Can the pursuit of good manners become a rude thing?
A recent New Yorker cartoon depicted a dog and his owner - both wearing bow ties - tipping their hats to two women passing by. One of those saluted remarked to her friend, ''Aren't you heartened by the return of elegance and good manners?''
What heartened us was the evidence that the much-heralded and rather too solemn revival of etiquette in the '80s had become a topic for humor.
Practically the same day we learned that an enterprising specialist had added to the list of tennis camps and computer camps and weight-reducing camps a summer camp devoted to teaching manners.
We hoped that this was a joke too. Somehow we knew it wasn't.
Why, you may well ask, would any right-minded adult who had to live through the '60s be opposed to good manners in the '80s? Why not welcome with the most courteous open arms a whole chain of Adirondack camps called, say, Chez Lord Fauntleroy? We can see the ad copy now: ''Before it's too late, sensitize your son for the world he will be entering as an adult in ten years - a world where the macho male will be as extinct as the dinosaur!''
If only etiquette did mark the end, not just of peas menacingly balanced on a knife, but of the predatory heart expressing itself through such antisocial acts! But what creases the genteel frown on our forehead these days is Dr. Johnson's reminder that manners are all too often a form of fictitious benevolence.
In fact, manners have a way of turning into their opposite - the most exquisitely refined games of rudeness. No adult is quite so skilled at insults as the child who was drilled to deliver compliments 20 years before.
One shudders at the thought that a summer camp in etiquette might produce little boys as cleverly fiendish as certain products of English public schools, with every treble ''sir'' in place, like the twist of a dagger.
Read an English novel of ''manners,'' from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh. The conclusion is inescapable that tea time in the drawing room trains terrorists who can make the muggers of Central Park seem guileless by comparison.
For further cautionary tales, check out almost any Stendhal novel, where the battlefield is hardly more horrifying than the carnage chronicled in a velvet-draped salon, as wit glints like Damascus steel. So much for French politesse.
Manners, we are suggesting, are too dangerous to be entrusted to the very young. Until adolescence the main objective should be to teach a child the limits of egocentricity by enforcing natural instincts of kindness and consideration.
It is nonsense to pretend that a tot must learn the right forks by kindergarten, or else it is too late. Indeed, a suave child with ''please'' in every sentence can be a chilling sight to adults - especially other parents.
Since Americans have a lot of trouble divorcing manners from elitism, parents must ask themselves, ''Am I trying to nurture a thoughtful, civilized human being, or am I secretly ambitious to produce a snob - the personality equivalent of a designer label?''
In manners, as in politics, there is a case for democracy. It was Henry James - sensing the snob in himself - who warned that, while all classes have bad manners, an aristocracy is bad manners organized.
A William Buckley or a Gore Vidal may be charming as limited editions, but American parents with summer camp on their minds must ponder if they wish the models to be mass produced.
Back to birch-bark canoes and hand-held hot dogs around a messy campfire, we say.
And for the adults, more shaggy dog jokes about elegance.