We are all Joe Wilson. Whether we like it or not, Mr. Wilson is an elected representative for the State of South Carolina. When he speaks in the Congress, he speaks for our state. When the eyes of the nation turned to Capitol Hill a few weeks back, and Wilson shouted "You lie!" during the president's speech, they did not see the thousands of South Carolinians who support President Obama. Instead, they saw a South Carolinian who publicly disrespected our nation's leader with a remarkable breach of decorum.
Unfortunately, this type of radical action from our state is nothing new. South Carolina politicians have historically been on the extreme end of the national discourse when it comes to matters of domestic policy, and it does not appear as though this trend is going to change any time soon.
In the 1850s, we were all John C. Calhoun. As our U.S. senator at the time, Calhoun proposed the concept of "nullification" in his defense of slavery, suggesting that states could ignore those federal laws with which it did not agree. He took this a step farther with his then-novel concept of "secession," championing the idea that states could leave the Union if federal law infringed on their sovereignty.
Calhoun spoke for South Carolina in proposing these concepts, and thus it should not be surprising that South Carolina was the first state to secede. We all know how that idea turned out, but it did not stop us from naming a street after Calhoun, and erecting a statue in his honor here in Charleston.
In the 1960s, we were Strom Thurmond. Even as the nation was riven with bus boycotts, lunch sit-ins, and non-violent marches and their bloody reprisals, it was a senator from our state that led the opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Thurmond holds the proud distinction of the longest filibuster in U.S. Senate history — all in opposition to integration and equal rights for African Americans.
While Senator Edward Kennedy was recently recognized posthumously as a champion of equal rights for all, and a source of pride for the citizens of Massachusetts, let it be known that South Carolina has shown equal pride for its prominent statesmen despite their less than stellar record on Civil Rights.
In 2009, after a historic election when the nation celebrated its first black president, it should come as no surprise that South Carolina's representatives are among the most visible opponents of his initiatives.
Which state's governor publicly rejected stimulus funds not once but twice?
Which state's U.S. senator said, "If we defeat Obama on healthcare, it will be his Waterloo?"
Which state's U.S. representative called our president a liar, in a joint session of Congress, and has used the occasion to raise even more campaign contributions in his re-election campaign?
The answer: South Carolina, our state. This is not a coincidence.
It is far-fetched and unfair to suggest that racism plays a significant role in all highly-visible, conservative opposition to Obama, as some commentators have recently done. One can oppose the policies, even in a crude and ugly way, and still hold respect for people of all races. But do Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Joe Wilson recognize that they may get a little extra bang for their buck from some in their base by their opposition to the nation's first black president? You bet they do.
The problem is not so much what these representatives say and do, but the fact that we continue to affirm their tactics when we reelect them. From that vantage point, what Joe Wilson did says a lot less about him than it does about us.