“A Nation Of Assholes” Update From Peggy Noonan Channeling Edith Wharton


Former Ronald Reagan muse Peggy Noonan, now an op-ed columnist regarded as too old (and too conservative) to even turn up as a guest on Sunday Morning TV talk shows any more, has registered an anachronistic column at the Wall Street Journal in the voice of Edith Wharton, (1862-1937), author of the Gilded Age novels “The Age of Innocence,” and others, who was the first American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Her, that is, their, theme is that the nation’s culture has turned rude and uncouth, and that “a great nation cannot continue in this way. Nations run in part on manners; they are the lubricant that allows the great machine to hum.”

Ethics Alarms warned that the nation risked this fate, as many of you remember, if it elected a rude and uncouth leader, Donald Trump to be specific. Noonan is simply documenting that what I said would come to pass way back in 2015, and what was, in my view, the most undeniable reason to avoid electing this President. However, as with everything else, not all of the maladies being laid at Mr. Trump’s metaphorical doorstep are his doing, nor are all of them really maladies just because they would have offended Edith Wharton.

Let’s look at “Peggy Wharton’s” indictment. In the spirit of the mind-numbingly repetitious TV game show that somehow lasted for more than one episode, let’s play “Trump or No Trump”!

Peggy commences, “Among the harassments I see you inflict on each other:

…It is discourteous to walk down a busy sidewalk with your eyes trained on a cellphone, barreling forward with disregard for others who must carefully make way and negotiate their bodies around yours so as not to harm you. You must think you are more important than the other citizens of the sidewalk. …Eyes on a phone and pods in your ears—have you no sense of community? You have detached from the reality around you, which is a subtle rebuff of your fellow citizens….

This is an easy one: No Trump. This conduct was well on the way to being embedded in the culture long before Donald Trump was a twinkle in the fed-up nation’s eye. Is Peggy/Edith right? Of course she is. Let us continue…

You must come to understand that other people can hear you on the cellphone in confined public spaces such as the elevator. You must come to understand: Other people have a right not to hear your sound. They have a right not to hear your grating voice, your huffy exchanges that convey the banality of your interests, all of which, on a bad day, when spirits are low, can make those around you want to ruffle in their purse for a pistol with which to shoot themselves in the head.

Again, No Trump. Not only that, but this is Peggy/Edith showing a rather outdated bias against cell phones that never made sense in the first place. People do NOT have a right “not to hear your sound,” and never had. If a space is appropriate for a conversation with a companion, then it is appropriate for a conversation with an absent companion over a cell phone, and yes, that includes restaurants.  Back to Peggith:

Last week I was in a nail spa, as they’re called, idiotically. A woman in her 30s was screeching into her phone, which was on speakerphone mode. After a few moments I informed her she was disturbing others. She literally said: “I am closing a deal! I don’t care!”

And you wonder why socialism is making a comeback.

Trump. We have a leader who projects the unethical value that concern for anyone else’s sensibilities is a capitulation that smells of weakness, and that the correct response to anyone saying, “Your conduct is offensive and annoying” is to respond, in essence, “Up yours.”

Back to Whart-Noon:

“…There is the matter of “No problem.” You perform a small courtesy, I thank you, you reply “No problem.” Which implies: If it were a problem, lady, I wouldn’t do it. “If it were at all challenging I would never be courteous.” Why would you admit this to a fellow citizen? Why demoralize her in this way? Similarly with “No worries.”

No Trump. Peggy and Edith are just showing their age here. People who use “No worries” and “no problem” aren’t thinking about the literal meanings of the words. These are just idioms and a fads, that’s all. Both mean, “Happy to be able to help out, no need to make a big deal out of it.” People who obsess over this also get upset when someone says “I could care less” meaning “I couldn’t care less..”…or when President Trump makes one of his patented wrong-if-you-take-it-literally statements that he doesn’t mean literally…


“The first name culture…A first name is what you are called by your intimates, by friends and lovers. It does not belong in a stranger’s mouth. I may grant you permission to use it, that is my right. But you cannot seize permission—that is not your right. I receive solicitations from people I’ve never met, “Dear Edie.” …They take something from you when they take your name. And once they’ve taken that they will be taking more….What the new world doesn’t understand is that when you address us as Miss, Mrs., Ms. or Mr., we usually say, “Feel free to use my first name.” Because we are democratic, egalitarian, and fear the guillotine. But we’re pleased when someone asks permission, and respond with the grateful effulgence of the losing side.

Trump, I suppose. This is the man who got to the White House not only by calling all of his competitors by their first names, but by their first names with insults attached. “Crooked Hillary.” “Lying Ted.” “Little Marco.”

To be fair, I think this is also a cultural evolution with many causes. Half the time I don’t know what will offend women, some of whom take umbrage at Miss, Mrs., or Ms., for no reason that can be easily foreseen. Personally, I don’t like being called “Mr. Marshall,” and never have; for me, calling a peer or a colleague  by their first name is a Golden Rule response. Yeah, I do get a twinge when a minor or a student calls me “Jack”—I taught my son to to address his male elders as “Mr.” Then again, the New York Times calls everyone “Mr.” or “Ms.”, so cognitive dissonance is pulling me in the opposite direction: I’m be damned if I follow the Times.

Here is how the faux Edith Wharton column ends:

If a political figure should come by whose slate consisted of “America, reclaim your manners” he would “break through” and win in a landslide. Because everyone in this country suffers—literally suffers—from the erosion of the essential public courtesies that allow us to move forward in the world happily, and with some hope.



