Sometime during the 1920s, at an exclusive party at Count Boni de Castelanne’s, a great French lady felt herself beginning to die at the dinner table. “Quick, bring the dessert,” she whispered to the waiter.
She was not overcome by greed. She simply wished to hurry dinner along so as not to drop dead before the party rose from the table. In other words, she did not wish to cause discomfort to those present. Needless to say, the lady had impeccable manners.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I do not expect anyone nowadays to avoid leaving a room when feeling unwell in order to not cause discomfort for the rest. I simply brought up a true story to illustrate how far our mores and manners have fallen these past 100 years. Back then, a grand lady dropping dead would have caused somewhat of a scandal. The hostess of the dinner would have become associated with the death forevermore. Such were the joys of a closed society. Especially in Catholic France, where the old guard tried its best for years to resist the Napoleonic nouveaux, with their extraordinary titles granted to them by the Emperor for having served him well on the battlefield. (Boni de Castellane’s family was titled long before the great Corsican came along, and his pink palace on Avenue Foch I remember well when I was young and lived nearby. Sadly, it is no longer there, torn down and replaced by apartment houses mostly inhabited by rich Arabs.)
Perhaps it sounds stuffy, but I am nostalgic for the good old days when manners were exquisite. You might think that this is a bit much, but not really. Things are so bad at present that even returning to the time of strict etiquette, I find, would be a blessing. Manners, you see, are as important as morals, and have very little to do with a man’s outer attributes—birth, rank, or education—but rather involve his inner qualities of character and behavior. At present, people take phony offense at anything and everything, yet rudeness is de rigueur and boorishness a virtue. It is hip to be discourteous, trendy to act primitive, and “in” to be coarse.
Those who form our culture nowadays—magazine editors, TV writers and producers, and of course the Hollywood elite who put out the absolute dirt emanating from the West Coast—bombard us with stories and shows of coarse people using the coarsest language possible but always shown in a favorable light. Gentle folk speaking without using the f-word are always depicted as bigots. No ifs or buts about it.
In language, of course, is to be found one of the most crucial lines of demarcation between the vulgar and gracious people. I will deal with those responsible for the coarseness of our culture later, because in order to tackle vulgarity we need to stop celebrating it, but for now let’s establish what good manners are: Natural good manners are putting other people before yourself without thinking about it. Actually, Christianity is good manners. The men who queued in an orderly fashion for lifeboats on the Titanic, or allowed others to go first, died in a very Christian manner. Compare that with a recent British survey of 20,000 people, where 91 percent of those asked admitted to no longer saying thank you. Perhaps that is why I don’t actually believe in surveys. It seems impossible that 91 percent of those we extend some small service never thank us. Maybe this is so in downtown Los Angeles or in San Juan, but not in Britain.
Never mind. There are still American and European gentlemen who walk on the outside of the pavement and stand up when a woman enters the room. Some men still give up their seats to women in public transport, although the ghastly #MeToo movement will soon put a stop to it. The irony of it all is that the men I just mentioned are mostly working stiffs and white. Self-reliance plays a large role among the working classes, thus a woman’s vulnerability is paramount to them.
Edmund Burke insisted that manners are more important than laws, but I wonder how many of today’s television producers eager to push the boundaries, and other promoters of “edgy” art, have ever heard of the great man. If they had, perhaps they would not have contributed as much as they have to the incivility corroding our society today. These talentless ruffians like to claim that they espouse a counter-courtesy in the shape of political correctness. But PC is nothing but political manipulation, communism in disguise, a central control of people’s lives, the imposition of a political agenda by a minority on the majority. One day not far off, good manners will be deemed politically incorrect, just as they were in Orwell’s chilling 1984.
Good manners are not a superficial activity. They serve a moral purpose. They are the outward signs of an inner unselfishness, a readiness to put others first. They are the direct opposite of the me, me, me mentality, what W.B. Yeats defined as the essence of civilization. Manners are the opposite of brute force. The duel, once a benchmark of settling differences between gentlemen, had a mannered code, and was a downside better than a knife in the back or a street brawl.
