Zeitgeist

The Crude Shall Inherit the Earth

May 19, 2017

It was not so long ago that the proper thing to do when encountering something unsightly in a store would be to leave. “To ignore, to disdain to consider, to overlook, are the essence of the ‘gentleman,’” wrote the philosopher William James. What an archaic notion that has become. Now grievances must be made known, openly and insufferably. And bully if your displeasure gains online prominence!

A society where everyone’s every quibble takes center stage is hardly a society. It’s a gathering of one-man shows, dedicated to self-performance. This could exist only in an era of extreme decadence. Even Ayn Rand’s individualist paradise had egoists who at least produced for the enjoyment of others.

Thomas Jefferson recognized that democracy demands politeness, which he called a “first-rate value.” Manners are the grease of social interaction; thus, collective decision-making can’t be made without respectable deference to others. If we can’t agree on urbane protocol, we certainly can’t agree on public policy. Gentility is like law without government enforcement. It is an extension of the greater good that is supposed to guide democratic lawmaking.

In Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, the Austrian prince Von Berg describes Nazism as an “ocean of vulgarity” that is repulsed by “refinement.” Authoritarian regimes thrive in the absence of agreed decorum. The more isolated people are, the more willing they are to sell away their fellow citizens’ rights.

That brings us back to the ease with which bad words find their way in public conversation. Bawdy language, though it has its place among friends, helps loosen the tongue to other improprieties. So goes the tongue, goes the body.

The bumper sticker phrase “Well-behaved women seldom make history” may be true. But it is the well behaved, the stoic, the quiet endurers who keep their mouths shut for the sake of order. Those are the true guardians of societal security.

Donald Trump is the fruit of New York City smut. But his rough-hewn demeanor has come to reflect America at large.

And that’s exactly the problem. When propriety goes, anarchy and its attendant tyranny are never far behind.

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