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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, And Elegance - A Return To Manners And Gentility In An Ugly Age

Image result for images fred astaire musical comedy

These are ugly times we live in – perhaps not as threatening as the Cold War or the brink of nuclear conflict with our enemies, one of which is long gone and the other deferred, but unpleasant and unsettling nonetheless.  There seems to be no bottom to the barrel; a tit-for-tat of slander and mudslinging.  Some blame the President for his intemperate, rude, and ill-thought remarks.  Others blame the Left for its own inordinate, insensitive, and personal attacks.  It was they, after all, who began the tattoo of misogyny, sexism, and racism well before Trump’s election.  Wherever the truth may lie, we are no closer to it.  The country seems to have lost its head and with it its civility, good taste, and culture.  If there was ever a more ragged, disassembled, and contentious time, it was before anyone’s memory.

Because the nation has become increasingly divided by racial, ethnic, and gender identity, the hope for a coalescing vision, a unifying idea, or a common principle has seemingly disappeared.  The foundational beliefs of freedom, liberty, and justice have been distorted into angry demands for recognition and retribution.   The idea of one nation indivisible is outdated, laughable, and childish.  Whoever wrote the Pledge of Allegiance lived in someone else’s world – one of privileged idealism far from the reality of class struggle.  There is no reality but today’s and that one exists only for the struggle.  The struggle has become the point.  Gains in social status, equality, and mobility are secondary to la lucha.  There is no end to revolution.  La Lucha Continua has been the anthem of Cuba for decades because revolutionary commitment confers solidarity; and solidarity is the sine qua non of revolution a perfect circumlocution.

Image result for images la lucha continua

Such social division and revolutionary anarchy could not help but radicalize America’s middle; and it was only a matter of time before, not to be left out, there was a white, Christian defiance as nasty and angry as any.  Only immigrants who were happy just to set foot in America were quiet.  Why rock the boat when they had fled misrule, civil conflict, oppression, and poverty? 

There is no end in sight.  While Donald Trump may have finally given progressives their first comeuppance, not only challenging their assumptions but expressing the resentment of many who felt badgered and put-upon by the incessant demands of secularism and inclusivity, his aggressive, punitive way of doing so has only hardened the opposition.   Identity groups, always angry, have become even more so – emboldened by Trump’s attacks.  While the Right may be satisfied that finally they have a voice in the White House, their champion has only served to make the opposition even more determined and hostile.

It wasn’t always like this of course; but what has happened in just a few decades? How did America go from a society where civility and respect were the norms to one where discourse is discordant and individual identity primary?
The movies of the 40s reflect this culture of good manners and social propriety. Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, and Lionel Barrymore were exemplary of a culture which, while no less enterprising as today’s, respected a notion of social grace.  Men wore suits and hats.  Women dressed elegantly but conservatively.  Clothes were both fashion statements and reflections of common social values.  A suit displayed formality, shirtsleeves an intrusive, personal informality.
Graceful masculine manners – holding a door, standing up when a woman entered the room, helping her with her coat, escorting her to her car – were not the now-parodied  symbols of male superiority and chauvinism but tributes to a woman’s own careful attention to her dress, demeanor, and social behavior.

Image result for images cary grant and leading ladies

In other words, civility in dress and behavior was a way of respecting not only others but the entire community.

Society was simpler,  less diverse, and far less aggressively competitive than that of today.  More people lived in small towns where everyone knew each other and where individual propriety and manners were not only matters of civility and respect but survival.  Conformity to social norms was the rule.  In the 60s conformity came under attack as bourgeois subservience; and what had been perhaps the one best hope for national integration – a belief in common norms – began to disassemble.

Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding (1946) is both a celebration of family as it is about the integrity of community.  It not only is the story of a multi-generational, closely-knit family but its simplicity extends beyond the plantation.  Welty chooses not to write about the Civil War or Reconstruction, both of which were only decades before her story of the wedding.  The plantation is a physical and historical enclave.

The only past that has any importance for the Fairchilds is the one of their ancestors.  Welty makes occasional but only incidental references to the Civil War, who went off to it and who came back.  There is nothing about the War itself, the battles that were fought in the Delta, Radical Reconstruction, refugees, the dislocation of the planter class, the difficult restructuring of the slave economy, or the political and social upheavals that resulted.

Today’s world feels and is very unlike those of Welty, Lewis, or Wilder who in Our Town writes of the same conservative values of Grover’s Corners and about the necessarily small interstices between its residents and how this social integrity is essential to individual life and community.  Our world not only celebrates classic American individualism but has turned it into a culture of identity.  Society has become so diverse sexually, ethnically, and racially that each group and sub-group must fight for air, space, and territory among many competing claims.   How can civility, manners, and mutual respect prevail in such a competitive  environment?

Daniel Riddick, a Washington lawyer, more used to incivility than most, remembered his mother’s dinner parties with nostalgia. 

Taking a lesson from the English, she insisted on keeping her dinner parties civil.  No sex, politics, or religion were to be discussed at table; and she was quite deft and agile at steering the conversation away from contentious issues and inviting only those people whom she had carefully vetted for good manners and an attuned sense of social propriety.  While this limited any serious discussion, it avoided unnecessary abrasions.

Image result for images english aristocratic dinner

Of course nothing went totally according to plan; and even the most deferential and cautious guests could say something inappropriate. Of course these people were never invited back.

With his mother’s gag order for most topics, guests could come, enjoy the guinea hen and foie gras, leave at a reasonable hour and certainly wonder why they bothered. He was wrong, he told me.  Being at one of her dinner parties was like being in a musical comedy. Everyone knew and played their part – the ingénue, the generous uncle, the handsome leading man, the object of his affections, the upstart, and the single lady.  It was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, My Fair Lady, High Society, and Hello Dolly. The men wore tuxes and the ladies long dresses.  They spoke well, behaved mischievously, and all ended happily together.

Image result for images musical my fair lady

Musical comedy was the anodyne to incivility.

A return to the sophisticated elegance of Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Ginger Rogers seems quaint at best, retrograde at worst.  It was nothing but a veneer over a frustrated, socially oppressed, and unequal society.  Yet is this revisionist view correct? Is there simply no way of looking to the past for example and lesson?

It has been observed that the social unrest today is not a function of insufficient or inappropriate laws and public investment, but of values.  ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, explained Jefferson, did not mean individualism, but individual enterprise within the context of community.  A balance between self-interest and community interest was essential to the prosperity of the new nation.  A return to these values and principles would not be ‘retrograde’ or romantic but reasonable and proper.  What could be less respectful of these Jeffersonian norms than identity politics?  Americans still value the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and their principles, while established in the 18th century, are still valid.

Image result for images thomas jefferson

Is it therefore unreasonable to revive more modern expressions of those values?  Are the 30s, 40s, and 50s so irrelevant and passé to be ignored?  Courtesy, respect, manners, civility, graciousness are not elitist Hollywood creations.  They are central to Jefferson’s vision, as applicable to the inner city as they are to Park Avenue.

It is perhaps time to look beyond the conventional nostrums of public investment and intervention and consider matters of principle.  Regardless of ones perspective – social, religious, historical, or philosophical – common principles of right behavior have always underlain successful civilizations.  There is no reason to respect Jefferson and not Fred Astaire – the latter is the offspring of the former.

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