Downton (Cr)Abbey: The First Lady, hecklers and the demise of decorum

The trouble with me — this week, well, ok always — is that everything is connected.  Will try sticking to the hyperrelevant and see how long that lasts.

So today’s sorta political sorta gossipy fodder is about a fundraiser that Mrs. Obama headlined last night.  What we can all agree on is that things went off the rails.  The how’s and the why’s are where it gets complicated, and interesting.  Many of the headlines talk about how the First Lady “confronted,” or “snapped at”, took on,”  or in one instance “took down” the heckler.  Anyone noticing the not so subtle language of aggression that the media is using here?  Are they being salacious so that you’ll read their version, or are they affirmatively painting the First Lady, who responded when engaged, NOT went out picked a fight, as being aggressive?   I will leave you to mull that for a bit as I sift through a few other strands.

First and foremost, we have a decorum problem that no one seems to have focused on.  I am probably overly inclined to this perspective because I have been eagerly devouring the first two seasons of Downtown Abbey this week, so I will confess to being more preoccupied than usual with what is appropriate in various contexts.  And the episode I just watched is one where a maid bursts into a formal dinner to announce to a military officer and his wife, that their son — recently killed in WW I — was her baby daddy.  It did not go well, and neither did last night.  Unpacking why that is, I’m going to defer for the moment as well.

It is entirely true that over the course of the last three presidencies beginning with President Clinton, the extent to which the President, his actions, and even his family are considered to be “fair game,” by the press and public has slid downhill faster than the Dowager Countess can slice you with her rapier wit, however that shouldn’t mean that all bets are off.  It’s simply not ok to yell “you lie” at the President at the State of the Union, and it’s not ok to heckle the First Lady at a fundraiser.  One thing we seem to have lost sight of is that there is a certain amount of respect due the office, if not the office holder.  We are talking about the head of state of the free world and his wife, not your first cousin, best friend, or anyone else with whom you have the closeness of relationship that permits you to transgress the bounds of decency whenever you feel like it.  That brings us to why this seems to keep happening — and I am not including here the President getting heckled at his terrorism speech.  I’m not giving Code Pink a pass, entirely, but the person secured an invite to what was a hybrid press/policy event and was offering a policy critique, even if she had not been invited to do so.

Last night, the First Lady whose role, historically, and in this Administration, has largely been divorced from the President’s policy agenda — Mrs. Obama has focused on physical fitness and military families — was likely making a political speech.  I phrase it that way, because so far, I’ve only seen what she said in response to being engaged by Ms. Sturtz.   According to some accounts, Ms. Sturtz says that she didn’t attend the event with the intent of speaking out.  Something moved her, however, not only to speak out, but also to either think it was ok to do so, or not give a damn about whether it was.   Several of you have written or “Amen-ed” the notion that the First Lady should get used to it as long as the LGBT community is being thrown under the bus. To this I reply:  I hear you, but that doesn’t make last night’s shenanigans ok.  And by the way, you might have noticed that you have a freakin’ armada of company under that bus:  progressives, immigrants, poor folks, and I’m sure many others would hasten to add themselves/their communities.

The question is when you take umbrage at the President’s (in)actions, what do you do, and where … even if you are, to quote Fanny Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of waiting for action.  Believe me, I am not about to assume the role of apologist for the President.  At the same time, I can see that the insane resistance to even doing reasonable things on Capitol Hill is nearly paralyzing the Congress.  Signing that Executive Order — and believe me, it was damn near impossible to get the House to pass a bill with explicit protections for LBGT victims of violence earlier this year– will incense most R’s and make things worse, if that’s actually possible.  Do not understand me to say that as a consequence, the President should do nothing.  I am saying that he and he staff weigh the pros and cons of everything.  One indication that they are doing a decent, though far from perfect job, is that we are all cranky about all they’ve not done.  As I said, you have much company under the bus!

