I would be the first to tell you that I have never read Emily Post or any other expert on etiquette. For much of my life I have felt that ‘etiquette’ could be equated with snobbery and unnecessarily proscriptive school marms. Does it really matter if you wear white after Labor Day? Thank You cards are thoughtful and appreciated but I don’t really care if someone doesn’t send one, if they called or said thank you when the gift was presented that’s enough for me. I could care less which fork you eat with as long as you don’t chew with your mouth open.
Of course I have always held a set of internal standards of conduct, maybe they come from my parents, maybe common sense, maybe some combination of both. I put my napkin on my lap when I sit down at the table like my mother taught me, but try as she might to stop me, I still say shut up. There are times when ‘be quiet’ just doesn’t cut it. My parents used the word ‘class’ as a measure of their childrens' conduct. Good conduct was ‘classy’ and bad ‘low class’. We knew, in the same way that we knew to avoid hot stoves, that the phrase “show some class” was often the precursor to some serious repercussions.
In our house, girls didn’t call boys, people didn’t burp at dinner (or for that matter anywhere public), you did not reach across the table, or stab your peas with your fork. All sorts of brutal rules were enforced in the name of being classy. It seemed the rules on being mannerly were innumerable and that we’d never master them all, so like any good American girl, I rebelled. When my parents weren’t around I put ketchup on my eggs, I talked during television shows , I planted my elbows firmly on the table and grinned from ear to ear as I slurped my soup. When I got my first apartment I systematically violated every rule my parents had ever set. With the sort of relish usually reserved for gourmet meals, I ate in the living room, stood in one room and yelled to my roommate in another room, stood with the refrigerator door open, ate dinner with no napkin on my lap. This, I was sure, was what freedom felt like. Grownups acting any old way they wanted to. God Bless American and all that, I was free to have as little class as I wanted.
Recently, however, I’m beginning wax nostalgic for the days of good manners. While I don’t want Ozzy and Harriet back, I’m not sure I want shows like ‘Date My Mom’ were I get to watch such open-mindedness as a woman explaining her daughter’s sexual liaisons with other girls to potential suitors. I don’t necessarily need Lucy and Ricky in separate beds but I could do without a constant parade of loud, half-dressed women pole dancing to impress yesterday’s recording artists.
I suppose I should have seen it coming years ago when Geraldo Riveria’s studio erupted into a full out brawl and then saw the rating sore. When Jerry Springer’s guests regularly engaged in felonious assault to the cheers of the audience, it was a harbinger of sorts. Springer himself offers an impassioned defense of his show’s content by claiming to give the common man a venue in which to be heard. Sounds very noble until you listen to what is being discussed. Are topics like sleeping with your best friend’s husband, being infatuated with random farm animals, and being unsure of your childrens' paternity really issues that call for a nationwide discussion?
Now they do, if only because somehow the codes of conduct that reign at the Jerry Springer show have begun to weave their way into important venues. It is one thing to have the television saturated with boorish, out of control behavior, it is quite another to find it in the halls of government. Of course, thanks to people like Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford I harbor no delusions about the ‘values’ that govern the behaviors of our leaders. I understand that sleaze of all sorts is not new to the halls of government, but when did it move from being shameful to being acceptable. All you have to do in the current climate is apologize, you don’t even have to come off as particularly sincere, just apologize and redemption shall be yours. Ask Marion Barry. Ask Mark Fuhrman, you can restore your respectability with a sob story and the passage of a year or two.
So, am I saying that we shouldn’t forgive? That we should shun and scorn those who do not adhere to the rules laid out by Emily Post? No. I think rules regulating the length of a boy’s hair, the color of girls clothes, or even the time you have to issue an official Thank You, are silly. They don’t make our society a better place but rules about table behavior, not talking through movies, not shouting down those who disagree with you, those are rules we ought to consider upholding.
When you reach the point where Congressman are shouting “you lie” as the president addresses the nation, perhaps it’s time to ask if you’ve gone too far. When a reporter hurled a shoe at then president George W. Bush most of us were righteously offended at the blatant show of disrespect. I was never a Bush fan but I respected the office and understood, at least vaguely, just how little I understood the pressures he faced. Arguably he did lie about weapons of mass destruction but he made it out of office without a single member of Congress ever screaming “you lie” in the middle of one of his nationwide addresses.
Just last night Kanye West exhibited some of the worst behavior I’ve seen in a day or two (reality tv never lets you go more than that without witnessing horrendous breaches of etiquette) when he literally took the microphone from the young woman who had just won, to rant about how much better one of her competitors was. When did it become okay to act this way? Why do Kanye West, Mark Wilson, and countless attendees of the recent town halls think it’s okay to shout down, speak over, or hurl insult toward people in venues that are supposed to celebrate achievement and offer a forum for the exchange of ideas?
So ladies and gentlemen of the town hall, reality television, dueling pundits on 24 hour cable news networks, and members of Congress, I want MY America back. The one where we conducted ourselves with dignity, we didn’t compete in thongs for the affections of has-been musicians, we didn’t shout slurs at each other across crowded rooms, we respected even the people we disagreed with. I want napkins on laps, mouths closed, kids who say please and thank you, mothers who protect their daughter’s reputation rather than extol her promiscuity to win her a date, and most of all I want a Congress that behaves more like ‘distinguished gentlemen’ and a whole lot less like the audience at the Jerry Springer show. Can I have that America, because I’m sure having a tough time with this one.