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28 April 2012

Confusing words #5: “America” / “democracy”

The speaker with a bottle of The Laddie,
the classic bourbon-cask matured malt whisky
from Bruichladdich distillery on the Isle of Islay.
 This was presented by the distributors as a prize.
When the winner is announced, and we have
had a chance to taste it, I will write more!

Interesting evening at the Chekhov Centre last night (see post 19 April). I tried to explain how the basis of English language etiquette can be best understood with metaphorical reference to the traditions of sport, which has rules but which, within those rules, encourages competition and variety.
     It may well be that French linguistic etiquette can best be understood in terms of courtly flattery of the sort that Louis XVI would have experienced (see yesterday). Perhaps post-Bismarckian German etiquette has some of its roots in militaristic and mechanistic philosophy. I believe Russian linguistic etiquette has rather too much of the Socialist “power vertical” to it, especially in dealing with officialdom. When I say too much, I mean more than most modern Russians are comfortable with. They seem to want to go back to a more Tolstoyan-Dostoyevskean etiquette, in which emotions are allowed freer rein than we are accustomed to in Britain. But perhaps that simply reflects the sort of people I meet here in Moscow.
     I cannot speak with certainty about any of those things, but they are examples of what I mean by the cultural basis of etiquette. I can speak about English language etiquette, however, and I feel strongly that if you want to understand it, you need to be clear about the relationship of rules to freedom which is exemplified by amateur or semi-amateur sport, as well as by the lack of hierarchy which is implicit in all games played for fun.
     I tried last night to explain how this attitude has come to govern the world of business, which is competitive within a general context of rules, standards and ethics, and also politics which, when democratic, has fierce competition governed by certain rules—fair elections obviously being the fundamental one.
     This outlook is becoming increasingly widely accepted internationally. But not everywhere. Perhaps the United States is, as in so many other things, an exception. That was the thought that sprang to mind when the host at the meeting last night decided, part-way through my talk, that sport and etiquette were not, as I was trying to argue, connected to each other. He intervened to suggest that I talk more about etiquette, which he was concerned about, and less about sport, which I seemed to be too interested in.
     The person concerned is a deeply virtuous American who is not accustomed to compromising his principles in any way. I cannot share his point of view, as it seems to me that life is a long series of compromises which only saints, bachelors and billionaires are able to avoid. I am none of those, but I am rarely forced into the position of having to confront such people. Last night was an exception because many in the audience seemed to be interested in what I was saying. So I suggested to the host that rather than stop at his command, we take a vote. That seemed the democratic thing to do, and I hoped the idea would appeal on a procedural basis to an American.
     We had a show of hands and it was roughly 80% in favour of my carrying on and 20% against. I suggested that anyone who did not want to hear more could leave at that point and I would not be offended. Then the majority could listen to what they had voted for. Perhaps fifteen (out of an audience of 120 or so) left, after which I proceeded.
     But that was not good enough for the host who soon afterwards decided that he should cut me off and close the meeting early. When I ignored him and carried on, the audience, which was mainly Russian, gave a round of applause. What a sporting crowd, I thought! How democratic! And what a nice sense of etiquette!
     So, the question for debate over the holiday weekend is this. We know from Frank Sinatra that the words “love” and “marriage” go together like “horse” and “carriage”. In the context of last night’s jollifications, which of these two words are more closely related in their underlying meaning: “sport” and “etiquette”; or “America” and “democracy”?
     Of course, it’s a stupid question in a way as one should never argue from the particular to the general. But it's only a game, and most sport is stupid when seen from the point of view of virtuous, principled people who are striving to be good at all times, usually in the hope that they will get to Heaven at the end of times. Never forget that the most self-consciously virtuous people in all British history, the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell, banned sport as a matter of Christian principle in the 1650s, along with Christmas, colourful clothes, pubs and swearing. They saw themselves as “reforming manners” or, as we would say today, improving etiquette.
     The first English-speaking people to settle in what is now the United States were seventeenth century Puritans who thought that they had to make too many compromises living in their sinful, sport-loving homeland. How curious that their country went on to become the birth-place of democracy for white people and, more recently, the centre of political correctness, which is the twenty-first century variant (and I use this word in the sense of the post on 9 April) of classic Puritanism. That is another paradox that might repay discussion over vodka, cucumbers and black bread, while waiting for the sinful shashlik to grill.
     In the meantime, since it is a beautifully sunny day, I am going cycling. In Russia, this is a sport which depends on the etiquette of motorists. I may not be very Christian, but I do have one sort of faith.


  1. ...did you score a 'first'??? (:

  2. I couldn't understand from the post why the pair “America” / “democracy” is confusing.
    It's obvious that an ideal democracy is an abstract concept. However, I think that there are several democratic passages in the most fundamental American documents, for example:

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"

    Add to it several political leaders and activists who personified democratic tradition. Very few countries declaring themselves democratic can give birth to a figure like Martin Luther King who was the product of the very same tradition.
    It's sad to see it coming down from giants to windbags, but it's a wholly different story.