thurmond’s reputation smeared matter? Reduce that to “Why should she have to keep her mouth shut to protect Thurmond’s reputation?” and I will say that I cannot see a reason. At no point did I say that Wilson was right to criticise her: merely that his criticism wasn’t prima facie evidence of racism.

  69. Douglas McClean said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    Under this theory it would be wrong for me to claim, say, that King Leopold the Second of Belgium was a racist, absent a showing of some region equal to the Congo in natural resources whose white inhabitants lacked the technological or military prowess to repel a Belgian invasion.

    If that’s the world you want to live in, I’m certainly not going to stop you. (Though I would like to follow you around to a few other debates and see if you apply this standard with consistency, just for laughs).

  70. Douglas McClean said,

    September 18, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    The reason it matters that your alternate theory of his remarks on Ms. Washington-Williams would, if true, make Mr. Wilson a moron, is that I think it is more charitable to assume that someone is a racist (racism is, after all, a widely held and oft-defended if presently unpopular position) than to assume that he is in favor of that much secrecy and historical revision purely to maintain the (by admission false) ‘honorable’ facade of ‘honor’ of his hero. (Such ‘honor’ as can be achieved simply by not engaging in out-of-wedlock sex.)

    There are worse charges that can be leveled against a politician than racism, and I don’t say that in support of racism.

  71. Mark said,

    September 22, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    To bring this entirely back to linguistics (yeah right) is “neglected to ignore” an eggcorn for “elected to ignore”? I’ve never seen it before but there are 18 hits on google so this isn’t the first time it has been used.

    It also is a malapropism here since Douglas clearly meant that his verbal jousting opponent had deliberately chosen to ignore something and not that he’d accidentally done so.

    “neglected to ignore” also rings of a double negative.

    And finally, I find it really amusing that in a discussion about politics the word “elected” would get accidentally replaced with “neglected”. ;-)

  72. Douglas McClean said,

    September 24, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    Oops. Yes, I mean to say “elected to ignore.” I agree that it’s an amusing error in this context. :)

  73. Michael Turton said,

    October 11, 2009 @ 3:34 am

    There’s a much simpler demonstration that Wilson’s outburst was choreographed: as he made his “spontaneous” shout not a single Republican in his area reacted — all sat staring straight ahead. Hard to imagine that not a single head or eye turned if it had been spontaneous — only a prepared actor fails to react to the “spontaneous.”

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