The Revolution Devours Itself

"How the Far Left Hijacked a Cat-Calling Debate And Started to Eat Itself," Charles C.W. Cooke writes at NRO on the viral video that became a Rorschach Test for both sides of the aisle:

Aura Bogado is a woman who could find devastating racial implications in the instruction manual for an electric screwdriver. But, quite by accident, she may here have hit upon a kernel of truth. “What does it mean for an org to create a video,” Bogado asks, “that casts men of color as main perpetrators of catcalling with the aim to criminalize them?” What, indeed. Over at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski records that the video’s backers are not solely interested in raising awareness. “According to Hollaback’s mission statement,” Tracinski writes,

the group is interested in modifying the law to punish offenders (and raising significant First Amendment concerns). Because comments such as those documented in their latest video, they explain, are the ‘most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against.’” Note that the activity they are describing as “violence” is speech. First Amendment concerns, indeed.

The case for a robust — almost impregnable — protection of freedom of speech stands on its own and applies to all people. It is as tyrannical an act to prosecute a rich man for his utterances as it is to target a poor one. Nevertheless, should Hollaback get its way and provoke the passage of an anti-cat-calling law, it would likely be the poor who would bear the brunt of its force. Such rules would be enforced capriciously, and those without power would find themselves hauled into court more than those with connections. As has been demonstrated by the new anti–“rape culture” rules that are sweeping the nation’s college campuses, there is always a price to illiberalism, and that price is often paid by a downtrodden and less powerful group. As kindly as possible, I would recommend that if anybody believes that the problem of unwanted male attention warrants the infringement of the First Amendment, they should re-examine their priorities.

And that, rather nicely, illustrates the problem here: that a piece that was intended to illustrate a singular issue has been hijacked by zealots and presented as being indicative of so much more besides. The law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds joked this week that, through the right lens, the video could be regarded as “a racist production about white women not wanting attention from black and Latino men.” Alternatively, given the “low status” of many of those featured, he considered that we could regard the catcalls as “a way of striking back at privilege.” Indeed we could. There are a million possibilities. But, in interest of simplicity, and with the ever-beneficial Occam’s Razor in our hands, we might take the spot’s message for what it is: a reminder not to shout at women while they make their way to work. Bravo.

Well, yes. Read Cooke's article for a profile of the dark prism the American left views the country in. Including their fellow leftists -- as no one involved emerged unscathed in the left's collective freakout over the video. That includes both the videomaker, and the cat-callers, urban men of various ethnicities of a mostly lower socioeconomic strata, who, as someone noted on twitter, are all exceedingly likely Democrats themselves. As videomaker and blogger Ladd Ehlinger Jr. tweeted when hapless PR agent Justine Sacco found her reputation destroyed by her fellow leftists (just in time for Christmas) over a single ill-conceived tweet, "Just because you're in the mob one day, don't think it protects you from the mob the next day." Even, in this case, if you attempt to highlight the mob's perceived shortcomings.

But for comparison's sake to the actual subject of the video, let's flash back to David Gelernter's beautifully-written 1995 City Journal article on Manhattan in 1939:

Nineteen thirty-nine lived in an " ought" culture. We inhabit more of a "want" culture, a desire-not-obligation culture. One of the most obvious and important consequences of the slow death between 1939 and today of American civic religion—the coherent, deeply held set of shared beliefs and ideas that bound Americans into one community—is the sweeping aside of its oughts.

The ought culture made itself felt in many ways. For example: 1939's daily experience was assembled to a far greater extent than ours out of countless small rituals—pieces of formulaic behavior that you enacted not because you feel like it, necessarily, but because it was expected of you. Because it is the proper thing, and you ought to do it.

A middle-class dinner or even breakfast of the 1930s might involve an entire family seated at table with the males in ties and the maid scurrying about. The ritual of each child's planting a breakfast kiss on seated mamma's cheek was sufficiently well known to have been included in movie scenes not evidently intended to be farcical. Hats have rules: a gentleman of course removes his when speaking to a lady on the street, removes it when a lady enters an elevator (unless the elevator is inside an office building or a store); replaces it when he steps off into the corridor. He lifts his hat as a gesture of politeness to strangers and lifts it more emphatically when he performs an outdoor informal (versus an indoor ceremonial) bow.

Nineteen thirty-nine's polite conversation is scripted and therefore ritualized to a much greater extent than ours is. "Under all possible circumstances, the reply to an introduction is 'How do you do?'" ("The taboo of taboos is 'Pleased to meet you.'") When the need arises, one says "I beg your pardon"—never, ever, "Pardon me," which is a barbarism. It goes without saying that first names are to be used only under the proper, restricted circumstances (never among strangers), and that "sir," "madam," or "miss" is an appropriate form of address.

The rituals governing a gentleman's behavior toward ladies are the best developed of all. A gentleman in a private home stands as long as any lady is on her feet. A gentleman is always introduced or presented to a lady, never the other way round, even if "he is an old gentleman of great distinction and the lady a mere slip of a girl."

I do not want to convey the impression that my principal source for these intelligences, Emily Post's 1937 Etiquette, is a prissy book. Not at all. It is breezy, amusing, and wry (wry being a favorite thirties flavor). Nonetheless, rules are rules.

All this etiquette hardly made late-thirties New York a flawlessly civilized place. During his thirties building campaign, Robert Moses installed playgrounds around the edges of Central Park. At first they were charming, with the standard swings and slides, but also sandboxes, crawling tunnels, and striped, turreted "guardhouses." They were fenced only with hedges. But dogs spoiled the sandboxes, drunks slept in the tunnels, perverts spied from the guardhouses, and in the end the playgrounds lost all their special toys and were barricaded with lockable chain-link fences. It is a story worth remembering when nostalgia threatens to get out of hand. In preparation for the World’s Fair and the mass of tourists it would draw, New York City’s police, cabdrivers, and subway workers got special courses in politeness—suggesting that proper behavior was valued but hardly to be taken for granted.

Manners didn't matter only to the rich, though. Visiting New York from London in 1938, Cecil Beaton notes that "the general rules of behavior are rigidly adhered to, and Mrs. Post's book on etiquette is as strictly interpreted in Gotham as the Koran in Mecca. Competitions are held whereat children from all parts of New York vie with each other to become the politest child in Manhattan, and demonstrate their courtesy before judges." On one occasion, the winner was a 13-year-old girl from the Lower East Side.

Courtesy wasn't only decorative, either. It was a terse and pregnant form of communication. A small gesture might speak volumes. At a Lower East Side relief station, Mayor La Guardia dropped in unannounced. He was enraged by the lackadaisical bureaucrats he found. A supervisor wandered over to see what the fuss was, and mistook the visitor for another out-of-work troublemaker. The mayor knocked the hat off his head: "Take off your hat when you speak to a citizen." After supervising an on-the-spot reorganization, the mayor stomped off; on his way out, he pointed to the man with the knocked-off hat, declaring: “There’s another S. of a B. who has no job.”

For the twin purposes of a very good thing (fighting back against racism) and a rather less unalloyed goal (freeing up sexual mores), after World War II, the left has worked very hard to demolish all of these rules. But when your motto is "let's change the world!", don't be surprised if the world you create isn't a better one than the one you destroy.*