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Joe Wilson Too Crude Even For The Brits

Lots of people -- myself included -- have been comparing Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst to the chaos that reigns in Britain's House of Commons. But according to Andrew Sullivan, even the House of Commons has some minimum standards of decency.

[O]ne thing you are not allowed to shout in the Commons is that another speaker is a liar. A lot of circumlocutions evolved to bypass this - "terminological inexactitude" is my favorite (Churchill, of course) - but the ban is for a reason. Once the opposition starts yelling "You lie!" they have essentially abandoned the deliberative process, by questioning the good faith of a speaker. Without an assumption of good faith or a factual rebuttal, just calling someone a liar abolishes the integrity of the debating process. It ends a conversation. And parliament is about conversation.

Also off limits are "blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hooligan, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor." You can download the rule here (pdf).

By Ezra Klein  |  September 10, 2009; 5:33 PM ET
 
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Comments

To be fair, this was in the middle of Obama attacking people, including members of congress, for lying.

Sometimes a spade ought to be called a spade.

Posted by: adamiani | September 10, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

I was watching Question Time not too long ago and saw David Cameron accuse Gordon Brown of lying or a close synonym. Cameron was reprimanded by the Speaker in very short order.

Posted by: bdballard | September 10, 2009 6:31 PM | Report abuse

I'm kind of with adamiani on this. I suppose we can say Obama didn't cross the line because his statement was general ("those are lies") while Wilson was specific ("You lie"). But that's a pretty fine distinction; Obama was calling anyone who made those statements a liar, which obviously included some people in the room.

So I'm not sure why it's OK to say "liar" is always wrong.

In the end, I think people are falling back on their understanding of the context (on balance, people believe there have been a lot more Republican lies) and also a kind of lese majeste (this is the President's moment, and decorum demands the audience be silent).

In any event, I don't see how you can take Andrew's line - that using "liar" in political debates is always wrong - and also say it's OK for Obama to talk about "lies." Ultimately, the difference between Obama and Wilson has to rest on something more.

Posted by: Sophomore | September 10, 2009 6:57 PM | Report abuse

Better than "terminological inexactitude" is
"economical with the actualité", which was MP Alan Clark's way of admitting that he had lied to Parliament.

Posted by: lknobel | September 10, 2009 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Everyone who's interested in this should invest half an hour in searching YouTube for Australian Parliament. Look in particular for our PM from 1993-1996, Paul Keating. Liar isn't even close to what he called people...

Posted by: SteveHind | September 10, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, let's look to Britian for our cues.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | September 10, 2009 8:33 PM | Report abuse

"according to Andrew Sullivan--"

And lots of your blog commenters, but like Yglesias, why cite your own commenters when a big name blogger says the same thing half a day later?

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | September 10, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

" Look in particular for our PM from 1993-1996, Paul Keating. Liar isn't even close to what he called people..."

Australians have taken the basic framework of parliamentary debate and perfected it by stripping away the the thick varnish of the gentleman's club.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | September 10, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama was drawing a careful distinction between a lie repeated by a fearful soul who heard it from a presumably reputable source and therefore believes it to be truth, and the lie's creator--definitely him/herself a liar but possibly not a Congressperson. Some of those lies are far too creative.

Posted by: bconlake | September 10, 2009 8:45 PM | Report abuse

I believe it's also unparliamentary to call someone a Pharisee.

Posted by: vagueofgodalming | September 11, 2009 4:32 AM | Report abuse

Hello? You can't start applying rules for a deliberative process until you have either a forum for deliberation or a tradition of same. We have neither. I think it is a great idea to have the leader or leaders stand before the legislative body and defend his or her position(s,) but this is not the American Way. So to have some knucklehead start shouting in the middle of a Presidential speech is hardly comparable in any way shape or form to a deliberation. Either you have a process or you don't. In this case, we did not, and the proper action would have been for the Sergeant at Arms to pick him up by his ears and throw him out of the chamber for his uncouth behavior.

Posted by: Swerdy | September 12, 2009 9:32 PM | Report abuse

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