21 thoughts on ““A Nation Of Assholes” Update From Peggy Noonan Channeling Edith Wharton

  1. Unfortunate “Ethan Frome” is forced down kids’ throats. When she stuck to her milieu, Edith Wharton had a lot to say.

    “I’m closing a deal!” is not Trump. It’s Goldman Sachs junior investment banker culture. It became pervasive in the ’70s and ’80s. Remember the Woody Allen movie where one of the major jokes was his buddy being on phones all the time advising someone what number he could be reached at? Trump is of the culture but he sure isn’t responsible for it. And using a deal as justification to be rude just follows from that culture.

    Also, ironically given the Wharton connection, Trump is Trump in that respect because he’s a New Yorker. Not a Wharton Knickerbocker, but a Chris Cuomo/Jersey Shore guinea goomba New Yorker.

  2. To be fair, I think this is also a cultural evolution with many causes. Half the time I don’t know what will offend women, some of whom take umbrage at Miss, Mrs., or Ms., for no reason that can be easily foreseen.

    I agree, but I don’t really think Trump has anything to do with it — in other words, No Trump.

    The “first name” culture has been ongoing for decades, a side effect of mass marketing campaigns where sales and marketing pros decided using your first name in a familiar way would make you more likely to listen to their pitch, or read their correspondence.

    This has filtered down into society on the back of such things as “casual Fridays” and the devolution of the workplace from smart dressed and businesslike to casual and what-me-worry.

    Not only that, young people now take offense to any such appellations as Mr., Mrs., or “Ma’am.” I heard two young women the other day talk derisively about being “Ma’am-ed.” I subscribe to the Hank Williams Jr. philosophy of ma’am:

    We say grace, and we say “Ma’am,” and if ya ain’t into that, we don’t give a damn.

    All of this is a form of social evolution for which Trump bears no blame. He is certainly blameworthy for making it more crass, however.

    • I agree. Feinstein dressed down a multiple-starred general for calling her “ma’am” on the belief she earned being called “Senator”. The general responded _ beautifully in my mind), “Yes, ma’am.”


    • I was going to write something similar.

      During the training process for my first management job, I was sent to shadow one of the more senior managers in the company, and he insisted that his employees call him “Mr. Peters”. This always seemed desperately insecure and outdated to me. I understood that it was probably generational (he was probably a decade overdue for retirement) and could have also been due to a dislike of his first name (he’d been burdened with “Clarence”), alongside a plethora of other things, but this was the turn of the century, and the phrase “That’s my dad’s name” in response to “Mr. (Name) was starting to appear in pop culture. This might be a difference between Canada and America, but especially between adults, unless you don’t know their first name, it’s by far more unusual not to refer to eachother on a first name basis.

      I don’t know how that’s a Trump problem. Or a problem, period. I think the author might just be lamenting a bygone age. Men don’t wear suits as casual dress anymore either.

      • I wore a suit, or at least a jacket and tie, for over 50% of my working life. I didn’t mind seeing the tie bite the dust, but when blue jeans became an acceptable substitute for pants with actual creases in them, I had to shake my head.

  3. “No problem.” This use to slightly annoy me as being a poor substitute for “You’re welcome”, but I now take it as intended. After all, in a number of languages the equivalent of “It’s nothing” has long been similarly used.

    But I have to admit I’m still bothered by people using “That begs the question” when they mean it “raises the question”, since “begging the question” actually has a completely different, and much older, meaning, and should be used correctly more often than it is…especially if journalists, pundits, and others would employ logic and critical thinking.

    • William
      I have to admit that I have been misusing the begs the question phrase. I don’t know why it was never brought up in my argumentation and debate class. I have always used it in the context in which I have heard it.

      I appreciate the correction.

      • Chris, didn’t mean to lecture anybody, but if you found the info useful, I’m glad. As you say, it doesn’t seem to be taught, and it might be nice if those who take it upon themselves to direct public opinion had a deeper awareness of more of the tools needed to recognize errors in their information intake.

      • It’s very commonly misused. I misused it for years as well, so you’re not alone.

        Actually, the correct usage was something I learned from the Internet while perusing logical fallacies about a decade back.

        Also, there is a slight disconnect in usage — “X begs for the question” would never be seen as confused with the fallacy, but “X begs the question” often, and perhaps correctly, is.

  4. “No problem” just means, “don’t think that I secretly resent doing this for you.” Completely benign.

    I just missed the “millennial” designation by a couple of years but what bothers me is NOBODY uses “ma’am” or “sir,” even when serving complete strangers in a business setting. Is there any point in me learning to use “ma’am” or “sir” when addressing an older person or a customer, or teaching my kid to do the same, when everyone outside of the military or City Hall just uses “champ” “boss” or “sport?”

  5. Noonan’s column was one of the ones I really enjoyed reading, back when I had access to the WSJ. It’s a pity that everything online is behind a paywall. Well, except that it probably helps keep the Journal afloat.

    This column, though, sounds like a nostalgia trip combined with a desire to lash out at Trump. Do one or the other.

  6. People who obsess over this also get upset when someone says “I could care less” meaning “I couldn’t care less..”…

    Or when they use the American bastardization “hoisted” rather than the original “hoist”.

  7. As a call center agent, it bothers me when people call in from a public setting, or a house full of noisy people. First, the background noise can make hard for us to hear each other. Second, since my job involves taking people’s card numbers and gathering other info, do you really want to be giving out that stuff where anyone can overhear you?

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