Speaking of dignity, and politeness

It seems like a lot of our problems in modern America stem from wanting to act as a unified entity but not actually being a unified entity.

Of course, we never were. No one in 1776 thought Massachusetts and Georgia were culturally or economically the same. They were so different that the whole country was set up as a “confederation” of nearly-independent states that just cooperated for reasons of national defense and trade efficiency.

Of course, that didn’t work so well and, over time, the nation installed a more and more powerful federal government, but differences in how people thought the whole thing should be run were still strong enough that we ended up fighting a civil war in the process.

That’s bad enough! But today we have nukes. We affect other people, not just ourselves, and other people are understandably concerned about those nukes. They’d like us to be a wee bit consistent in where we’re pointing them and maybe give them a heads up if we’re about to destroy their country.

Which we might be able to do if we were a single entity. But we’re not. We don’t even have the same people in power from year to year.

What’s that, we just let people vote, and if some 51% of us decide to vote for the guy whose policy is “nuke all of the penguins and use global warming to cancel out nuclear winter,” then that’s the law of the land?

Yes, that’s how democracy works, horrifying as it may sound.

The only sane response is a buildup of technocratic and bureaucratic apparati devoted to thwarting the will of the people in order to make sure no one nukes Antarctica in a fit of democratic fervor (or self-serving fervor, an actual concern during the Nixon administration.)

Who prevents the Deep State that’s supposed to prevent the president from going off the deep end from going off the deep end?

Meanwhile, we can’t get our national act together even on much simpler questions, like “Is rent control good?” or “How should we teach kids to read?” or “is abortion murder?”

Yet despite the fact that we really aren’t a single entity, we get perceived as one. We basically perceive ourselves as one. The actions of people at the other end of the country (or the world) we feel reflect on ourselves, even when we might from some rational standpoint admit that we really don’t have any control over those people and we shouldn’t be implicated in some giant mass guilt schema because of them.

In short, half of us want to run things one way and half want things the other way, and one of the side effects of this is absolute horror that some people are being RUDE.

The conservative joke about liberals is that liberals aren’t in favor of open borders, they’re just opposed to anything that would prevent open borders.


Liberals, of course, are concerned that closing the borders is rude. Muslim bans are rude. Attacking journalists is rude. Trump is rude.

Half of the country wants to welcome immigrants, and the other half doesn’t, and the net result is liberals feel like the conservatives are rude to their guests and conservatives feel like liberals are rudely imposing guests upon them.

Meanwhile, Japan manages to have a reputation for politeness even without an open borders policy, proving that life is not actually a choice between two and only two diametrically opposed sides.

The Japanese have refined the art of politely saying “no”, such as “I am sorry, but that is very difficult,” or “We are very busy right now; we will have to address this later.”

Having rules of etiquette and politeness (where everyone understands, of course, that “I am very busy,” really means, “No”) allows people to wiggle out of difficult situations without losing face.

It may be true, for example, that the average American doesn’t really want to die for the sake of Montenegro, a small nation that didn’t even exist when the average American learned geography. Montenegro was only officially declared a country in 2006, and certainly no American was ever asked whether they want to die for it. Now, a normal person might think it a wee bit presumptuous and rude to just straight up expect a bunch of strangers in a foreign country to be willing to give up everything and die for you, without even asking in the first place, but that people don’t like dying in strange lands never seems to occur to politicians. No, it is telling Montenegro that we aren’t so keen on the idea that’s the rude part. (Much better to wait until Montenegro is in dire straits and then weasel out of it, of course.)

Well, regardless of what works with North Koreans, being rude to your allies is a bad look. A country needs some sort of consistency, or it stops being a reliable partner at all and just becomes a rampaging elephant.

At least with a dash of formal politeness, I think people could feel a bit better about themselves and the conduct of the country. Maybe they’d calm down a bit.

Or maybe not.


3 thoughts on “Speaking of dignity, and politeness

  1. But the whole point of a culture war is to gain face and to force the opponent to lose face. Face understood as prestige-type status, how highly people regard each other.

    If I drive my car an hour every day, it matters that it should be a good car. If I only drive my car every Saturday for grocery shopping, I care far less whether it is a good car or not. Similarly, how much people car about face i.e. how highly others regard them is probably dependent on how much social interaction they have with others? The stereotypical introverted Finn gazing at his shoes in the elevator instead of chatting probably cares far less about what other people think about him than someone who has a lot of social interaction, and other people actually showing or even saying what they think about him. And the stereotype is that US culture is very extroverted in this sense. Very sociable. In 1964 Burnham described the typical US liberal professor as someone who only reads books about his narrow field of specialization, and his political opinions are formed at cocktail parties, to which he goes a lot. I found it weird, as I would expect professors are introverts everywhere but apparently not so.

    Lots of cocktail parties imply other people’s opinion about you matter, face matters. Hence face competition, face wars happen, e.g. the culture war.

    I also have a hunch that this lots of cocktail parties thing is a female thing. Don’t take it upon yourself, you are probably different from most women in this regard. But this is the impression I get from Gilmore Girls my wife watches while I am gaming, that rich bored housewives are the ones who put a lot of effort into organizing social events and the husbands are mostly just tagging along.

    So maybe part of the reason over here we function on a less social, more introverted and also implying far fewer face wars level than the US is that we need two incomes to get by and our wives are just plain too tired to organize social events. Not talking to neighbors implies not caring what they think about me implies no effort to impress them or to keep up appearances implies not much gain from looking very respectable implies people don’t compete in this sort of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. gazing at his shoes in the elevator instead of chatting probably cares far less about what other people think about him than someone who has a lot of social interaction, and other people actually showing or even saying what they think about him.
    Seems to me it runs the other way round


  3. True, but Japan has basically been a one party state for the past 60 years give or take a few years from interruptions, America has nationally competitive elections. The neglect of treaty obligations sounds to some people like “Why die for Danzig?”. But have Americans told Montenegro that you don’t want to die for them? NATO expands with the unanimous consent of its members, and the US pushed for enlargement, remaining in NATO retains broad popular support further the house as per its constitutional role of predominance in foreign affairs supports NATO. Trump talks about NATO and he retains the ability to withdraw, of course, but Bush and Obama green-lit Montenegro’s membership. Everyone talks about the conflicts and distorted incentives between the bureaucracy and elected officials but there are many people who can say ‘I too have won an election’ or turn out a poll that supports and issue, further we are held hostage by previous elected officials and poss.

    Additionally the constraints that used to force accountability and feedback have is some cases gone away. So for example conscription was removed to make the military more useable post Vietnam an initiative by Nixon. Further wars used to be paid for with specific taxes, however LBJ started funding the Vietnam war out of general government revenues.

    Sorry if I am meandering but one has to wonder if like the Roman Republic having institutions that scaled to run an empire, so does the US. As in the checks and balances and divided government makes a coherency unachievable.


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