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The Economics of Disrespect—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on newyorktimes.com on September 16, 2009.

The Economics of Disrespect
By Ian Ayres ’86

Representative Joe Wilson’s much discussed “You Lie” outburst last Wednesday during President Obama’s health care speech has been compared to the 1856 savage caning that Representative Preston Brooks delivered to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (for example, see here and here).

The Wilson and Brooks incidents have some superficial similarities. Both Brooks and Wilson were representatives from South Carolina. Both were responding to powerful orators who were speaking about central policy issues of their day (indeed, both events even concerned the rights of migrants, as Sumner was speaking about the rights of slave owners who moved to Kansas). It repays reading Sumner’s original “Crime Against Kansas” speech, which included an incendiary Don Quixote metaphor castigating South Carolina Senator (and Brooks’s kinsman) Andrew Butler as well as Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas:

I must say something of a general character, particularly in response to what has fallen from Senators who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs. I mean the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Butler), and the Senator from Illinois (Mr. Douglas), who, though unlike as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, yet, like this couple, sally forth together in the same adventure. I regret much to miss the elder senator from his seat; but the cause, against which he has run a tilt, with such activity of animosity, demands that the opportunity of exposing him should not be lost; and it is for the cause that I speak.

The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentimcuts of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight; I mean the harlot, Slavery. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote, in behalf of his wench, Dulcinea del Toboso, is all surpassed. The asserted rights of slavery, which shock equality of all kinds, are cloaked by a fantastic claim of equality. If the slave states cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames equality under the Constitution in other words, the full power in the National Territories to compel fellowmen to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction block then, sir, the chivalric senator will conduct the state of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight! Exalted senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus!

In contrast, Obama’s rhetoric seems rather tame.

Both Brooks and Wilson were reacting to what they felt were lies in the political speeches of others. And finally, both Brooks and Wilson responded to the uproar with limited apologies. Brooks, in resigning from the House, defended his actions. And while Representative Wilson has apologized for the timing and manner of his outburst, he has not apologized for the substance. It is possible that in shouting “You lie” (after Obama said “The reforms I am proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally”) that Wilson himself was misrepresenting the truth.

But to my mind the differences between these two events are much greater than their similarities. Brooks’s intervention was clearly premeditated. Indeed, he sought counsel from Laurence Keitt on whether Brooks should challenge Sumner to a duel. Keitt convinced Brooks that dueling was reserved for gentlemen and that caning was the appropriate punishment for social inferiors. You can see Representative Keitt preventing other senators from coming to the aid of Sumner in the background of this famous J.L Magee cartoon:

And by far, the greatest dis-analogy between the 1856 and 2009 events is the savagery of the Brooks’s violence. There is a huge difference in disrespect between beating a man to within an inch of his life and two syllables of interruption.

In some ways, a closer analogy is the more recent and less violent interruption of Muntader al-Zaidi who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush in 2008 during a Baghdad press conference. Al-Zaidi, who was released this week after serving nine months in prison, called out in Arabic during his attack “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog.”

What unites all three stories is the outpouring of support that Brooks, Al-Zaidi, and now Wilson have received as a consequence of their disrespect. Brooks was sent dozens of canes after the attack and, after resigning, was easily reelected to the House. Al-Zaidi has received offers of marriage, employment, and a Mercedes limousine. In Tikrit, a three-meter copper statue in the shape of his shoe honors his heroism.

I imagine that Wilson would be appalled to learn that Al-Zaidi profited economically from disrespecting the president of United States. But in some ways, Wilson has too. The Washington Post reports that Wilson received more than three-quarters of a million dollars in campaign gifts in the 48 hours following his “you lie” outburst. Indeed, it is inevitable as day following night that we would see bumper stickers extolling the event:

Of course, expressions of disrespect can also mobilize the opposition. Wilson’s Democratic challenger, Rob Miller, seems to have raised even more money in the last week. (Full disclosure: Rob Miller is one of the very few House candidates to whom I have contributed in the past. By bizarre coincidence, I am close friends with his uncle.) Still, the stories of Brooks, Al-Zaidi, and Wilson raise the possibility that disrespect and the violation of social norms might, at least in the short run, be a good career move.