The late, great Walker Percy wrote a wonderful book called, The Last Gentleman. And when I think of that title I think of my grandfather, Thomas A. Carton, whom I often accompanied on his rounds in the last six years of his life.
VIDEO: Manners and restraint
One of the things I cannot forgive my hometown for is that it allowed the local country club to be torn down by a shyster “developer.” Two presidents ate and one slept in that building. And more importantly, my grandfather dined there, almost every night, in the years after my grandmother’s death. Every night he sat at the same table, in a perfectly pressed suit with a neatly folded handkerchief in his breast pocket.
Often he ate there alone. But not really alone. His friends came through and by, and the waitstaff were his friends also. Often I was the audience. What in the world did he see in a little kid? What did we talk about? Not much. Not sports or the family or dogs. We actually talked very little. We sat together. We ate together. We walked together.
What were my grandfather’s interests? I now know, but it did not occur to me to wonder then: His children, his business, the Army and his Army buddies, a little bit of politics. A limited sphere. Yet it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that he was presiding over the world.
So what did he teach me? Manners. Starting with table manners. Bearing. Courtliness. Chivalry. Restraint. Even his humor was parenthetical and delivered in low tones. He taught me all the things so lacking in our culture today.
He had impeccable manners, my grandfather, certainly toward men, but especially toward women. One of the first things he taught me was to always hold the door for a lady.
If that seems like another century, it was.
I think of my grandfather’s tutelage, not just when I see a man in a good restaurant bent over his food like a Rottweiler and wearing a ball cap, but when I see the screaming skulls on Fox and CNN, and when I read about the latest sexual harassment scandals. There is a continuum in these scandals, of course, running from office flirtation to rape. But all along the line the common thread is gaucherie. And you wonder: Who let the dogs out?
A young colleague tells me he hasn’t a single female friend of his age who has not been assaulted, semi-assaulted, or at least subjected to aggressive physical advances at least once on a first or second date.
What happened to candy and flowers?
And you can forget unrequited love. Or platonic friendship.
There is something to be said for sublimation.
“Our fathers simply did not treat women in these ways,” said a male friend my age recently. It wasn’t allowed. It was not even imaginable to a gentleman. They looked at women in an entirely different way — idealized, romanticized, protective. A better way, I would say.
When my grandmother died, my grandfather had to be sedated. She’d had cancer for a year, but he could not accept that she was really gone. He never coped with it. He went about his duties and folded his pocked handkerchief every morning, but his heart never healed.
What did my grandfather’s age have that we do not have today? Manners and restraint, the two key elements of civility, of mutual respect.
How did we become such a coarse culture, so uncivilized? I blame the 1960s and feminism for much of it. “If it feels good do it,” is not the rock upon which to build a good society. And feminism, it turns out, was a step back toward barbarism, not away from it. It is a ridiculously inconsistent ideology: Let us be feral but victims too.
But I would not turn back the dial on the civil rights movement and we still need equal pay for equal work.
I also blame the destruction of the line between private and public life, made possible largely by technology. Facebook has turned us all into vulgarians.
The “Benedict Option” is a fascinating socio-religious movement seeking to recover simplicity in American lives. Basically, families settle near a monastery or church in a small town or rural area, and make that church and its liturgical functions and calendar the center of their daily lives. They live from subsistence jobs and many home school their kids. The idea is to renounce the trashiness of modern culture. No cable TV. Just Mass and the Rosary. But how would a same-sex couple with adopted children fare in one of these enclaves? Not so well I fear.
There must be a meeting place, a balancing point, between tolerance and tradition; progress and rootedness. Perhaps the Japanese have found it. There is, says a friend, no road rage in Japan.
Manners and restraint. I do know that more of the same — more from Hollywood or the Kennedy family, more social media, more anger and porn, and pop stars with opinions — will not help us. We need a truly counter cultural impulse on a massive scale. We could learn from the Amish, the Quakers, the Benedict Option folks, the Japanese, perhaps. But we’ll never again have a society of mutual respect, in which gentlemen, and ladies, exist, without manners and restraint.
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