The American Uncivil Wars
How crude, rude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why that hurts our politics and culture
POLITICS But even good manners can go only so far. Many believe the real issue is to develop a more profound sense of respect to undergird those manners--the kind of respect necessary to make political processes work. For many Americans, government is one of those institutions most lacking in civility--as campaigns are dominated by negative and sometimes misleading ads and a favorite tactic is demonizing opponents.
Historically, Americans have alternated cycles of ugly behavior with those of admirable decorum. George Washington was famous for his manners,displaying them both at the personal level to show respect to individuals and at the political level to demonstrate respect before the law. On at least one occasion, says Richard Brookhiser, author of a recent biography on Washington, he combined both to momentous effect.
In 1797, John Adams was inaugurated as second president of the United States, and on the dais next to him were Vice President Thomas Jefferson and retiring president Washington. "When the new president finished and left," writes Brookhiser, "Washington motioned to Jefferson to go next. The two Virginians had known each other since 1769, when Washington had been 37 years old and Jefferson only 26. From long habit and lingering respect, Jefferson now held back. But Washington gestured again, in a manner not to be ignored. The younger man was now vice president and must go first."
Vestiges of that decorum still exist and allow the government to get on with its business. Despite its current reputation for divisiveness, says freshman Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat known for his good manners, the House of Representatives might even serve as a model for civility in other avenues of American life. "Whether you agree with what Newt Gingrich and his crowd are doing, whether you agree on the Democratic side if our leadership is doing the right thing or not, the decorum of the House keeps it from breaking into an all-out fight," says Jackson, "and if the same level of civility existed in other levels of society, there would probably be a lot less violence, a lot less hostility. Can you imagine if gangs were saying, 'Will the gentleman who represents everyone who lives south of 63rd Street please give me just a moment to make a point?' as opposed to saying, 'Let's shoot everyone who lives south of 63rd Street.'"
POPULAR CULTURE Provocative behavior has been big in the entertainment business at least since Elvis Presley shook his pelvis on national television back in the 1950s. But even there, times seem to be changing, as the crudities of Sharon Stone kickbox with the niceties of Jane Austen. For the past decade, since the unexpected box office success of A Room With a View in 1986 and culminating last year in the appearance of three widely acclaimed movies based on Austen novels, moviegoers have flocked to see stories set in eras when manners and restraint played a dominant role in society. In terms of both receipts and critical praise, these films have buried more sensational fare like the overhyped striptease extravaganza Showgirls and the grotesquely violent Copycat, a sign that audiences may be as willing to sit through decorous parlor chat as through nude scenes and mutilation.