The death of American civility

27 October 2018

9:00 AM

27 October 2018

9:00 AM

My father, an avowed liberal, taught me old-school manners: hold the door and give up your seat for ladies; stand up when anyone, male or female, enters the room or approaches you at a social gathering; extend your hand in greeting; listen politely when others speak. My mother issued similar instructions in French, and as a consequence I almost never fail to say bonjour before I address a French merchant or telephone operator. Now 93, she recently admonished me that ‘one shouldn’t make fun of people for being incapable of doing this thing or that thing’.

So it’s come as a rude surprise that good manners and polite behaviour seem to have disappeared wholesale from American society. In business life and in social situations — to say nothing of social media — indifference to what once passed for social norms has grown to alarmingly high levels. Vile and insulting language has become the standard, not the exception, to the point where the lessons I learned as a child have become largely irrelevant.

Blame for the rise in national coarseness naturally leans toward Donald Trump, whose public mockery of everything from John McCain’s experience as a POW, to the handicapped, to Christine Blasey Ford’s imprecise memory, to Stormy Daniels’s ‘horseface’ has set the bar both higher and lower than at any time in recent memory. To be sure, Trump sets a bad example for every-body. It’s hard to imagine a worse role model for children, since every act of Trump misconduct seems to lead to greater gratification and rewards for the child king of the US.

But more distressing than the daily barrage of offensive tweets is that the Trump effect has apparently taken hold of my once-proper fellow liberals and left-wingers. Over the past several months, the ‘opposition’ to our President has become outrageously Trump-like, and I fear where it will lead.

It’s dangerous to generalise, of course. Before the civil rights movement took hold, southern ‘hospitality’ and courtliness often masked violent and vicious tendencies, mainly aimed at blacks but also toward poor whites. In Chicago, near where I grew up, Mayor Richard J. Daley could be extraordinarily rude to anyone who crossed him. And I’m aware that lots of contemporary liberals and conservatives maintain a minimum level of courtesy in their public and private dealings.

Yet I can’t help noticing the degradation of everyday politeness in my immediate circle of political, media, and social acquaintances. It’s partly the tweeted insults, many of them unprintable, that I received in my recent confrontation with #MeToo supporters over an essay we published in Harper’s Magazine by a formerly prominent radio journalist, a ‘male aggressor’ of the type they want permanently banished. Hate tweets on a mass scale are something new in the world, and that they come from people who allegedly align with the oppressed — sometimes women, sometimes minorities, sometimes the handicapped or otherwise disadvantaged — is sadly ironic. I’ve been subjected to hate mail from right-wingers — the worst was for my appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Factor on Fox News just after 9/11. But letters, no matter how enraged, threatening or incoherent, don’t match the ferocity of a Twitter storm. And even if they hate you, the letter writers usually feel obliged to make something resembling an argument, not just to express an angry sentiment.

The #MeTooer of the moment is Rebecca Traister, a writer who relishes the broadside insult. In a recent New York Times interview, she was quoted on the beneficial effects of white-hot anger: ‘In early 2017,’ outraged by the defeat of Hillary Clinton, ‘I was walking with my husband, and I felt like my brain was going to boil. I was telling him how hard it was for me to think because I was so angry. He said to me, “Well, maybe that’s your book: anger.” I was like: “Of course, that’s my book.” ’ The resulting volume is titled Good and Mad.

I also feel incoherently mad sometimes, but mostly I manage to keep it under wraps. One of those recent occasions was in a crowded elevator headed to a party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where normally I could expect to meet lots of like-minded liberals. During the ride up, a left-wing editor with whom I’ve had friendly relations for years practically shouted at me: ‘Well, you’ve been in trouble lately. How’s it feel?’ She was obviously referring to the piece by the banished male malefactor, and I was frankly shocked at the aggressive tone and at her asking the question in front of strangers on the way to a social event.

Suppressing the urge to rebuke her for rudeness, I used what’s become my stock response: I had published far more controversial pieces that provoked much more dangerous reactions, so the #MeToo Twitter storm wasn’t much to fear. Unsatisfied with my response, she shifted her attention to my wife: ‘How do you feel about the piece, as a woman?’ It was a rude question, given my female editor and I had published the piece, not my wife.

Once at the party, I thought I was safe. Almost immediately, however, I was introduced to another defenestrated ‘male aggressor’, a radio personality whose show I very much missed. Assuming he was an ally, I told him that I’d published the controversial piece by his former radio colleague, who happens to be paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. Rudely, he dismissed my writer’s case. ‘I didn’t do anything,’ he confided. ‘He [my writer] actually was culpable — he did some bad things.’ No solidarity among liberal victims, handicapped or not, but plenty of nastiness and no politesse.

I’d feel better if I was pure and principled in all this, but I’ve been infected, too. Angered, even enraged, by the firing of Ian Buruma at the New York Review of Books for publishing a piece by another disgraced ‘bad man’, the one-time Canadian radio journalist Jian Ghomeshi, I tried to rally support for the idea of freedom of expression. I twice attempted to reach the publisher of the NYRB, Rea Hederman, a southerner whom I know to be a gentleman. But he never returned my phone calls. I then tried to contact NYRB’s associate publisher, Catherine Tice, to make the same argument: never give in to a mob for publishing something unpopular. Stand by your editor and don’t cave in to advertising pressure. She at least returned an email saying she would talk to me, but since then it’s been radio silence.

During this brief campaign, I had asked my assistant, a woman, to place the multiple calls to NYRB. Voicing frustration about what she felt was a runaround from the NYRB receptionist, I lost my temper and called the receptionist myself. His tone was arrogant, and I started arguing with him, so he hung up on me. I called back and shouted into the phone: ‘Let me speak to someone in authority!’ My late father would have been appalled. I’m not telling my mother.

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