Uncivil Discourse

Posted Sept. 11, 2009, at 6:26 p.m.

This summer, health care reform has provoked more incivility in the name of free speech and more hyperbolic warnings of an impending apocalypse in the name of patriotism than the invasion of Iraq inspired. The icing on this bitter cake was the outburst from Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., during President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday night. Surely there are better ways to engage on an issue than to cry out, “You lie!” on the floor of the House of Representatives while the president speaks.

Though Mr. Obama promised change during the campaign, some Americans seem surprised that he is actually delivering. As he said Wednesday night, several of the bold — and costly — steps he took early in his tenure came because he inherited a teetering economy. So a bold health care reform plan coming on the heels of big-ticket bailouts and stimulus plans can legitimately cause anxiety.

But does this anxiety justify such extreme response? After all, the case can be made that other presidents achieved far more sweeping changes than Mr. Obama proposes. Presidents such as Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt swung the ship of state to far more dramatic course changes. Still, to some passengers, though, President Obama’s course change must feel like the ship is heeling over on its keel.

Still, that does not justify the paranoia-fueled anger that has reigned in recent months. It was seen at August town hall meetings, with seniors on Medicare railing against the notion of a government-run health plan, oblivious to the irony. And that paranoia reached an apogee when parents tried to block their children from watching the president’s speech aimed at urging them to take responsibility for their education because they thought it was some sort of liberal indoctrination.

In his speech Wednesday, the president addressed this behavior head-on. “When any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter … at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.”

Mr. Obama believed he could be the balm for the nation’s partisan wounds. Instead, he has become, for some, the salt in them. It’s time for the anger to be dialed down so we can work together to solve our big challenges.

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