Dear Reader (Including those of you still standing in an Iowan elementary school gymnasium),
Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve been invited to an Afghan warlord’s home for dinner. How you found yourself in this situation is beside the point, but if it helps, imagine some really bad flight connections, too much schnapps at the Salt Lake City airport and maybe losing a bet at the bar about whether you could fit inside a duffel bag. The point is you’re there. And, to put it mildly, you don’t know what to do.
This is where knowledge of formality would really come in handy. What I mean by “formality” here is really just good manners, even though there’s more to formality than just good manners. If you were lucky enough to have a English-speaking guide escort you in past the armed guards and that one-eyed dude picking his teeth with a knife so big you’d assume it was a sword if held by Michael Bloomberg, you’d ask him over and over “What do I do now?” “How do I eat this?” “Do I have to eat that?” The last thing you want to do is insult someone unintentionally. The first thing you’d want to do—other than call the Marines—is understand how to behave properly.
Of course, this applies to all sorts of cultures, from Aborigines in the Australian Outback to tribes in the Amazon to less exotic locales like a stranger’s home in Italy or Spain or even across town where you live. Not all such situations have the same stakes. No one will cut off your head if you use the wrong fork or eat fish with your hands. But we all know that feeling—which I would argue comes from deep inside our tribal mind—of worrying about whether we’re behaving improperly, particularly around strangers. That worry may have many flavors. Fear of embarrassment is one—no one likes to feel uncouth. But the biggest one is fear of unnecessarily insulting someone.
Manners play all sorts of important functions in society, but near the top of the list is that they’re the way we show respect to other people. Americans are an extremely egalitarian people, so it’s no surprise that we have done away with nearly all of the forms of good manners that suggest one person is better than another person.
For instance, there are lots of theories about where the handshake came from. If I had to guess, most of them are right to one extent or another. One of the most common, and plausible, is that an outstretched and open hand proved you were approaching unarmed and in peace. But I like the more recent theory—that it was revived by the Quakers to do away with the sorts of customs that displayed social rank in society. When you bow to someone, you’re implicitly saying that you’re less important than they are. When you shake their hand, you’re greeting them as equals.
Again, I don’t think one explanation is necessary. Some customs, like cooking food, were probably invented many times in many places. But my point is that the handshake plays an important role for social peace. If someone sticks out their hand and you refuse to shake it, you are sending a very powerful message. If it’s someone you know, that message may be anger. If it’s a stranger, that message may be distrust or bigotry. But the most common is disrespect.
The death of formality.
This is not some lead-up to me castigating President Trump for not shaking Nancy Pelosi’s hand, though I think he should have. Rather it’s something that’s stuck in my head since I started reading Yuval Levin’s masterful book, A Time to Build. Some of his argument should be familiar to readers of this “news”letter because I’ve been droning on for a while about the role of institutions (largely thanks to my conversations with Yuval) for a good while now. Institutions are supposed to mold people, starting with the family. We come into this world with the same basic programming babies did 20,000 years ago. The family is the first stage of the civilizational assembly line, the end product of which—if all goes right—is a decent citizen. When your parents tell you not to chew with your mouth open or to clean your room, they’re running through the little checklists that transform us from natural-born barbarians into halfway-decent people.
Schools, churches, synagogues, sports leagues, Boy Scouts programs, et al, all help create good citizens by shaping our character for the better. Part of the price—and benefit—of this transaction is that these institutions can demand a certain amount of loyalty from you. Some institutions, like the Marines, demand a lot of loyalty, others just a bare minimum. You don’t have to give your life for your bowling league, but you do have to show up, respect your teammates and subordinate some of your interests and desires for the good of the whole. In other words, formality comes from being formed—shaped, molded, improved by institutions. We are all ambassadors of the institutions that made us. When someone says, “What would your mother think?” Or “What if so-and-so could see you now?” what they’re really saying is “You’re straying from the rules or values that made you who you are or the person you’re supposed to be.”
