Ill-Breeding and a Suggested Cure. Some Folks Just Need a Smackin’

I guess if about fifty million people in this country got taken out behind the woodshed, and thrashed within an inch of their lives, we’d have a better place to live. Or at least people with better manners. A size-twelve combat boot would do nicely.

I’m for it.

Whatever happened to common courtesy? Used to be, people had some notion how to behave. They didn’t always do it, but they knew they were supposed to. And if they didn’t, other folk would let them know they needed to start. People said “Please” and “Thank you” and paid attention to stop lights. When they got onto a bus, they had the grace to let the ones on the bus get off instead of pushing aboard like thirsty cattle. Women mostly acted like ladies and men acted mostly like gentlemen, at least around ladies. Those who didn’t were called trash. They were, so it made sense.

The approach worked pretty well. A fellow could spend whole hours without wanting to kill anybody.

I’m not sure what happened, but it sure did. A lot of people today aren’t fit to eat at a hog trough. The men swear like doormen in a two-dollar whorehouse, without regard to who’s listening. The women talk as bad as the men, and it doesn’t sit on’em well. Drivers sail through red lights as if they wanted a mass murder. In Washington people stand right smack in front of the subway door like slabs of fatback so riders can’t get off. Then they push their way aboard, the way piglets do when they’re headed for the underside of a sow.

These folk truly need to be smacked up-side the head. (I’ve never been sure how to spell that.)

I’ve got a cornpone theory about it.

I know. That surprises you.

For a country to be civilized, it’s gotta have an agreed-upon idea of how to act, what’s good and bad, and what to do to people who don’t care. You can get that different ways. The Japanese do it by all being the same culture, except for a few Koreans and Ainu. We did it once by having one dominant culture, with reasonable standards of civilization, and imposing them on everybody else by grim determination and self-confidence.

It was the right thing to do. Society needs to have the gumption to enforce civilization. It’s like being a parent. Sometimes you have to say, “No.”

Thing is, to impose civilization you gotta know it is civilization. It doesn’t do to figure it might be, but you aren’t sure, and maybe everything’s beautiful in its own way. You have to say, “Nope, that’s not beautiful in this town.” You have to mean it.

You need to tell people know that it’s just wrong to squall obscenities in a decent restaurant or sit on three seats in an airport so nobody else can sit down. When a bunch of young blacks on the subway holler their word at the tops of their voices, you have to have the moral backbone to call the police, who need to have the authority to say, “Act like human beings, or get off the train. Now.”

That’s the problem, though. If you won’t tell some groups to behave, because they have this or that problem or some hard-luck story, then you can’t tell the others either. It doesn’t work. The behavior of the worst group always trickles up to everybody else. So now the white kids don’t behave either.

You just can’t have side-by-side moralities that don’t match. Low behavior has advantages for the individual, but disadvantages for society as a whole. We ought to think more about society. “Society,” after all, is just an abstractrified way of saying “everybody else.” Us.

What happened was, I think, is that (don’t look too carefully at those verbs) the law got separated from morality. When I was a kid, it wasn’t yet. If the corner drugstore had started selling pictures of people making love with dromedaries, the cops would have shut the place down as obscene, and that would have been that. The courts wouldn’t have objected. Nobody else would have either. You weren’t supposed to sell that stuff. The discussion would have been over.

And everybody knew, and agreed, that you didn’t cut in line or urinate on sidewalks in public (a new cultural practice among the ethnically challenged) or just plain be rude and disagreeable.

That was then.

Soon the courts decided that nothing was obscene, especially things that obviously were. This was a huge step. The function of the law had been to uphold the standards of the society. Then our courts decided that their function was not to uphold, but to instruct and shepherd, and they had the mentality of a sophomore dorm at Cornell.

Putting it succinctly, the courts made morality illegal.

Then of course people in Hollywood began saturating television and the movies with graphic sex and explicit language and grotesque violence and glorified trashiness. The principle in California is that if you don’t have talent, take your pants off.

A problem arose: You can’t have people, and in particular children, listening all day to grotesque scatology and watching detailed copulation and expect it not to influence them. Perhaps more important, the attitudes of teenagers and of the ghetto, that “ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to do,” took over. And nobody could do anything about it. Without the courts’ backing, people could no longer demand civilized comportment.

I don’t think we realize how bad things are. We’ve gotten used to road rage (which is just homicidal bad manners) and surliness and crime and hostility and semiliteracy and self-centeredness. We expect horrific slovenliness from our kids. It seems almost reasonable.

But other places have better sense. Go to Japan. You never find rude people, because there aren’t any. The Swiss are unfailingly courteous and honest. You probably can’t find a country in Europe as boorish and coarse as we are. Try South Viet Nam, for heaven’s sake. (I went back for a couple of weeks a few years ago. The Viets were far more pleasant than Americans.)

I think we need to get ball bats, and speak some ‘Merkun to low-rent people. This is a country, not a bus station. I think.

Sometimes the correct answer is, “Because we say so.”

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