On dignity or the lack thereof in modern life.
I'm putting Washington's 110 rules in the next post.
In Search of Dignity
By David Brooks for the New York Times, July 6, 2009
When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." Some of the rules in his list dealt with the niceties of going to a dinner party or meeting somebody on the street.
"Lean not upon anyone," was one of the rules. "Read no letter, books or papers in company," was another. "If any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up," was a third.
Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.
In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero. "Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men."
The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.
Remnants of the dignity code lasted for decades. For most of American history, politicians did not publicly campaign for president. It was thought that the act of publicly promoting oneself was ruinously corrupting. For most of American history, memoirists passed over the intimacies of private life. Even in the 19th century, people were appalled that journalists might pollute a wedding by covering it in the press.
Today, Americans still lavishly admire people who are naturally dignified... but the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated.
We can all list the causes of its demise. First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand... Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.
Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act. For example, during the first few weeks of summer, three stories have dominated public conversation, and each one exemplifies another branch of indignity...
But it's not right to end on a note of cultural pessimism because there is the fact of President Obama. Whatever policy differences people may have with him, we can all agree that he exemplifies reticence, dispassion and the other traits associated with dignity. The cultural effects of his presidency are not yet clear, but they may surpass his policy impact. He may revitalize the concept of dignity for a new generation and embody a new set of rules for self-mastery.