And then there’s that stamp…
Like most book lovers, I enjoy a good bookstore. I seek them when I travel and rarely with a title in mind. In a Staunton, Virginia bookstore this summer, I happened upon a small hardback titled Learning to Behave, published in 1946, and figured it might harbor timeless and timely lessons.
Historian Arthur C. Schlesinger, father of the namesake historian and Kennedy aide, wrote this tidy little survey of American manners and etiquette guides. It struck me as appropriate because, as you might have noticed, crudeness is the new presidential. So the president himself implies, and so his apologists insist. We heard him mock a war hero and a disabled reporter, incite violence against protesters and brag about sexual harassment, and we elected him. We should not be surprised to find the KKK strutting the streets.
You could argue that the niceties of politics are simply hypocrisy’s shiny veneer — the word “politic” can mean both “prudent” and “cunning,” after all. Manners can be class-bound, imposed by the wealthy and powerful on the rest of us. A few days after South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson yelled, “you lie!” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 State of the Union address, I asked my basic reporting students what they thought about “civility” in public affairs — was it needed or just optics? A few timid nods, some shrugs. But one student argued that those who demand conformity to behavioral etiquette were in effect silencing him. I can guess for whom he voted last fall — the man who “tells it like it is,” even if it’s a lie.
Schlesinger notes that something in the American spirit has always been proudly petulant, but he argues that manners make life endurable: “Even the outward motions imply a certain kindliness and consideration for others.” He quotes Emerson calling manners “the beginning of civility… to get people out of the quadruped state; to get them washed, clothed, and set up on end.” And Emerson saw decent behavior aligning with refinement and discernment: “Defect in manners is usually the defect of fine perceptions.”
What about those “fine perceptions?” We used to say they stemmed from “breeding,” implying that the elite were both to the manner and to manners born. Nobles are meant to be noble, and it’s easy to acquire “fine perceptions” with wealth, leisure and education. Partly because our own nobles decided the United States would thrive if everyone had access at least to the third of these, we made education universal. Now, though, even education is under attack. Not only have legislatures reduced funding for public schools and universities, but also a majority of Republicans have a negative view of higher education’s effects on the country.
“Simple and innocent vulgarity is merely an untrained and undeveloped bluntness of body and mind; but in true inbred vulgarity, there is a dreadful callousness, which, in extremity, becomes capable of every sort of bestial habit and crime, without fear, without pleasure, without horror, and without pity.” — John Ruskin
Thinking of that deficiency sent me to another old bookstore find, Sesame and Lilies by John Ruskin. The 19th-century critic had a predictably snooty attitude about “commonness” that was easy enough to dismiss as the ethic of yet another dead white man — until I read this: “Simple and innocent vulgarity is merely an untrained and undeveloped bluntness of body and mind; but in true inbred vulgarity, there is a dreadful callousness, which, in extremity, becomes capable of every sort of bestial habit and crime, without fear, without pleasure, without horror, and without pity.”
Accusations of snobbery fly again when we parse terms like “inbred,” but Ruskin was not talking about class, necessarily. His warning is universal. What better term for the echo chambers of the mobile/social era? While the some on the left are capable of violence, it’s mostly the anti-PC, snowflake-scorning right that has chased the politesse from politics, abetted by our trash-talking, or just trashy, president. These days, Schlesinger’s salute to manners seems awfully quaint and Ruskin’s warning echoes harshly. It’s long past time to mind our manners — now we have to mind our president’s, too.