Email #319: “discourse degraded”?

Former President Bush said during a speech last Thursday:

“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

On the same day, President Trump tweeted about Rep. Wilson regarding their dispute over his comments to Myeisha Johnson, the widow of a soldier killed recently in Niger:

“The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”

Rep. Wilson, who knows the Johnsons and was traveling in a car with Ms. Johnson on the way to receive her husband’s body at the airport when the President unexpectedly called, accused him of insensitivity. In Wilson’s summary, President Trump told Ms. Johnson that her husband “knew what he was getting into.” Wilson said Ms. Johnson “was crying for the whole time. And the worst part of it: when he hung up, you know what she turned to me and said? She said he didn’t even remember his name.”

President Trump responded by tweet:

“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”

He added to reporters:

“Didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all. She knows it, and she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said.”

But Sgt. Johnson’s aunt, who was also in the car at the time, confirmed Rep. Wilson’s account: “Yes, the statement is true. I was in the car and I heard the full conversation.” She said the President showed “disrespect” to the Johnson family.

Rather than providing “proof” of fabrication, White House chief of staff Kelly confirmed the President’s language by explaining that President Trump had asked him for advice on how to speak to the families of killed soldiers. Kelly recounted to the President what another general had said to Kelly after Kelly’s son was killed in Afghanistan: “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent.”

But instead of explaining that the President, despite being unable to deliver those same words effectively, intended them as condolence not disrespect, Kelly disparaged Rep. Wilson. He said Thursday morning that she had spoken insensitively during a speech before the family members of killed FBI agents:

“a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.”

But video of Rep. Wilson’s speech released Friday contradicts General Kelly’s account. She made no claim about getting funding for the building, only for passing a bill to have it named after two killed FBI agents. She acknowledged the help of Republican Representatives, including Speaker Boehner, and she did not mention President Obama at all.

Rep. Wilson responded about Kelly on Friday:

“I feel very sorry for him because he feels such a need to lie on me and I’m not even his enemy. I just can’t even imagine why he would fabricate something like that. That is absolutely insane. I’m just flabbergasted because it’s very easy to trace.”

Despite proof of Kelly’s fabrication, White House press secretary Sanders reiterated Kelly’s claims:

“General Kelly said he was ‘stunned’ that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain F.B.I. agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation. As General Kelly pointed out, if you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”

Rep. Wilson, who, like the Johnsons, is African American, responded: “The White House itself is full of white supremacists.”

I can imagine no better illustration of President Bush’s concerns than these exchanges taking place as he stated: “Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

In the President’s defense, I suspect his attempt at condolence was sincere but incompetent and that he did not intend the disrespect and upset that the family felt. In General Kelly’s defense, I suspect he did not intentionally fabricate his account of Rep. Wilson’s 2015 speech, but that emotion warped his recollection over time.

But responsibility for the false statements and the escalations fall on the President and the General, the two individuals most responsible for maintaining and modeling civil discourse. They are instead degrading it.

And while these events are disheartening to watch, they obscure greater concerns.

Sgt. Johnson, three other U.S. soldiers, and four Nigerian soldiers were killed by a group of fifty ISIS insurgents on October 4 along the Nigerian border of Mali. Despite over two weeks of investigating, the Pentagon still has not determined whether the battle was an ambush or if it occurred after the U.S. soldiers first pursued the insurgents in an unauthorized violation of their mission to “advise and assist” but not engage in “direct-action” with partner forces. Accounts of the event are so contradictory, it appears that some parties are lying.

When four Americans were killed in Benghazi in 2012, the GOP-led Congress launched multiple investigations, accusing the Obama administration of both incompetence and misconduct, as well as using those investigations as, to use your term, fishing expeditions that revealed an unrelated lack of security in Secretary Clinton’s emails, which then became the most influential issue in last year’s presidential race.

Since you were so vigilant regarding Benghazi and its aftermath, will you now call for similar congressional investigations into the four American deaths in Niger?

Or should the American public be content watching the reality show-like degradation of civil discourse in the White House and not be concerned with less entertaining matters?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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