>Where I Ruminate on a Week of Rude Public Outbursts

>Everybody just calm down! First, on Wednesday, there was the shocking shout-out from Congressman Joe Wilson calling THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES “a liar” during the President’s speech to a joint session of Congress.

Then last night, in the semi-final of the U.S. Open Women’s Tennis Tournament, 11-time Grand Slam Champion (and reigning U.S. Open champion) Serena Williams threatened a line judge who had called a foot fault on her, brandishing her racquet in a threatening manner, and unleashing a string of profanities. This was the second most outrageous public outburst of the week (see Joe Wilson) but showed that boorish behavior is not limited to any gender or race.

Wilson did apologize to the president, but refuses to apologize to Congress. Serena had the most extraordinarily clueless post-match press conference, where she not only never apologized, but had the chutzpah to mention that she is an admirer of John McEnroe, once known as the poster boy of bad court behavior (although now an admired elder statesman and commentator.)

This summer in town hall meetings on health care reform all across America speakers are routinely shouted down. Congressman Barney Frank, who can hold his own, had a now famous interchange with a woman holding a sign of the President with a Hitler mustache and wearing a swatztika. The irony was not lost on Frank, who gave as good as he got (see YouTube).

This outbreak of incivility troubles me. Just back in January we had a moving national moment around the Presidential inauguration, and a short-lived era of good feeling that is now supplanted by the most vitriolic rhetoric and ugly accusations of bad faith. This is not a time in our national life when we can afford to be childish. There are important matters to attend to (like fixing health care) that are not helped by such antics. A political party that imagines it will help its long-term prospects by making its opponents fail at the expense of the country underestimates the voters, not to mention its own lack of integrity.

Society lives by rules and codes. In America we are proud of our elections and the peaceful transfer of power. It doesn’t happen everywhere. Part of why it happens is the vast public agreement on some of those rules and codes. You don’t interrupt a speech on the floor of Congress. You don’t publicly call the President a liar. When those rules and codes are violated the fabric of our common life is frayed and torn.

Tennis, too, has it’s own set of rules. Serena was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, lost the match and left the tournament. She hurt mostly herself, although her opponent Kim Clijsters, looked stricken by the events and was deprived of winning the match on her own, which she had every appearance of doing. Still, Serena is a talented and popular sports figure looked up to by many young people. She said in an interview that you can’t spell “dynasty” without “nasty.” Well, her behavior last night was pretty nasty, and she didn’t do tennis (or herself) any favors by it.

Such transgressions by high-profile figures against manners, etiquette, or protocol can entertain and amuse us. But they should disturb us. Nothing good can come of it.

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