One of my favorite “Christmas movies” is not on any “best Christmas movies” list that I know of. It’s a quirky little indie movie called Metropolitan, and it’s about a bunch of upper-class , mixed-up kids from Manhattan who’ve come home from college for their Christmas break. They go to debutante parties every night, and afterward, sit around with cocktails, talking for hours about sociological theories and the meaning of life.
Believe it or not, it’s hilarious. But there are some pretty serious themes in it for anyone who cares to find them. Metropolitan is a sort of modern version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, much as Clueless is a modern take on Emma. Jane Austen is even explicitly mentioned at several key points in the movie — my favorite being this little snippet:
guy: “Nearly everything Jane Austen wrote seems ridiculous from today’s perspective.”
girl: “Has it ever occurred to you that today, looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective, would look even worse?”
Touché! If Jane Austen could travel through time and plop down in Times Square, I daresay she’d be appalled. And I don’t just mean by the sexual lewdness, and the commercial garishness, but also by the general rudeness of people to each other — from people blasting up their car stereos so loud that it inflicts physical pain on people nearby, to the ubiquitous refrain of “whatever,” uttered snidely to dismiss another person without having to formulate a real reply.
I’ve often speculated about the huge popularity of all things Austen in the past fifteen years or so. What can modern Americans possibly find to relate to in Austen’s tales of the turn-of-the-19th-century landed English gentry?
Well, for starters, “common courtesy” — which is not so common anymore. In our crude, brash, vulgar culture, Jane Austen’s world is a soothing balm to frazzled sensibilities. The Golden Rule has not changed, and never will: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. For all our cynical posturings, every one of us, deep down, would like to be treated with civility and respect. The oft-scorned traditions of chivalry and Emily Post etiquette were really just adaptations of the Golden Rule designed to train us to behave in accordance with that rule even when we don’t feel like it.
What strikes me whenever I read Jane Austen or watch one of the film adaptations is how considerate of other people her heroines are. Even the relatively abrasive Emma earnestly tries to do right by the people around her. To her neurotic, “high-maintenance” father, who would drive most people to distraction, she is unfailingly gracious and kind.
In Austen’s society, even people who secretly despise each other are polite and don’t make a scene. Our generation tends to dismiss that as “hypocrisy” — but maybe it’s just a matter of having the decency and good sense to not make life any more difficult than it already is.
It’s been many years since I’ve heard psychologist Dr. Laura Schlesinger on the radio, and I don’t remember anything she said except one thing, because she repeated it often. People would call in — especially in the weeks leading up to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays — worried about how they were going to deal with some difficult person during the anticipated family gatherings — a domineering in-law, perhaps, or an obnoxious cousin, an estranged sibling, an ex-spouse. She would always tell them: “You don’t have to like them. You only have to be polite.”
Whenever I read Austen, I learn much from her heroines’ unfailing solicitousness toward others, their tolerance of those they find personally irritating, their good manners even when under stress. Human beings tend to revert to old habits when they’re stressed, so these characters’ training in civility must run very deep. A wise man said, “We can’t make people be good — but we can make that kind of society where it is easier for people to be good.” Austen’s era know this instinctively — and trained its young accordingly.
I also notice that Austen’s protagonists have very rich interior lives. But a rich interior life — by which I mean a deep self-knowledge, and the keen perceptiveness about others that that can bring — may only be possible in an environment that affords enough quietness to literally hear oneself think.
Finally, the biggest difference between Austen’s society and our own may be the behavior of men toward women, and vice versa. Don’t get me wrong; I would never want to go back to a time when women had no career opportunities to speak of and no freedom to travel alone, were discriminated against in countless ways, and were often treated like children. No, what I’m speaking of is civility. If you’ve read Austen (or watched the film adaptations), you know what I mean. Whatever their follies, the people of Austen’s time at least had enough sense to acknowledge what so many moderns have forgotten: Men and women are different. And that’s not something to wring one’s hands about, but to celebrate. A society that ignores or denies such a huge, basic fact is going to be a society with a lot of dysfunction. You end up with divorce and abortion and people numbing the pain with every imaginable drug.
Perversely, “progressives” either actively promote the dysfunction, or misguidedly advocate things that will make it worse. “Political correctness,” for instance, far from inspiring people to behave more decently toward each other, only exacerbates social friction and resentment — which people then vent by being rude toward others!
“Progressives” often think conservatism means wanting to “go back” in time. But they are the ones who keep wanting to go back — to ideas, such as Marxism, that have long since been shown by real-world experience to be out of touch with reality and hence, inevitably, catastrophic. Conservatives try to respect, not deny, timeless truths about human nature. The motivating principle for most conservatives I know — and very clearly for Allen West — is the dignity of the human individual.
Conservatives don’t treat each other respectfully because some agent of the political-correctness thought police is standing over us, threatening us with a lawsuit or a fine if we don’t. We treat each other respectfully because that’s the Golden Rule — and, knowing we are each made in the image of God, we do our best to live by it.