Saturday, February 18, 2017
As the social contract frays, what does it mean to be polite?
By RACHEL CUSK FEB. 15, 2017
In a world as unmannerly as this one, how is it best to speak?
There’s no need to be rude, I say to the man in the packed hall at passport control. There are people everywhere, and his job is to send them into the right queues. I have been watching him shout at them. I have watched the obsessive way he notices them, to pick on them. There’s no need to be rude, I say.
His head jerks around.
You’re rude, he counters. You’re the one who’s rude.
This is an airport, a place of transit. There are all sorts of people here, people of different ages, races and nationalities, people in myriad sets of circumstances. In this customs hall, there are so many different versions of living that it seems possible that no one version could ever be agreed on. Does it follow, then, that nothing that happens here really matters?
No, I’m not, I say.
You are, he says. You’re being rude.
The man is wearing a uniform, though not a very impressive one: a white short-sleeved synthetic shirt, black synthetic trousers, a cheap tie with the airport’s insignia on it. It is no different from the uniform a bus driver might wear, or someone at a car-rental desk, someone who lacks any meaningful authority while also being forced into constant interaction with members of the public, someone for whom the operation of character is both nothing and everything. He is angry. His face is red, and his expression is unpleasant. He looks at me — a woman of 48 traveling alone, a woman who doubtless exhibits some signs of the privileged life she has led — with loathing. Apparently it is I, not he, who has broken the social code. Apparently it was rude of me to accuse him of rudeness.
The social code remains unwritten, and it has always interested me how many problems this poses in the matter of ascertaining the truth. The truth often appears in the guise of a threat to the social code. It has this in common with rudeness. When people tell the truth, they can experience a feeling of release from pretense that is perhaps similar to the release of rudeness. It might follow that people can mistake truth for rudeness, and rudeness for truth. It may only be by examining the aftermath of each that it becomes possible to prove which was which.
The queue moves forward. I reach passport control, and I pass through it, and the man is left behind.
In recounting this incident afterward, I find myself running into difficulties. For instance, I find myself relying on the details of the man’s physical ugliness to prove the badness of his character. Searching for a specific example of someone else’s being upset or offended by him, the only person I can prove he offended was me. On another day, a perfectly polite man is probably to be found directing the crowds in the customs hall, assisting the elderly, apologizing for the crush, helpfully explaining things to people whose English is uncertain: He would make a good story about individuality as the basis for all hope.
By telling this story, I am trying to substantiate my fear that discrimination and bullying are used against people trying to enter Britain, my country. There are many people who don’t have this fear. To them, my story proves only one thing, which is that I once met a rude man in an airport. I might even have inadvertently made them pity him. I, the teller of this tale, would have to demonstrate that under the same circumstances, I would have behaved better. In the event, all I did was criticize him. I made him angrier; perhaps he took it out on the next person in the queue. To top it all off, I admit that he accuses me of precisely the same failing: rudeness. Anyone hearing the story will at this point stop thinking about the moral problem of rudeness and start thinking about me. I have damaged my own narrative authority: Might I be to blame after all? By including that detail — true though it is — I am giving the man a platform for his point of view. In most of my stories, I allow the truth to look after itself. In this one, I’m not sure that it can.
For all these reasons, the story doesn’t work as it should. Why, then, if it proves nothing, is this a story I persist in telling? The answer: because I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it, and I feel that the thing I don’t understand about it — indeed the mere fact of not understanding — is significant.
Another day, another airport. This time the situation is clearer: My country has recently voted to leave the European Union, and rudeness is rampant. People treat one another with a contempt that they do not trouble to conceal. The people in uniforms — the airport officials — exercise their faux power with uncommon ugliness, while the rest of us look suspiciously at one another, not sure what to expect of this new, unscripted reality, wondering which side the other person is on. It is already being said that this situation has arisen out of hatred, but it seems to me that if that is true, then the hatred is of self.
The uniformed woman at security bangs the gray plastic trays one after another onto the conveyor belt with a violence that seems to be a request for attention. At every opportunity, she makes it clear that she has relinquished self-control: Her nature has been let loose, like an animal from its cage. She abuses, without exception, every person who passes along her queue, while seeming not to address any single one of them: We are no longer individuals; we are a herd enduring the drover’s lash, heads down and silent. She looks unhealthy, her face covered with sore-looking red spots, her shapeless white body almost writhing with its own anger, as though it wishes only to transgress its boundaries, to escape itself in an act of brutality.
