You know where you can stick that Southern civility?
If the author and editors of “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South, Sees Manners Decline” from today’s New York Times have adjourned to a coffee shop to eavesdrop on the conversation, I suspect they’re hearing what I’m thinking: Does that bold assertion come with evidence?
Here are a few examples from the “growing portfolio” of behaviors the Times draws on to plot the decline of Southern manners.
· Two black men drinking at a bar were asked by a bartender to surrender their seats to two white women. They declined and a lawsuit ensued.
· A professor of history and Southern culture at the University of Mississippi tells the Times, “Manners are one of many things that are central to a Southerner’s identity, but they are not primary anymore. Things have eroded.”
· The South’s make-up has changed: More Northerners have moved in; modern communications technology has made parts of the South less insular; and changing politics and the recent economic upheaval have made the place more contentious and insecure.
· A “media specialist” says manners have dropped so low that African-Americans can no longer automatically trust other African-Americans.
· A second grade teacher in Birmingham says today’s classroom manners have drooped lower than any time in her 36-year career.
· A wedding planner (and graduate of the Emily Post Institute!) says brides and grooms are more selfish than ever.
· Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C., was mean to 10 state lawmakers.
· Charlotte, N.C., is the home to “road rage,” “rudeness,” and NASCAR “riots.”
Hmmmm. Blacks who won’t give up their seats to whites. A professor who thinks things aren’t what they used to be. A “specialist,” a middle-aged teacher, and a wedding planner who agree that standards of Southern behavior have shifted.
I wouldn’t want to go to trial with this case.
If you really needed to establish that Southern manners aren’t what they used to be, you’d first have to pick a baseline period for exactly when “used to be” was. Was it 1980? 1960? 1940? 1840? But the Times piece never pegs the golden age of Southern civility. Even if it had, journalistic anecdotes like these aren’t any way to reliably measure changes in civility.
The piece wisely concedes at a couple junctures how “courtesy and deference” have been used to control women and blacks, and to limit public debate. One voice in the piece holds that Southern civility was a coping mechanism designed to
mask animosity. “If someone is polite, you better be careful and consider what that politeness veils,” says William Ferris, a University of North Carolina folklorist. This provocative comment, and the failure of the Times to fully explore its meaning, reminds me of the way Interview magazine conducted interviews during the Warhol era: Whenever the interview subject said something remotely interesting, the interviewer would quickly change the subject.
Other examples of bogosity: The Times cites a source to assert that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Herman Cain all benefited from their “ability to pour Southern charm over the political process.” This is news to me. I missed Carter’s charm, saw through Clinton’s, and if anybody thinks Cain is charming, they’re crazy.
The notion that Southern politics was once a bastion of good manners, a theme the story bangs on a couple of times, will jolt anybody who ever followed the careers of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Strom Thurmond, Orval Faubus, et al.
Anecdotal news accounts charting the decline of this thing or that thing often include a counter-example, a stick-figure who functions like the Japanese soldier hiding in the jungles of the Solomon Islands who won’t surrender, demonstrating that against all odds, some people just won’t give up the faith. The Times observes this tradition by concluding the piece by visiting Dorothy McLeod, a 70-year-old who teaches ballroom dancing and etiquette to Augusta, Ga., children.
“I will not give up,” she says of her struggle to instill kindness and manners in unruly children.
As bad as the Times piece is, it could be worse. It could be about the return of Southern civility. Maybe next week.
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PHOTO: A window washer cleans the windows above the front door of the New York Times building in New York, March 26, 2010. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn