October 18, 2014
An intelligent letter from a reader, Stanislas Yassukovich, CBE, warms my heart. It’s nice to know there are others as appalled as I am with today’s so-called elite and their ghastly manners. Good manners, a rarity today, are not a superficial habit. They serve a moral purpose, that of an inner unselfishness, a readiness to put others first. They are the opposite of brute force, concealing man’s natural belligerence. Once the Titanic went down, it was revealed that upper-class passengers died in disproportionate numbers because they queued in an orderly manner for a lifeboat. Forget the movie about the sinking, that was Hollywood baloney. Astor and Guggenheim, the two richest on board, chose to not even try to save themselves.
And speaking of Hollywood, where bad manners got their start, selfishly hostile behavior among stars is as common as name-dropping, and diva-like attitudes have filtered down to their personal assistants, publicists, managers, trainers, stylists, and nutritionists, not to mention their bodyguards. I once asked Martin Scorsese why he included so much swearing in his films, and “cinéma vérité” was his answer. In his movie Goodfellas, the F-word was used perhaps 300 times—whereas in the 1971 film Dirty Harry, despite the violence, it was only used once.
What I don’t understand (actually I do) is why producers and directors and writers choose a constant diet of filth in their shows, and when I say filth I mean the most puerile and degrading kind. Well, I’ll tell you: Lack of talent. The F-word with lots of blood and explosions covers up the inability to tell a clean story without the audience falling asleep or falling over themselves running for the exits. Most great books contained no filth; the writers left that to the imagination of the reader. Needless to say, by now the battle for decency has been lost, what with the epidemic of vile, coarse texting in the schools where our future captains of industry and government are being “educated.” No society has been corroded like ours has—I don’t believe those Roman orgies ever took place, and if they did they were behind Roman walls among patricians.
Patricians, of course, are no longer what they used to be. Here’s my correspondent, writing: “It is not only striking that new money now rejects the taste and lifestyle of old money; manners and general behaviour are also unrecognizable. Both parents and children converse in strident tones and at a volume level suitable for a disco.”
Yes—new money no longer apes old money and its manners, and this makes for a zoo-like atmosphere. When I was very young, swearing was a real no-no. At boarding school and university a gentleman never but never used profanity, something that is almost impossible to imagine nowadays. In 1900 more than half of the American population was white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant—WASP—and in my fraternity at university every single member was WASP except for the poor little Greek boy. It was the time of WASP ascendancy, both in Washington and New York. America’s role models were WASP, Hollywood made films about rich good WASPs, and the group supplied the role models followed by other Americans, whether WASP or non-WASP, who were on their way up.
Somewhere along the line the WASP ascendancy ended and its role models vanished. I cannot put my finger on why the WASPs lost power, but they sure did, and are now looked upon as exotic creatures whose dress is as archaic as their manners. I was recently looking at a school yearbook of 59 years ago, and most if not all the names were straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tom Trowbridge, Gerald Foulke, Bucky Weaver, Billy Cook, Carleton Roll, Temple Brown, Sam Van Allen … I could go on. Today’s yearbooks are very different, with names ending in vowels, many Arab ones and the great majority Chinese.