The Decline of American Manners

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Would I be wrong to say there is incivility in American life? It’s not so much — not in my experience — a lack of cordiality in one’s own neighborhood. There are liberal Democrats in houses on either side of ours, but we get along famously. But in Albany, let alone in Washington? In those capitals, it’s politics as war by other means.

It was not always so. Our relations with one another ebb and flow — nobody is being caned on the Senate floor these days, at least — but today, politics is far likelier to make us meaner to each other, and is nastier overall, than was the case even a few decades ago. What happened?

Many of us are genuinely distressed about our nation’s dwindling appreciation of public etiquette — at the boorishness of some of our fellow citizens (those who “invaded” the Capitol), and at the rancor in our public conversations, especially about politics and religion. We do well to remember that manners are minor morals, and this relationship doesn’t apply just to the dinner table.

An example: During the mayoralties of Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, crime in New York City declined, in part because those mayors accepted the “broken windows” approach to policing. That policy recognizes that if misdemeanors are ignored, felonies will follow, whereas if you crack down on petty crime, big crimes will be more easily prevented.

It was odd, then, that in the midst of the pandemic Mayor de Blasio banned or restricted religious gatherings yet personally participated in large political demonstrations — even tolerating violent protests.

Antifa, you could say, is boorishness writ large.

And I’ll say plainly that the American Republic — and this is true, I think, of all free societies — was founded by gentlemen and depends upon their gentlemanly ideals for both its prosperity and its posterity. Our Republic, in fact, is the gentleman (and lady) writ large. Societal civility is the extension and expansion of individual gallantry: It’s all about — or ought to be about — balance and restraint.

The most self-satisfied of our forebears would cringe to witness our 21st-century illiberal individualism. A gentleman, it has become clear to me, is not just a man who stands apart from the mob. He is a man who stands up for others — sometimes even for his enemies — often when those others have no clue that he is there for them.

Civility, civilization, civic, civil — all these words have their root in the Latin civis, citizen. The grandest of these, civilization, which stands for the collective refinements of a society, means, in essence, “life in the city” — the assumption from ancient times was that the best and most refined ideas, institutions, and individuals were to be found in the city. And we find that attitude toward the city in the Bible — from the Psalmist’s description of Jerusalem “built as a city, compact together,” to St. John’s vision: “And I, John, saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

The fourth of the Ten Commandments requires not only that children obey their parents, but also that citizens do their duty to their country and its leaders. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that, although the Fourth Commandment is addressed expressly to children’s relationships to their parents (that being part of the most basic and universal civil union), it “likewise concerns the ties of kinship between members of the extended family. It requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors. Finally, it extends to the duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it.

Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, was correct: “Knowledge of human nature is the beginning and end of political education.” One thing America’s founders — to a man politically well-educated — understood was that an enduring polity requires balance and restraint. And James Madison was right in observing that we’re not angels and will not be governed by them. The trick, he wrote, is this: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

The Founders drew upon sources both ancient and modern, very much anticipating G. K. Chesterton’s later description of tradition as the “democracy of the dead” because it “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

A gentleman — compleat or not — can be a conservative or a liberal, but he cannot be an anarchist, political or moral.

It’s hard at times not to be sucked into an eddy of tastelessness, if only because of its ubiquity. As Chesterton — witty, prescient Chesterton — put it: “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” And being, as folks used to put it, “upright” is ever more difficult, and to many it even seems silly.

I’ve lived in a part of eight decades now, and in my life I’ve known fewer than six individuals who had so mastered restraint that they could dependably keep a secret.

Intimate knowledge tends to burn a hole in your tongue; tries to escape the brain in telegraphic outbursts, like the “dish” in the headlines of supermarket tabloids. It’s the sensibility expressed by Louisa May Alcott a century ago:

A little kingdom I possess, / Where thoughts and feelings dwell; / And very hard the task I find / Of governing it well.

The ability to keep cool with hot info is the compleat gentleman’s (or lady’s) most singular quality, and these days it is rare indeed.

Civilization and urbanity — which itself originally meant city-dwelling — are words that signal refinement, suggesting not only broad cultural knowledge but also the integration of that knowledge: sophistication, elegance, courtesy. And restraint — the great lost virtue in American life. A man or woman or nation governed by restraint will endure, because restraint gives rise to humility, and we must be humble to be good.

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