How did we get to live in such a mannerless world? How did we breach the period when that grand lady asked the waiter to hurry up with the dessert to today’s world of nonstop four-letter expletives? I suppose when triumphant ignorance took over responsible positions in the media and entertainment and publishing industries. Better yet, when these above-mentioned industries related popular culture with obscenity, boorishness, and a constant diet of puerile filth. Anyone resisting these affronts to good taste and civilized living is seen as a reactionary, which brings me to the vile and coarse texting that goes on with the internet. (Personally I do not text and do not tweet and do not allow comments on my website that use vulgarity.) There is no doubt that the boundaries of taste and decency are being pushed ever further back in the name of connecting with one another through such useless and horrible inventions as Facebook. (Sadists regularly troll grieving families who have lost children, desecrating their memories. Zuckerberg and his gang of billionaires call it freedom of expression.)
And another thing: Lack of talent breeds four-letter words. Show me a writer of a TV series with great talent and his show will have the minimum of four-letter words. In fact, people with talent do not need to use them. Lack of talent, however, guarantees nonstop filth. Expletives are also part of the culture of triumphant ignorance—the belief that to behave like a slob or a gangster is an indication of manly virility. To a certain sort of half-wit, obscenities are testosterone turned into the spoken word. I fear that it is a sign of the times.
The fact is, obscenities have become smart—the symbol of a generation that disregards majority opinion, but thinks it clever. Yet not so long ago, I remember going to Yankee Stadium as a teenager and not hearing a single swear word in the crowded bleachers, and certainly none by the players. (Today no pro athlete is worth his salt unless he uses the f-word as an adverb, adjective, and verb.) Ditto for celebrities. They consider themselves cutting-edge when being boorish and using profanity. Yet no one from the mainstream media or those ghastly late-night-show hosts has had the courage to point out that those who use profanity nonstop display a woeful lack of imagination. F—ing this and f—ing that and using F as a verb and noun in the same sentence is the equivalent of a caveman’s grunt, nothing else. But you’ll never see a New York Times editorial denouncing such vulgarity because it emanates from the street, a street that is mostly black and brown, and it would be politically incorrect to criticize anything blacks or Latinos do or say.
The people in the academy and the media who turn a blind eye to this outrage are mainly victims of cultural deprivation—the idea that to shock is the same as succeeding while letting all our emotions hang out without any inhibitions. We can thank the ’60s for this, and our hippy friends. Civilization took a beating during the ’60s as the young demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. But after the war was over, we forgot that civilization depends on considering the susceptibilities of others. The elegance of Shakespeare’s language was lost when four-letter words became de rigueur. Hollywood, needless to say, jumped at its newfound freedom. For much too long, the Sammy Glicks who run the place felt that they were pandering to the forces of convention by not showing extreme violence and nudity and obscenity. Their time had come.
As some of you may remember, Central European Jews created Hollywood a century ago. People like Goldwyn, Mayer, and Warner—not their real names, but Americanized—showed an America of white picket fences, polite and helpful neighbors, and churchgoing citizens who never swore and thought Andy Hardy was a tad too naughty. Mind you, it was reel life, but it was based on what those foreign Jews had seen in America. Wonderful movies like The Best Years of Our Lives and All About Eve showed poverty, conflict, and unbridled ambition without a single swear word muttered by anyone. Yet they reflected a real and true American scene. (President Nixon went to see Sam Goldwyn on his deathbed and Sam showed off his proudest possession, “my Toujours Lautrec.”)
After them came the deluge. Young American-born Jews looked elsewhere to show their America. And that was mostly in the gutter. They were out to make money like their predecessors, I’ll grant you, and they found that their chief audiences were and are the young. The fall of the studios took place during the mid-’60s. Bleeding hearts eager to accommodate angry blacks salivated at ghetto language. Movies, music, and books follow trends; they do not set them. So what we got was the lowering of standards, with the general population given a visual diet of smut and soft porn, the effects of which have turned us into a nation of foulmouthed, tongue-tied morons.
