Category Archive 'Manners'

12 Oct 2017

George Friedman on Manners


Times have changed since George Friedman was a boy.

I grew up in the 1960s, when manners were held to be a form of hypocrisy, the sign of a false and inauthentic time. When Mickey Mantle hit a home run, he trotted around the bases as if his excellence was incidental and required no celebration. His undoubted elation was contained within ritual. Today, success in sports has fewer limits, and success and contempt for the other side frequently merge. When I was very young, courtship and marriage rituals were ringed with things you did not do. Of course, all these things were done, but they were hidden from the gaze of others. Part of it was shame, but part of it was also respect for manners, even in their breach. It had the added and urgent dimension that the most precious parts of growing up were private things.

The argument was that honesty was the highest virtue. Manners restrained honest expression and therefore denied us our authenticity. What came of this was an assault on the distinction between what we are in private and what we are in public. The great icon of this was Woodstock, where the music was less important than the fact that things that had been ruthlessly private had become utterly public. The shame that is attached to bad manners was seen as dishonesty, and unrestrained actions as honesty. The restraint of manners became mortally wounded.

Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower had come to despise each other by the time of Eisenhower’s inauguration. They hid this in public. The press, undoubtedly aware of the tension, chose not to focus on it. The ritual that was at the heart of the republic – the peaceful transfer of power ­– was the focus, and the personal feelings of each were hidden from view. They were dishonest in their public behavior, and in retrospect, the self-restraint with which they hid their honest feelings was their moral obligation. These were two dishonest men, honoring their nation in their dishonesty.


29 Aug 2014

Kant’s Humanität

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From Erwin Panowsky, The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline, 1940:

Nine days before his death Immanuel Kant was visited by his physician. Old, ill, and nearly blind, he rose from his chair and stood trembling and muttering unintelligible words. Finally his faithful companion realized that he would not sit down until the visitor had taken a seat. This he did, and Kant then permitted himself to be helped to his chair, and after he had regained some of his strength, said ‘Das Gefühl für Humanität hat mich noch nicht verlassen’ — ‘The sense of Humanity has not yet left me.’ The two men were moved almost to tears. For though the word Humanität had come, in the eighteenth century, to mean little more than politeness and civility, it had, for Kant, a much deeper significance, which the circumstances of the moment served to emphasize: man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjugation to illness, decay, and all that is implied in the word ‘mortality.’

Via du vide.

31 May 2014

Stop Doing That!

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The dining hall where I used to eat dinner in New Haven.

L.V. Anderson (who did not go to school in New Haven. I looked it up.) finds the way in which alumni of certain Ivy League colleges (and, who knew? apparently even Stanford) commonly respond to inquiries about where they attended school with modest evasion decidedly annoying.

Until recently, I was of the naïve belief that no Harvard graduates actually responded to inquiries about their alma mater with “I went to college in Boston,” nor Yalies with “New Haven,” Princetonians with “New Jersey,” or Stanford alumni with “the Bay area.” I assumed this conversational maneuver was such an embarrassing cliché that it had become obsolete, the province of fictional characters who were either historical (like The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, who informs readers, “I graduated from New Haven in 1915”) or cartooonish (like 30 Rock’s Toofer, who bellows, “I went to college in Boston. Well, not in Boston, but nearby. No, not Tufts”).*

Then I solicited the opinions of my Slate colleagues, many of whom have degrees from universities that rank highly on U.S. News and World Report’s annual list. I discovered that many of them had personally heard this wink of a noncommittal response, and, more alarmingly, some of them had uttered some version of it themselves. (“I’m not proud of it, but I have once or twice said Connecticut instead of Yale,” admitted one Eli.)

Having thus learned that this is still a thing, I must, at this moment when many undergraduates are headed home for the summer, urge all Yale, Princeton, and Harvard students and alumni—and anyone else tempted to use a geographical euphemism to describe their august alma mater—to please stop doing this. Cease and desist. Cut it out. I’m sure you are a kind and smart person, but this verbal habit makes you look like a patronizing, self-serious jerk. …

lite alumni’s main justification for this habit is that some people act weird and make uncomfortable or hostile comments when they learn you went to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Indeed, Harvardians frequently refer to telling people you went to Harvard as “dropping the H-bomb,” which is perhaps the most cringeworthily hyperbolic expression in the English language. The unwieldy conversational power of the H-bomb is a recurring topic of analysis in the Harvard Crimson. See, for instance, this 2002 piece by MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon with the excellent subtitle “Does it help or hinder the mack?” (The gender politics of the H-bomb are complicated.) Princetonians, similarly, talk about the “P-bomb,” a term that implies that the two syllables in “Princeton” can derail small talk and obliterate nascent social connections in one fell swoop.

Certainly, some small number of people—insecure people who perhaps have not yet learned that Ivy League schools confer degrees on plenty of idiots every year—may react inelegantly upon hearing that you went to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. But it is not your job to anticipate and preemptively manage another person’s emotional response to your biography. If you tell people you went to Harvard and they respond by freaking out, that reflects poorly on them.

If, on the other hand, you refuse to tell someone you went to Harvard, that reflects poorly on you—it implies that, on some level, you buy into the overblown mythos of Harvard and the presumption of Ivy League superiority. To fear the effects of the word “Harvard” is to take Harvard way too seriously. Once you understand that Harvard is just a college, and that getting into Harvard probably had more to do with your socioeconomic background and the luck of the draw than with your merits vis-à-vis people who didn’t get into (or, more likely, just didn’t apply to) Harvard, the cagey “college in Boston” response starts to sound very, very silly.

Or look at it this way: Saying you “went to college in Boston” or “went to college in New Haven” functions as an elitist dog whistle. There are people who pick up on the hint, people who, like you perhaps, spend a lot of time around snotty people who went to prestigious schools. But if your interlocutor understands the dog whistle, he will probably be offended that you have judged him incapable of gracefully handling the news about where you went to school. And if your interlocutor doesn’t understand the dog whistle, he will simply wonder why you are being so evasive and weird—and then, if he does eventually find out you went to Yale, he will be offended that you have judged him incapable of gracefully handling that fact. Either way, you’ll look like a shmuck.

Actually, people do this all the time. If your interlocutor did not go to Yale (or some near equivalent in New Jersey or Massachusetts), one simply naturally feels that he may find it pretentious, or even intimidating, for you to respond with Yale.

If he did himself go to Yale (or some close simulacrum), he will understand perfectly well what you mean, when you say “New Haven” or “Davenport College.” If he didn’t, he will presumably be contentedly put off and assume that you attended New Haven University or some sort of Calhoun, Saybrook, D-port, or Jonathan Edwards sort of college he’s never heard of.

No offense intended. L.V. Anderson’s problem is simply the result of hanging around Slate and becoming too clever by half. She has learned the code words, but does not understand the perspective of those who use them.

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