One of the unresolved dilemmas of the American experiment is the thus-far unsatisfying reconciliation of democratic manners and the tendency of people to create and then treasure differences of rank and station and circumstance. We prattle about our republican virtues, even requiring new citizens to renounce foreign titles and forbidding public officials to accept them. (Attitudes about this are so severe that even the recent knighthood for Ronald Reagan had to be of the honorary sort.) But we also seem to slaver over royalty, whether domestic—oh those Kennedys—or foreign, especially British.
Americans appear to want it both ways: to disdain, rhetorically, that which isn't democratic; and to crave, in practice, that which precisely is least democratic. Edmund Burke caught the flavor of the paradox, when in his speech on conciliation with America, he observed: "Young man, there is America—which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savage men, and uncouth manners; yet shall, before you taste of death, show itself equal to the whole world of that commerce which now attracts the envy of the world."
About 30 years later, William Wordsworth approached the problem with simplicity: "Oh!…give us manners, virtue, freedom, power." And in that sense of manners having something to do with freedom, we find perhaps the antithesis of the commonly held notions that manners are a straitjacket on liberty and that they are the province of the mighty, or at least the rich, alone. In The Foundation of Morality, Henry Hazlitt noted that "both manners and morals rest on the same underlying principle. That principle is sympathy, kindness, consideration for others.…Manners are minor morals."
For ages people, usually women, have provided guidebooks to manners. Emily Post comes most quickly to mind, and following in her wake many others have attempted to move the concept of manners beyond the mere cataloguing of proper usage of forks. Letitia Baldridge capitalized on the fascination with manners as signposts for successful, if not necessarily moral, behavior.
But to see manners as providing freedom instead of as limiting freedom requires a lateral view, bringing us to the most current writers on the subject: the ironist P.J. O'Rourke and the impeccable Miss Manners, Judith Martin. Miss Manners has produced three monumental tomes, most recently Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium, and most concisely, and most apropos for our subject of democratic manners, her tiny gem, Common Courtesy: In Which Miss Manners Solves the Problem That Baffled Mr. Jefferson. Here we get a balanced examination of the problem of reconciling democratic manners with the liberating power, the freedom, of real and really effective manners.
President Jefferson went hog-wild with his insistence on obliterating distinctions between gentlefolk and the common lot of humankind, a distortion of "all men are created equal" into all people are created equally without standards. Miss Manners insists that "in do-your-own-thing America, there is no longer much distinction between etiquette, the rules of behavior, and manners, the social premises from which they are derived. As the latter are constantly undergoing revision, one can get into serious trouble merely by following the simplest habits of one's youth. A gentleman who thoughtlessly defers to a lady can find himself labeled a pig; a young person taught to address elders in terms of respect may be scolded for making them feel old."
If manners are seen as erecting invidious distinctions instead of providing for common courtesies and gentleness, we shouldn't be surprised that the generations regard each other warily, each feeling "affronted by the others, taking even the most surface choices for challenges.…The person who refuses to dress appropriately for formal occasions 'because my jeans are really me' achieves a sense of moral superiority from the simple act of offending social convention."
The sticking point, of course, is precisely that central conundrum of the American experience: how to extend the blessings of freedom to all without sinking to the lowest common denominator of barbarism. Try to find a person whose manners are by common consensus "exquisite" without simultaneously finding a pompous ass. Likewise, short of the occasional Will Rogers, try to find a truly democratic "aw, shucks" man of the people without landing smack dab in the province of the hick, the kind of person who wears prole caps bedecked with ads for his favorite brew.
Mark Twain took the cockeyed view of the matter: "Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person." And P.J. O'Rourke, in his Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People, moves right off the scale with his tongue planted so firmly in his cheek that he can find no room for a joint. O'Rourke instructs us how to offend everybody with mad abandon, how to infuriate one's hostess by unspeakable behavior, how to flay alive the pretensions and appeals to maudlin sympathy of every fashionable minority, how to cultivate the right sort of well-bred stupidity, how to dress and eat and drink and take drugs so offensively as to discombobulate everybody.
A typical offhand thought from P.J.: "Another function of strange youthful clothing is to help fight racism. When ordinary white middle-class kids dress in an astonishing and highly irritating manner, it gives the police and uneducated southerners someone new to pick on. This takes the heat off Negroes, Hispanics, and Jews." Manners, modern-day style.
Between Miss Manners, who believes that democratic manners are possible and desirable—and, more important, easy, once one recognizes that common courtesy is at their core—and Mr. O'Rourke, who flips everything over on its head to alert us to the silliness of much that masquerades as manners, there is the perception, waiting for us with a smile, of Henry Hazlitt. We live in an age in which first-naming everybody (except, maybe, popes and presidents) is de rigeur. And after we hear and then promptly forget the last name, and sometimes the first, we immediately leap to asking someone what he does. Asking what he earns comes in about five minutes. And asking him what he does in bed comes soon thereafter. "Minor morals," said Hazlitt. Crass familiarity, say Americans by our everyday actions.
Americans in general live in a shimmering twilight zone between barbarism and pretense, dressing like savages when not fixating on such excrescences of crummy manners as the recent Malcolm Forbes shindig in Morocco. We've leaned too far in the direction that Thomas Jefferson wanted to take us, though some gallop over to the other extreme and turn manners into a rigidity beyond endurance. The chore for Americans is not slight but it's elementary: attenuating differences of station without erasing manners entirely.
As we try to get through the day without shrieking at strangers, we would do well to remember Grandma's sage advice: "A smile is less trouble for the facial muscles than a frown, and 'please' and 'thank you' slide painlessly off the lips." Democratic manners amount, really, to being kind.
Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is WBZ Radio's late-night talk host and a film critic for the Tab newspaper chain. He has impeccable manners.