The person in front of me in the queue is a well-groomed black woman. She is traveling with a child, a pretty girl with neatly plaited hair. She has put two large clear bags of cosmetics and creams in her tray, but this, apparently, is not allowed; she is permitted only a single bag. The uniformed woman halts the queue and slowly and deliberately holds up the two bags, looking fixedly at their owner.
What’s this then? she says. What’s this about?
The woman explains that because two of them are traveling, she has assumed that they are entitled to two bags. Her voice is quiet and polite. The little girl gazes ahead with wide, unblinking eyes.
You assumed wrong, the uniformed woman says. Her horrible relish for the situation is apparent. She has been waiting, it is clear, to fasten on someone and has found her victim.
You don’t get away with that, she says, grimacing and shaking her head. Where do people like you get your ideas from?
The rest of us watch while she makes the woman unpack the bags and then decide which of her possessions are to be thrown away. They are mostly new and expensive-looking. In another situation, their scented femininity might have seemed to mock the ugliness of the woman superintending their destruction with folded arms and a jeering expression on her face. The other woman’s slender, varnished fingers are shaking as she scrabbles with the various pots and jars. She keeps dropping things, her head bowed, her lower lip caught in her teeth. The uniformed woman’s unremitting commentary on these events is so unpleasant that I realize she is half-demented with what would seem to be the combination of power and powerlessness. No one intervenes. I do not inform her that there is no need to be rude. Instead, as I increasingly seem to in such situations these days, I wonder what Jesus would have done.
My traveling companion — a painter — is the politest person I know, but I have noticed that he does not often take up arms on another person’s behalf. He dislikes conflict. When it is our turn in the queue, the uniformed woman stares at the bag he has placed in the tray. It contains his tubes of paint. They are crumpled and bespattered with use, and there are so many of them that the bag can’t close at the top. She folds her arms.
What are those, she says.
They’re paints, he replies.
You can’t take those through, she says.
Why not, he asks pleasantly.
The bag has to close at the top, she says. That’s why not.
But I need them to paint with, he says.
You can’t take them through, she says.
He looks at her in silence. He is looking directly into her eyes. He stands completely quiet and still. The look goes on for a very long time. Her eyes are small and pale blue and impotent: I did not notice them until now. My friend neither blinks nor looks away, and the woman is forced to hold herself there as the seconds tick by, her small eyes open and straining. During those seconds, it seems as if layers of her are being removed: She is being simplified, put in order, by being looked at. He is giving her his full attention, and I watch the strange transformation occur. Finally he speaks.
What do you suggest I do, he says, very calmly.
Well, sir, she says, if you’re traveling with this lady, she might have room in her bag.
Neither of them looks at me — they are still looking at each other.
Would that be acceptable? she says.
Credit Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro
Yes, he says, I don’t see why not.
I proffer my bag, and the woman herself transfers the paints from one bag to the other. Her hands labor to do it with care and exactitude: It takes her a long time. Finally she seals the bag and lays it gently back in the tray.
Is that all right, sir? she says.
Now that he has won this victory, I want him to use it to reprimand her, not just for her behavior toward the black woman in the queue but for all the wrongs her behavior represents; for the fact that it’s safer to be him, and always has been. He does not reprimand her. He smiles at her politely.
Thank you very much, he says.
It would have been a shame to throw them away, wouldn’t it? she says.
Yes, it would, he says. I appreciate your help.
I hope you enjoy your holiday, sir, she says.
Society organizes itself very efficiently to punish, silence or disown truth-tellers. Rudeness, on the other hand, is often welcomed in the manner of a false god. Later still, regret at the punishment of the truth-teller can build into powerful feelings of worship, whereas rudeness will be disowned.
Are people rude because they are unhappy? Is rudeness like nakedness, a state deserving the tact and mercy of the clothed? If we are polite to rude people, perhaps we give them back their dignity; yet the obsessiveness of the rude presents certain challenges to the proponents of civilized behavior. It is an act of disinhibition: Like a narcotic, it offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.
