Still, today's entry -- "Southern Manners on Decline, Some Say" -- is an amazing example of the genre. It starts off with a headline as solidly correct as those topping other newsworthy stories like "Aliens to Come Soon, Some Say," and "Sasquatch is Real, Some Say." Having thus established its bona fides, the Times reporters will surely begin with an example that shows Southern manners in decline, right?
One August night, two men walked into a popular restaurant attached to this city’s fanciest shopping mall. They sat at the bar, ordered drinks and pondered the menu. Two women stood behind them. A bartender asked if they would mind offering their seats to the ladies. Yes, they would mind. Very much.
Angry words came next, then a federal court date and a claim for more than $3 million in damages.
The men, a former professional basketball player and a lawyer, also happen to be black. The women are white. The men’s lawyers argued that the Tavern at Phipps used a policy wrapped in chivalry as a cloak for discriminatory racial practices.So, what we've learned here is that Southern manners are actually still being enforced: ladies should be offered a seat. The Tavern at Phipps is a very nice place, according to the standards of taverns -- I've been there once -- and it is the mark of very nice places in the South that manners are enforced. This is why such good manners are observed here: the failure to observe them leads to negative social consequences.
Now, an inattentive reader might have thought the Times brought it up to show that the two men at the bar were the ones being rude -- after all, they are the ones who loudly refused to accord with the general standard. However, for that to be a comment on "Southern Manners," the men would have to be Southerners. The Times doesn't actually tell you anything about them, but I discovered by an internet search that the "former professional basketball player" is Joe Barry Carroll, whose high school team was in Denver, college in Indiana, and professionally played for California, New Jersey, Texas, Italy, Arizona, and Denver again.
So this is no comment on Southern manners being in decline. Why the headline? "Two Loudmouths at a Bar Show Bad Manners" didn't get past the editors? "Professional Basketball Players' Manners on Decline" didn't strike anyone as terribly newsworthy?
(The Times includes a slideshow with this article, the title of the slideshow being "Civility on the Brink." It's a series of pictures of children at a finishing school in Augusta dancing and practicing correct handshakes. I'm not sure how that lines up with the title of either the slideshow or the article, but let's keep trying to sort out what is really going on here.)
So far we're not sure exactly what the Times is trying to say. Are manners on the decline, or are they still being enforced? The Times quotes a historian who says he thinks things are eroding, offers none of his evidence (if he has any to offer), and then says:
To be sure, strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens.
In the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites lived with a code of hyper-politeness as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system.... Since the Civil War, any decline in Southern manners has been blamed on those damn Yankees.Oh, I see! This is a celebration of the end of manners in the South, then! You've come to take credit!
With that sorted out, I can begin to understand what would otherwise be puzzling. After all, this doesn't seem like it is a remark on "Southern Manners," but on the manners of people moving into the South from outside:
Dana Mason, who teaches second grade in Birmingham, says manners have been at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” Too demeaning, they say.Oh, I see, demeaning. I suppose being polite to someone else means showing some sort of minimal deference, and that might conflict with the child's self-esteem. Much better that they should learn to think of themselves as the most important person in the room, regardless of their accomplishments or virtues! Indeed, since children taught to think this way will develop few virtues, only this approach can possibly ensure their self-esteem. And self-esteem is very important!
Manners also helped create the South’s famous “bless your heart” culture — a powerful way of seeming to be polite without being genuine.
“Manners are often a way of distancing and maintaining space,” said William Ferris, a University of North Carolina folklorist who edited the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture with Professor Wilson. “If someone is polite, you better be careful and consider what that politeness veils.”Ah, well, better we work for less politeness then. We want people to be authentic, just as we want them to have self-esteem!
This story is the story of a culture on the brink of a final collapse. The collapsing culture, however, is not the South's. The culture on display in the words of the author is a culture that is killing itself. It has fallen out of order: and strong and rich as it has been, it will not now long survive.