Freedom, Beyond Dignity

I always enjoy David Brooks’s column in the Times. He has an impeccable conservative pedigree, but never seems to take sides on any issue out of sheer partisanship, and even when he has strong opinions (with which I do not necessarily agree), he is unfailingly civil, and never shrill. Best of all, he writes well.

In today’s offering Mr. Brooks reminds us of how little concerned we are with dignity in America these days; he offers as a counterexample George Washington, who in his youth drew up for himself a set of guidelines for appropriate behavior.

When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Some of the rules in his list dealt with the niceties of going to a dinner party or meeting somebody on the street.

“Lean not upon anyone,” was one of the rules. “Read no letter, books or papers in company,” was another. “If any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up,” was a third.

But, as the biographer Richard Brookhiser has noted, these rules, which Washington derived from a 16th-century guidebook, were not just etiquette tips. They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man. Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.

“Designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man.” There, in brief, you have the essence of conservatism: that we are crooked timber; that traditions of modesty, civility and restraint make the public square a more agreeable place for everyone; that when liberty gives way to license society is the poorer.

The trend, since Washington’s time, has not been upward:

The old dignity code has not survived modern life. The costs of its demise are there for all to see. Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act. For example, during the first few weeks of summer, three stories have dominated public conversation, and each one exemplifies another branch of indignity.

First, there was Mark Sanford’s press conference. Here was a guy utterly lacking in any sense of reticence, who was given to rambling self-exposure even in his moment of disgrace. Then there was the death of Michael Jackson and the discussion of his life. Here was a guy who was apparently untouched by any pressure to live according to the rules and restraints of adulthood. Then there was Sarah Palin’s press conference. Here was a woman who aspires to a high public role but is unfamiliar with the traits of equipoise and constancy, which are the sources of authority and trust.

In each of these events, one sees people who simply have no social norms to guide them as they try to navigate the currents of their own passions.

Read Mr. Brooks’s essay here.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Malcolm. Now, I feel so severly my own lack of dignity.

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:16 am | Permalink
  2. Also, “severely.”

    Jeffery Hodges

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    Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:18 am | Permalink