The Wisdom of Solomon

Who’s Deborah Solomon? I don’t know, apart from the fact that she writes for that monument to mediocrity, the New York Times. She says dumb things in this article on Lynne Truss’s new book on rudeness.

To be sure, most people, regardless of the precise elasticity of their flesh, would like to live in a world where everyone respects one another. Yet Americans have always harbored a suspicion of manners, which evoke visions of English history at its most hierarchical and hoity-toity – of dukes, earls, lords and viscounts tripping over one another in phony displays of deference and veneration. Who would want to live with all that kneeling and curtsying, all that monarchy-mandated fawning? Not the American revolutionaries, who believed that a fluid class democracy should subscribe instead to “republican manners” and promptly did away with titles.

Manners evoke visions of hoity-toity hierarchies, of earls and dukes, of kneeling and curtsying? What is she, an idiot? What’s kneeling got to do with anything? What have dukes? Manners is about things like not pushing in front of people, not grabbing things, not making a noise when people are asleep or studying nearby, being grateful when people do something kind, doing something kind yourself now and then, helping people when they need help – it’s about being considerate, and attentive, and observant, and kind, and helpful, as opposed to being selfish and mean and careless and greedy. Dukes and kneeling are neither here nor there. It’s imbecilic to think they are.

In our own time, the belief that manners reinforce social inequalities was key to the upheavals of the 60’s, when the shaggy-haired counterculture broke every rule in Emily Post’s book of etiquette.

What belief? What belief? What belief? What cretin ever believed that? Manners don’t reinforce social inequalities – low wages reinforce social inequalities, along with signs saying ‘Whites Only’ and landlords who don’t rent to coloureds and people who go out on Mississippi back roads at night with guns. Does Deborah Solomon think racial segregation and union-busting are now or have ever been carried on in a polite manner? Does she think the goons who beat up the Reuther brothers did it in a ducal manner? Does she think the white people who expected black people to yield the sidewalk to them were polite about it? Does she think the white folks were polite to Rosa Parks that day? What can she be talking about?

But bad manners are not necessarily all bad. In 1996, in an essay titled “Seduced by Civility,” the critic Benjamin DeMott defended rudeness not only as a basic right but also as a necessary inducement to change and social progress. Indeed, who wouldn’t rather live with incivility – with the curse words in rap songs and the excessive chatting in movie theaters – than with inequality?

Eh…what? Those are the choices? Those are the only alternatives? You can have civility, or you can have equality, but you can’t have both. The one displaces the other. Kind of like the way you can be on top of Mt Everest or you can be in Fulham but you can’t be in both places. But – why would that be? Why would it be at all, even a little bit? Why would it be even microscopically true? Why wouldn’t it in fact be the opposite of the truth? Why isn’t it far more likely that equality goes with the idea that everyone should be treated politely, not just the rich or the white or the elaborately-dressed? Because…the same idea works if everyone is treated rudely? Is that it? Is that the idea? If so, it’s a hateful idea. To repeat – manners aren’t just some posh frill, they’re not about spoons, they’re about treating people decently. They’re basic. Arguably the same idea is behind manners as is behind equality – simply that people should be treated decently. Treating people badly on principle is not a good plan; I’m against it.

In her new book, Truss remains mostly silent on the subject, forgoing social analysis in favor of groaning about the status quo.

Forgoing social analysis. Of the kind you just did? That kind of social anlysis? Gee, I wonder why.

And finally – as she winds things up – the coup de grĂ¢ce.

For what are manners, anyhow, but a distancing device, a mechanism for widening the spaces between people?

How true! How true, how wise, how deep. What, indeed, are manners, anyhow, but a way of shoving people back as hard as you can. Yes sir. The way to pull people close to you and give them a great big fuzzy hug is to run over them as they cross the street, push them when you want to get past, elbow them aside when you’re in a hurry, park your car in the middle of the sidewalk and then laugh when they fall down as they try to maneuver around it in the ice and snow, blow smoke in their faces, bump into them in crowded shops and then call them names for being in your way – and so on. Yes indeed – there’s intimacy for you, there’s closeness and trust and narrowing the spaces between people.

I tell you what – I just crossed Deborah Solomon’s name off the guest list for my next dinner party. Thank you.

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