Janelle Harris, a contributor to Yahoo’s “The Stir” Website, bemoans the death of manners:
I spied a young couple out on a date. He cracked a wry joke, she giggled daintily, and they held hands as they strolled up a block in the heart of downtown D.C. How in-the-honeymoon period adorable are they? I thought. But when Cute Couple paused to enter a restaurant, my foot almost slipped off the brake: he all but broke his neck to get in ahead of her and let the door slam—I mean, physically slonk her—on her shoulder.I sent her a telepathic message to turn tail, hail a cab, and end that date immediately. But she didn’t. She grimaced and limped in after him. And that’s one of the reasons why chivalry is dying a slow, brutal death.
I’m not shy about telling y’all that I passionately believe manners are the glue of society, the thin line that keeps us all from going ape you-know-what on each other in social settings and public arenas. Not that that line isn’t fraying. If you’ve stood in line at Walmart for any length of time or taken a ride on public transportation, it’s like being on the frontlines of how dismally bad manners have really gotten.
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I’m as hip and trendy as the next fun-loving gal, but I’m super old-school when it comes to the application of manners. Feminist agenda be darned: I believe that men should walk on the side closest to the street when we’re out on the town, that they should pull out women’s chairs when we sit down at tables, and — for the love of all that’s even remotely cool — that they shouldn’t let the doggone door crush any part of our persons as they scurry in to slosh back their weight in nachos and beer at a local eatery.
This paragraph is the tell:
For some reason — I don’t know if it’s global warming or residuals from the Bush administration or the pull of the moon or what it is — but people have absolutely abandoned good, sound, traditional act-rightness. And that lack of decorum has bungled the dating scene. Like it wasn’t already like walking through a dog park with no clean-up laws in the first place. [Emphasis mine — Ed]
“I don’t know what it is” — so let’s blame Bush and global warming — and let’s write an article decrying a loss of manners, while using scatological metaphors.
But Harris’s article is the textual equivalent of one of those interviews that Woody Allen gives whenever he makes a movie set in the 1930s or ’40s, and then wonders aloud why New York doesn’t look as sleek and glamorous as it did in the past.
The boomers shot traditional glamor, civility and manners dead in the 1960s. In 1963, as they were preparing for high-profile tours of first England, and then the States, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, demanded that his act ditch the Marlon Brando-style leather jackets, T-shirts and jeans they wore during their salad days in small clubs in post-war Hamburg for matching Pierre Cardin suits and ties.
In 1968, John and Yoko posed naked for the cover of their first album. (Photo on its Wikipedia page not safe for work or sanity. You were warned.)
What is TV’s Mad Men but a victory lap for the boomers’ destruction of civility and traditional manners?
In England, traditionally, the middle and lower classes took their lead from the upper class in order to learn manners. The conclusion of a recent essay in National Review by Florence King (subscription required) on Downton Abbey, a new BBC miniseries set between the sinking of the Titanic and the start of World War I, deftly summed up one way this worked in England:
Viewers who love to hate the English class system will learn something about our own. My favorite scene is the psychodrama between middle-class Matthew and the valet assigned to him. Used to dressing himself, he tells the earl, “I feel like a doll!” while the valet comes close to tears as he tells the butler, “I just stand there watching a man get dressed!” Matthew must be the one to yield and he does, first with cufflinks, then with coats, and finally with a compliment for the expert removal of a stain that leaves the valet suffused with pride. Matthew learns that to make fun of a person’s work is to make fun of the person, but ostensibly liberal Americans still chortle about “flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s.”
Period miniseries like this one also hold out another lesson: A ruling class lifts all boats. When the Downton cook finally admits that she is almost blind, the earl calls her into the library. She thinks he’s going to give her her notice but instead he tells her that he is sending her to London for a cataract operation which he will pay for, and that she will recuperate in his townhouse and be looked after there by her best friend among the maids, whom he is sending with her.
The cook staggers back, steadies herself on a table, and gasps, “I’m afraid I have to sit down in your Lordship’s presence.”
He motions her to a chair. His words bespoke noblesse oblige, but hers had a gracefulness, an elegance even, that seemed to belie her station but actually sprang from it. She learned to talk that way by working all her life for the ruling class. For some two centuries domestic service was about the only job for ordinary people other than farm or factory work, and millions entered it. They saw and heard aristocrats up close and copied them, passing on what they learned until the whole world came to associate “good manners” with the English.
Equality has given us English soccer fans.
Which brings us to an essay from 2003, in which Theodore Dalrymple noted how the modern British overculture rejects traditional manners in order to be “transgressive:”
Of course, egalitarians are just as attached as everyone else to their own material possessions and wealth and have no real intention of forgoing them by radical redistribution, at any rate, of their own money and possessions. The struggle for equality—of the actual rather than the formal kind—has therefore to be transferred to fields in which it will cost the egalitarian nothing, or nothing material and financial.
