I might be officially transitioning into the “old fuddy duddy” stage of life, but this article on the English Gentelman by Andrew Gimson in Standpoint struck a chord. All legitimate post-colonial, feminist critiques aside, Gimson paints an egalitarian and progressive notion of 19th century English gentlemanliness. Gimson references a 1982 book called The English Gentleman to describe the institution:
The idea of a gentleman was a more inclusive one than it sounds to modern ears. One of its greatest advantages was that you could define it so as to include yourself. You could behave like a gentleman, without possessing any of the social attributes which a gentleman might have: there was no need to possess a coat of arms, or a country estate, or engage in field sports, or wear evening dress
For me, the concept always smacked of privilege, sanctimony, hypocrisy and conformity. Seared in my mind as an exemplar of “the gentleman” is Ted Knight’s opus to pompousness as Judge Smales in the 1980 movie Caddyshack. One of the more memorable scenes is Ted Knight response to Rodney Dangerfield’s disparagement of his wife’s chastity. In response to the query “wanna earn 14 bucks the hard way”? Smales responds indignantly, “you, you’re no gentelman”!
When I was 13, I wanted to be the Rodney Dangerfield character, who responds “yeah, and I ain’t no doorknob either.” Of course I would, why wouldn’t I. In the movie, Judge Smales is a racist, pompous, sanctimonious jerk. In the movies I grew up with, gentlemanliness was rightly exposed as a bright line to reinforce privilege and as a cudgel to asset moral and cultural superiority.
But that was 32 years ago. What does that leave us with culturally. What is particularly striking about Gimson’s article is his connecting the concept of gentlemanliness to progressive politics:
It influenced their system of education; it made them endow new public schools and raise the status of old grammar schools. It inspired the lesser landed gentry as well as the professional and middle classes to give their children an upbringing of which the object was to make them ladies and gentlemen, even if only a few of them also became scholars.
Where is this impulse in our politics to “do the right thing”? This all strikes me as I watched Mitt Romney, what one would presume would be the poster boy for gentlemanliness, disgrace his party yesterday by criticizing a sitting president while a foreign policy crisis was developing in Libya. This was a move that is more characteristic of an oaf than of gentleman (more Rodney Dengerfield than Cary Grant). Sociologist Ricahrd Sennett talked eloquently about all of this in his 1974 book, The Fall of the Public Man. But it seems that the idea of the “gentleman” public servant is becoming more and more anachronistic in our politics.
But what is hopeful is that the public still seems to look for “the gentleman” in American politics. Fred Kaplan had a good anecdote in Slate yesterday where he imagined what Romney could have done differently:
Imagine if Romney had called President Obama, asked how he could be of assistance in this time of crisis, offered to appear at his side at a press conference to demonstrate that, when American lives are at risk, politics stop at the water’s edge—and then had his staff put out the word that he’d done these things, which would have made him look noble and might have made Obama look like the petty one if he’d waved away these offers. But none of this is in Romney. He imagined a chink in Obama’s armor, an opening for a political assault on the president’s strength and leadership, and so he dashed to the barricades without a moment of reflection, a nod to propriety, or a smidgen of good strategy.
It would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, the jury is still out on whether it would have been the politically smart thing to do.