Here Comes The Judge

The world in which we live in is becoming less and less formal as each decade proceeds. The fact that I did not have to wear a business suit to work today for example, despite being a member of the white-collar world, is something which my grandfather’s generation would have found unthinkable.  Yet even though for the most part Western society has become much more familiar and informal than previously, there are still vestiges of formality which remain in practice of which we should take note, and which I see as a good thing. At the same time we also have to be careful not to put a too-rosy glow on the past. Human society always needs to continue to try to do better, if indeed it is to continue at all.

Yesterday afternoon I was in court for some preliminary matters involving a case coming up for trial, and during the course of the meeting, the judge had to come in and out of the courtroom several times. As is customary, the other attorney and I stood and sat when she entered or left the room, or when she addressed us, or when we had to address her.  While this may sound a bit odd, even though I have conformed to this practice before a judge many times, there was something about it yesterday which particularly struck me, and touched my heart a bit.  Keep in mind that there is no law which mandates that we show this level of deference to the judge, and we are not doing it because of who she herself is, but rather out of respect for the law, which is what she represents.

There is something patently civilized in recognizing the fact that another is worthy of a physical demonstration of respect, which unfortunately has been watered down in contemporary society.  The feminist movement for example, left us in a quandary as to whether we should pull out a chair or hold a door open for a lady. And an increasing level of rude behavior and bad manners across the political spectrum appears to be de rigueur these days not only within the government, but also when government officials or foreign dignitaries are visiting a particular place.  In some cases it seems that new and social media are responsible for promoting a kind of public boorishness which has, frankly, little or nothing to do with exercising personal freedom, and everything to do with crass selfishness.

However this is not to say that in the past, everyone loved their neighbor as themselves and was generally well-behaved.  For example, if you are a fellow student of history you no doubt find it ironic, as I do, that people today complain about a lack of decorum in Congress.  The truth is that compared to how things used to be, shouting out “You lie!”, or wearing a hoodie on the floor of the House, is nothing compared to what some of the Founding Fathers got up to.

Congressman Matthew Lyon holds the dubious distinction of being the first member of the House of Representatives – though certainly not the last – to have ethics charges brought against him. In the winter of 1798, he  spit in the face of Congressman Roger Griswold, after Griswold had called him a scoundrel and referred to his dismissal from service during the Revolutionary War for cowardice, while they were in session.  Griswold later attempted to beat the tar out of Lyon with his cane on the floor of the House, and Lyon defended himself with a pair of tongs he grabbed from a fireplace in the chamber.  However before my European readers begin to think that this sort of behavior is an American one, allow me to point out that  American politicians are not the only persons who have sometimes lost their sense of office and dignity during the course of history.

Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, served as 1st Lord of the Treasury – in effect, as Prime Minister – to Queen Anne toward the end of her reign.  Unfortunately, he did not seem to be able to rise to the dignity of his office, nor show the proper deference due to the monarch.  During a meeting of her Privy Council on July 27, 1714, we are told that the Queen complained that Lord Oxford had “neglected all business; that he was very seldom to be understood; that when he did explain himself she could not depend upon the truth of what he said; that he never came to her at the time she appointed; that he often came drunk; lastly, to crown all, that he behaved himself towards her with bad manners, indecency, and disrespect.”

Matters then came to a head when Lord Oxford and the Queen got into what an eyewitness described as a “personal altercation”, which went on and on until 2 o’clock in the morning.  At the end of what must have been an absolutely fascinating, if incredibly uncomfortable, battle of wills, the Queen had had enough.  She took back the White Staff, a kind of ceremonial mace which was the emblem of office traditionally given to her 1st Minister, and gave it to Lord Bolingbroke, dismissing Lord Oxford from her service.  The Queen died several days later and her successor, King George I, had Lord Oxford impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors, and imprisoned in The Tower of London for several years.

Civilization only works when its members agree that there are situations in which it is better to put others ahead of ourselves, whether because of the power they hold, or their age/infirmity, or their role in our society, and so on.  If there is no such deference, then it is an every-man-for-himself situation, and you eventually end up with utter chaos.  Look at what happened in places like Russia or Spain last century, when anarchy led to protracted Civil War, and you will find it not a pretty picture to be “liberated” from rules of decent behavior.

Of course, those who rail against conventions and hierarchies as somehow enslaving human beings and preventing freedom ought to consider the alternative: a world in which anyone can rob from you or physically abuse you, and against which actions you would have no recourse, unless you were physically capable of fending them off.  No rational person wants to live for any extended period of time in a society as strictly regimented as North Korea, I would wager, but on the other hand no rational person would want to live in the middle of a permanent war zone, either.  We are flawed creatures, with a spark of divinity veiled by an inherent tendency of all fallen creation to look out for itself, first.  This often leads to our treating others poorly, whether out of deliberate malice or out of careless disregard.

