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You Lie?

September 17, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


We missed Obama’s health care speech. We were on Nantucket last week, and on Wednesday evening we went into town to have dinner at the Boarding House. But it didn’t take long for us to learn about Representative Joe Wilson’s mid-speech outburst after Obama said, “There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This too is false. The reforms, the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.”

What I find saddest about the whole episode is Obama’s political calculation that, in selling health care reform, he must insist on the ineligibility of illegal immigrants. Would we rather they die in the street? Would we rather have their untreated illnesses spread? Ted Rall’s latest cartoon, above, touches on the absurdity of the misplaced outrage. So too does E.J. Dionne’s column earlier this week in the Washington Post. E.J. (my college classmate and, for two years, next door neighbor) writes:

As for immigrants who are here illegally, those who go to an emergency room already receive medical attention, and they should. No doctor I know, whatever his or her politics, would deny treatment to a sick person on the basis of immigration status.

Forget compassion and consider self-interest. Aren’t you better off if the person working next to you who has a communicable disease receives care early on?

I am not in any way dismissing those concerned about illegal immigration as racists or reactionaries. There are legitimate disagreements as to what we should do about it and problems with extending government programs to those who violate the law to get here.

But I am not at all at peace with the fact that the one issue about which a member of Congress chose to rise up and accuse our president of being a liar related to the charge that our chief executive wasn’t doing enough to build walls between illegal immigrants and health coverage.

How mean-spirited will we allow ourselves to become? How coarsened has our political culture made us? We like to see ourselves as a generous, caring and welcoming nation. Are we losing that part of our character?

As for Wilson’s surprise commentary, Geoff Nunberg at Language Log observed over the weekend that Wilson’s wording suggests a lack of spontaneity.

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 …

Categories: Language, Medicine, Politics
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