In the recollection of events, rudeness often has a role to play in the moral construction of a drama: It is the outward sign of an inward or unseen calamity. Rudeness itself is not the calamity. It is the harbinger, not the manifestation, of evil. In the Bible, Satan is not rude — he is usually rather charming — but the people who act in his service are. Jesus, on the other hand, often comes across as somewhat terse. Indeed, many of the people he encounters find him direct to the point of rudeness. The test, it is clear, is to tell rudeness from truth, and in the Bible that test is often failed. An unambiguous event — violence — is therefore required. The episode of the crucifixion is an orgy of rudeness whose villains are impossible to miss. The uncouth conduct of the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross, for instance, can be seen in no other light: Anyone thinking that Jesus could have done a bit more to avoid his fate is offered this lasting example of humanity’s incurable awfulness. They know not what they do, was Jesus’ comment on his tormentors. Forgive them.
In the United Kingdom, the arguments rage over the rights and wrongs of the Brexit referendum result. I begin to think this is what it must be like to be the child of divorcing parents. Before, there was one truth, one story, one reality; now there are two. Each side accuses the other, and amid the raised voices, the unappeasable points of view, the vitriol and distress, the obfuscation and exaggeration and blame, the only thing that is demonstrably clear is that one side is ruder than the other. It seems to me that even if you didn’t know what they were arguing about, you would have to come to that conclusion.
In the aftermath of their victory, the winners are markedly unmagnanimous. They brand those who voted the other way as a liberal elite, patronizing, self-interested, out of touch with real life. The liberal elite are characterized as bad losers, as though the vote were a football match. When they protest against or complain about the result and its consequences, they are immediately belittled and shouted down. In the weeks before the vote, the eventual victors’ own handling of language resembled a small child’s handling of an explosive device: They appeared to have no idea of its dangers or power. They used phrases like “We want our country back” and “Take back control” that were open to any and every interpretation. Now they complain that they have been misrepresented as racist, xenophobic, ignorant. They are keen to end the argument, to quit the field of language where only the headachy prospect of detailed analysis remains, to take their dubious verbal victory and run for the hills. They have a blunt phrase they use in the hope of its being the last word, and it is characteristically rude: “You lost. Get over it.”
The liberal elite, meanwhile, have evolved a theory: It is their belief that many of the people who voted to leave the European Union now regret their decision. There is no more tenuous comfort than that which rests on the possibility of another’s remorse. In psychoanalysis, events are reconstructed in the knowledge of their outcome: The therapeutic properties of narrative lie in its capacity to ascribe meaning to sufferings that at the time seemed to have no purpose. The liberal elite are in shock; they fall upon the notion of the victors’ regret as a palliative for their mental distress, but because the referendum result is irreversible, this narrative must adopt the form of tragedy.
Unlike the victors, the losers are loquacious. They render the logic of their suffering with exactitude and skill, waxing to new expressive heights. The deluge of fine writing that follows the referendum contrasts strangely with the reticence that preceded it. The liberal elite are defending their reality, but too late. Some urge a show of tolerance and understanding; others talk about the various stages of grief; others still call for courage in standing up for the values of liberalism. These are fine performances, but it is unclear whom they are for. I have often noticed how people begin to narrate out loud when in the presence of mute creatures, a dog, say, or a baby: Who is the silent witness to this verbal outpouring?
Meanwhile, in the Essex town of Harlow, a Polish man is murdered in the street by a gang of white youths who apparently heard him speaking his native language.
How can we ascertain the moral status of rudeness? Children are the members of our society most often accused of being rude; they are also the most innocent. We teach children that it is rude to be honest, to say, “This tastes disgusting” or “That lady is fat.” We also teach them that it is rude to disrespect our authority. We give them orders: We say, “Sit still” or “Go to your room.” At a certain point, I got into the habit, when addressing my children, of asking myself whether I would speak in the same way to an adult and discovered that in nearly every case the answer was no. At that time, I understood rudeness to be essentially a matter of verbal transgression: It could be defined within the morality of language, without needing to prove itself in a concrete act. A concrete act makes language irrelevant. Once words have been superseded by actions, the time for talking has passed. Rudeness, then, needs to serve as a barrier to action. It is what separates thought from deed; it is the moment when wrongdoing can be identified, in time to stop the wrong from having to occur. Does it follow, then, that a bigoted remark — however ugly to hear — is an important public interface between idea and action? Is rudeness a fundamental aspect of civilization’s immunity, a kind of antibody that is mobilized by the contagious presence of evil?
