Sunday, October 26, 2008

Book Review

Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Miss Manners Rescues Civilization From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing, and Other Lapses in Civility, and Star-Spangled Manners by Judith Martin aka Miss Manners

What distinguishes Judith Martin is her ability to dive into the "nitty-gritty" of daily etiquette with courage and grace. "Miss Manners," Martin’s etiquette sage pseudonym, engages the "gentle reader" on questions ranging from eating soup to flag burning. She thereby provides practical and definitive advice on etiquette, examining its value for the individual and society. Martin also provides immensely interesting historical knowledge to support her perspectives. She is a fantastic writer who connects the reader thoroughly on matters of civility, all the while refusing to shy away from the related philosophical and moral implications. What is remarkable in the text is her ability to take on all these questions while maintaining eloquence, agreeableness with the reader, mixed with striking humor and wit.

What’s especially admirable in Martin is her guts to insist upon a utilitarian system of etiquette. She acknowledges the need for self expression reconciled with a "standardized national etiquette," which might be seen as a mild rebuttal to the current academic obsession with multiculturalism with blind sightedness towards its consequences. The texts include commentary on the mutability of etiquette over time but also highlight a dire importance for achieving communally agreed-upon manners. Therefore, "consensus" and "understanding" are more important than "self expression," "A society in which everyone improvises an individual set of etiquette rules wouldn’t work any better than a society in which people followed only those laws they personally invented or endorsed" (Martin, A Brief Definition of Etiquette, 31). Even the artist and free spirit in every society needs to eventually come to grips with this reality. Subjugation of inner impulses, whether they be anger or even at times honesty is a basic precept of what it means to be civilized. Martin explains this well, "Etiquette cannot be unilaterally abandoned in the name of individual freedom, honesty or creativity, much less comfort, without social consequences." Here, it is acknowledged that etiquette is not legislated in the courts but is enforced through social consequences, be they public scolding or social banishment.

What distinguishes Martin from Carter is her refusal to become enraptured irrationally with a romantic past era, as if they held the mystical key to a civilized society. In many ways she writes of civility as being a more evolutionary process:

Advocates will cite a period such as the 1950’s or the Victorian Age or a favorite Heroic Age, all the which come enticingly packaged in historic and personal fantasy kits. The horrors of such a time that we have overcome, such as slavery and plagues, are omitted, as are the evil affects such things had on manners. People who believe life was bitter in the old days also have a way of casting themselves in the top positions, dreaming of being knights or their ladies, rather than the statistically more likely possibility of being these people’s serfs (297).

Martin "civility realism" works to engage the reader in meditations on the contradictions between claims of civility and in military terms "boots on the ground." Racism and intolerance in many ways were alarmingly active during Carter’s "golden era." Martin points out that we often unknowingly pick out the seemingly more appealing imagery of bygone era mores, thereby ignoring the totality of the entire system with its hidden less desirable characteristics.
Selections from Martin’s Star-Spangled Manners: In Which Miss Manners Defends American Etiquette (For a Change) contain enough importance and relevance to a discussion on civility they might easily stand alone, constituting a course of study and source of university-wide application. In these selections Martin displays a unique patriotism and confidence in the framework and evolution of American civility.

Although she not praise American manners per se (she does not view them especially well), she does celebrate their basis, history, and hopeful future, "For America’s founders to have examined the hierarchical systems that seemed inevitable to lord and peasant alike, and to ditch that idea to introduce a measure of simplicity into ceremony and fairness into daily life was extraordinary" (298). Martin is not praising the merely aesthetic ceremonial improvements but the "etiquette of equality" that increasingly began to dominate American life in fantastic ways. She praises an American system which had new challenges and rewards, best put forth by poet Rudyard Kipling who admonishes one to "not look too good, nor talk to wise" but simultaneously exhibit the fortitude to "walk with kings – nor lose the common touch." Martin points out that the Founders "jump started the implementation of the new etiquette by putting down pretensions to which they as its leaders might have been tempted, and by lifting the dignity of the masses. Then they left it to the future generations to develop" (304).

Martin’s optimism in the potentiality of American manners is strong. Her position in this selection implies a direct call to stewardship over cultivating manners for their beneficence to all involved in the American ideals. Given as a text for the university community, it will provide as both source and stimulus for vigorous debate on the immense value, contradictions, and flaws of this specific system. Founding documents on this country’s independence and constitution have had a remarkable influence on how American’s view civility and our various relations. Martin’s commentary on the specificity of American etiquette is done admirably with celebration and honest critique. There are a lot of original contributions in the text to aid in applicable debate and growth of knowledge.

Understanding the history of manners in America might be seen simply as an effort to make sense of their countless contradictions. For example, we are extremely open and social with an unrivaled desire for privacy. We value tradition but have a habit of trying to free ourselves from it. Furthermore, we appreciate the need for hierarchical systems in some areas of society but not in others. Martin’s contributions to civility might be seen as a sociological commentary on these confusing contradictions. In regards to Americans, she observes, "For a people who profess to despise phoniness, we have locked ourselves into the charade of being forever young and on terms of friendship with everyone" (305). It is on this silly business of being an American that Martin shines most bright. She deals intelligently with these funny contradictions in a meaningful way, providing first-rate contradictions of her own to elucidate them, by both seriousness and humor, sarcasm and pragmatism.

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