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The Rules of Heckling

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By SCRAPBOOK
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For the record, and strictly speaking, The Scrapbook is opposed to heckling. It’s rude, ill-mannered—and reflects poorly on the heckler, not the object of derision. This attitude may come as a surprise to, say, our friends in Great Britain, where Parliament resembles a bear pit at times, and every politician has a ready repertoire of snappy comebacks and devastating put-downs. But our political culture is different, as any C-SPAN viewer knows: The system of checks and balances demands a high level of civility, and public deference, no matter how insincere.

Michelle Obama

“Do you understand?”


So we were intrigued last week when Michelle Obama found herself being heckled. It was a rare occasion. To begin with, it is almost invariably presidents, not first ladies, who find themselves being publicly harried. And no doubt to the disappointment of MSNBC, the person who verbally challenged Mrs. Obama was not a Tea Party stalwart or dreaded Republican but a gay rights activist named Ellen Sturtz—and at a Democratic fundraiser in Washington, no less. The Scrapbook, which is sometimes accused of rhetorical heckling, can look at this particular incident with strict objectivity.

And to our surprise, we find that the gathering consensus seems to be that, while no one condones the bumptiousness of Ms. Sturtz, Michelle Obama seems not to have performed so well. (Washington Post: “Obama at first seemed flummoxed by the interloper. And then, in a rare display of public peeve, she turned stern and combative.”) For one thing, she broke the cardinal rule of heckle control by being obviously, and rather dramatically, flustered. Instead of acknowledging the heckler by telling her politely to zip it (her husband’s standard technique), Mrs. Obama strode away from the microphone, and evidently feeling sorry for herself, said to no one in particular, “One of the things I don’t do well is this”—and then, directly to the heckler: “Do you understand?” 

Naturally, Sturtz, who was complaining that President Obama has not signed some gay-rights executive order, took this as an invitation to seize the microphone and hijack the event. Which is understandable: It has long been standard operating procedure on the left to interrupt conservative speakers, storm the podium, and arrogate the right to state grievances at will. But Mrs. Obama was in no mood for polite deference, and angrily addressing both her friendly and unfriendly audience, said that Sturtz either could “listen to me, or you can take the mic. But I’m leaving! You all decide. You have one choice.”

Well, of course, a backyard full of Democratic fat cats and union functionaries was not about to let Michelle Obama storm off the premises: Ellen Sturtz was hustled away, and the first lady resumed her informal (telepromptered) remarks.

The Scrapbook, as we mentioned, is inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone interrupted by hecklers. But there was something characteristic—curiously Obamaesque, if you will—about the first lady’s reaction. Thrown off balance by a verbal left hook, her visceral response was self-pity, then anger directed at the wrong target. The president, we fear, seems to have the same instincts: Contempt for critics, followed by fury. Ellen Sturtz may now expect, at the very least, an IRS audit.

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