So let’s go back to Downton for a minute:  the maid, seeing her only chance of getting support for her son slipping away, and feeling she had no options, spoke out.  Last night, Ms. Sturtz, either reacting to something Mrs. Obama said, or feeling frustrated by what hadn’t been said, spoke up.  Interestingly, she also expressed concern about family issues. The differences between the two scenarios are several, however:  1) Ms. Sturtz had paid $500 to attend the dinner, and was an invited guest; 2) she clearly felt empowered, if not entitled to interrupt the First Lady.  One might wonder why that is … My answer is there’s a race dynamic at play.  My words are deliberate.  I am not saying the woman is a racist; I don’t know her.  But it’s the same dynamic at play when the AZ governor sticks her finger in the President’s face, and members of Congress (who should know better if anyone should) shout during the state of the union.  It’s about the heckler’s sense of entitlement and privilege.  It’s a strong message that even though the hecklers are being addressed by the President and the First Lady, that no deference is owed them whatsoever.

But wait:  there’s more: Ms. Sturtz, having picked a fight and been ejected, has now been seeking to paint Mrs. Obama as aggressive.  This ties back to Ms. Sturtz’s sense of entitlement.  Two quotes illustrate my point, “Even though she was pretty — I would like to say assertive — but obviously it was pretty aggressive,” and “She cut me off immediately and leaned over podium, sort of her put her big hand towards me and said something to the effect of ‘You don’t do that to me’ or ‘I don’t do that.”  Soooooo, let me get this straight … you show up at event, interrupt at best, and/or heckle, but the person who responds — who people came there to hear, by the way — is aggressive and put her big hands toward you.  Ummm, really nice try at attempting to paint yourself as the victim, but no sale.  Moreover, let’s think about what’s implied by what Mrs. Obama is alleged to have done with her hands, or the alleged aggression … that it’s not ok for her to do that.  Ms. Sturtz, apparently, not only gets to show up and behave badly, but also to decide what is the appropriate tenor of response from Mrs. Obama.  Nice work if you can get it … And finally this:  Ms. Sturtz has been heard to observe that she wasn’t scared … funny that she mentioned it, then … sounds sort of like the cowardly lion carrying on in the woods.  “I’ll fight you with one hand … ”

Any lessons to be learned here?  I should hope so.  The very first is one they’re very fond of where I grew up:  “Don’t start none; won’t be none.”  Meaning, if you’re gonna decide to behave inappropriately toward the First Lady, don’t be surprised if she doesn’t receive you kindly, and most certainly, don’t try to retreat into victimhood, or act as if you were poorly treated when she refuses to suffer a fool gladly. Second:  just because we walk around talking about “Barack and Michelle, and “Bill and Hils,” all the time does not make us their friends or give us license to transgress the bounds of decency.  Y’all know your mamas raised you better.  I know it, too.  I have met most of them!!  The third point is this:  if we treat the President and First Lady with thinly veiled contempt, we give license to the opposition to do the same, and we show disdain for those offices as well as the people who hold them.  No wonder our federal political system is on life support.

So in the interests of politeness,  I will (with an edit or two) let the Downton crowd have the last words:

Robert: “They do say there’s a wild (wo)man inside all of us.”
 “If only (s)/he would stay inside.



3 thoughts on “Downton (Cr)Abbey: The First Lady, hecklers and the demise of decorum

  1. I have often wondered what is wrong with people these days as well…as a child I was always taught there is a certain way you act in public no matter what or with whom. Apparently people no longer understand the concept of boundaries or showing your best face out in public (unless provoked or cornered, which Sturtz apparently was not). I think it laughable that Sturtz started this whole thing by acting like a complete fool, rudely and publicly heckling and interrupting the First Lady, then had the audacity to attempt to make herself a victim in all of this. She was off-topic and nobody asked for her opinion. All I can say is First Lady Obama handled it very well with poise- all things considered I doubt I would have handled it as well. Big hands indeed, she might have gotten far worse from me or many others!

  2. So thoughtful and well-written! Life has been hectic and I have not followed this story until now. What is your sense of the public’s reaction to the First Lady’s response to the heckler? Mine is a sense of relief and pride that she went there and, in a way befitting her self-proclaimed role of “Mom in Chief”, firmly dealt with the heckler. I agree that decorum has declined starting with the Clinton presidency but there is at times a thinly veiled contempt and hostility towards President Obama and Mrs. Obama that is unprecedented. Characterizing her as “aggressive” has everything to do with race and not having a mother or father that taught you to behave better. Perhaps Mrs. Obama has “risked” her popularity, but I think she has been so well-liked precisely because she is a strong, genuine lady.

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