WASHINGTON -- The first response to the performer on a public stage wishing the death of a stranger for political reasons was discomfort. Wanda Sykes had "crossed a line" at the White House Correspondents Dinner in accusing Rush Limbaugh of terrorism and treason, mocking his past drug addiction and wishing his kidneys would fail. But a counterreaction soon developed: Humor is often transgressive, and if you can't take it, don't dish it, and let's everyone lighten up a bit, and can't anyone take a joke anymore?
The initial reaction was more human.
Sykes' defenders found her pungency unexceptional, which is true. It represents a whole genre of political discourse: the rhetoric of the rant. This approach recently introduced the "c" word into the national debate on gay marriage. It leads some spotlight-chasing conservatives to attack opponents as "traitors" and to employ racist epithets. It is the dominant form of public comment on the Internet, where the pithy, personal, scatological attack has become a minor art form, rather like sculpting in excrement.
What I'm describing is not the blunt earthiness of the farmer or the unguarded political overstatement among friends. It is a practiced form of verbal aggression, combining harshness and coarseness to shock and intimidate.
The practitioners of the rant have their own television shows, radio programs and Web sites. And now it seems they will have their own elected representative, the author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot." Al Franken has made a career of such rants, asking "Isn't Cardinal O'Connor an a..hole?" calling opponents "human filth" and suggesting that his next book might bear the title: "I F...ing Hate Those Right-Wing Mother F......!" Which many Minnesotans apparently found refreshing.
The advocates of this approach often describe it (and themselves) as courageous. Franken explains, "My dad did say, 'If you stand up to bullies they usually back down.'" But those who make their living beating up others for their lunch money must eventually be categorized as bullies themselves. They take perhaps the commonest human vice -- self-indulgent anger -- and cloak it as a rare virtue. But it is a strange moral inversion to talk of the "courage" of the upraised middle finger. Perhaps adolescent rudeness. Maybe boorishness. Not courage, which involves standing up for a belief, not dehumanizing those who don't share it.
America doesn't need another scolding lecture on the importance of civility. Well, apparently it does. So here goes.