Coming Unraveled

As a high school student in Baltimore I used public transportation to go back and forth to school. It was standard procedure to get up and give one’s seat to elderly folks, especially elderly women, who would otherwise have to stand. All the boys did it. We also said “sir” and “ma’am” to our teachers, and held the door for women, did what we were told to do, did not interrupt, and spoke only when spoken to. That’s what we were taught. My wife tells me she was raised in pretty much the same way in Kansas City, Missouri — though she was the one the doors were held open for. When we raised our two sons we were very concerned that they also learn good manners, that they were courteous and considerate of others. These rules were self-evident as far as we were concerned. It was the way we were raised and we wanted our sons to go forth into the world armed with the basic tools that would allow them to get along with others. It seems to have worked as they are both happy and successful in their lives and careers.

But the older I get the more I realize that this sort of thing is out-dated. People simply don’t spend much time raising their kids any more, even less teaching them manners. Much of this, of course, arises from activists who felt that good manners were pretentious and often demeaning to women, together with the pop psychologists who wrote best-selling paperbacks in the 50s and 60s telling parents not to thwart their children’s spontaneity, that suppression and discipline were wrong; all of this, of course, was reinforced by the entertainment industry that showed spoiled, ill-mannered  kids in charge and insisted it was funny. In the end we eventually said “good-bye” to good manners as children became the center of many a family gathering and the adults simply shut up when the children spoke and forgot the word “no.”

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, these attitudes have been augmented in the schools by the “self-esteem” movement that insists that kids be told they are great even though they are unmotivated and the projects they turn in are trash. This has given rise to rampant grade inflation and an age of entitlement in which every Tom, Dick, and Sally are rude and self-absorbed and expect things to be handed to them. Manners, at least, have gone the way of the dinosaurs and we are now surrounded by folks who aren’t fully aware that others share their world and who demand that their needs and wants be fulfilled immediately, if not sooner. This point was emphasized in a recent blog where I also quoted some wise words from Edmund Burke about the importance of manners to civilization, which, as Ortega Y Gasset told us a long time ago is above all the desire to live in common. You may recall Burke’s words:

“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify. . . .barbarize or refine us. . . .they give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

About three generations later, the same basic idea had evolved somewhat and was expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, after visiting the United States for nine months and going home to write Democracy In America:

“If you do not succeed in connecting the notion of virtue with that of private interest, which is the only immutable point in the human heart, what means will you have of governing the world except by fear?”

As I mentioned in that blog, with the demise of manners (and morals), society necessarily falls back on civil laws to keep order — that is, laws without the support of manners and morals to give them strength, only fear of reprisal. And with the recent events surrounding the jury trials of George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander, as noted in a recent blog, one shudders to think how the average person will come to regard lawmakers, the role of law, and civil courts in this country. The outbreak of violent protests over the Zimmerman case, especially, in which a guilty man was found not guilty on the grounds of an insane law reflect well-founded — and understandable — doubts about the sanctity of both law and the courts in Florida, if not the rest of the country. This concern, coupled with the demise of manners and the reduction of morality to matters of opinion (“Who’s to say?”) suggest that the final strands in keeping a civil society together seem to be coming unraveled — held together only by fear in one of its many forms.

I have noted on occasion the birth of a new barbarism, evidenced by increasing numbers of folks who are tattooed, pierced, ignorant, linguistically disabled, self-absorbed, disdainful of history and tradition, and disrespectful of others. The Romans welcomed the barbarians from the Germanic tribes into their armies and their world as their Empire disintegrated.  We have bred our own. And with the huge surge in the sale of weapons recently, we are talking about armed barbarians.

Something Rotten

Marcellus, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, noted that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. He may have been right, but he obviously never checked out Florida where the stink is so offensive it provokes nausea. The recent juxtaposition of two stories coming out of that state are testimony of that condition. On the one hand, George Zimmerman, who shot a 17 years old boy to death on a Florida street because he “looked suspicious” was found not guilty of murder — or even of manslaughter. Apparently the jury was in denial. That is, they denied that a young man had been shot to death. At the very least, this was a clear case of manslaughter. One might have determined that Zimmerman was not guilty of murder, given the insane “stand your ground” law in Florida that allows anyone to shoot anyone else if they suspect possible foul play. But that tells us a great deal about the law and very little about Zimmerman’s culpability.

But wait a minute. Apparently some Floridians can’t shoot anyone they like, or even shoot at them.  At least not Marissa Alexander who was sentenced to twenty years for firing warning shots at an abusive husband because he was about to attack her and she feared for her life. She had already gone to the police about the man’s aggressive behavior, but a jury in its wisdom decided that even though she killed no one she should be locked up for our safety. Apparently she was not to be allowed to “stand her ground.”

Now, despite the fact that this is a clear case of a double standard, since we are talking about the same law in the same state we might simply note the hypocrisy and pass on. But when we think of the family of Trayvon Martin who will have to live with the injustice of the verdict, or we think about Marissa Alexander who faces 20 years in prison for defending herself against an abusive husband we must pause and reflect.

The country’s love of guns and violence has been noted often and written about until it no longer registers on those who might actually give a damn. But the new spate of laws around the country — especially in the South — that not only allow but (in a town in Texas) actually require that people carry guns to protect themselves are marginally insane. It is one thing to defend the possession of hand guns and automatic weapons on the grounds of a complete misreading of the Second Amendment, but it is quite another to insist that people must carry guns and when something moves, pull the trigger. But there is a connection, of course. Those who insist that we all have a “right” to carry a gun are scared to death that the wrong people (i.e., people other than themselves) will get a hold of them. So they insist that their legislators pass laws allowing them to defend themselves against the “crazies” who might want to shoot them down in the street. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this leads.

Is it too obvious to point out that the solution to this entire insane scenario is to take the guns away from everyone? That, of course, will never happen. But it is none the less so obvious a three year-old could figure it out. In the meantime, we will have more cases like the George Zimmerman case and more applications of the double standard as in the Marissa Alexander case and we might as well get used to it. The fact that both victims in these cases were black enters the equation, of course, but we now live in an age of terrorism where fear rules, reason is stunted by the passions, and the stink you smell will simply get stronger as people continue to commit stupid acts and juries demonstrate their blindness to simple facts.