What Joe, Serena, and Kanye had to learn

The lawmaker, athlete, and rapper delivered low blows – and reminded America of the need for a higher, more civil discourse.

The House has officially disapproved of Republican Congressman Joe Wilson's behavior in shouting, "You lie!" at President Obama during his healthcare speech to Congress last week.

If only a simple vote could slap back similar kinds of personal attacks that are now so prevalent in American public discourse.

Two examples from the weekend: Tennis dynamo Serena Williams hurled finger-pointing profanities at a line judge for calling a foot fault during her crucial serve at the US Open. Rapper Kanye West stormed the stage at the Video Music Awards to snatch the mike from winner Taylor Swift during her acceptance remarks.

"I'm sorry, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time," he pronounced, as the stunned Ms. Swift, a teenage country singer, looked on.

Lawmakers, athletes, celebrities – people in such visible positions should be helping a diverse America get along, not telling one another to move along.

And yet they so often model the worst behavior – reinforced by an anonymous electronic culture that spreads insult over the Internet, egged on by "shock jocks" who require new shock to surpass stale shock, and even preached in some pulpits. (Making the rounds on YouTube: a pastor who prays for the president to die.)

Before last week, Congressman Wilson was just one of 435 members of the House of Representatives, a Republican from South Carolina known mostly to his constituents. Now his "You lie!" inspires T-shirts, posters, and protesters. Not to put down dissent; debate makes democracy. But personal attack can tear it down. It reduces debate to smears. It obfuscates. It spreads mistrust.

The Wilson charge that Obama lied about healthcare and illegal immigration papered over the actual wording of the main House bill, which states "no federal payment for undocumented aliens." Wilson's complaint is about the enforcement of that wording – a subtlety lost in a two-word accusation.

Democrats are moving to strengthen the wording, but the misimpression remains that their legislation would make government-subsidized healthcare available to illegals.

The congressman rightly apologized to the president (through Mr. Obama's chief of staff) and Obama graciously accepted his apology. Republicans, too, regretted Wilson's historic outburst in the House.

But whatever sincerity was involved has since been lost in a sea of mistrust and cynicism amid charges of racism about Wilson and political game-playing in the Democrats' reprimand. Add to that, the fact that both sides are gaining financially from political donations related to the episode.

The "politics of personal destruction" go way back in America. In 1856, a Massachusetts senator was actually beaten unconscious in Congress for his antislavery remarks. It didn't come to that during the impeachment of Bill Clinton or the war years of George W. Bush, but the personal attacks from both conservatives and liberals during those presidencies greatly distracted from the issues at hand.

Thomas Jefferson had it right in his manual of parliamentary procedure: "No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another; nor to stand up or interrupt him."

Only through civil discourse can people hear one another and work together. Jefferson knew this, and, if we all think about it, so do we.

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled Kanye West's name.]

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