11/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Called Ms. Manners?

There are a good many rules, written and unwritten, that govern behavior on the New York City Subway. You can't spit. You can't assault the conductor. You can't ride in the interstice between cars. You can't use the straphangers' poles like vertical couches. These transgressions are actually against the law, and if an NYPD officer sees you engaged in such behavior, and is so inclined, he can issue you a citation. Complementing these official statues, then, are some of the unofficial rules. Place your backpack on the floor of a packed car. Let folks off the train before pushing your way on. Don't sing along with your iPod really, really loudly. Of course, in a transit system that provides more than 1.6 billion rides each year, there are bound to be daily -- even hourly -- transgressions, and anyone who expects to find the discipline of a parade ground on the subway is either incredibly naïve or incredibly optimistic. Rules aren't made to be broken, as violators are often quick to claim (They're made, it would logically seem, to be followed), but no regulation -- and no person -- is perfect, and navigating through a gauntlet of broken rules and accepting the folks who break them is part of living in society.

Why, then, the furor over America's latest batch of (admittedly prominent) acts of rudeness and incivility? On Tuesday, New York Times columnist David Brooks took Americans to task for what he perceives to be an epidemic of immodesty. The Washington Post's Kathleen Parker felt it necessary to remind us that, "If our will to self-govern is to prevail, then incivility will have to become [as] equally unfashionable [as dueling]." And on ESPN, Jeremy Schaap tsk-tsk'd Serena Williams and Roger Federer for their profane outbursts at the U.S. Open before broadening his reprimand to include a club-bashing Tiger Woods. Brooks's, Parker's, and Schaap's displeasure is surely reasonable; their puritanical stance, though, is puzzling. As Parker writes, "People in positions of power and privilege have a duty to perform at a higher level"; and Brooks notes that contemporary displays of modesty come as a "refreshing shock, a glimpse into another world." Yet if these precepts are indeed so, then assuming that it's necessary to lecture readers and viewers on a subject as fundamentally basic as manners would seem to be the height of immodesty. We don't, after all, need the second and third comings of Jonathan Edwards on our op-ed pages.

Now, the best part about being a columnist is that you get to write about whatever you want and assume that your words will be read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. Are Brooks's and Parker's readers, and Schaap's viewers, then, really that well served by commentaries that essentially boil down to, "Don't be rude; it's not really helpful to anyone?" It's probably a safe assumption that Jeremy Schaap's starchy commentary won't deter many people from threatening to stuff tennis balls down lineswomen's throats. As evidenced by yesterday's bench-clearing brawl at Yankee Stadium, anger tends to manifest itself with predictable ugliness whether we like it or not. Before throwing his first punch at Toronto Blue Jay Jesse Carlson, New York catcher Jorge Posada knew good and well that right hooks to an opposing pitcher's forehead are frowned upon in Major League Baseball. He did it anyway. If someone wants to splay his legs open and occupy two seats on the subway, he's going to do it irrespective of what he reads in the newspaper or sees on basic cable. To their credit, neither Brooks nor Parker nor Schaap claim to be shocked by such boorishness and capitulate that it's part of living in a free and liberal society. This qualifier, though, doesn't take away from the condescending, schoolmarmish tones of their respective commentaries.

For the most part, Brooks, Parker, and Schaap are fine journalists and astute commentators, adept at parsing complex issues and at revealing hidden aspects of well-trod political and social territory. Critiquing of bad manners, though, represents some pretty low-hanging fruit. Gary Larson, erstwhile creator of The Far Side cartoon, probably explained things best when he depicted God, hard at work in a kitchen, dusting the planet with a salt shaker labeled "JERKS," and thinking to himself, "And just to make it interesting...."