As Yuval puts it:
All of us have roles to play in some institutions we care about, be they familial or communal, educational or professional, civic, political, cultural or economic. Rebuilding trust in those institutions will require the people within them — that is, each of us — to be more trustworthy. And that must mean in part letting the distinct integrities and purposes of these institutions shape us, rather than just using them as stages from which to be seen and heard.
As a practical matter, this can mean forcing ourselves, in little moments of decision, to ask the great unasked question of our time: “Given my role here, how should I behave?” That’s what people who take an institution they’re involved with seriously would ask. “As a president or a member of Congress, a teacher or a scientist, a lawyer or a doctor, a pastor or a member, a parent or a neighbor, what should I do here?”
Yuval argues that a major source of our social dysfunction stems from the fact we increasingly reject the idea that we should bend to the demands of these institutions; instead we demand that these institutions bend to us. Rather than be a mold that constrains us by telling us how to behave, institutions become “platforms” that we stand upon to perform and preen for attention. As I’ve argued many times now (including today), the political parties are one particularly important example. But the examples are everywhere.
Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning released vast amounts of classified information because she put her judgment above the military’s. Colin Kaepernick may certainly have a point about criminal justice issues, but he used the NFL as a platform for his crusade. Once you start looking around, the list of people who use their institutions like cultural ATMs—staking out credibility that isn’t theirs to buy celebrity and authority they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or deserve—starts to seem infinitely long. Ricky Gervais is now a right-wing hate figure for simply pointing out that Hollywood A-listers use award shows as literal platforms for virtue signaling about causes they often know very little about.
One of Yuval’s most important points is how social media erases formality. We say things to and about strangers we would never say to their faces. The anonymity of social media untethers us from the constraints of institutions and good manners. And even when we’re not anonymous social media allows us to cash in on the reputational capital of our institutions for our own agendas.
According to Freud, our id, ego and superego are in constant battle to keep us on the straight and narrow. But the truth is, egos will lose every time without the work of others. Our id—the home of our instinctual passions—is like a giant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and society and its institutions are the humans on the ground holding the ropes that keep it from soaring with the wind. When we destroy institutions, it is like we are severing those ropes, and social media is the jetstream carrying us away.
As someone who’s lived on the internet for more than two decades, I can tell you I didn’t need Facebook and Twitter to witness this phenomenon. Email and comment sections made this phenomenon a familiar part of my life long ago. Almost from the moment I started writing a syndicated column, anti-Semitic email has been a constant occupational hassle often sparked by the resplendent Jewiness of my name. When I used to reply to the people who said the world would be better off if my family had been finished off in the Nazi ovens (“Shame on you” “God is watching, sir,” etc.) I would often hear back with more of the same. But occasionally one of these correspondents would come back with a deep apology. “Oh my God, I had no idea you’d read that!” or “I’m so sorry, I had a terrible day and I drank too much.”
The shock that there was another person at the other end of the bile hose made at least some people reappraise their own humanity. Alas, this isn’t the norm.
Where we are.
I didn’t want to write about the week that was because the week was so terrible. But as I sit here, I feel like saying nothing would be an act of cowardice, giving in to the demands of a mob.
I thought the State of the Union was a gaudy and disgusting display. My wife, who knows more about speechwriting than I ever will, told me it was a “triumph.” I am inclined to agree that politically it was. But all I could think of was the irony of that word. In Ancient Rome a triumph was a civil-religious ceremony celebrating the success of a military commander, usually Caesar. The grandest triumphs could go on for days, with games and festivals. Caesar would bestow gifts on the people, the military or their representatives. Trump had no military conquest to crow about, but he did have a political one, even if he wasn’t formally acquitted until a day later. Countless commentators have likened his performance to a reality show or an episode of Oprah or Ellen. All of that has merit. But the military man’s reunion with his family, the bestowing of a scholarship to the adorable plebeian child, the rewarding of a loyal political general (Rush Limbaugh), the relentless embellishment of political or economic victories that did not need embellishment, and the constant adulation from his senatorial party, all felt more reminiscent of Caesarian bread and circuses to me.
