Toward a coarser, ruder culture

In her August 13 Wall Street Journal column, ("We pay them to be rude to us" ) Peggy Noonan remarked on different symptoms of how our society has grown less genteel, less polite, and less respectful. Her examples included from an unseen, unknown bank employee on the other end of a phone call presuming to address her familiarly, using her first name; being aggressively accosted by someone on a sidewalk whose attitude was "You WILL sign up for my cause"; how the security people at airports treat your private parts with the same untender care as they would if manhandling a slab of beef.

Noonan's article caused me to reflect on changes in our social mores that I have observed over the years. Young table servers no longer say, "How are you today, sir." Instead we (and this includes my wife) are greeted with, "How are you guys?" Can't they at least say "folks"? Guys should be reserved for their contemporaries (and arguably for males).

Another example involves public standards of decency in music. When I was in high school, the Detroit radio stations wouldn't broadcast The Rolling Stones song "Let's Spend the Night Together," because the title was too risqué. Two years later the MC5 shattered the verbal censorship standards. On Halloween, 1968, they yelled, "Kick out the jams, m...f...!" and then sold tons of albums with the taboo lyrics intact. Even that profanity, however, seems tame in comparison to the sick, degraded, nihilistic primitivism of some rap-crap.

Another societal shift: Twenty years ago, we attended plays in crowds dressed predominantly in coats and ties. Today, at least in some cities, it isn't unusual for theater-goers to wear t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops.

You can add your own examples.

The point is, how much ruder, coarser and sloppier can we get? I suspect we may never return to the exaggerated formality of manners we see in Jane Austen movies, but at some point, the pendulum is bound to start swinging the other way. Isn't it? Am I indulging wishful thinking here? Is gentility gone forever? Have we become permanently habituated to crudeness, rudeness and disrespectfulness?

As Ms. Noonan's experiences with the stranger on the sidewalk and with airport security personnel indicate, there is very little respect for individual space or privacy. What I'm wondering today is, When did this trend start? What prompted it?

I'll leave the scholarly answers to those questions to the professional sociologists. I doubt, though, that it is mere coincidence that the decline in civil standards has happened concurrently with a decline in church attendance. And being a conservative, anti-government free-market person, I'll go further and do the expected: I blame government for at least part of this unpleasant and potentially dangerous trend. It is government that has ripped apart our veil of privacy and invaded our personal space, and government has encouraged others to believe that this is normal and legitimate.

For earlier generations of Americans, it was absolutely none of the government's business how much your income was, as long as you came by it legally. The 16th Amendment changed all that. In the succeeding decades, more and more parts of our formerly private financial lives were subject to the prying eyes of the IRS. To many of us, the annual exertions and contortions we go through to complete our 1040 tax forms seems like a visit to a proctologist.

Worse, though, are the effects of government redistributing our money. Contemporary democratic politics in America has degenerated into a sordid scramble to see who can use the political process to extract the most wealth from one's fellow citizens. People have convinced themselves that they have a right to whatever they want, as long as they can persuade congress to take wealth from others and redistribute it to them.

We've lost our privacy. We've lost the presumption that our property is ours by right, and instead are forced to work diligently to fend off government as it seeks to appropriate more and more of that property. We are no longer respected as dignified human beings endowed with certain God-given inalienable rights. Instead, we are commodities, to be man-handled, accosted, abused, and plundered to suit the insatiable demands of others.

This is the economic-political dimension of the coarser, ruder culture that has permeated our society. Common rudeness goes hand in hand with political rapacity. If we don't reverse our course, savagery awaits us. END