Until this week, it probably would have been hard for most Americans to answer the question, "What do Kanye West, Serena Williams and a formerly obscure congressman from South Carolina have in common?" But now we know: They've all become over-emotional in public and displayed some very bad behavior. But only one of the three has yet to really answer for it.
This is one of those rare cases where political practitioners could learn from the world of sports and entertainment (never thought I'd be typing that sentence, either). West, as TV and YouTube viewers know, jumped the stage near the close of Sunday night's MTV Music Video Awards, interrupted Taylor Swift in the middle of her acceptance speech for Best Female Video, and tackily proclaimed that a stunned Beyonce's video was more deserving. In that case, the response from the audience and producers was immediate: He was roundly booed, and the show cut ASAP to a commercial, during which he was removed from the scene. Later, when Beyonce won the ultimate award, she gracefully ceded her stage time to Swift.
And speaking of swift, when Williams intimidated a linesperson with a threat that went something like "You're lucky I don't take this ball and shove it down your throat," the USTA's response was just that: She was fined an additional point, thereby losing the chance to advance to the U.S. Open Finals. Game, set, match. Not only that, but she's currently being fined $10,000 by the organization for her outburst, and may suffer further penalties.
In contrast, let's examine the repercussions from Rep. Joe Wilson's affront to public civility, when he interrupted President Obama's speech on health care to a joint session of Congress (and if there's any justice, Wilson will hereafter be known as the You Lie Guy). The GOP leadership initially persuaded him to apologize, and he delivered a mea culpa to Rahm Emanuel. But within a few hours, he predictably realized the advantage of attributing his Tourettes-like outburst to the wingnut version of political correctness, and claimed that he's "not sorry for fighting back against the dangerous policies of liberal Democrats." Nancy Pelosi may yet call him on the carpet, but she can't prevent him from leveraging his monumental rudeness into over a million dollars' worth of revenue for his reelection. And neither John Boehner nor Mitch McConnell is likely to publicly express remorse on Wilson's behalf.
So how can Congress hold its members accountable for boorish acting out? They need to impose on-the-spot penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct. In other words, at the very least, throw the bum out of the chamber for the duration of the speech.
I'm not endorsing censorship, the kind that existed during the Bush years, when people were ejected from events for wearing disapproving T-shirts. This isn't a freedom of speech issue; Wilson has every right to stand up for his constituents. The problem isn't with the message, but with the method in which it's delivered. Just like it's never okay to inject yourself into someone else's moment of triumph, or to threaten a judge with physical violence, it's never all right for a member to denigrate the office of the President while he's addressing Congress. Childishness and petulance should never be confused with bravery or outspokenness.
Public tantrums never get the bad actors what they want anyway. The outbursts may make them feel better, but blood pressure-raising, adrenaline-pumping confrontations prevent rational discourse, and the screamers lose whatever points they're going for-- in Williams' case, literally.
Sure, most people don't plan to fall apart in public. But the motivation behind an outburst isn't nearly as important as the official response to it, which demonstrates a group's core values to the world. Just as a parent would (hopefully) discipline a kid for throwing food in a restaurant or for smacking his buddies on the playground, organizations -- and especially Congress -- need to immediately impose consequences on hyperventilators who are old enough to know better. They need to show that it won't be condoned, not for a minute, and that offenders will be sent off for a time out so they can cool down.
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