The rules which we have put in place with respect to how we behave in the course of our interactions are there to counteract our natural tendency to behave selfishly and badly toward one another.  Standing up when the judge comes into the room, or politely shaking hands with the President of the United States – even if you virulently disagree with his policies – is a way of demonstrating that you believe civilized behavior is not just an end unto itself: it is a means for keeping our civilization going.

All from the most highly placed to the most lowly find themselves in situations where they must defer to someone else in this way.  Even the Pope washes the feet of the faithful on Holy Thursday, just as you must wash your hands before appearing at someone else’s dinner table.  While we should avoid unnecessarily obsequious behavior, perhaps next time you find yourself interacting with another, it is worth considering whether you are behaving in a way which keeps our culture a civilized one, or whether you are chipping further away at its foundations.

“The Grey Eminence” by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1873)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Pilgrim’s Way Is Way Too Easy

I decided to take the prudent course this week, following the recent uproar over a certain incident which occurred involving a famous traveler, to let things die down before writing a little bit about why said incident was simply ridiculous.  The commentariat in old and new media has focused on the question of whether or not one side or the other in this situation was rude, or out-of-bounds, in their behavior.  Yet no one seems to have brought up the issue that the state of travel, at least in its present form in the Western world, is something that in truth, no one really has a right to complain much about.   There needs to be a greater appreciation of the fact that we have things very, very easy, by comparison to the way things once were.

Preparing for my trip to Barcelona in under two weeks, I have been somewhat distracted by the usual issues such as what to pack, but also by issues which are very much of the present age.  What sort of internet connection will I have at the holiday flat we’re renting? Will I be able to get a SIM card for my Spanish mobile phone when I get there? Will I be able to tweet via SMS from said mobile?

These particular concerns are very 21st century, of course, and because travel is so easy in the Western world these days, we often do not think about how dangerous it was for our ancestors in earlier times.  One reason why people tended to stay where they were until the advent of modern roads and means of transportation was because if they left their town or village, they ran a very good chance of becoming seriously ill, getting robbed, or even dying/being killed on the way to their destination.  Whether to have the chicken or the fish was certainly the last thing on their minds, or pretty close to it.

That said, some things never change. Take, for example, travel across the Iberian Peninsula half a millenia ago.  St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), who crisscrossed Spain many times founding and reforming Carmelite convents, spent a great deal of time on the road.  If you look at this timeline of her life, you will probably be amazed, given the poor transportation and other amenities available, how much she managed to get around Spain during the 16th century.

The experience of one particularly grueling trip gave the Castilian nun a rather sanguine view on the passing order of things.  “Life,” she observed, “is nothing more than a bad night in a bad inn.”  She certainly knew whereof she spoke.  Roads in Spain were often either crumbling remnants of Roman civilization, or muddy paths; bandits were everywhere, and the accommodations usually less than salubrious.

When conditions for travel were so awful, many took advantage not only of traveling in groups, but behaving so raucously that Mr. Baldwin’s recent behavior seems positively tame by comparison.  A narrative from a traveler along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Northern Spain around 1500 had a bit of a rant about some of the other people making the same trip.  This fed-up traveler engaging in a bit of eye-rolling about the behavior of his fellow travelers, taken from a collection of works about Medieval travelers in Spain, could certainly be recognized even today:

They will ordain beforehand to have with them both men and women who sing wanton songs, and some other pilgrims will have with them bagpipes, so that every town they come through, what with the noise of their singing, and with the sound of their piping, and with the jangling of their bells, and with the barking of the dogs after them, they make more noise than if the king came their way, with all his clarions and many other minstrels.

Makes sitting on an airplane for a few hours near a crying baby seem downright blissful by comparison, doesn’t it?

Bad travel aside, the difficulty of these journeys ought to bring home to us in the West how tough our ancestors were, compared to their descendants.  We complain if we get stuck waiting for a connecting flight for two hours longer than we had anticipated, in a comfortable, heated/cooled enclosed space, with clean running water, lavatories, places to eat and entertain ourselves, and kept safe by security.  These men and women who went meandering about rural Europe and America to engage in politics, diplomacy, commerce, evangelization, education, and so on, had to be made of sterner stuff, traveling as they did for weeks at a time with no comforts at all.  Indeed, it is extraordinary that so many of them survived to tell the tale.

As many of us prepare to head out on the road for the holidays, we should keep in mind how lucky we are to be able to travel in relative comfort, even when things do not go wholly as planned.  We all have travel nightmares that we can recount, and which annoy us to no end at the time they occur.  Yet on the whole, our complaints are as nothing compared to what those who built up our civilization had to go through, in order for us to be annoyed when we are asked to stop playing a game on our phone so that the plane can take off.

