In a recent discussion with some friends who knew the difference between Rambo and Rimbaud, I insisted that manners disappeared along with imperialism in the midst of the last century.
My argument was triggered by the brief contact my wife, Alexandra, had in an elegant Prague hotel with an American couple. The horrific duo breakfasting next to her had let it all hang out, as they used to say. The man wore a sleeveless T-shirt, his huge and hairy arms hanging like slabs of meat at a butcher shop, his wife with huge uncovered thighs and a protruding belly, the two of them speaking loudly while slopping away at their food, oblivious to their surroundings.
Even Alexandra, who likes to see only the good side of humanity, was appalled, asking me later on, “Where have all the elegant people and good manners gone?” That was an easy one to answer. Two world wars did the trick, I told her, and then added that the end of imperialism was the coup de grâce.
“What does the end of empire have to do with the end of elegance?” she asked. “In a nutshell,” I told her, “everything and nothing at all.” Now I know it sounds far-fetched, but let’s take it from the top. Europe destroyed itself by being in the center of two world wars that cost the lives of 100 million people. No continent was spared, except the American one, and century-old dynasties disappeared. The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires bit the dust after the First World War, followed by the British, French, Japanese, Belgian, and Dutch after the second. France surrendered Vietnam in 1954 and Algeria in 1962. The Brits let their colonies go one by one—and peacefully, with the exception of Kenya.
America had no such problems, benevolently giving independence to the Philippines and getting out of Haiti. Then Uncle Sam, in cahoots with Ted Kennedy, passed the 1965 Immigration Act, which ensured that the country would change demographically as well as culturally. A nation whose founders and leaders were born English but died Americans and had a long and strong WASP tradition of hard work and good manners had suddenly decided to become Babel, with predictable results. The Europeans at least had the excuse that, having lost their empires, they were obliged to take in many of their old subjects. The Americans did the same with Mexico and Central and South America, but without having acquired them in the first place.
So, what does all that have to do with manners? It’s a bit of a stretch, but here goes: I’ve always insisted that the greatest threat of our time is neither disease nor nuclear war, but the encroaching proletarian barbarization that is all-encompassing. A predominantly white society, rooted in Christianity both in Europe and America, abjured its responsibility to bring immigrants into its culture. Instead it acted the other way around and adapted itself to the cultures of the immigrants. More importantly, moral authority disappeared along with empire and socialism, empire’s successor, undermined the sovereignty of the family. Moral authority and good manners go hand in hand, but what kind of message does, say, the head of a university send when he turns into a genuflecting fundraiser?
Liberty depends on memory, and cutting people off from their past is the chief technique of modern tyrants. The emperors and kings of old set the agenda, and society followed it. By the agenda I mean impeccable manners, graceful speech, and gentlemanly behavior. This trickled down to the poorest citizen. I’ve seen this trickle-down effect first hand in Greece, England, and France. Noblesse oblige, however, has gone the way of, well, good manners and elegance.
As long as the sun never set on the British Empire, the lowliest peasant could look up and dream something noble. Now the dreams are set by Hollywood and the TV networks. And what rock-bottom delusions they are. They celebrate crass ignorance and are scatological and violent. Action heroes in today’s films are aggressive, foul-mouthed, and demeaning to the audience. It’s all anti-social garbage and puerile idiocy, all shameless gimmickry and smuttiness.
I recently looked at some pictures from the annual Met Gala, run by that arch-phony Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of women’s fashion magazine Vogue and a Brit posing as an aristocrat to the ever-gullible Americans. It was a horror show, with extremely fat black rap stars showing off their bellies and behinds as the paparazzi snapped away. It has come to this: freak shows replacing elegance and good manners.
Well, if any of you are still with me, I did not win the argument. A good friend called me an appalling snob who lives in the 19th century. I do, I answered, but with penicillin. The wife did not buy it either; so you, dear readers, are my last hope.
Image: Charles I, last emperor of Austria, and the last empress, his wife, Zita, circa 1911 (via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)