I beg your pardon, please make my day

A short history of RUDENESS: MANNERS, MORALS, AND MISBEHAVIOR IN MODERN AMERICA By Mark Caldwell Picador USA 274 pp., $23

Go back to almost any time in recorded history and you're likely to find people lamenting the decay of good manners and the corresponding rise of rudeness.

One of the themes of Mark Caldwell's intermittently entertaining book "A Short History of Rudeness" is reminding us that rudeness - and the feeling that we are seeing an unprecedented amount of it - is nothing new.

As far back as 63 BC, we hear the Roman orator Cicero deploring the shortcomings of his age: "O tempora, O mores."

Cicero's word "mores" - the habits, customs, and usages of his fellow citizens - suggests a strong connection between manners and morality. But, as Caldwell takes considerable pains to remind us, good manners are not always a sign of good morals: Many a time, the rude outspokenness of an honest man has exposed the vice lurking beneath the polished surface of a politely smiling hypocrite.

"A Short History of Rudeness" is less a history of rudeness (or of manners) than a once-over-lightly survey of a few select topics, including weddings, funerals, the workplace, and the Internet, along with beliefs about child-rearing, and questions of sexism and political correctness. There is even a chapter on Martha Stewart.

Although there are indeed some amusing, colorful, if hardly unfamiliar, bits of history embedded in its chapters (e.g., in medieval times it was OK to pass gas at a banquet), Caldwell's informal survey is neither as tonic nor as much fun as one might have hoped.

Taking on easy targets, he pokes fun at everything from fish knives to some of the more extreme manifestations of modern-day political correctness. His chief anxiety seems to be that in our fear of declining civility, we might make the mistake of ceding too much authority to self-appointed guardians of morality, particularly those of the conservative persuasion.

He tends to dismiss any criticism of modern mores when it comes from a right-wing source, like Gertrude Himmelfarb, Allan Bloom, or John Silber, but he is prepared to take it more seriously when it comes from someone on the left, like Robert Hughes or Benjamin Spock. Caldwell notes that even Dr. Spock, the man unfairly blamed or credited for the rise of "permissiveness," by the end of his career was advising parents to watch for signs of violence and social aggression in their children.

And this is precisely the point. When 89 percent of Americans in a recent survey, as Caldwell tells us, expressed concern about the decay of civility, most of them, I'd wager, were not worried about people who use the wrong fork. And, although some perhaps were ticked off by minor things, like being addressed by one's first name by strangers, probably many more were concerned about two alarming tendencies in present-day life: unabashed selfishness and utter lack of consideration for other people.

The tennis star who has tantrums on the court; the pop-music fan who awakens an entire neighborhood with his hyper-amplified radio; the aggressive motorist who swoops from lane to lane in heavy traffic; the student who threatens a teacher; the vandals who throw rocks at cars. These are the signs of the times that folks of many political persuasions find disturbing.

Caldwell's book doesn't address these anxieties any more than it delivers the "history" promised in its title. But it is gracefully written and quite diverting. Readers who've grown a little weary of continual jeremiads on the death of decorum will enjoy looking at the subject from the more cheerful perspective offered in these pages.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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