Manners maketh man … or not as the case may be

The ugliness that has characterized what shamefully passes for political discourse in Washington represents a further escalation of the bitter partisanship that has been increasingly poisoning social relationships in the country since the late 1960s.

Once upon a time, spirited partisanship was largely confined to the political arena, manifesting itself among the general public only at election times. Today, however, partisan acrimony has insinuated virtually every aspect of American life.

It is not just that many more people are voting straight party tickets rather than weighing the personal qualities the individual candidates and splitting the ticket.

Political partisanship is no longer solely related to the people to whom we give our vote. It now extends to the choice of the people with whom we elect to associate. The places where we worship even seem to be divided along partisan lines—liberal or conservative.

In fact, there’s no escaping it. Even the products we buy inspire partisanship. A few years back we replaced an aging SUV with a Subaru Forester. It wasn’t a political statement. But you’d never believe it from the reactions it prompted.

“I never put you down as tree-hugging lefties,” sniffed an acquaintance on learning of our purchase. Subarus are, it seems, regarded in some quarters, at least, as the “badges and tokens” of left-wing political leanings.

Hopefully, the Subaru will protect us from the wrath of the proletariat when the revolution comes: Our Toyota pickup is probably regarded as tangible evidence of climate-change-denying, anti-environmental, gas-guzzling, right-wing extremism

Actually both vehicles were purchased for entirely practical reasons—price and utility. If we’d had the moolah, we would much rather driven home with a Stutz Bearcat, or a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, or a 1954 Aston Martin, or a 1963 Cadillac convertible, or a 1966 Ford T-Bird—or (what bliss!) all five of them.

But no matter: There is no place whatsoever, it seems, for the moderate, the neutral, or the apolitical on the battlefield of American social relations. Indifference to the vehement political disputes merely excites the antipathy of all sides.

The media’s horror at the bitterness of the partisanship in Washington calls to mind the scene in the movie Casablanca where Captain Renault (Claude Rains) declares he is “shocked, shocked” to discover people gambling in Rick’s Café.

Truth be told, it is the media that is in large part responsible for not merely for the bitter partisanship in Washington, but its proliferation into so many other areas of American life.

Hard though it might seem to believe, there was a time when politics were by no means a cause of social division. Political views were simply treated as personal opinions of no particular interest except at election time.

Back then a circle of friends was composed of folks of various political and religious persuasions united by common interests such things as freemasonry, the PTA, books, art, music, amateur dramatics, automobiles, sports, and the like.

Politics and religion in no way hampered people’s mutual enjoyment of each other’s company. On occasion, however, such differences actually contributed to interesting and informative discussions because, back then, people were expected to treat each other with civility and respect.

Back in the days of “Swinging London”, dinner parties were tremendous, albeit occasionally raucous, fun. In those days, dinner guests were usually invited for their difference of their political persuasions—on grounds that too much uniformity of thought on any subject made for dull conversation. That, after all, is what diversity is supposed to be about.

Sad to say, all that had changed by the end of the 1970s. In New York, dinner parties in the media world—always self-congratulatory—had become relentlessly, not to say drearily, political. Parties even at friends’ homes were either deadly dull gatherings of the like-minded or arenas for hand-to-hand political combat.

Weird though it might seem, dinners, cocktail parties, and social gatherings in the Soviet Union and most of its satellites in the 1970s & 1980s were a good deal more enjoyable than they tend to be in today’s London and Washington.

Sure, the political divisions were profound, but, away from the conference halls and negotiating tables, conversation was generally good-natured, respectful, and civil. Folks on either side of the divide who were anything less than courteous were not invited again.

What has changed here in America is not the profundity of political opinion. The political opinions of yesteryear were as strongly held as they are today—and, sad to relate, rather better informed. What has changed is our regard for civility, courtesy, and tolerance.

Lamentably, we have become a society where rudeness and boorishness reign supreme. And the wellspring of this ugly disregard for common courtesy is the gross self-absorption fostered by our legal system, our body politic and, yes, the very media that bemoans its consequences.

In short, Washington’s bitter partisanship is merely a symptom of our problem. And the only way to cure it is to treat the underlying disease. GPH✠

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