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April 8th, 2002

  Excuse Me …


Readers of the print National Review (4/8/02 issue, "The Week" section) have recently been reminded about Politenessman, a comic-strip superhero who appeared briefly in the old National Lampoon, back in the 1970s when the Lampoon was a really funny magazine. Politenessman, impeccably dressed in a double-breasted suit and trilby hat, armed with a steel hankie to be hurled at wrong-doers, would turn up at the scene of some crime or disaster and correct everyone's manners. One strip opened with some people trapped in an elevator in a burning building. Politenessman comes crashing in through the ceiling of the elevator and starts telling off the men for not removing their hats in the presence of ladies. At the end of the strip, as firefighters haul charred corpses from the elevator, Politenessman says to the reader: "At least these people died in an atmosphere of good breeding!"

Apparently we have need of Politenessman today. A group named "Public Agenda"* reports that lack of respect and courtesy in American society is a serious problem for a lot of people. 61 per cent of the survey's respondents think that things have got worse in recent years.

They are right, of course, and the source of the problem is not hard to find. The main trend in U.S. society during the past 20 or 30 years has been away from the private, personal, local and informal settling of what is and is not correct, towards the public definition and enforcement of "proper" relations between citizens, through laws and judicial rulings. Most of this has been driven by the great passion to root out "discrimination" and "harassment," whether real, imagined, or invented out of thin air by ingenious lawyers. Manners — the way we speak to each other, the way we dress, when we should yield to one another, when we should expect the other person to yield to us, when and how we may properly eat, flirt, smoke, curse, spit — people are less inclined to accept authority and tradition in these things, and more inclined to consult an attorney, or role models put up for them by the producers of movies and TV shows.

This isn't something you can fix — it's in the air. I am raising two children, currently 6 and 9 years old. I have done my honest best to impress good manners on them. I have never responded to any of their requests unless it included a "please"; they are never permitted to leave the dinner table without asking to be excused; they are chided if, in my presence, they accept any thing or deed from another person without saying "thank you." And yet, their manners are still negligible. I am still, after all these years, wearily saying: "What's the magic word?" four or five times a day. Why is it such uphill work? At age 9 — and even, I am pretty sure, at age 6 — I was much better-mannered than my children are, though I had had far less parental attention.

It's tempting to say "peer pressure," which means pushing off the problem on to other parents. Observing my children's playmates, they are indeed all just as vague about manners. I have noted before in this space the curious fact that children no longer have a clue how to address adults outside their family. Call me reactionary if you like, but I am really not willing to accept anything other than "Mr. Derbyshire" or "Sir" from anyone less than college age. I rarely hear either. The creepy thing is, that the neighbor kids know there is something wrong here. They mumble and drop their eyes when getting my attention: "Excuse me, er, Mister, er, …" They know there is a way to address me, but they don't know what it is.

Yet the parents of these kids are honest, thoughtful, well-educated middle-class people, doing their hopeless best as I am doing mine. It's not their fault, it's something in the air. A cynical friend recently explained to me the 96 per cent rule, which, he claims, is the main operative principle in parenting and school-teaching: 2 per cent of what you do makes a positive difference, 2 per cent makes a negative difference, and 96 per cent makes no difference at all.

I don't think I'm quite ready to accept the 96 per cent rule yet; and in fact I think that part of the problem is the taste our era has for irony and cynicism of that sort. Nadezhda Mandelstam, in one of her memoirs about the Russian Revolution, noted the dearth of kindness in the Russia of the 1930s, and explained it thus: "Once there were kind people. Kindness was considered a virtue, a social grace, so that even people who were not kind felt they should pretend to be. This pretense, this hypocrisy, was noted by clever writers, who exposed and mocked it. The result of all that mockery is that now there are no more kind people …" Our time and place, like hers, is not very tolerant of hypocrisy; and what are manners but a kind of mild sanctioned hypocrisy? "Better a false 'Good morning' than a sincere 'Go to hell'," ran the old Yiddish saying. Less and less do people agree with that.

Taking the world as a whole, though, I think American manners have stood up to the assaults of modernity better than most. My own homeland, Britain, is now a courtesy-free zone, and few European countries are any better. China, my country-in-law, maintains a tradition of great courtesy towards outsiders, and when travelling in China I am constantly flattered by the attentions of ordinary Chinese people — they still, at least away from the big metropolitan centers, offer their seat on a bus to foreigners. Their interactions with each other, though, seem to me to be coarse and brutal outside the extended family, a thing my own Chinese friends and relatives confirm. The Middle East is a curious case. The only rational society there is Israel; everything else is a despotism run by gangsters. Yet everyone tells me (I have never been to the Middle East) that the Israelis are the rudest people in the world, while the manners of the Arabs and Iranians remain exquisite. I have even been told that this is a factor in the partiality that Western journalists have for the Arabs against the Israelis.

Within the U.S. it is a commonplace — my own experience certainly bears it out — that Southerners have better manners than Northerners. The American South is probably the best-mannered region in the entire English-speaking world. A British journalist I know went to give an address to a women's society in Birmingham, Alabama. She was politely received, listened to with attention, and given a fine dinner afterwards … during which, by overhearing a chance remark, she suddenly realized she had arrived an hour late for her address. A check of the printed schedule for the evening confirmed this. The good ladies of Birmingham had been too polite to say anything; if my friend hadn't overheard that remark, she would never have known.

Since most of the South has more liberal (yes, I mean liberal:  "free from restraint or check"… "of, belonging to or befitting a man of free birth" — Merriam-Webster's Third) gun laws than most of the North, this may have something to do with Robert Heinlein's dictum that: "An armed society is a polite society." More likely, I think, it reflects the Christian ethic still dominant in the South:

We say grace and we say "Ma'am,"
And if you don't like it, we don't give a damn.

The only big regional split in the Public Agenda survey was on the issue of taking God's name in vain. While three out of four Southerners said it this always wrong, half of those surveyed from the Northeast said that there is nothing wrong with it or that it falls somewhere between right and wrong. For all its much-advertised historical sins, the South remains the one place where the old — medieval, in fact — ideal of the Christian gentleman is still alive. A corollary to the general North-South variation is that black Americans, most of whom have some links with the South, are better-mannered than white ones, a thing I have often noticed. The present generation of American blacks may be the last of which this is true, though, to judge from the things I see and hear in the New York subway shortly after the city public schools let out on a weekday afternoon.

Regular readers will know that I am a worshipper of Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English writer and talker, whose conversation was immortalized in James Boswell's great biography. I am going to hang one of my favorite Johnson stories off the topic of this piece, on the admittedly rather thin excuse that the story has something (no, I agree, not much — but look, it's a great story) to do with table manners. If any children are reading, please do not try this at home.

At a fashionable dinner party, Johnson took into his mouth a potato that was too hot. Realizing his mistake, he expelled the offending vegetable with such force that, according to an eyewitness, it shot across the room "like a ball from a cannon." The company was stunned to silence. As they stared into their plates, Johnson turned to the man next to him, who happened to be the Bishop of London, and said, in perfectly normal conversational tones: "Sir, a foolish man would have swallowed it."

Thank you for reading this column.

* Q:  Who they?

A:  A social research outfit that does survey work on issues like crime and education. The principals are all terrifically credentialled from academia or government. Public Agenda's mission statement declares that the organization "maintains a non-partisan balance in all of its work" — grounds for suspicion, since, as we all know, "non-partisan" is Establishment code for "left-liberal." However, a superficial scan around their web site turns up some solid work, though none of it very exciting or counter-intuitive.