Sunday, September 18, 2011


All schemes for improving humankind appear to be hopeless. The masses are definitely not kind and, I fear, barely human. Where even quite ordinary individuals manage to rise above ordinary callousness, the moment they merge into a crowd, they become intolerant and intolerable.

Among other seemingly gratuitous pursuits, I have often pondered what could make man and womankind more human. Are there not enough kind humans around even to form an active core of gentility? For, of course, gentility would be the solution.

Gentility or, by its other name, manners. Optimists, if there are any of those, would assume that although intelligence cannot be generated, and stupidity thrives and multiplies even without teaching, manners, at least theoretically, ought to be teachable. Even dogs can be trained to behave as well as cats, which are fastidious by nature.

But what about people? Couldn’t they be taught good manners? To be sure, there have been elegant, seemingly well-behaved persons who, secretly, were criminals. Not for nothing do we have a play entitled “A Woman Killed With Kindness.” It is conceivable that even Dr. Mengele and Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) had good manners. On the other hand, can you imagine an off-the-field football team, let alone  an army, with good manners?

Still, the majority of persons exhibiting mannerly behavior do this not as a cover-up, but because inwardly too they are considerate and gracious. With those people we have no problems. But can anything be achieved with instinctual loudmouths, boors, bullies, laggards, drones, know-nothings, mugwumps, fence sitters, the various kinds of fanatics or phlegmatics?

Probably not much. Nonetheless, what if, unlike what’s usual, we made an effort? Perhaps the real problem is not so much young rowdies as unqualified or nonexisting teachers. Heaven knows schooling of the traditional kind is generally either failing or not in the curriculum. As an intermittent college faculty member, I can vouch for the untutoredness of even elite school graduates, even by the time they are college upperclassmen. The rub is the lack of learning on the secondary-school level, and, no less drastic, in the home.

There have been times within human memory when parents were willing and able to teach their offspring a thing or two at home, or at least encourage them to become creditable autodidacts. As Jacques Barzun has eloquently pointed out, there is not much real teaching and learning in the schools; instead, there is an abstraction called education, windy palaver instead of getting down to brass tacks.

Given ineffectual parents and teachers, how could manners possibly be acquired? Good question, alas. Perhaps some kind of books could help: books on etiquette, if only they were wittily and charmingly written. Could even worthy works of fiction and drama influence mannerly behavior? Perhaps even certain games, in which finesse triumphs over brashness and opportunism.

I would like to think, for instance, that intelligent reading of Bernard Shaw’s plays might make a difference. Or any number of plays by Giraudoux and Anouilh, Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, possibly still crying out for adequate translations. All of them are foreign; make of that what you will.

And, while I am fantasizing, just think what could be achieved if important phone calls were taken by courteous human beings rather than impersonal machines. If this makes me a Luddite, so be it. And what if computers and their e-mail spoke not some jarring jargon, but simple, good human language?

As I implied in the beginning, probably impossible. But couldn’t we at least try?


  1. Football teams and armies forgo manners for good reason: might get the former blocked or tackled, the latter wounded or killed. Americans are suspicious of good manners, all the way back to our rebellion against that snooty George III. My mostly Irish ancestors were proud to be shanty and not lace curtain. Did well in America because they didn't give a damn what fork to use. What they knew was how to use their elbows in the arenas that count: business and politics.

    Improving mankind? Even such a goody two-shoes as Matthew Arnold knew that civilization depended on Philistines and Barbarians, as well as the Sweetness and Light Gang. Gave them their due in CULTURE AND ANARCHY:

    "The Barbarians, to whom we all owe so much, and who reinvigorated and renewed our worn-out Europe, had, as is well known, eminent merits; and in this country where we are from the most part sprung from the Barbarians, we have never had the prejudice against them which prevails among the races of Latin origin. The Barbarians brought with them that staunch individualism, as the modern phrase is, and that passion for doing as one likes, for the assertion of personal liberty...."

    When it comes to manners, like the Buddha, we should seek the middle way: not too many, not too few. I will use a napkin; I will refrain from blowing my nose in it and chucking it at my hostess.

    Now, time for the Bears versus the Saints, and I want those boys from Chicago to KILL, KILL, KILL!

  2. Actually, John & Joe, our U.S. Army is indeed trying to have manners in our current wars -- particularly in Afghanistan, where our COIN dictates that our men and officers try to "win the hearts and minds" of the tribalistic natives by having regular teas with them in the hope that such shows of "respect" may mitigate their potentially deadly ambivalence (if that is not an over-generous word for simple duplicity). Our men also are cautioned not to shoot to protect their own lives (which they are risking to protect those who may or may not be colluding with or, at best, passively enabling, our deadly enemies there) whenever an "innocent" casualty may occur, for fear of alienating said natives. Rules for Engagement straight out of Alice in Wonderland. And we have been going the extra mile by burning Christian bibles (while vigilantly prosecuting our own men merely suspected of accidentally spraying urine in the vicinity of a Koran) in order to ingratiate ourselves to their culture.

    How much more mannerly can we get?

    P.S.: More than enough documentation for the above -- and much more, unfortunately -- may be found at the blog of William Safire's former assistant, Diana West:

    P.P.S.: I rather like the manners of Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853), a British general and administrator of colonial India who, in the context of the manners of another culture (India), when presented with the situation of what may be termed "inter-cultural etiquette" responded roundly and unequivocally:

    You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

  3. "But can anything be achieved with instinctual loudmouths, boors, bullies, laggards, drones, know-nothings, mugwumps, fence sitters, the various kinds of fanatics or phlegmatics?"

    I read it was John Simon's habit of loudly muttering to himself in German in screenings of movies he didn't like. Was that good or bad manners?

    And what in the hell is a mugwump?

  4. At this point in human history, we don't need good manners. We need rage and revolution. The Wall Street cabal carried off the biggest heist in world history, and we need to bring out the guillotine.
    Good manners are for good times. But we need to be badass against crooks and scoundrels.

  5. "Among other seemingly gratuitous pursuits, I have often pondered what could make man and womankind more human. Are there not enough kind humans around even to form an active core of gentility? For, of course, gentility would be the solution."

    Wrong question. First, we need to accept what the human as human. A lot of people who may seem a bit rough on the outside are actually good folks inside. If John Simon were to go cruising in his motorcycle and got pinned under a burning car, those ruffians he despises would risk their lives to save his elitist self.

    Also, there is tolerable foolishness and intolerable/insufferable lunacy. If we want less of the latter, it's best to limit the number of certain problematic races, espeically the 'youth' ones.

  6. I generally think of myself as fairly well-mannered, but when I get behind the wheel of a car... oy!

  7. "books on manners, if only they were wittily and charmingly written."

    John, have you never read Judith Martin?