In the United States, Hillary Clinton calls half the supporters of Donald Trump “a basket of deplorables.” At first the remark impressed me. I approved of Clinton for her courage and honesty, while reflecting on her curious choice of words. “Basket of deplorables” almost sounded like a phrase from Dr. Seuss: It would be typical of him to put deplorables in a basket, for the moral amusement of his young readers. A sack or a box of deplorables wouldn’t be the same thing at all, and a swamp of deplorables is too Dante-esque; but a basket is just the kind of zany, cheerful container that makes light of the deplorables while still putting them in their place. It quickly became clear, however, that as a public utterance, the phrase was malfunctioning. The basket began to speak, to distinguish itself: Inside it were a number of offended individuals. Clinton had made the mistake of being rude. The “basket of deplorables” wasn’t Dr. Seuss after all. It was the snobbish language of the liberal elite, caught committing the elemental moral crime of negating individual human value. Yet Clinton’s adversary regularly committed this crime with impunity. Were Clinton’s and Trump’s two different kinds of rudeness?
In Britain, a man tweets that someone should “Jo Cox” Anna Soubry. The amorality of the English tongue: In the run-up to the referendum, Jo Cox, a member of Parliament, was shot and stabbed to death by a far-right nationalist; to “Jo Cox” someone is to murder a female member of Parliament who advocates remaining in the European Union. The man who posts the tweet is arrested. The police, it seems, are trying to get on top of our verbal problems. It has now become commonplace for proponents of liberal values to receive death threats. The death threat, I suppose, is the extreme of rudeness: It is the place where word finally has to be taken as deed, where civilization’s immunity reaches the point of breakdown. “I could kill you,” my mother often used to say to me, and I didn’t know whether to believe her or not. It is true that I frequently fell foul of her and others through my habit of outspokenness. The sharpness of my phrases maddened her. I was quite capable of the basket-of-deplorables mistake, the confusion of cleverness with insult, the belief in language as an ultimate good, the serving of which was its own reward. No one could mind what you said if you said it with sufficient skill, could they? Later I came to believe that the good of language lay entirely in its relationship to truth. Language was a system through which right and wrong — truth and untruth — could be infallibly identified. Honesty, so long as it was absolute, was a means for individuals to understand all good and evil.
Like a narcotic, rudeness offers a sensation of glorious release from jailers no one else can see.
The liberal elite, as far as I am aware, do not make death threats. Is this because they have better manners? Do they in fact wish that their enemies were dead but would just never say so? And if they do wish it — albeit politely, in the manner of a white lie — is the sin somehow less cardinal for being courteous? The anti-liberals do not seem to find their own penchant for death threats problematic. In America, Trump even makes a veiled one against Clinton. We are told by the newspapers that Trump invited the Clintons to his wedding, that their daughters are good friends. Is this verbal violence, then, simply incompetence? Is it the verbal equivalent of someone who has not learned the piano sitting down and trying to play Rachmaninoff’s Third?
The rudeness of these public figures gives pleasure and relief, it is clear, to their audiences. Perhaps what they experience is not the possibility of actual violence but a sort of intellectual unbuttoning, a freedom from the constraint of language. Perhaps they have lived lives in which they have been continually outplayed in the field of articulation, but of this new skill — rudeness — they find that they are the masters. My mother’s death threats undoubtedly arose from her frustration with my own use of language. What I did not take into account when I spoke to her was the difference in our social positions. She was a housewife with little education and a rapidly retreating beauty, for whom life was a process of discovering that no greatness had been held in store for her. She did such things for me as cook and clean, while I was on my way to university and liberty. Yet to my mind, she had an extraordinary power, the power to blacken my mental outlook and ruin my prospect of life. When I spoke to her, I thought I was addressing a tyrant in whose overthrow my only weapons were words. But words were the very things that roused her to violence, because at her life’s core, she had been separated from them. Her labor, her maternal identity, her status were all outside the language economy. Instead, she formulated a story of herself whose simplifications and lies infuriated me. I aimed to correct her with truth — perhaps I thought that if only I could insult her with sufficient accuracy, we would be reconciled — but she refused to be corrected, to be chastened. In the end, she won by being prepared to sacrifice the moral basis of language. She didn’t care what she said, or rather, she exacted from words the licentious pleasures of misuse; in so doing, she took my weapon and broke it before my eyes. She made fun of me for the words I used, and I couldn’t respond by threatening her with death. I couldn’t say “I could kill you” because it wasn’t true, and in language I had staked everything on telling the truth.
