WASHINGTON -- Pursuant to the Motion Picture Production Code's mandate that "no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it," the script of "Casablanca" (1942) was changed. The word "like" replaced "enjoy" in this line for Captain Renault (Claude Rains): "You enjoy war. I enjoy women."
The Hays Office, enforcer of the code, issued this edict after reviewing the script of "The African Queen" (1951): "There must be no unacceptable exposure of Rose's [Katharine Hepburn's] person as she 'tucks her skirt up into her underclothes.' We assume the intention here is to tuck the skirt under the knees of her bloomers."
America has liberated itself from not only such pettifoggery but also from what is now considered the tyranny of taste. So, is everyone happy?
Not exactly. There is a certain troubling lack of refinement in Dennis Rodman's America, a lack linked to three linked ideas: distinguishing between liberty and license is incipient fascism; manners are servants of hypocrisy; concern for appearances and respectability is a craven treason against self-expression, hence not respectable.
The eclipse of civility is a fact fraught with depressing significance, as explained in the autumn Wilson Quarterly, in essays by Richard Bushman, a Columbia historian, and James Morris of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The gravamen of their arguments is: a coarse and slatternly society -- boom boxes borne through crowded streets by young men wearing pornographic T-shirts and baseball caps backward; young women using, in what formerly was called polite society, language that formerly caused stevedores to blush -- jeopardizes all respect, including self-respect.
Mr. Bushman says the young American nation had to overcome the fear that gentility, the product of an elite culture, put common people at a disadvantage, hence compromised democracy. But as American lives became less and less governed by austere material conditions and austere religious codes, rules of gentility (young George Washington was required to read "110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation") supplied governance for human nature's unruly impulses.
Mr. Bushman defines gentility as "a compulsion to make the world beautiful," beginning with the individual and extending to the home -- a piano on a carpet in the parlor; polished walnut furniture; ceramic dinnerware -- and to parks and museums to elevate the public's taste. Gentility stimulated a market for many of capitalism's goods, and capitalism democratized gentility by making those goods affordable.
Better decor, better behavior
As urban density came to a formerly frontier society, Mr. Bushman writes, "the premium on simply getting along in public grew." There were uniformed ushers in theaters, sometimes distributing printed rules of decorum, such as not talking during the performance. Behavior was better when cinemas were opulent. Bring back the printed rules for the boors whose minimalist manners are suited to today's "multiplexes."
Time was, writes Mr. Morris, Americans understood that rules of civility do not just smooth surfaces, they "inscribed the soul." Today America is a nation of "voluble solipsists," chatting away on cellular phones in public, unconcerned for privacy or dignity. Or safety. A bumper sticker: "Hang up and drive." Mr. Morris warns: "In this age of 'whatever,' Americans are becoming slaves to the new tyranny of nonchalance. 'Whatever.' The word draws you in like a plumped pillow and folds round your brain; the progress of its syllables is a movement toward . . . a universal shrug. It's all capitulation. No one wants to make a judgment, to impose a standard, to act from authority and call conduct unacceptable."
So this nation, where traditions "have the shelf life of bread," is getting perhaps not the behavior it deserves, but that which it countenances. Why, "even the meek drive like Messala out to teach Ben Hur who's boss." The future stares blankly at us through the eyes of the "fragile young men/women" in Calvin Klein ads, "in a conga line of pointless sexuality," having opted "for a new cologne over bathing."
In the imperturbable cool of the 1990s, writes Mr. Morris, "Sights that not long ago would have left audiences open-mouthed with wonder leave them droopy-eyed with boredom. To every age, perhaps, its proper surfeit: in old Rome, worried impresarios probably cut deals for more spears, more tigers, more Christians."
Today's is not the "honest coarseness of frontier settlers removed from society and struggling with bears and the seasons." It occurs in a land where plenitude inflames the sense of entitlement to more of almost everything, but less of manners and taste, with their irritating intimations of authority and hierarchy.
Today, Dennis Rodman. What next? Whatever.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/23/96