No one wore togas, and I’m still not sure why the women dressed like Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island, but it felt only a few clicks shy on the demagoguery meter of having the head of a conquered Gaul brought in.
But I have long hated the State of the Union address, finding it a grubby Caesarian spectacle under previous presidents. This was merely an exaggeration to the point of caricature of a customI already despised. And, yes, yes, the Democrats behaved boorishly too. But to the extent the boorishness exceeded normal parameters—the rending of the speech! To thy fainting couches you decorum-loving defenders of Trump—it was the result of the rest of Washington trying to compete at Trump’s level.
Besides, what came after was so much worse. One of Yuval’s core arguments is that Trump rejects the character-molding of all institutions, most importantly the presidency itself. He wants to be bigger than the job, unconstrained by the tethers of decorum or decency we have traditionally expected from our presidents. I know enough history to know that he is not the first president who sought to be unbound from such conventions. But no president has been so grubby and shameless about it and no president has had so many enthusiastic enablers of it.
The president opened his talk at the National Prayer Breakfast and many of the pastors and politicians who claim to hold it sacred chuckled approvingly as he openly rejected the core of Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies. At the White House a few hours later he held another triumph in which he apologized not for his role—his obvious and damning role—in the tribulations of impeachment but for the evilness of others and the toll their “bullshit” (his word) took on him and his family. He denounced those who claim to pray for him and ridiculed those who do “wrong”in the name of God. The latter would be a worthy target of ridicule were it not for the fact that, in his mind, doing wrong is staying loyal to an oath or telling the truth under one. Loyalty to him, and him alone, is how one stays on the right side of things. Let me hear no more about “situational ethics” from his Praetorians.
I have criticized—and defended—Mitt Romney many times. But the effort, admittedly mostly from the worst goons, buffoons, and satraps of Trumpism, to describe him as a person of low character in defense of President Trump is one of the ugliest political spectacles I have ever witnessed. Has Romney at times been calculating? Of course. He’s a politician. But the suggestion that he is not an honest or decent man because he was “disloyal” to such a profoundly dishonest and indecent man is an exercise in mobbish immorality and the madness of crowds. And by the way, all of these gibbons and poltroons yammering on about how he was disloyal never seem to dwell on the question of why Trump should demand his loyalty in the first place? What does Romney owe Donald Trump? What trust or bond has he “betrayed”? Romney wasn’t elected because of Donald Trump.
If you honestly would prefer your children grow up to be more like Donald Trump than Mitt Romney, I don’t know that there’s anything left to talk about. Watch his actual speech on the floor. I have no problem with people who disagree with his reasoning. But to come away thinking he’s anything other than a man molded by charactering-building institutions (his family, his church, the Senate itself) who is trying to do right by them strikes me as a kind of Trump-personality-cult derangement.
And speaking of the d-word, last week I noted the effort to bend all of conservatism and the Republican Party to the cause of personal loyalty to Donald Trump was a form of intellectual corruption. This week we saw it could actually get worse. The hysterics insisting that Romney must be kicked out of the GOP—an effort Mitch McConnell sees for the idiocy it is—are in effect arguing that you can vote for all of Trump’s judges and the vast bulk of his legislative initiatives and it counts for nothing if you don’t accept full baptism into his cult of personality.
I’ve been saying for 20 years that the cult of unity is a poison and that the hero in the American political tradition is not the mob, but the man who stands up to it. This week there was one hero and it wasn’t Donald Trump.
Various & Sundry
Canine Update: So Pippa’s limp was improving but it still comes back too easily, so to the doctor we must go I think. It has been absolutely brutal keeping Pippa back when Zoë gets to go on the midday walk with Kirsten and the pack. She gets mopey about it and she gets angry about it. In fairness, Pippa is much better at mopeyness than anger – she just can’t do intimidating. Zoë meanwhile didn’t really seem to mind that Pippa stayed behind. The great Gracie Treat Crisis is over. The wonderful people at Friskies sent her an emergency care package of the freshest Meow Mix treats and all is right with the world. They also sent Zoë and Pippa some new leashes.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of Mitt Romney by Getty Images.