An Invitation to Redemption for Joe Wilson and Van Jones

September, 2009

To Joe Wilson, Congressman from South Carolina and Now-Legendary User of Language to Convey Disrepect for the Presidency of the United States


To Van Jones, Gifted Environmental Advocate and Now-Legendary User of An Immature and Impoverished Figure of Speech to Characterize Political Opponents

Dear Congressman Wilson and Mr. Jones:

While you may seem, at first glance, to be each other's opposite numbers, you have come together to remind us of the power of the First Amendment. Both of you have reminded us of the fact that witless insults and juvenile expressions of temper are protected speech. Thus, the human body provides you with an abundant, colorful, and legally protected figures of speech for dousing your opponents with contempt. And you are free to shout "Liar," if not "Fire," in a crowded room filled with the nation's highest leaders.

But schoolmarmish, maternalistic language is equally protected, and so I exercise my own First Amendment rights in offering you a dose of that healthful, if somewhat castor-oil-flavored medicine.

Gentlemen, if you have any inclination to be proud of your outspokenness, I hope you will outgrow it -- and fast.

You are capable of much better behavior, as are all of your fellow citizens. And given the current prominence of your entirely legal but also disappointing and embarrassing conduct, you could -- if you were to choose better practices -- act as uplifting and galvanizing examples to your nation.

But first we must spend a moment comparing your episodes of misbehavior.

One of you called Republicans "assholes," and subsequently resigned from office.

One of you called the President of the United States a liar, and offered an apology, not a resignation.

Until your expressions became matters of national attention, and one of you resigned and one did not, it would never have occurred to any of us to ask the question, "Is it more offensive to call a person an 'asshole' or a 'liar'?" Nor would we have thought to ask if it is more or less offensive to speak disparagingly of millions of people, or to speak disparagingly of the highest office-holder in the land.

These questions could be the subject matter for civil discussion. And yet, at this stage, we would not ask either of you to be our master of ceremonies at that forum.

But that could change.

The American people have an unfortunate, if also inconsistent, habit of taking valuable public servants who have made stupid public statements and forming an instant bucket-brigade to deliver those public servants to the trash heap of history. Every once in a while, we get distracted; the offending remark drifts out of our attention; and the bucket-brigade stops in the middle of this process of transport and burial.

But either way, with a ruined career or a career that goes on associated with a foggily remembered taint, we have missed an opportunity to create what we need most: a process by which the person who has spoken with inconsideration acknowledges his bad behavior, makes a genuine apology, gives substance to that apology by consistently practicing a better form of conduct, and thus earns redemption.

And so, Congressman Wilson and Mr. Jones, I invite you to be the co-inventors of this process. I write to invite you to visit -- together -- the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where you will have the opportunity to improve your manners and thereby make better use of your talent, energy, and commitment to the nation's well-being.

Spend a day or two at our lively organization, where we frequently discuss heated issues in an atmosphere of respect and good will. We have, for instance, hosted Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior under Kennedy and Johnson, and James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, for a joint visit. And so, during your visit, you will spend time with people who embrace the opportunity to talk with fellow citizens whose political positions do not match their own. You will have opportunities aplenty to remember what life can be like when you have some faith in your fellow human beings. You'll recapture the knowledge that the solving of problems requires a tone of voice quite different from a shout, and that calling your enemies a disparaging name is going to make it very likely that they are going to remain enemies.

And then you can conclude your visit to Boulder with a public program on issues of your choice, in which you demonstrate that you can behave like adults and engage in spirited and substantive disagreement.

You will have done your nation a service. You will have set a lasting and spirit-raising example. And you will have crafted for yourselves a public standing much to be preferred over what you now hold in mid-September of 2009.

Congressman Wilson and Mr. Jones, we await your arrival.

Patty Limerick
Chair of the Board and Faculty Director of the Center of the American West