VITAL SIGNSrnMANNERSrnii^rnyyrnWe Say Grace,rnWe Say Ma’am . . .rnby Williani MurchisonrnThe news descended with crushingrnforce: I must be getting really old.rnRising from the dinner table, I hadrnpulled back my wife’s chair, and our waiterrncomplimented me. He complimentedrnme for the kind of civil and reflexive actionrnto which my generation was bred inrnthe post-World War II years? Ah, yes; hernsaid he didn’t see that sort of thing muchrnanymore.rnBrothers and sisters, this was Texas —rnthe Old/New South. The restaurant inrnquestion caters to the better sort, as thisrnclientele was known in less egalitarianrntimes. Our waiter “doesn’t see” thingsrnlike men pulling out ladies’ chairs forrnthem? Probably not, I guess. As I said,rnI’m getting old. (To cinch the point, Irncan remember when Rosemary Clooneyrnwas bigger than Elvis.)rnGranted, manners—like mores—havernbeen in decline probably since thernsweeping bow—plumed hat in hand, leftrnleg extended—went by the boards. Thernkind of 20th-century civility to which Irnwas bred, 40 years ago, might have disgustedrnthe truly gentle men of PresidentrnWashington’s day. They might have supposedrnthe thing we needed most—werngreased-up swains in our white sportrncoats—was a good hiding with a malaccarncane. They might have been r i g h t -rnnotwithstanding the great rule of life thatrnyou do your best with what you have.rnWhat we had in the South, in thern1950’s, was a quaint, very much inherited,rnnotion: a notion of relationships. It isrnlikely we never expressed it just so, butrnthat is what it came to —relationships;rntouchings, bumpings, scrapings; intersectionsrnof every sort. For all of us, therernwere, not laws, not statutes and commandments,rnbut guidelines. The guidelinesrnwere called “manners.”rn”What happened,” you ask? I’m curious,rntoo. why don’t we think this thingrnthrough? A waiter smilingly commendsrna customer—and not yet an elderly one,rneither!—for pulling out his wife’s chair.rnThis says to me that relationships betweenrnmen and women (not to mentionrnthose between customers and waiters) arernnot what they were, and thus the guidelinesrnfor those relationships have alsornchanged—less so in my Southland thanrnelsewhere, but I’ll get back to that.rnIt has to be feminism —the thing wernmales, with calculated offensiveness,rnonce called “women’s lib.” That’s whatrndid it. Feminism made a comeback—asrnyon will recall, in our history, feminismrnhas ebbed and flowed —somewherernaround 1970, when everything elsernseemed to be falling apart. Feminismrnembodies, among other things, the notionrnof women as an oppressed class. Therndistinctiveness of women was a thing wernall had understood and most had valued:rnwomen especially. That was not feminism’srnpoint. The point was, we men hadrnexploited that distinctiveness; by—allegedlyrn—putting women on pedestals,rnby bowing and scraping to them, andrnpraising their feminine attributes to thernskies, we had, in effect, disabled them inrntheir grand quest to lead lives just like ourrnown. In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote of thern”problem that has no name,” whose naturernwas that “American women are keptrnfrom growing to their full human capacities.”rnAmong the consequences she enumeratedrnwere alcoholism, emotionalrnbreakdown, and suicide.rnAll because we held chairs and rose tornour feet when women entered the room?rnIn the years that followed, it came tornseem so. Manners undermined opportunityrnand growth and fulfillment. Thernwomenfolk would open their own doors,rnplunging through them to joyous fulfillment,rnslamming them in the faces of thernmale louts who didn’t “get it.”rnManners, everywhere and always, dependrnon degree and distinctiveness. Butrnthese were the very attributes our culturernwas trying to wipe from the face of thernearth —with regard to women, at least.rnListen, a woman could drive a tank if shernwanted to. She could direct a motionrnpicture or climb Mt. Everest. She couldrnargue a case before the Supreme Court—rnor hear and decide that case with solemnrndeliberation. She could lead a Fortunern500 company. She could mobilize thernvillage it takes to raise a child. Don’trncome around here bothering a womanrnwith minor attentions like pulled-outrnchairs, you patronizing pig! At the dinnerrntable, our brave new woman was justrnas likely as the man—likelier, perhaps—rnto grab the check when it arrived, icily assumingrnthat command she and her sexrnhad for so long been denied. Dainty,rnwhite-gloved manners! Grrrrrrr!rnThere we are, and I’m not sure we arerngoing back any time soon —not in myrnown lifetime, I feel mournfully confident.rnBut we’re entitled to evaluate thernresults.rnOne thing the feminist revolution hasrncost us is that measure of grace whichrnmanners bring to such societal transactionsrnas sitting down and rising. Mannersrncoordinate these routine actions in a kindrnof corporate way: a team effort, as it were,rntwo working as one.rnP/o/3 —according to the modern idealrn—goes one diner; then plop goes another.rnThe next thing you know, outrncome the cell phones. Onto the tabletoprngo the elbows. The evening is off to arnvery bad start.rnI hate to press this particular point toornhard, because when one of you can’t waitrnto get in that tank and start blasting awayrnwith the machine gun, human coordinationrnat the table seems a minor matter.rnBut “seems” is the operative word. Therernis much more to this. It’s the relationshiprnthing.rn”Relationship” is one of those modernrnbuzzwords that leach the meanings fromrnthe ideas they embody. It signifies, tornmany, that, hey, we’re a couple — orrnsomething like that. But what does thatrnmean? A pair who split the rent and thernutilities, or two who move as one: manrnholdi ng chair, woman seating herself?rnThe latter is the ideal, because the maritalrnrelationship is the ideal, the goal towardrnwhich every human relationship isrnsupposed to point: one flesh, one life, onerndestination. This is the divine symmetry,rnif I may coin a phrase. It is that for whichrnwe were formed. Manners is a means—rnnot the only means, clearly, but an importantrnmeans—of attaining to that blissful,rnhonorable, and holy end.rnWe seem to be getting theologicalrnhere. Yes, and why not? The problemsrnof the modern world aren’t political orrneconomic; they’re theological. The ulti-rnAUGUST 2001/41rnrnrn