Detail of “Pilgrims Meeting the Pope” by Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1492)
Accademia, Venice

Paying Compliments in the Digital Age

Today I would like to challenge you, gentle reader, to consider the possibilities of social media and the internet for voicing your opinion: not to complain, but to compliment.  We are all very much aware of the internet commentariat and how it can go completely off the rails into extreme nastiness when, for example, an online publication reproduces an article which angers people.  Hiding behind the relative safety of free speech and an anonymous web address, a great deal of damage can be done.  Yet how many of us actually take the time to say, “Good job,” when it is warranted, though it may mean spending a few minutes trying to track down an email address by which to do so?

When I was an undergraduate, I was fortunate enough to have been unofficially adopted as a grandson by an older couple who had been friends with my grandparents in Barcelona, and who had retired to D.C. after many years in the diplomatic service.  They often spoke of writing letters to people, institutions, and so on, when they wanted to make a complaint, but also when they wanted to share a compliment.  I had never really thought of the latter, but as my psuedo-grandmother told me (and which I have never forgotten), too many people do not take the time to contact someone and tell them when they have done something well.  Everyone likes to be complimented, even if they are very important.

This of course was back in the mid-90’s, when the internet as we know it today was still somewhat in its infancy.  Now of course, if someone cannot be found via Google, Facebook, Twitter, or the like, we are surprised rather than otherwise.  In fact, we may even be a little bit suspicious of a company, group, or individual that cannot be contacted online, wondering whether they are taking modern methods of communication seriously.

For my own part, I can personally attest to the fact that sometimes, when you reach out to a person or organization, and tell them what a good job they have done on something, it can lead to unexpected benefits.  In quite a number of cases, when I have sent a well-worded, complimentary message to some of the writers, artists, and other public figures whom I happen to come across in reading, in media, or in my travels, I have been fortunate enough not only to receive an equally-kindly-worded reply, but also to subsequently strike up a friendship or connection.  Sometimes, it may be the case that we will never get the chance to meet in real life, though on several occasions such meetings have happened, and have only served to strengthen the bonds of friendship formed through that initial exchange of words over the internet.

Such an exchange does not have to occur, however, in order for your doing so to be worthwhile.  For example, during what we will call my gangly-teen years in the 80’s,  I was very much a devotee of the music of New Order, the seminal English band fronted by Bernard Sumner.  When I saw over the summer a news documentary on it being 30 years since the band was formed from the ashes of Joy Division, I decided to send Mr. Sumner an e-mail, thanking him for his contributions to music, which were a great boon to me as an awkward youth, and which I still enjoy today.  It took some research and asking for favors, but eventually a friend in the UK put me in touch with the right person to get my message to Mr. Sumner.  I have not heard back from him, nor do I expect to.  And the point was not to hear back from him: it was to thank him for what he had contributed to my life through his musical and lyrical inventiveness, during a time when, like many brainy teens growing up in small towns, I felt misunderstood by my peers and yearned for a more cosmopolitan, thoughtful place to be.

As is often the case, the patron of this blog, Count Castiglione, has something to say on the subject. It is remarkable that a man who lived five centuries ago continues to give us so much wisdom as to how we ought to behave, in our public interactions with one another [N.B. which is why, gentle reader, you should be reading him.] Castiglione thinks that the ideal courtier should try to be as accomplished as possible in all things, so as not to be intimidated by anyone, but at the same time to have the good grace to recognize when someone else has done something well without, thereby, thinking less of himself as an individual in the process:

But be it understood that there ought not to be in him that lofty and ungenial indifference which some men have, who show that they are not surprised at what others do because they imagine that they themselves can do it better, and who disparage it by silence as not worth speaking of; they almost seem to imply that no one is their equal or is even able to fathom the profundity of their knowledge. Wherefore the Courtier ought to shun these odious ways, and to praise the fine achievements of other men with kindness and good will; and although he may feel that he himself is admirable, yet he ought to appear not to think so.

The goal of suggesting that you make an effort to reach out to persons or institutions with a kind word, of course, is not to stalk them, nor even to make a new friend/contact, necessarily.  If that results, so much the better.  It is however in the sharing of the gift of good will that you do your job, since you should not assume that just because a person, a company, or the like is well-known that they are actually hearing positive things all the time.  They very well may, but if you do not encourage them to keep doing good, they may decide to turn down another path.

If we engage in the habit of encouraging one another to do well, whether in writing good books/articles, doing a good job as a painter, actor, or musician, and the like, we build up a better culture.  If all we do is take the time to criticize, blame, and tear down, we end up with – well, frankly what we have right now: a rather snarky, cynical, victim culture of every man for himself.  Imagine if each of us made more of an effort to give to others without expecting something in return, how much more healthy our society would become.

Illustration from “A Complete Practical Guide to the Art of Dancing” by Thomas Hillgrove (1863)