"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 29, 2018

America’s Love Of Pleasantries–Happy Talk Keeps Things Running Smoothly

Americans are friendly to a fault.  We prefer a hale fellow well met to an honest one; a congenial, approachable one to a prickly, critical one; and a pleasant, non-confrontational one to just about anyone else.  A successful dinner party is run on light sociability. A backslapping bonhomie breeds confidence; congeniality dispels doubts.  Offenbach is better than Wagner.  Sports better than political philosophy or history.

Martha King, a well-heeled American hostess, taking a lesson from the English, insisted on keeping her dinner parties civil.  No sex, politics, or religion were to be discussed at the table; and she was quite deft and agile and 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 neutralized any serious discussion, it avoided unnecessary scraps.

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; but of course these people were never invited back.

With her strict rules of order, 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

When battles are fought on principle, there can be no compromise.  So, taking a page from his mother, Riddick King said he looked for ways to draw out his guests’ comedic sides.  Personal biographies are good and stories from the old days draw everyone closer around the campfire. Everyone has quirks, oddities, and family clowns in common. Bits and pieces of character can be extracted over time, and although the pastiche may not be entirely accurate it is likely to be a decent representation of Bob Phillips or Jane Tolley.

Civility can be defined as knowing when to stop an argument before it gets personal.  Knowing when it is time to agree to disagree. Putting up the muskets and sabers and having a round of ale. People who are civil understand the nature of political difference. They pull up before the final attack, let victory slide, and take time to tease out smaller bits.  What ever happened to Mary Jane? Did you hear that Danny Bernstein’s father died? The weather is turning cold.

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The French have no such concerns.  Intellectual debate, rational disagreement, and well-argued positions are not only considered appropriate at the dinner table, but de rigeur.  An evening of pleasantries impossible.

Apostrophes was a French roundtable talk show featuring intellectuals who discussed and debated books, art, and ideas.  It aired in prime time and for many years was the most-watched program on French television.  Perhaps most importantly its audience was universal – as many working class viewers as upper class ones.  Apostrophes was significant because it was an expression of French intellectual culture, one which had no institutional limitations, and was shared and respected by all.  Granted, Apostrophes aired before the radical media reforms which broke government monopoly - there were few options other than Apostrophes on Friday night – but such exclusionary policies did not deny a basic, fundamental, aspect of French cultural history.  High culture was not only French.  France was its home.

American’s love of pleasantries and of avoiding the crux is practical and sensible.  In a society without a long cultural history, without centuries of intellectual, philosophical, and artistic tradition; and one formed less on the basis of substance than process, it is not surprising that greasing the rails has always been characteristic.  American process – civil liberties, justice, and freedoms – is what best defines America.  They are what make America work.  They facilitate equal contracts, fair adjudication, and reasonable settlement.  Asking why or how – plurality, diversity, democracy itself to what ends – or debating philosophical principles of morality, ethics, and right behavior are irrelevant to the process of progress, of moving ahead.  For all one might talk of morality, it is more often than not a question of the law.  It’s not what you know; it’s what you can prove.

Substantive issues are always deferred or coopted by temporal political interests.  Right and wrong are relative terms when it comes to the oppressed, the marginalized, and the forgotten.  There is no point in discussing Kant when it comes to Black Lives Matter or One Wall Street.  At best parsing the truth, as Bill Clinton famously did before the Senate, is all one can hope for.

In a scene from the film Quiz Show, a prospective contestant, Charles Van Doren, younger member of an eminent New York intellectual family, questions the ethics of the show.  Giving him the answers to supposedly surprise questions would not be right, he says. “I wonder what Kant would have to say”, Van Doren remarks to the show’s producers.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t have a problem with it”, is the reply.

Image result for images movie poster quiz show

Of course many conservatives feel that Kant would indeed have a problem; and that America’s problems can be traced to willful forgetfulness of moral principle.  Our nation was founded on the sound philosophical principles of the Enlightenment.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not empty phrases of an optimistic American politician, but a statement of fundamental values.  In an increasingly procedural, or process-oriented, society, fundamental principles are easily lost sight of.  We are living Jefferson’s worst nightmare.

“My name is Bruce, and I’ll be your server tonight” is an unmistakable warning of the bad meal to come.  Bruce really doesn’t want to be a server in a middling Washington restaurant; and the diners at his table understand this, sympathize with him, and support his upwardly mobile outlook. His friendliness and the congeniality of those ordering dinner are signifiers for the process.  His knowledge of ingredients, preparation, and presentation are secondary to his underlying initiative.  We all were in his shoes at one point or another.

So his recitation of the specials, complete with a scripted, detailed description of them is more than enough to show his legitimacy.  Diners know enough not to divert his attention with questions about complementarity, methods of preparation and combination; to let him stay on message – sourcing, organic farming, GMO-free production, and humane treatment of animals – and not to ask questions he might not know.  His frequent inquiries about our meal and how we are enjoying it are not looked at as unwanted intrusions, but as part of the pleasantry package.  The meal is not about a pissy, know-it-all French waiter, but Bruce, the student at Montgomery College, working evenings.

Visitors to the United States are at first charmed by Americans’ friendliness, so different from the less open, more structured, and certainly more demanding cultures from which they come.  It is a breath of fresh air for many to relax away from concerns of standards, class, and behavior.  Americans’ easy familiarity is a welcome delight. 

“Until you get to know them”, said one European.  He would rather be challenged, debated, and questioned in the name of honesty than ‘swim with guppies’.

Of course he had not been here long enough to appreciate the American character; nor did he have the perspicacity and insight of Tocqueville who saw no signs of traditional European greatness in America; but something else – goodness.

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Image result for images alex de tocqueville

Goodness in American terms means kindness, friendliness, and good neighborliness.  Helping out, shoveling snow, volunteering at the elder care center or library.  Goodness is far easier than righteousness, honesty, or courage; but it fits well into the American character of pleasantry.

The Vicompte de ______ was a young French nobleman, last in a long line of aristocrats, courtiers, and princes.  He was proud of his family’s tradition, their participation in the First Crusade, and their subsequent contributions to French society and culture.  He was unapologetic about the role of the aristocracy in creating, preserving, and promoting French culture.   His personality, character, and worldview were all conditioned by his family history.  He wasn’t simply Emmanuel de _____ but La France.  He expected and received respect for his family’s role in French history.  He was a man of good humor but few pleasantries; arrogant at times, generous at most.  Most importantly he was a man of substance.  He had no patience for goodness, American or otherwise – an undefined, lackadaisical, vaguely Christian but homogenized out of recognition.

Perhaps in an increasingly hostilely competitive world, we should take goodness wherever we find it.  Perhaps one should be more tolerant of American niceness and friendliness.  After all, we have no cultural honor to defend, no thousand-year history like the Vicompte de _____.  On the other hand, “Have a nice day” and Bruce’s attentions can get very tiresome.

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