At Large : Grace
You may have concluded, as I have, that modern American social behavior and conversation have become coarser as the years have passed, the world has gotten smaller, and its peoples closer. Gallantry, chivalry, politeness, manners, tolerance, and restraint have all lost ground. Bitterness, bad temper, heedlessness, intolerance, and indulgence have gained. Gracelessness is ascendant.
Since the unspeakably sad death of one young woman and the injuries to another a week ago, we've heard many stunned and helpless expressions of sadness and consolation directed toward the families affected by the tragic crash. That's as it should be, and one suspects the aggrieved in their heartache gratefully accept the heartfelt wishes of their neighbors.
Still, even in such unbearable circumstances, some of us will miss the social signals suggesting that sympathetic understanding is in order now, criticism and family policy analysis can follow, if they must, much, much later. One or two aspiring Comment posters to mvtimes.com this week missed these signals. They preferred to adjudicate the situation, naming defendants, adducing facts not established, conferring guilt, and pronouncing sentence. I did not publish these comments, but I recall them here, in vague outline, as examples of the gracelessness to which some of us are given.
One could argue the other side of this question of gracelessness. One could argue that politeness and good manners are like euphemisms, veiling ugly ideas and even truths. Better to be up front. A-Rod has sex with young women brought to the ballpark by their mother; oh, it's just a joke; Dubya is Hitler in a 10-gallon hat; Obama hates Jews, or else why would he listen to that preacher for 20 years; immigrants are stealing American jobs and money, and besides they are unhygienic in their living arrangements, and anyway, they don't speak English; she's a whore; he might as well be gay. If these are all truths, or even half-truths, why be restrained in their expression?
In fact, there is a dictionary for practitioners of this sort of politically colored expression: Hatchet Jobs and Hardball, the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, edited by Grant Barrett, and introduced by (you probably guessed) James Carville and Mary Matalin. One of the entries, "feminazi, n. a committed feminist or strong-willed woman - usu. derogatory" is attributed to Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show guy. You've probably heard the word used, perhaps by Limbaugh himself. You may not have heard "piebiter n. a greedy person or animal; one receiving political patronage," a term first used during the Civil War, when political blood ran high.
It is useful to distinguish between tough, even wounding, perhaps even scurrilous, political language and the expressions we use among ourselves, in real life. American political discourse has rarely been conducted on an elevated plane, descending as it has from the exalted - Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, et al - to the mundane - Patrick, McConnell, Alexander - to the infernal - Sharpton, Wallace, Daley. We, or at least some of us, will succumb even to the rants of the scurrilous and the benighted. But, we can expect more of our everyday selves.