If inequality is the basis on which language breaks down, how is it best to speak?
In a clothes shop in London, I sift through the rails, looking for something to wear. The instant I came in, the assistant bounded up to me and recited what was obviously a set of phrases scripted by the management. I dislike being spoken to in this way, though I realize the assistant doesn’t do so out of choice. I told her I was fine. I told her I would find her if I needed anything. But a few minutes later, she’s back.
How’s your day been so far? she says.
The truth? It’s been a day of anxiety and self-criticism, of worry about children and money, and now to top it all off, I’ve made the mistake of coming here in the unfounded belief that it will make me look nicer, and that making myself look nicer will help.
It’s been fine, I say.
There’s a pause in which perhaps she is waiting for me to ask her about her own day in return, which I don’t.
Are you looking for something special? she says.
Not really, I say.
So you’re just browsing, she says.
There is a pause.
Did I tell you, she says, that we have other sizes downstairs?
You did, I say.
If you want something in another size, she says, you just have to ask me.
I will, I say.
I turn back to the rails and find that if anything, my delusion has been strengthened by this exchange, which has made me feel ugly and unlikable and in more need than ever of transformation. I take out a dress. It is blue. I look at it on its hanger.
Good choice, the assistant says. I love that dress. The color’s amazing.
Immediately I put it back on the rail. I move away a little. After a while, I begin to forget about the assistant. I think about clothes, their strange promise, the way their problems so resemble the problems of love. I take out another dress, this one wine-colored and dramatic.
God, that would look amazing, the assistant says. Is it the right size?
According to the label, it is.
Yes, I say.
Shall I put it in the fitting room for you? she says. It’s just easier, isn’t it? Then you’ve got your hands free while you keep browsing.
For the first time, I look at her. She has a broad face and a wide mouth with which she smiles continually, desperately. I wonder whether the width of her smile was a factor in her being given this job. She is older than I expected. Her face is lined, and despite her efforts, the mouth betrays some knowledge of sorrow.
Thank you very much, I say.
I give her the dress, and she goes away. I find that I no longer want to be in the shop. I don’t want to try on the dress. I don’t want to take my clothes off or look at myself in a mirror. I consider quietly leaving while the assistant is gone, but the fact that I have caused the dress to be put in the fitting room is too significant. Perhaps it will be transformative after all. On my way there, I meet the assistant, who is on her way out. She widens her eyes and raises her hands in mock dismay.
I wasn’t expecting you to be so quick! she exclaims. Didn’t you find anything else you liked?
I’m in a bit of a hurry, I say.
If inequality is the basis on which language breaks down, how is it best to speak?
God, I know exactly what you mean, she says. We’re all in such a hurry. There just isn’t time to stop, is there?
The fitting rooms are empty: There aren’t any other customers. The assistant hovers behind me while I go into the cubicle where she has hung the dress. I wonder whether she will actually follow me in. I pull the curtain behind me and feel a sense of relief. My reflection in the mirror is glaring and strange. I have stood in such boxlike spaces before, alone with myself, and these moments seem connected to one another in a way I can’t quite specify. It is as though life is a board game, and here is the starting point to which I keep finding myself unexpectedly returned. I take off my clothes. This suddenly seems like an extraordinary thing to do in an unfamiliar room in a street in central London. Through the gap in the curtain I can see into a dingy back room whose door has been left open. There are pipes running up the walls, a small fridge, a kettle, a box of tea bags. Someone has hung a coat on a hook. I realize that the theater of this shop is about to break down, and that the assistant’s manner — her bad acting, her inability to disguise herself in her role — is partly to blame.
How is everything? she says.
I am standing there in my underwear, and her voice is so loud and close that I nearly jump out of my skin.
How’s it going in there? How are you getting on?
I realize that she must be speaking to me.
I’m fine, I say.
How’s the fit? she says. Do you need any other sizes?
I can hear the rustle of her clothes and the scraping sound of her nylon tights. She is standing right outside the curtain.
No, I say. Really, I’m fine.
Why don’t you come out? she says. I can give you a second opinion.
Suddenly I am angry. I forget to feel sorry for her; I forget that she did not choose to say these things; I forget that she is perhaps in the wrong job. I feel trapped, humiliated, misunderstood. I feel that people always have a choice where language is concerned, that the moral and relational basis of our existence depends on that principle. I wish to tell her that there are those who have sacrificed themselves to defend it. If we stop speaking to one another as individuals, I want to say to her, if we allow language to become a tool of coercion, then we are lost.
