Politics & Policy

Manners, Even in the Age of Trump

(Dreamstime photo: Hugoht)
Social conventions make a decent life possible.

There is a scene in Dune in which an old witch threatens a young nobleman with a device “that only kills animals.” He takes offense: “Are you suggesting the duke’s son might be an animal?” She wryly replies: “Let us say that I am suggesting you may be human.”

About 97 percent of the human genome is identical to that of orangutans, which are solitary and pacifistic. But about 99 percent of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees — which are intensely social and fierce. The genetic difference between orangutan and chimpanzee is relatively small, and the genetic difference between chimpanzee and H. sap. is tiny indeed. (“My brother, Esau, is a hairy man.”) Every day presents a struggle between the better angels of our nature and the inner chimp.

The inner chimp is always there, and, sometimes, he wins.

The inner chimp shows up in unexpected places, not the least of them the cabin of a JetBlue airliner at JFK airport in New York preparing to take Ivanka Trump, daughter of the president-elect, to wherever it was she was going. By now you have heard the story: A fellow by the name of Matthew Lasner, a professor at New York’s Hunter College, tweeted that his husband (oh, that 21st-century English!) had spied Ivanka Trump and her child on a flight and was “chasing them down to harass them.” His husband, Daniel Goldstein, apparently did just that, berating the mother and child until he and his husband were escorted off the airplane.

I suppose that by now regular readers of National Review will have figured out that my sympathy for the Trumps is . . . limited. My own view is that Donald and Ivanka and Uday and Qusay are genuinely bad human beings and that the American public has made a grave error in entrusting its highest office to this cast of American Psycho extras. That a major political party was captured by these cretins suggests that its members are not worthy of the blessings of this republic. But here we are.

I also believe that the Clinton family is more of a crime syndicate than an abortive political dynasty and that the Americans who support them are at best in need of some criticism and are in many cases genuinely bad citizens. That a major political party was captured by these cretins suggests that its members are not worthy of the blessings of this republic. But, again, here we are.

What should I do when I see a Subaru pulling into the Whole Foods parking lot with an “I’m With Her” bumper sticker? Should I lecture the driver? Scream at him? Yell at his kids? Kick in his headlights? Run down his address and send him a gift subscription to National Review?

No. That would be bonkers.

That would be chimpy.

We are called to be something more than our emotions and appetites and allegiances.

It would be far better and far more human (and we Christians should be thinking this time of year about what it means to be human, in the flesh) to do the opposite, to pull past that coveted parking space and let him have it rather than let him have it. It would be far better to let that shrill schoolmarmish type in the Hillary sweatshirt, or that douchey young finance bro sitting next to me at breakfast today talking about “Donald” and “Rex” as though they were old friends, pass with nothing more than a friendly smile. We are called to be something more than our emotions and appetites and allegiances.

But that is also the approach consistent with enlightened self-interest. Manners are a misunderstood thing: They are not, at heart, about aesthetics, about making yourself a more pleasant dining companion. It does not matter, in itself and in the greater analysis, which fork you use for your salad. The point of manners is to make other people feel valued, respected, and considered.

Which is to say, the point of manners is to keep the peace.

We develop complex social codes and social rituals in order to prevent violence. Violence, suppression, and misery were all most of the human race knew until the day before yesterday, when the emergence of market capitalism taught us how to cooperate with one another and the Industrial Revolution gave us the means to do so on a grand scale. It isn’t Leviathan who prevents bellum omnium contra omnes — it is manners, the rules of social intercourse, that keep us from poking each other in the chimp.

#related#Politics always brings out tribalism — politics is tribalism for most people — and this year’s election has been more tribalistic than most: Witness how the 80-odd percent of Republicans who opposed bailouts when they were done by Barack Obama reversed course and became the 80-odd percent of Republicans who support bailouts when organized by Donald Trump. (It is not a question of GM vs. Carrier, after all.) Those affinities and loyalties are deeply imprinted in us, and there is no escaping them.

But we are called to be more, to be human, to be morally and spiritually larger than what’s within our own skins. And if that is beyond your personal capacity, you are in luck. You don’t have to be a saint. All you really have to do is to mind your manners and you can pass for human most of the time.

– Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.