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Baratunde Thurston: To call Congressman Wilson racist is wrong. He is just a jackass

To use a term recently repopularised by our President when referencing Kanye West's antics at the MTV Video Music Awards, Congressman Joe Wilson is a jackass.

Part of what former President Carter said about outbursts like Wilson's being "based on racism" is obviously true. America must still contend with the racist past and present. However, people will interpret Carter as saying Representative Wilson (pictured) is a racist, and that isn't particularly useful. It will rally Wilson's defenders with the typical claims that "he doesn't have a racist bone in his body" (I'd love to see the X-rays) or "some of his best friends are black". Calling Wilson a jackass is simply more accurate and provable. I say we go with the charge most likely to stick.

Of course, the real story of what made Wilson's outburst possible does interest me, and it is more complicated than either "racism" or "jackass" offer up. We should look back to two important periods: the presidency of Bill Clinton and the summer of 2009. Mr Obama isn't the first president to be disrespected. Many of us forget that conservatives called Bill Clinton a philanderer, a rapist, and even a murderer. Some on the Left had harsh words for former President George W. Bush, referring to him has as a Nazi, or as Hitler directly.

Extreme language in American politics isn't limited to one party, nor to this President. The difference now is that the rhetoric levelled at Mr Obama goes to the very idea of his Americanness, and is accompanied by extreme action in a way we may not have seen before.

That brings me to the summer. That was when the Republican opposition lost its mind and ceded control of its party to the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. When even the chairman of the party, Michael Steele, is forced to apologise to Limbaugh and refers to the President as a socialist, you know the inmates have taken control of the asylum.

America went from inaugural afterglow to often-reasonable arguments over economic stimulus to armed people levelling charges that the President of the United States was a secret Muslim Kenyan bent on killing our grandmothers and oppressing the white race. Something that began as on the fringes was popularised by the total absence of responsible opposition leadership, and a White House that didn't see it coming. The extreme was made mainstream.

When he blurted out "You lie!" at the President, an emboldened Representative Wilson turned a presidential address to a joint session of Congress into just another ugly and chaotic summer town-hall. His outburst is based on fear, on ignorance, on a national conversation poisoned by those who traffic in conspiracy and ratings.

But if we're going for a simple explanation, I vote for "Jackass".