What Ails the USA? Ask Miss Manners.

I read the Washington Post every day. Its motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Of which we have a surplus. Of darkness, that is. Democracy is in scarce supply.

The Post’s articles are incredibly informative, though, like much of the mainstream press, in the name of “balance” they unwittingly help the right wing scoundrels they purport to oppose. But when I really want the down and dirty on what’s ailing the nation, I turn the page to Judith Martin, aka “Miss Manners.” This delightfully witty octogenarian, is today’s final word on etiquette. I’m sure she knows full well etiquette ceased to exist around the time Ronald Regan came into power. That’s when men started wearing baseball caps backwards in fine dining establishments, a convention that dealt the coup de grace to classiness and public decency. But she likes to pretend etiquette still applies. A gal’s got to make a living, I suppose.

While one would suspect she has heard it all, I detect from her column she is still regularly gobsmacked by the greedy, rude, selfish behavior that has become the norm. In her carefully worded replies one frequently hears “tut-tut” and sees a disparaging shaking of the head and a rolling of the eyes.

A woman complained that she hosted a small family gathering for Thanksgiving and provided all the food. At the end of the meal, one guest opened a backpack, took out many food containers and proceeded to fill them with all the choice leftovers. The woman, struck speechless by her own indignation, could only stand by and watch the thief raid her kitchen. The hostess’s question to the maven of manners? Get this. She wondered whether her anger had been justified and whether resenting this behavior made her “selfish.”

I can see Miss Manners smacking her forehead and exclaiming, “Seriously?”

Underlying most of the poor behavior chronicled in Martin’s column is greed. People demanding wedding guests to foot the bill for their “special day,” or to spend a fortune to attend it at some exotic destination resort chosen by the happy couple, or strong-arming guests for expensive gifts of their own choosing.

One woman complains she goes out with a half dozen other women for lunch and is required to join in the practice of passing plates around, taking turns sampling the others’ meals. Here’s a group who take “having it all” seriously. How, she asks, can she politely decline to participate in this thrusting of snouts into the communal trough, she asks. Poor Miss Manners. How can she politely advise this woman to say “ewww” and maybe be more discerning in choice of friends?

Miss Manners, of course, is an anachronism, from the outmoded prefix she employs instead of “Ms,” to her insistence that we can still behave civilly in a society that generally neither knows nor cares about the rules of civil social behavior. Individual greed that drives incivility overrides common courtesy and is fast becoming the norm.

The Italians say, “At the end of the game the pawns and the kings go into the same box.” As time goes on, I realize with ever more certainty that no amount of money can buy what really matters in life. Though many people do not know the meaning of “enough” there is such a thing. And once you have enough, money is useless.

Compared to the wealthy, I am a pauper. Still, I can afford to buy a lot of stuff for which I have no desire, need or use. As my mother said about luxuries, and it wasn’t just sour grapes, “Who needs it?” Well, maybe it was sour gapes, but the fact is, nobody does need most of the things people have almost universally been conditioned to lust after. It was a wise person who said material possessions become a prison of our own making.

Yet, those with nest eggs that make mine look like an unfertilized ovum just can’t seem to get enough of the green stuff. Large corporations happily destroy the planet in the name of profit. They pay employees slave wages in the name of profit. If they made a little less profit they’d still be filthy rich. If they paid a little tax they’d still be filthy rich. But go ask them to make do with a nickel less.

I once knew a fellow who bragged about the many tens of millions he was worth. He was flying all over the country week in and week out, neglecting his health and his marriage for the sake of making more. I told him if I’d had a fraction of that fortune, I’d have retired long ago. “You don’t get it,” he said,” It’s about the game, not the money.” The game he was playing was a classic case of “overcompensation” driven by an underlying sense of masculine inferiority. In the service of this he had ensnared himself in a spider’s web of his own weaving. There had been times I’d envied this guy all his dough, but from then on I pitied him. In my relatively impecunious state he made me feel, in the ways that count, like a gazillionaire.

Greed is the sickness that is behind almost everything that ails our sick society. If you want proof of that all you need do is read the Post cover to cover. Or, better yet, skip it all and just read Miss Manners.

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