For our Mother’s Day outing this year, my daughter and I went to see “RBG”, the revealing new documentary about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There is much to commend about this film: a woman flexing her power at the age of 84; the unpacking of the reverential partnership the Justice shared with her husband Martin; RBG’s masterful case work in the 1970s that dismantled U.S. laws codifying gender discrimination (she intentionally chose both women and men as plaintiffs in a series of landmark cases). Then there is her supple and good-humored appreciation of her emergence as a pop culture icon of dissent. In the film, she chuckles, bemused at the “Notorious R.B.G.” alter-memes plastered on t-shirts, mugs and flash drives and at the imitation of her badness on “Saturday Night Live.”
The thing that touched me most deeply though, was Justice Ginsburg’s reflection on the lessons imparted by her mother, who died when she was 17, the day before Ruth’s high school graduation. “Be a lady,” Celia Bader told her daughter. “And even if you meet Prince Charming, be able to fend for yourself.”
The second piece speaks for itself. The first part needs a modernizing filter. After watching the film, it is clear that this advice meant more than young Ruth being expected to sit with her ankles crossed and pinky crooked just so when lifting her tea cup. Rather, she was she was instructed to be polite. At all times. This code of personal conduct laid over a brilliant mind eased the bumps resulting from her selection to the law review at Harvard Law School, where, as one of nine women in a class of 500 men, the dean asked why she had taken a seat that could have gone to a man.
Good manners explain in addition to formidable legal scholarship, her ability to win five of six civil rights cases she argued before a male-only U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s. The young lawyer was always deferential as she took the opportunity to “educate” the justices. To scold would turn them off. Politeness was no doubt also a lubricant for the famous friendship she shared with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whose arch-conservative views were not enough to deter her from sharing visits with him to the opera and an elephant-riding adventure abroad.
This nod on the big screen to the seemingly lost art of behaving nicely was balm at the end of a week I spent stewing about a White House aide who seems to have gotten away with making what was described as a private “joke” about John McCain’s brain cancer. “He’s dying anyway,” the adviser reportedly said in her knee-slapper explaining to junior staffers why McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel “doesn’t matter.”
Rather than apologizing, the White House clambered to moral high ground (one imagines an anthill) to disparage the leaker, rather than the speaker. No need to regurgitate here all the bipartisan huffing and puffing about the tone set from the top, when will we stop trashing war heroes, hitting rock bottom, who is more disgusting or disgraceful than whom, the ironic futility of Melania’s “Be Best” campaign, and so on.
Instead, I am going to throw a contrarian Hail Mary: the United States is on the verge of a new Golden Age of Manners. We just don’t see it yet. This will be the paradox of our society, post-Trump. We will recoil and return to our better angels, from the classroom to the court room to the Situation Room. I think about the feminist audience in Oakland cheering Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s admonition to be courteous in the face of adversity, and of the outpouring for Barbara Bush, following the latter’s recent death. Two women so different in terms of life stories and politics, yet so alike in their insistence on decorum and decency, whatever the setting.
The Trump presidency reminds me of those safety films we had to watch in driver’s ed at my high school in Houston. Texas State Troopers would show up in uniform to underscore the seriousness of the scenes they were about to show us from the actual footage of fatal accidents caused by joy-riding teens. The camera would pan silently over someone’s hair matted in blood, the prom corsage on a too-still arm, that sort of thing. The films were gory, intended to scare us straight before we even got our licenses, about the dangers of driving while drunk or distracted. This is how bad it can get, the films showed us, in ways no teacher at the chalkboard could impart.
And so it is now. Trump is not the worst-mannered person in America, nor are the people who work for him and assume his swagger behind closed doors, even as they harrumph in public about the lost sanctity of private meetings. He is not the cause of America’s epidemic of rudeness, though he embodies it to the core.
We’ve been on this path for a long time. Blame violent video games, rap music, cell phones at the dinner table, cell phones everywhere, the breakdown of the nuclear family, parents who expect society to do their jobs for them, the dying off of the Greatest Generation, the erosion of religion in American public life, the devil weed, saggy jeans, nose rings, whatever. It’s all of those things, depending on who you talk to, and no doubt more. But now we see how bad it can get. The 19th edition of the classic “Emily Post’s Etiquette: Manners for Today”, first published in 1922, now includes digital dos and don’ts, such as “Should the bride and groom tweet at their wedding?”
This is the wreckage of a society that has lost its manners.
The question is what will we do about it? I submit there is a hunger among young people to be shown right from wrong. When to say please, thank you and I’m sorry. And when to put down the phone.
This may no longer extend to my own kids, who have grown weary of my rants on this subject. Over brunch last weekend, I started anew about poor posture in the classroom and the failure of American students to tuck in their shirts. I noted that during my years as a reporter, whenever I visited a school in a low-income country, for example Ghana, Cambodia or Bolivia, I saw pupils in crisp white shirts with collars, sitting at attention, hands folded. Even though the school rooms in rural areas might have had dirt floors, the children radiated dignity.
As I railed on like a knobby-fingered schoolmarm, I noticed my two teenagers blinking their escape plans to one another in Morse code. The 15-year-old was the first to make a break for it, claiming water needed for a suspiciously-timed coughing fit. The 19-year-old remained trapped at the table, as was his friend, rapt as she tucked in her shirt and thanked me profusely for the extraordinary and nutritious meal. Before long, they too skedaddled, muttering about a long drive back to UCLA.
Even my puppy goes to basic manners class, I lectured the now empty chairs. Shouldn’t we all?
“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others,” wrote Emily Post. “If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
It’s that simple. And not beyond our abilities. Please. Thank you. May it please the Court.