This trend has continued on a downward spiral ever since. I was recently watching something called The Affair on television. A well-known writer is introduced to a Princeton University writing class by a fellow writer. “My God, you’re f—ing Noah Solloway, that’s f—ing amazing,” says a student to the visiting writer. The visitor smiles and feels proud to be recognized. Now that’s simply gratuitous swearing injected by the know-nothing director or writer to exhibit hipdom. Back in my time at the University of Virginia, one f-word would have had me thrown out of my fraternity and expelled if used in class, especially while addressing a visiting writer.
Hollywood etiquette is all about reminding others that you are more important than they are. And Hollywood does educate large parts of America. Certainly television does, and TV is just as bad, probably worse on cable, as Tinseltown. The printed word is not much better. Glossy magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair now promote only minorities and the LGBT community. In fact, under the egregious Anna Wintour, a Condé Nast Vogue for children ran a long article on how to test which sex gives you more pleasure. This was for the children’s benefit. My proudest achievement has been once managing to drive the ghastly Wintour to tears of frustration. The argument was over politics, and I managed to show what a phony she is while praising her for her successful social climb posing as an English member of the upper crust. She is nothing of the sort.
Never mind. Glossies now have curse words in their editor’s letters, using expletives to enliven their covers and such. And there are enough suckers around who will pay to read such rubbish. Cover cursing is now in vogue. The so-called elite in the media, the Times, the networks, the nerds of Silicon Valley, all believe that bad language and adult material once viewed in Times Square by raincoat-wearing weirdos are a valid part of life, that only puritans are bothered about it. The fact that large majorities everywhere are appalled by the filth that appears on our screens is given little weight by the self-proclaimed left-wing leaders. And when it comes to LGBT, there is more coverage of that group than there is of the majority-straight population. In a recent book review of a gay photographer of The New York Times, the reviewer, one Dwight Garner, correctly admired the memoirs of Bill Cunningham, an acquaintance of mine and a very nice man, but also wrote, “In what is this book’s worst sentence, he notes that ‘generations of good breeding’ are among the things necessary to carry off high fashion, you can’t slipcover a pig and expect it not to grunt.”
See what I mean about an agenda being handed down by the bosses of the Times that absolutely no sentence might contain anything favorable to good breeding and old families? I thought it the truest sentence in the memoir; the rest was interesting only to New York fashionistas. So, generations of good breeding are now to be avoided at all costs. And why not? When one Safaree Samuels, a black rapper, is paid a seven-figure sum to create a sex toy molded from his member, and it’s reported as hard news in the social pages of newspapers, you know the battle is lost. I suppose the war was lost when God died—according to Time magazine, that is, sometime back in the early ’70s. People who don’t go to church and don’t believe in a Christian God are far more likely to fall into the quicksand of porn, drugs, and violence. Black kids without fathers are far more likely to be recruited into crime, and also be celebrated by the media and aped by those who should know better. Once upon a time, newly rich people used to ape their social betters. Now the opposite is true. Media types talk like ghetto thugs trying to impress.
Personally, I have always seen myself as special and apart. Many of my friends believe in privilege and tradition and refuse to apologize for their good luck. We put up with the horrors of modern life, the brutishness, the hideous buildings, the deleterious effect on civilized life of egalitarianism, and the misuse of language. The best way to resist the brutality of modern life is to remonstrate with those friends who use foul language and to refuse as much as possible to rub elbows with slobs.
Last but not least, do not believe a word the so-called experts tell you. For example: Social scientists never quoted by mainstream media insist that racially diverse communities are more suspicious, withdrawn, ungenerous, fractured, and fractious. But in 2007, such an incendiary refutation of the well-known truth that diversity is strength was refuted by the people who had done the research under pressure. Publication of the facts was delayed, and eventually they were not published.
So what else is new?