No, I say. Actually, I don’t want to come out.
There is a silence outside the curtain. Then I hear the rustling of her clothes as she starts to move away.
All right then, she says, in a voice that for the first time I can identify as hers. It is a flat voice, disaffected, a voice that expresses no surprise when things turn out badly.
I put my clothes back on and take the dress on its hanger and leave the cubicle. The assistant is standing with her back to me on the empty shop floor, her arms folded across her chest, looking out the window. She does not ask me how I got on or whether I liked the dress and intend to buy it. She does not offer to take the dress from me and hang it back on its rail. She is offended, and she is very deliberately showing it. We are, then, equal at least in our lack of self-control. I hang up the dress myself.
Credit Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro
It wasn’t my day, I say to her, by way of an apology.
She gives a small start and utters a sound. She is trying to say something: She is searching, I see, for one of her scripted phrases in the effort to reassume her persona. Falteringly, she half-smiles, but her mouth is turned down at the corners like a clown’s. I imagine her going home this evening, unhappy.
When I tell the story afterward, making myself both its villain and its butt, it goes like this: I, currently dismayed by the sudden ascent of rudeness in our world and wondering what it means, am betrayed into rudeness myself by a personal sensitivity to language that causes me to do the very thing I despise, which is fail to recognize another human’s individuality. But the person I tell it to doesn’t hear it that way at all. He hears it as a story about how annoying shop assistants are.
I hate it when they do that, he says. It was good you made an issue of it. Maybe she’ll give feedback to the management, and they’ll stop making people say all that stuff.
What Jesus did was sacrifice himself, use his body to translate word to deed, to make evil visible. While being crucified, he remained for the most part polite. He gave others much to regret. Their regret sustained 2,000 years of Christianity. Is regret, then, the most powerful emotion after all?
My mother and I don’t speak to each other anymore, but I’ve been thinking about her lately. I’ve been thinking about facts, about how they get stronger and clearer, while points of view fade or change. The loss of the parent-child relationship is a fact. It is also a failure. It is regrettable. The last time my parents spoke to me, my father said something very rude. He said I was full of shit. He put the phone down straight away after he said it, and I have not heard from him again. For a long time afterward, I was profoundly disturbed by his words: For my father to speak to me of shit, and claim that I was full of it, seemed to remove my basis for existing. Yet he was half of me: It was, I realized, for that reason that he felt he could speak to me the way he did. I was his child; he forgot that I was as real as he. It could be said that one-half of our country has told the other it is full of shit, deliberately choosing those words because it knows that their object finds rudeness — the desecration of language — especially upsetting.
In Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes,” the man who suffers most is also the man with the most powerful weapon, an infallible bow that could be said to represent the concept of accuracy. The hardhearted Odysseus abandoned the wounded Philoctetes on an island, only to discover 10 years later that the Trojan War could not be won without Philoctetes’ bow. He returns to the island determined to get the bow by any means. For his part, Philoctetes has spent 10 years in almost unendurable pain: It is decreed that he cannot be healed other than by the physician Asclepius at Troy, yet he would rather die than help Odysseus by returning with him. Time has done nothing to break down the impasse: Philoctetes still can’t forgive Odysseus; Odysseus still can’t grasp the moral sensitivity of Philoctetes. It is for the third actor, Neoptolemus, a boy of pure heart, to resolve the standoff and bring an end to war and pain. Odysseus urges Neoptolemus to befriend Philoctetes in order to steal the bow, claiming it is for the greater good. Philoctetes, meanwhile, tells Neoptolemus the story of his dreadful sufferings and elicits his empathy and pity. In his dilemma, Neoptolemus realizes two things: that wrong is never justified by being carried out under orders, and that the bow is meaningless without Philoctetes himself. The moral power of individuality and the poetic power of suffering are the two indispensable components of truth. For his part, Neoptolemus might be said to represent the concept of good manners. In this drama, the expressive man and the rude man need each other, but without the man of manners, they will never be reconciled.
