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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.

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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.

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