David Brooks is upset about our manners. So upset he asks our greatest President to help him tell us how to straighten up and fly right. That help comes in the form of George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a compendium of notes about good behavior he first read as a copybook exercise in grade school, drawn from a 1595 list put out by the Jesuits.
It’s doubtful that that list "actually comprises his own personal list of decorum rules". More likely, his interest in that school exercise illustrates the budding morals of the man-to-be. They cover everything from keep your nails short and don’t spit in the fireplace, to don’t gloat at the misfortunes of others, even "though he were your enemy".
Items like that last one make Washington-the-man too unwieldy and inconvenient a model to use in discussing today’s politicians. They would be a good place to start, but only as a placeholder for Washington’s actions, which Bobo never looks at. He simply claims he followed them, then conflates the man with his copybook exercise in order to oversimplify and to distract from the distribution of "incivility" throughout the political spectrum:
They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man. Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.
In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”
That would be a dangerous standard against which to judge our or any other era’s politicians. It’s one thing that made Washington so special and revered.
But the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.
No, David, they are not. In part, they were never widespread. In part, our present predicament is owing to the GOP’s slavish adoption of the ethic-less, ruthless behavior of Karl Rove, Dick Nixon, Dick Cheney, Dick Armey, Newt Gingrich, David Vitter, David Craig, Mark Foley, Paul Wolfowitz, Stephen Cambone, Doug Feith and George Bush.
Wall Street’s brutal excesses top even theirs. And the ethic-less, he said-she said journalism exemplified by the WaPoop should join the cast. The Democrats have their players, but none so stellar. Give them time; Rahm is ambitious. Though I must say the Democratic impeachment of Richard Nixon was sublime when compared to the GOP’s rapacious impeachment of Bill Clinton.
All of this is framing for Bobo’s acknowledgment that Sanford and Palin’s political careers imploded while he was busy last week. He throws in Michael Jackson to suggest he’s discussing a societal, not a political problem. Sanford and Pain are now has been Republicans. Mr. Jackson was a brilliant entertainer who sadly found himself a top contender in the Montgomery Clift Memorial Challenge to commit the longest personal demise in Hollywood history.
I would give Bobo credit for his mild rebuke of Ms. Palin, had he not then explained away her irresponsible behavior by claiming it was owing to a lack of social norms to guide her:
Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust.
In each of these events, one sees people who simply have no social norms to guide them as they try to navigate the currents of their own passions.
Had he said a paucity of Republican mentors who behaved more responsibly, Brooks would have been closer to the mark, though it would still not excuse her narcissism, self-aware-less ambition and poor judgment. Then, too, Harry Reid and Joe Lieberman aren’t much to brag about.
Those who aspire to consistency and rectitude may be models for Eagle Scouts. But they are the first ones corporations pigeon-hole as not team players. They are the first ones Cheney booted from the bureaucracy. They, like Ohio’s Sen. Brown and Rep. Kucinich, and economists Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, are the first ones to be ostracized as idiosyncratic or shrill.
Bobo trots out "four contributors" to the decline of "our" global public civility. In typical fashion, they are paired, right and left:
1. Capitalism – We’re all encouraged to sell ourselves. (David can’t find anything more egregious than that in Wall Street’s predatory capitalism or American CEO’s greed.)
2. Naturalism – We’re all encouraged to express ourselves, "to liberate our own feels". (That’s the DFH meme, contra capitalism.)
3. Charismatic Evangelism – He blames only its penchant for "public confession". (I would blame its insistence on converting an areligious government to its constricted conservative religious ways, and the ruthless, unChristian means it uses to do so.)
4. Radical Egalitarianism – Bad because of its "hostility to aristocratic manners". (This is the secular pole opposing the religious one. Naturellement, it is not the inequality and special privileges that come at tremendous cost to the non-aristocrats that egalitarians consider harmful, it’s their manners.)
In his comforting way, Bobo tells his readers it’s all about civility, not predation. He does admit that Barack Obama is an exception to
the GOP’s our lack of public civility. Yet, all he can muster to illustrate why is Obama’s "reticence" and "dispassion" – social negatives. Which illustrates that even when claiming to be genteel, Republicans can’t stop streetfighting.