What better way to prove your egalitarian credentials than by adopting the supposedly free and easy, utterly informal manners of those at the bottom of the social scale? The freer and easier the better, for such informality demonstrates another quality beloved of, and praised by, intellectuals: a superiority to the dictates of convention. Thus you can never be quite informal or unconventional enough.
In Britain, this has led in short order to the rejection of the most elementary of social rules. Young Britons now appear to think, for example, that the function of empty seats on trains is as a receptacle for their feet. (Why they should be the footweariest generation in history is a mystery, unless their behavior is considered as a deliberate challenge to convention.) A passenger who draws the attention of a young adult to the anti-social presence of his feet upon a seat will be met either by a torrent of abuse or, if the person doing it is better-educated, by moral self-justification. The last time I said anything about it, the young woman in question, by no means unpleasant, pointed out that her feet were clean, she having first removed her shoes, and that therefore she was within her rights. I was left searching for a Cartesian point from which to prove beyond all possible doubt that putting your feet up on seats in trains was wrong. It is a wearisome business trying to prove from first epistemological principles in every instance of minor public misconduct that it is morally wrong, especially when every failure to make the case is a justification for further such misconduct. It is strange how egalitarianism results in a rabid form of individualism, an angry individualism without worthwhile individuality.
Young women patients of mine who came from middle-class homes would routinely put their feet on the chair in which they were sitting in my consulting room. Patients chewed gum while speaking to me or ate snacks and drank soft drinks from cans (leaving them on the floor beside the chair when they had finished) as I inquired about their medical histories. A friend of mine, a doctor, told me how one of his patients had made her social arrangements for the evening on her cell phone while he was performing a gynecological examination on her.
This excess of informality is very undignified and unattractive and results in a society constantly on edge, even in the smallest of interactions. I think it explains in part the worldwide success of a series of books by my friend Alexander McCall Smith about a lady private detective in Botswana called Mma Ramotswe. For the African society that McCall Smith portrays so eloquently in these books is one in which a certain formality and ceremoniousness of manners still exists, which come as a great and instant relief to people who live in societies that are altogether without them. Not only do the ceremoniousness and formality help to smooth the rough edges of social interaction, but they allow some grading of such interaction, according to degrees of desired or achieved intimacy. Formality, moreover, is the precondition of subtlety and even of irony; without formality, life becomes coarse-grained and crude. The distinction between friendliness and friendship becomes blurred so that it is no longer even perceived.
In any case, it is only in the condescending imagination of egalitarian intellectuals that poor people, or people of low social class, are always rough-hewn and informal. There are few countries in the world poorer than Tanzania, yet when I lived there I was most struck by the exquisite, formal manners of the vast majority of Tanzanians, in shameful contrast to those of the much richer expatriates (including my own).
The idea that the manners of the working classes of industrialized societies were always informal and nothing else, and that there is something laudably democratic and egalitarian about informality, is mistaken. When, at the beginning of my career, I worked in a poor area of the East End of London, I found that there were old men and women who addressed and referred to their own spouses as Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones, and never by their first names. They were ceremonious in other ways too. You could be sure that couples that addressed and referred to one another so formally had lived happily together for many years, on terms of the greatest mutual respect, and with the most intense affection, despite having often experienced the greatest hardship. Their manners were never rough.
(Note that in his essay, Dalrymple addresses the topic mentioned by Yahoo’s Harris on the tradition of the gentleman walking on the side of the street nearest to the curb — a minor bit of formality long since erased along with most other manners.)
In America, the middle and lower classes learned manner and style from observing European royalty via newsreels and magazines, along with American captains of industry, national figures such as the president, and Hollywood.
The 20th century would eventually kill all of that off: the Duke of Windsor, the last male member of British royalty known for his style, turned out to be remarkably unsuited to the throne, as The King’s Speech memorably observed. JFK was the last American president who influenced style — who wanted to imitate Nixon or Jimmy Carter? And as far as captains of industry, I watched Donald Trump on Fox News Thursday night — who wants to look like a man wearing the Shatner Turbo 2000 atop an Oompa-Loompa-esque spray-on orange tan?
And the Charlie Sheen Winning! Tour tells you all you need to know about modern Hollywood’s manners and sophistication. But long before Charlie took to the road, the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls gang that stormed the studio barricades in the late sixties and early seventies had little time for the social graces taught onscreen by Fred Astaire, William Powell, and Cary Grant.
But then, that’s the problem with Starting From Zero — too many people remember that some things were better before Year Zero arrived.
(Related thoughts from Stacy McCain.)