Let heckling in, and soon everything goes.
“Blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stoolpigeon, traitor.”
— Words considered “unparliamentary” that have been used in the British House of Commons, according to its information office
Last year, after I wrote a column in praise of state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders for shouting “tyrant!” during a speech by President Bush’s attorney general, a local judge wrote to say how disappointed he was in me.
“You missed badly,” the judge said.
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It was a convincing four-point, two-page rebuttal about the importance in society — and especially in the judiciary — of civility, decorum and respect. Let heckling in, and soon everything goes.
“If you defend (Sanders) in this circumstance,” the judge asked, “how could you not defend him under different circumstances where you might disagree with his underlying point of view?”
Sanders had yelled out because he said the speech was papering over America’s use of torture. My judge critic asked me to imagine that the speech had instead been a legalistic defense of, say, partial-birth abortion.
“Would you approve of (Sanders) shouting ‘Murderer! You are a baby murderer!’ and storming out? Is that really a public service?”
A good question. Particularly now that a congressman has pulled a Sanders of sorts, yelling “You lie!” at the president.
So let me disappoint my judge friend again. I’m glad for this latest outburst. I’ll go further and say: We need more heckling!
Yes, it’s obnoxious. Our mothers would frown. Like Congressman Joe Wilson, we’d have to apologize afterward while mouthing niceties about civil discourse.
But here’s the thing: Heckling can be clarifying. It can slice through squishy spin better than any reasoned, judicious op-ed.
That’s what I felt Sanders did. Sure, it was ludicrously melodramatic to shout “tyrant, you are a tyrant!” But as a reader pointed out at the time, the topic was torture at a conference of grown-up lawyers and judges. The only potential losers were Miss Manners and Sanders’ judicial reputation.
Now take Joe Wilson, who shouted out at President Obama. Unquestionably rude. My judge critic is right that if everybody lost it like this, there’d be chaos.
But look at what happened. In its own bombastic way, Wilson’s gust prompted an important policy debate.
Obama said health-care reform won’t cover illegal immigrants. He is right in that it won’t pay any money for them. But another part of the plan requires that everyone in the country have health insurance, here legally or not.
Obviously, if you’re poor and here illegally, it’s unlikely you’re going to buy health insurance, even if it’s the law. So does it make sense to have a national health plan that on one page forces people to do something but on another page bars them from getting any help doing it?
Away from all the partisan shouting about Wilson, a group of senators convened to try to fix the language on immigrants.
“We really thought we’d resolved this question of people who are here illegally, but as we reflected on the President’s speech … we wanted to go back and drill down again,” Democratic Senator Kent Conrad told Time magazine.
Interesting. I’m not saying the heckler was right. Wilson’s “You lie!” was itself a whopper, and I doubt he’s interested in crafting sensible health policy for immigrants. Yet we may end up with a more coherent law anyway.
I say we copy the British and add heckling to our system. Make the president stand in the well of the House or the Senate and talk some policy trash. Put up or shut up would make everyone more accountable — both the hecklers and the hecklees.
Wouldn’t you have liked it if President Bush had been subjected to “Question Time” in the run-up to the Iraq war?
I told my judge critic I thought this latest flare-up was messy but good. Kind of like democracy itself.
He believes there may be a long-term cost to the coarsening. It tears at the seams. Civil is better because it’s lasting.
He closed, surprisingly, with a bit of a heckle:
“You no doubt will be comforted to see that Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin are on your side,” he wrote.
Ouch, Judge. Couldn’t you have just called me a guttersnipe or something?
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.