A More Civil Nation: Could the WASP Reverence for Manners Get Us Out of this Mess?
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When I was about eight, mama took my brother and me to the home of an elderly, housebound friend of the family, Mrs. Talbot. Eager for our lunchtime visit, our 92 year-old hostess had prepared plates of salmon, capers and stale Melba toast. I was horrified. I already knew the importance of manners, so I waited until Mrs. Talbot had wandered into the kitchen to whisper to my mama, “This is terrible. I don’t want to eat any of it.”
Mama whispered back, “I know you don’t. Eat it anyway, and pretend you like it.” I pulled off the act so convincingly that Mrs. Talbot offered me more, and mama praised me warmly afterwards on the walk home. For our splendid performance of enthusiasm, my brother and I were rewarded with a trip to Jack in the Box. As I gobbled my burger, my mother told me that there were many things in life I would find distasteful, or odd, and I would need to do them anyway. “No one is asking you to like all the things you will have to do,” she said. “Your thoughts are free, though, and you can think anything you like while you’re doing your duty.”
Mom loved to sing German folk songs, many of which she’d learned from her mother-in-law, my Austrian “Oma.” As we finished our fries, mama sang “Die Gedanken Sind Frei,” and explained the theme.
The 13th century court singer Walther von der Vogelweide had written, joch sint iedoch gedanke frî “Yet still the thoughts are free.” In the 19th century, during the Romantic Era, a fuller version of the song was set to a more modern tune. Mama sang it in German, and translated along the way. The opening stanza:
Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!
During the Third Reich, there were several instances of imprisoned political prisoners singing the song, most famously Sophie Scholl. After the war, hearing stories of this anthem of defiance against tyranny, American folk singer Pete Seeger crafted his own English version; in 1971, a version of the song featured prominently in The Birdmen, a film about an Allied escape from a Nazi POW camp.
It would take me time to understand the political dimensions of the song. I learned it first as a declaration of how “Our Kind of People” could best approach the duties and relationships we did not particularly enjoy.
I’ve written before that the primary WASP moral binaries aren’t sin versus righteousness, or healthy versus unhealthy: they’re polite versus rude and public versus private. When I complained about Mrs. Talbot’s lox, I was not told, “You should be grateful.” Manners had no claim on my thoughts. Mama had said, “Pretend you like it,” which meant offering a verisimilitude of gratitude without any obligation to feel the actual feeling. What the family code demanded was a convincing performance that would put others at ease. I was allowed to be as resentful and disgusted as I liked, as long as I kept those reactions concealed. Die Gedanken Sind Frei.
Children, particularly those who are rewarded with fast food, tend to accept family rules. Teenagers, disdainful of anything that they think smacks of hypocrisy, are inclined to rebel. When I was about 13, I confronted my grandmother about our clan’s focus on manners. “I think it’s fake,” I told her. “We should tell people what we really think.” My grandmother took me seriously, and asked me to imagine if we were all suddenly to be radically honest with each other. “Some of it might be embarrassing,” I conceded, thinking about how often sexual fantasies ran through my head. My grandmother told me embarrassment would be the least of it; unregulated candor could deeply wound.
Another example: the suitcase rule. When I was 17, I brought my first girlfriend to the family ranch for Easter weekend. On the drive up, April and I were told that our luggage would be placed in two separate, adjoining rooms. “The bags need to stay where they are,” mama said, “but discreet nocturnal traffic will be ignored.” My mother had no problem with teens having sex, but she knew that some people in the family might. Dozens would be staying at the ranch over the holiday. The way to thread the needle to make everyone comfortable without infringing on our freedom was to split the difference, and pay equal homage to both propriety and liberty.
April nodded politely to mama, but privately told me later she thought this plan was ridiculous. Her own mother, a lovely patchouli-and-bead-drenched hippie, allowed April and I to sleep in the same bed. April told me that other friends of hers from religious families would be punished if they slept with their boyfriends. Both April’s family’s anything-goes attitude and puritanical Christian chastity seemed to her to be morally more consistent than the superficiality of the “Suitcase Rule.” Either premarital sex was okay, or it wasn’t. Why put on a performance that doesn’t stop anything?
I was hurt on my family’s behalf. “I can sleep in my own bed if you like,” I told her. April rolled her eyes. “Don’t be an asshole,” she replied. “I just think you guys are very weird.” I shrugged, and agreed that it was likely so.
