Of late, New Yorkers have been treated to adjurations by their mayor, the redoubtable Rudy Giuliani, to do nicey-nicey with each other. Rudy, who is rather a rough customer himself, wants Gothamites to get civil. He’s got a better chance of abolishing the bagel. This is tantamount to Gov. George Bush of Texas asking his crunchy, double-balled followers to give up boots, Stetsons, and sidearms.
       The Empire City has made doing the dozens something of a local art form, and it would be most amazing indeed were its inhabitants to foreswear their colorful, if insultingly creative, abuse. Would New York be New York if its streets were not crowded with energetically surly people knocking each other off the sidewalks while flinging the bird to all and sundry?
       It appears that Rudy’s efforts to couth up the locals is part of a larger effort to encourage “civility” across the land.
       It’s not enough that we should say, “Have a nice day” after we take somebody’s money. More is being asked, although quite what I am hard put to say.
       There are many obstacles to hurdle before you will see even a moiety of Americans addressing each other by their last names. You may take George Babbitt out of Saulk Centre, but taking backslapping slobbery out of George, wherever the insensitive brute’s living, is altogether another matter. This is a nation that requires an act of Congress to get people to stop blowing smoke in each other’s faces. Civility, ha!
       Civility, however defined, comes mighty close to manners, and we have been suspicious of dudes and dudettes with manners since George Washington’s day. Andrew Jackson got elected because of all that damned wine-drinking and those lacy shirt-fronts in the White House. It’s all the same, isn’t it? Civility, wine-drinking, putting on the dog, you acting like you’re better ‘an me, pard’ner, which you definitely are not. Don’t go hoity-toity on me, buddy.
       For two centuries on this continent, manners and civility have been the mark of elitism, of closeted aristocratic pretensions, of the effeminate plot to drag males to see modern paintings in weird museums with oblique wall angles. It’s the same old story of the snot-pickers vs. the hankie-blowers. The foul-mouthed spout-alls vs. the pursed-lipped snickity-snacks.
       Don’t tell me I don’t have a right to disgust you. The fight for individual liberty was not won until men stopped getting to their feet when women entered a room. And the great social triumph of the last 20 or 30 years is the induction of women into the beer-swilling mass culture of burp, scratch, and fart. None of this bodes well for civility–a trait Charles Dickens observed on his unhappy visit to these shores was notably absent among Americans.
       Civility fell by the wayside in the United States during the Revolutionary War period, when the distinction between formal and informal was pulled down. Equality demanded that the citizens tutoyer each other, but informality leads to familiarity, that characteristic American trait, and familiarity breeds a contemptuous want of civility. Short of pulling down the flag, I don’t know what can be done about it.