Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me

Following on from David’s post earlier today, I am struck by the contrast between the BBC’s pursed lips at Joe Wilson’s saying the words “you lie” to the current US president when he is giving a speech and its indulgent chuckles when Muntadar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at the previous president when he was giving a speech. Mr Zaidi has claimed he was tortured in prison, so it is perhaps right that there should be a story. (I deplore the torture, if the claim is true. I do not know whether or not it is true.) But why, exactly, if the story is about the alleged torture, do we have this jolly piece: In pictures: how shoe throwing became fashionable. For most of this morning this and other shoe-throwing retrospectives held pride of place on the BBC front page, all in the tone of someone discussing the latest internet meme.

The BBC had a rather different series of pictures the other day showing reactions from various Americans to Obama’s address to Congress, but I’ve lost the link. This is what I think I remember about it: there were around six people interviewed, and all but one of them basically approved of the speech. I thought this ratio was odd, when about half of Americans oppose Obama’s proposals. About three of them remarked disapprovingly at the heckling. If anyone can give me the link we’ll see if my memory is off.

We also had Lawmaker sorry for heckling Obama, and Obama woos Congress on healthcare. The latter story included this:

At this, the Republican ranks grew restive – even mutinous. One Republican shouted out “It’s a lie!” while the president was in mid-flow.

Democrats looked thunderous – this was not the kind of polite hearing a president usually gets when he addresses both houses of congress.

In fact it does not even happen in the British House of Commons. And it may backfire on the Republican concerned.

I gather it didn’t.

The BBC’s Mark Mardell saw Representative Joe Wilson’s behaviour as part of a pattern of American political vituperativeness, discussed in this piece: Mark Mardell’s America: Unparliamentary or un-American. Mr Mardell writes:

Listening to the “tax-payers’ tea party” in Washington on the radio over the weekend, it struck me that if I were reading a transcript blind of context, I would assume I was listening to a demonstration of a growing resistance to a brutal and undemocratic regime.

Indeed, in the four or five speeches I heard on the radio, details of tax rises and healthcare were hardly mentioned: the theme was “recapturing America” from “tyranny” and regaining “freedom”. It sounded as though they were protesting against a coup, probably a violent one, rather than the natural consequence of losing an election less than a year ago.

But I am too new to this place to know if the debate is getting harsher, more strident, even uglier, or whether this is just the vigorous terms of debate that are normal. I’d like to know what you think. But it is why many see Congress as the last refuge of grown-up debate, and want to keep it that way.

He might be new to America, but given the internet and all it’s hard to see how he managed to miss the one-a-minute Bush = Hitler allusions over the last eight years. Even harder to see how he missed the Bush=Hitler poster in one of the BBC’s own newsrooms, as pointed out by commenter Duhbuh. He linked to a video clip where Robin Aitken, formerly of the BBC and author of Can We Trust the BBC?, discusses that poster.

For what it’s worth I too disapproved of Wilson making his outburst at that time and place. Too much unparliamentary behaviour coarsens debate. Physical attacks coarsen it rather more but so long as the victim is Bush rather than Obama do not elicit quite so much high-minded concern from the BBC. One last thing: I thought at the time that given the fairly high risk of assassination that Bush ran in speaking in Iraq, Zaidi would have had only himself to blame if he had been shot there and then. Throwing things at political leaders makes it more likely either that a thrower will end up dead – because someone thinks a shoe is a grenade and reacts too fast – or a politician will end up dead – because someone thinks a grenade is a shoe and reacts too slowly. If either happens the BBC will be the first to ask, “how could this happen?”

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