Life in the Time of Thoughtcrime

Just when I thought I was inured enough to America’s slow degradation, a series of recent events crystallized Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that barbarians are no longer beyond our borders but “have already been governing us for quite some time.”

The first took place at my local grocery. On a random weekday night, my wife and I stopped in to pick up a few things. As we were checking out, a Hispanic woman scooted past us pushing a cart with her two children in the bed, playing with a small spaniel.

This wasn’t a service dog mind you. The mother wasn’t speaking English, and appeared ignorant of the fact that she was violating store policy.

Our cashier, an elderly black woman with calloused and cracked hands, was none too pleased by the discourteous (and unsanitary) behavior. With tired eyes, she saw the pooch chaperoned like a royal heir, looked down and muttered, “They aren’t supposed to have dogs in here, but they just don’t care.” My wife tried to inject humor into the situation by mentioning our own dog, but it was clear by her knitted brow that incidents like these, the sheer disregard for propriety, has become all too common.

Days before, I observed a similar scoffing at basic decency. While walking home from a seafood restaurant with my father-in-law, we witnessed an Uber backing into another car parked on the street. Living just outside Washington, D.C., in the tony county of Arlington, the ride-sharing service is everywhere, and it attracts a surfeit of drivers, at all degrees of competency.

The collision was followed up by a mad scramble from the driver, whipping his door open, and rushing to the point of impact. After a brief -- maybe ten seconds -- assessment, he concluded everything was bully by waving at us and shouting “ez OK!” He then promptly took off. That’s when my father-in-law expressed further befuddlement: All along the sidewalk were half-open ketchup packets, splattered in the cracks like an urban Jackson Pollock. “Did he just empty his car right here?” he asked, rightly agitated.

Our offender stopped to discard the fast food condiment contents of his automobile. On a public sidewalk. With no clear compunction.

If the prevailing zeitgeist hadn’t drilled the platitude “diversity is our strength” deep into the recesses of my subconscious, I might have the temerity to question the benefit of having a littering second-rate taxi driver with limited English skills cruise the streets of my neighborhood. But that would be so many charges under the current thoughtcrime regime that I’d spend an eternity-and-a-half in jail.

The final event wasn’t experiential. It was, as most shocking occurrences go, witnessed on social media. A friend sent a video filmed in a Subway restaurant where a woman, young children in tow, berates a clerk for an inaudible comment. What’s appalling isn’t the outburst, but the ease at which she goes from casual, polite language to a flurry of expletives, with no sense of shame. The calumny she dispenses isn’t worth reproducing here (the word choice is as inventive as it is wretched) but it’s yet another sign of our debased times.

The problem with each of these occurrences isn’t that they break what were once the norms that dictated public behavior (though that is a worthy concern).

No, the issue is that there’s no recourse. In the instance of the pooch in the grocery store, the underpaid clerks weren’t going to enforce store policy. Their focus is getting to the end of their shift. For the Uber driver, my protest would have been ignored. Had someone attempted to stop the Subway slattern, they were liable to get hit.

Which gets to the real issue at stake: the behavior standards American society. The social capital that formed the baseline for our country’s prosperity didn’t emerge out of primordial goo. It was learned over time, picked and gathered from a variety of traditions, including Protestantism, Puritanism, and the Anglo disposition.

The slow decay of a society’s informal code is no small matter. Incremental annoyances add up to a larger disturbance. The leaving of a grocery cart in the middle of a parking lot, the deliberate dumping of refuse in the street, not holding doors open for others, not silencing or removing loud, crying children in indoor areas, talking loudly on the phone in public–each new offense chips away at the comity felt between citizens.

“The polite Man aims at pleasing others,” Benjamin Franklin wrote. Is the definition of a society not an unspoken agreement of mutual consideration? Without consideration, we’re just an alienated hive of solitary individuals, grinding away at our lonely lives.

Alas, there is some hope. A couple days after my series of vexing events, I witnessed something that suggested manners aren’t all loss. While riding the bus home from work, a young Asian man was watching some dross on his smartphone with the volume turned high enough for everyone around to hear.

For whatever reason, the bus driver wasn’t having it that day. At a stop light, he emerged from his seat and demanded the volume be lowered. The offender, likely bewildered at the request, obeyed.

The driver, being an older black man, he probably clung to some distant sense of decorum. How lonesome he must feel to suffer everyday indignities like that. His feeling, I wager, is mutual with more people than he thinks.

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