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Jewish World Review August 19, 1999 /7 Elul, 5759

Suzanne Fields

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A rude awakening -- THE TRUE CHARACTER of a nation is judged by how it treats its weakest -- the poor, the sick, the lame and the halt.

The true character of the individual, in an ancient formulation, was judged by how she treats her servants. This is an academic question for most of us, but these are economic boom times and some who ordinarily cook for themselves and care for their own children are hiring others to do it for them.

"Never before have so many been able to employ so many others as servants,'' reports the New York Times, exposing the underside of checkbook domesticity. "A boom market in domestic help is coinciding with a boom in boorish and disrespectful behavior toward domestics, say maids and drivers on Fifth and Park Avenues, nannies in Central Park, servers at parties in the Hamptons, household employment agencies and chroniclers of the social scene.''

Not only in New York. A runaway rudeness is the subject of books and articles cataloging the proliferation of examples that invert the Golden Rule: "Don't treat others as you would have others treat you.''

Those who treat the help badly, we learn, are often "nouveau riche,'' the "trophy wives'' of rich men who come late to money and manners. That's true for the social hierarchies of the Hamptons, where wealth has little to do with what we used to call "breeding,'' but our whole society is awash in bad manners which are often applauded as a badge of individualism and toughness.

In a democracy based on equality, manners are especially fluid, an action and reaction to convention. In "A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals and Misbehavior in Modern America,'' Mark Caldwell speculates over different theories for the contagious malady of bad manners today. Designer jeans, he suggests, are "a skeleton key to the mysteries of manners.'' The jeans are tacky to the lower classes, who pride themselves on the genuine denim, but chic for the rich and famous imitating their economic inferiors with a sneer of contempt (and caricature).

Fifty years ago historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., identified the problem of courtesy in a democracy and asked how a culture which dispensed with social distinctions could preserve decorum and interpersonal obligations. Not easily.

Years ago I was invited to dinner where my hostess, a self-styled socialist, insisted that the woman she employed to cook and serve the dinner dine with us at table. It was awkward for everybody and the maid was most miserable of all. This wasn't thoughtfulness so much as idiocy.

My mother, age 89, says that bad manners were elevated in our society when we did away with dress codes in schools. As soon as the kids could chew gum, wear mini-skirts, jeans and flip flops they lost a standard for judging right behavior.

Manners, according to Edmund Burke in the 18th century, "give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.''

Good manners, like bad ones, can be tyrannical, stifling and hypocritical, but at their best they are grounded in ethical concerns for the other person and the good of society. Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian and moralist, credits Victorian society with understanding that the personal civilities in private life are the basis for behavior in social life. When we replace the concept of virtue (an absolute) with the concept of value (a relative term) we dilute both intellectual and moral consensus.

In the current Weekly Standard, David Lowenthal tries to make "the case for censorship,'' citing "moral pollution'' in the popular culture as a "clear and present danger.'' But obscenity, as ugly as it may be, is not the same thing as yelling "fire'' in a crowded theater. "Moralitymeister'' William Bennett, who describes himself as an absolutist on the First Amendment, prudently destroys the plea for censorship with an appeal to pragmatism. He imposes the burden on the public, not the government, urging all of us to identify and ostracize, rather than censor the cultural polluters.

This requires a collective effort, calling on cultural and political protest of both the pen and the pocketbook. It takes time and diligence. Are we up to it?


08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate