Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Two-Faced Wonders, Can Courtesy Cure All?

First, many thanks to Jenny D. for the listing and kind words in week 20's Carnival of Education. This week, she hosts education-related reportage and commentage in the oodles. Whatever your hot button, someone's pressing it. Chewy, interesting stuff.

1) The strange weather of the blogosphere means I'll pick a topic and, within the next day or two, I'll see new information that makes me want to update. Ad infinitem. I usually let it drop. But not this time.

In my post yesterday about how Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe must love Live 8 and hate DDT, I didn't mention his recent project. Operation Murambatsvina, translated as Drive out the Rubbish, which bulldozes the homes and kiosks of impoverished urbanites. We are not talking about a razing a cardboard enclave in a city with the property rights, zoning, and aid infrastructure of Cleveland. We are talking about displacing over a million people, families who live in established, though poor, neighborhoods The displaced are not even allowed to cart their debris away to rebuild homes elsewhere. They're instead relocated to anchovy-snug tent camps with little food and less hygiene. The neighborhoods slated for beautification are those most politically resistant to Mugabe's blandishments. Coincidence? The latest wrinkle is Mugabe disallowing these bullied citizens their subsistence gardens, because... wait for it... Their growing food hurts the environment.

Unlike the newly aethetically and environmentally attuned Mugabe, this straightforward kitty shows her two faces. She's bucked the odds so far. Good luck, Gemini.

2) Another aspect of the blogiverse is that seemingly unrelated stories swirl around, accumulating until they smack you in the face with a new idea. My notion isn't fully thunk, but it's rattling my synapses so I've got to let the bats out of the belfry.

BACKGROUND: I read this Townhall article about the firebrand Thomas Szasz, calling mental illness the new normal, and a meaty book review in Reason. While the expansion of what constitutes dysfunction astounds me, I can't decide yet that everything we don't have a physical diagnosis for isn't a real problem. Thomas Dalrymple had already caused me to consider what I called the death of eccentricity here. I read Kristof's NYT op-ed about the plight of women in Pakistan, about the breathtaking rudeness of a German diplomat towards American guests in his home, and about H.G. Wells' elitist utopianism.

In my fevered brain, it all connected with something by George Orwell, an essay fronting a collection of E.W. Hornung's stories, from 1899, about A.J. Raffles, the public-school boy and West End clubman whose amazing cricket skills and infallible taste allow him to mingle among the upper crust whom he burgles for a living. Writing in 1944, Orwell compares Raffles' exploits to a contemporary American gangster story by James Hadley Chase. 1939's No Orchids for Miss Blandish includes multiple varieties of torture, rapes, Stockholm sydrome, murders and police abuses. Citing the increase in Might Makes Right as entertainment, Orwell writes:

People worship power in the form in which they are able to understand it. A twelve year old boy worships Jack Dempsey. An adolescent in a Glasgow slum worships Al Capone... A New Statesman reader worships Stalin. There is a difference in intellectual maturity, but none in moral outlook. Thirty years ago the heroes of popular fiction had nothing in common with Chase's gansters and detectives...Between [Sherlock] Holmes and Fenner [Chase's protagonist] on the one hand, and between Abraham Lincoln and Stalin on the other, there is a similar gulf.

One ought not to infer too much from the success of Mr. Chase's books. It is possible that it is an isolated phenomenon, brought about by the mingled boredom and brutality of war [sound prescient?]...Raffles, as I have pointed out, has no real moral code, no religion, certainly no social consciousness. All he has is a set of reflexes- the nervous system, as it were, of a gentleman...In Mr Chase's books there are no gentlemen, and no taboos. Emancipation is complete. Freud and Machiavelli have reached the outer suburbs. Comparing the schoolboy atmosphere of the one book with the cruelty and corruption of the other, one is driven to feel that snobbishness, like hypocrisy, is a check upon human behavior whose value from a social point of view has been underrated.

JIST: When I talk about politeness or being courteous, I'm not referring the etiquette of table utensils for prawn cheeks or the correct address for the wife of Burundi's ambassador. Should the need arise, do look up such miscellania online. What I refer to is an old-fashioned ideal that many feel slipping from evidence in the public square. Courtesy predjudices one toward and habituates behavior characterised by tolerance, patience, consideration for others, generosity, dignity, self-control, and deference of the strong to needs of the weaker.

Within courtesy, I perceive practical training against narcissism and impatience among the young. I perceive habits that encourage respect for individual differences while lubricating smooth function of the whole. I see facilitation of effective debate across classes and democracy's defense against accusations of popular unfitness by dictator-loving elitists. I see a standard of civil conduct which need not rely upon or preclude religious observance. I see elevation of women's social status and of those that protect the weak from violence and coercion.

Is it possible that this cheaply held, neglected minor virtue is the pillar of all decent civilization?

No comments: