Brooks begins by recalling George Washington, who has come down to us not so much as a military or political hero, but rather as a hero of dignity. The "110 Rules of Civility" that Washington copied down as a young man effectively guided his behavior throughout his life. It was Washington's dignity and manner that Jefferson admired so much in Washington, even after their differences in matters of public policy had emerged towards the end of Washington's presidency.
In our time, the very concept of dignity seems to have been tossed out the window. In his column, Brooks discusses the recent press conference of disgraced South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, the ridiculous media frenzy surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, and the rambling and bizarre behavior of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. To any American who believes that citizens should behave with a strong sense of dignity and etiquette, all these events are rather disheartening.
As Brooks says:
The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.Everywhere we look, people from all walks of life and at every level of society act in a loud, brash, emotional and undignified manner. Political scandals are unvealed with a grim regularlity. Shouting down the other person with ad hominem attacks is now the accepted form of what passes for public debate. Self-help books and talk shows try to teach us that we should pour out every detail of our personal lives for all the world to see. Well-written drama and comedy are gradually disappearing from the airwaves, replaced by nonsensical reality television and so-called "comedy" whose humor is limited to jokes about sex and less pleasant bodily functions.
As we observe the undignified and uncivil chaos of modern public life, from politics to entertainment and at all points in between, it might be easy for 21st Century Jeffersonians to throw up their hands and say that old notions of public dignity are lost and are never to be regained. But whether or not that is true, there is nothing preventing us from acting with dignity in our own lives, and people will begin to admire our example and perhaps desire to emulate it.
If nothing else, we can each individually live with dignity in our own lives.