What I did not fully understand at 17 was that manners are about balancing one’s own autonomy with the obligation to be kind. My family’s rules about politeness and suitcases weren’t just silly pretensions. They were reminders that we were reverent about two things above almost all else: making other people comfortable, and maximizing personal freedom. WASPs of our sort belonged to no religion, and believed in no totalizing moral or religious system. We were free, even as children, to experiment with various ideas and philosophies. As teens and young adults, we were at liberty to arrange our private lives as we chose. This wasn’t because the family didn’t care about our well-being. Quite the opposite: we were deeply committed to the radical internal autonomy of the individual.
“You don’t have to like it. Eat it anyway, and pretend you like it.” What mama had told me at Mrs. Talbot’s was a coherent and complex moral code, though I didn’t realize it at the time. In other families, you did have to “like it.” Other parents insisted their children learn to love Jesus, for example. Other moral systems claimed sovereignty not only over your actions, but your attitudes and your feelings. To our family, this was an unacceptable limitation on human freedom. Your thoughts are always free; your inner life is yours alone. Your outward civility is the rent you pay for unlimited internal liberty.
Die Gedanken Sind Frei — and discreet nocturnal traffic will be politely ignored.
On Saturday, an article in the Wall Street Journal mocked Dr. Jill Biden for insisting on using the title that she had earned. The reaction was swift, and dozens of thought pieces appeared in response. On Facebook, I shared the story of how I’d always been contemptuous of honorifics, acknowledging that that attitude was rooted in white male privilege. In 1999, after I earned my PhD, a student asked me in class if she should call me “Doctor” now. I put on a display of mock horror, and declared titles were silly. Word spread, and I was soon confronted by a colleague of color who told me she had been hurt by my flippancy. She explained why she insisted on “Dr.” for herself, and why it meant so much to her family and her students. I apologized, and ceased to make thoughtless remarks on the subject.
A friend took me to task when I shared this story. It was patronizing, she said, to change my behavior in order not to cause further hurt to my colleague. What I really needed to do was fundamentally shift my attitude. Ceasing to cause offense was insufficient; my changed actions needed to be accompanied by an internal moral transformation. It wasn’t enough for me to stop rolling my eyes publicly at people with PhDs who call themselves “Dr.,” I owed the world an altered consciousness on the subject. I replied to my friend that that was an unacceptable overask. My colleague, and indeed the wider world, have a legitimate claim on how I behave. No one gets to demand that I parallel my private thoughts to my public actions.
We live in an age of extremes, where both right and left are devoted to totalizing moral systems. By totalizing, I mean that these systems make insistent claims not merely on behavior but on hearts and minds. The right makes this claim through organized religion; American evangelicalism in particular is positively obsessed with rebirth and internal transformation as evidence of salvation. Good works are useless and so on. The “Woke” left makes a similar demand. It’s not enough to be against racism in one’s behavior, one must adopt an anti-racist consciousness. Both extremes demand one relentlessly search one’s thoughts, always seeking to match one’s inner world to one’s external obligations. Neither group is particularly tolerant of dissent, and both are contemptuous of those who are willing to say the right things but refuse to conform their minds to the doctrine. The thoughts are not only not free, the thoughts themselves are the basis of your salvation or your Wokeness. You have to eat it, and you have to learn to like it.
I may be one of the few who is relatively untroubled by the vast divide that has become even more clear since the November 3 election. It is clear that tens of millions of Americans rely on different standards of evidence, hold different worldviews, and in the face of provocation, are willing to double down on what they believe. The reaction of most to this growing divide is panic – how do we convince 75 million people to start thinking differently? That’s the wrong question. The problem, of course, is that the more one side tries to impose its world view on the other, the more the other side resists. It doesn’t matter whether one side is right or not. Truth may be transcendent, but it cannot be imposed and despite what the hymns say, it most definitely can be resisted. The only way forward is to give up this quixotic and exasperating attempt to change the hearts and minds of one’s fellow citizens. We must accept the radical sovereignty of each person over their own inner life.
It’s not the end point, but if we start with a solemn acknowledgment that the thoughts are free, and always shall be, then the consequences of compromise seem less threatening. If we remind folks that we can improve their lives without intruding on their conscience, they will be more inclined to hear us, and we may yet find the divide is not as great as we imagine.