“Make her stop!” my daughters used to beg me when they were younger and one was doing something the other didn’t like. In other words: Restore to me the primacy of my version; rid me of this challenge to the experience of being me. One might say that what they wanted was justice, impartiality — but impartiality, I usually discovered, was not easy to attain. There were always two sides to their stories, and I lacked the ability to turn them into one. I have prided myself on my willingness to object to injustices, to speak my mind when I thought I saw wrong being done. But perhaps all I was ever doing was trying to make it stop, trying to return the world to something I could bear to live in, without necessarily understanding it first.
It strikes me that good manners would be the thing to aim for in the current situation. I have made a resolution, which is to be more polite. I don’t know what good it will do: This might be a dangerous time for politeness. It might involve sacrifices. It might involve turning the other cheek. A friend of mine says this is the beginning of the end of the global order: He says that in a couple of decades’ time, we’ll be eating rats and tulip bulbs, as people have done before in times of social collapse. I consider the role that good manners might play in the sphere of rat-eating, and it seems to me an important one. As one who has never been tested, who has never endured famine or war or extremism or even discrimination, and who therefore perhaps does not know whether she is true or false, brave or a coward, selfless or self-serving, righteous or misled, it would be good to have something to navigate by.
Rachel Cusk is the author of several novels, including “Outline,” which was one of the The Times’s 10 Best Books of 2015, and most recently “Transit.” She last wrote for the magazine about making house.
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Sunday, February 05, 2017
శ్రీ కౌముది ఫిబ్రవరి 2017
Labels: Sri Koumudi February 2017
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Millions in his firing squad
The Best of Mike Royko
Editor's note: The Chicago Daily News published this column April 5, 1968, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
FBI agents are looking for the man who pulled the trigger and surely they will find him.
But it doesn't matter if they do or they don't. They can't catch everybody, and Martin Luther King was executed by a firing squad that numbered in the millions.
They took part, from all over the country, pouring words of hate into the ear of the assassin.
The man with the gun did what he was told. Millions of bigots, subtle and obvious, put it in his hand and assured him he was doing the right thing.
It would be easy to point at the Southern redneck and say he did it. But what of the Northern disk-jockey-turned-commentator, with his slippery words of hate every morning?
What about the Northern mayor who steps all over every poverty program advancement, thinking only of political expediency, until riots fester, whites react with more hate and the gap between the races grows bigger?
Toss in the congressman with the stupid arguments against busing. And the pathetic women who turn out with eggs in their hands to throw at children.
Let us not forget the law-and-order type politicians who are in favor of arresting all Negro prostitutes in the vice districts. When you ask them to vote for laws that would eliminate some of the causes of prostitution, they babble like the boobs they are.
Throw in a Steve Telow or two: the Eastern and Southern European immigrant or his kid who seems to be convinced that in 40 or 50 years he built this country. There was nothing here until he arrived, you see, so that gives him the right to pitch rocks when Martin Luther King walks down the street in his neighborhood.
They all took their place in King's firing squad.
And behind them were the subtle ones, those who never say anything bad but just nod when the bigot throws out his strong opinions.
He is actually the worst, the nodder is, because sometimes he believes differently but he says nothing. He doesn't want to cause trouble. For Pete's sake, don't cause trouble!
So when his brother-in-law or his card-playing buddy from across the alley spews out the racial filth, he nods.
Give some credit to the most subtle of the subtle. That distinction belongs to the FBI, now looking for King's killer.
That agency took part in a mudslinging campaign against him that to this day demands an investigation.
The bullet that hit King came from all directions. Every two-bit politician or incompetent editorial writer found in him, not themselves, the cause of our racial problems.
It was almost ludicrous. The man came on the American scene preaching nonviolence from the first day he sat at the wrong end of a bus. He preached it in the North and was hit with rocks. He talked it the day he was murdered.
Hypocrites all over this country would kneel every Sunday morning and mouth messages to Jesus Christ. Then they would come out and tell each other, after reading the papers, that somebody should string up King, who was living Christianity like few Americans ever have.
Maybe it was the simplicity of his goal that confused people or the way he dramatized it.
He wanted only that black Americans have their constitutional rights,that they get an equal shot at this country's benefits, the same thing we give to the last guy who jumped off the boat.
So we killed him. Just as we killed Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. No other country kills so many of its best people.
Last Sunday night the President said he was quitting after this term. He said this country is so filled with hate it might help if he got out. Four days later we killed a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
We have pointed a gun at our own head and we are squeezing the trigger. And nobody we elect is going to help us. It is our head and our finger.
© 1997 Chicago Tribune