Standards column


Could standards, of all things,
be making a comeback?

Editorial Page Editor
STANDARDS are making a comeback. We may be able to get a civilization going here after all. You doubt me? I have several reasons for my optimism:
    We’ll begin with a trivial matter. The New York Times carried an essay last week from a senior physician wringing her hands about the inappropriate attire worn by young doctors today.
    “Every day, it seems, I see a bit of midriff here, a plunging neckline there,” she fretted. “Open-toed sandals, displaying brightly manicured toes, seem ubiquitous.”
    She thought it was because she worked in Miami, but colleagues elsewhere assure her it’s a nationwide epidemic, from unshaven male interns in T-shirts, to females with plunging necklines.
“One colleague commented that a particularly statuesque student ‘must have thought all her male patients were having strokes’ when she walked in their exam room wearing a low-cut top and a miniskirt.”
    I’ve never seen a doctor like that myself, although I’ve seen an actress play one on TV. But I agree that it’s far better for patients to have confidence in the seriousness of one into whose hands they place their lives.
    I recently saw a new specialist about a chronic sinus thing, and I recall being reassured by his attire. He took propriety to places it had not been since about 1955. He had on the white coat, of course (take note, Dr. House), which helped set off his bow tie. But what made the costume was the proverbial reflector on a headband. It was so wonderfully nerdy, it helped me forget his otherwise unforgivable youth. So good for him. I’m quite sure he would never wear open-toed shoes.
    It’s good that some doctors are worrying about the small things that provide us with little touchstones of order amid the chaos of life in 2006. The essayist’s employer, the University of Miami, has a dress code specifying “that students have hair ‘of a natural human color,’ among other things.” That’s got to be tough to enforce. But it’s worth trying.
    On a more sensational front, someone stood up for standards last week in a way that defied belief: That it was Rupert Murdoch elevates this particular miracle to biblical, Cecil B. DeMille proportions.
    A lot of people had shaken their heads and looked away, certain that the plan for a book and a TV special in which O.J. Simpson would tell us how he killed his wife — while pretending that he was speaking hypothetically — was just another incident in our society’s inevitable slide into utter shamelessness. First reality TV, now this. Nothing to be done.
    But fortunately, others hadn’t given up right and wrong, and they raised enough ruckus that Mr. Sleaze himself backed off — canceled the book, the TV show, the whole grotesque mess. My own mother had told me to call the local Fox affiliate and tell them they shouldn’t air the TV part of the spectacle.
    I didn’t do it, but plenty of others did, and good for them. It gives me hope I didn’t have. Next thing you know, shame will actually make a comeback in America. Not that O.J. will ever feel any, but it’s not too late for the rest of us.
    “Seinfeld” was about something: Shallowness. That was the running gag, and it worked wonderfully. Everything in life, big and little, was a joke. Comedic conflict centered around the failure of the four central characters to be sufficiently serious and respectful of the things that mattered in life: Yadda-yadda.
    So it’s little wonder that when Jerry Seinfeld arranged for his friend to apologize on the Letterman show for his outrageous behavior at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles a few nights earlier, some in the studio audience took it at first as a gag. Mr. Seinfeld had to interject to say that Michael Richards’ words of abject regret were not meant to be funny.
    And nothing about it was funny. Mr. Richards, better known as “Cosmo Kramer,” had loosed an obscenity-laced barrage of racist insults at some black hecklers. You can see a cell-phone video of it on the Internet. Warning: It’s profoundly unpleasant. It’s as though “Kramer” had taken his Jedi-class frenetic eccentricity over to the Dark Side. A human being self-destructs with loathing on a stage, and perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that some people kept trying to laugh. They had paid good money to be amused, and were slow to adjust.
    Some of you out there will write or call to say the hecklers are just as much to blame. Well, hecklers are a pretty low life form, and while I can’t hear much of what they said, these don’t seem to be much of an exception. But Mr. Richards was the one with the microphone. Listen to how he responded to that routine hazard of his profession on this occasion, and ask yourself whether you could ever justify reacting as he did. If you can, seek counseling.
    That’s exactly what “Kramer” needs to do, because a public “sorry” doesn’t cure the things that lie behind that kind of rage.
    It would be easy to dismiss his mea culpa entirely: A has-been comic tries to salvage what’s left of his career by offering a big dose of schmaltz to the gods of political correctness. But forget the politics. This is a guy who lost it to the point of stepping outside all the bounds — and he knows it, Jerry Seinfeld knows it, and so does David Letterman.
    I appreciate comedy, and “Seinfeld” provided some of the best. But when the funnymen can sober up long enough to say, “This goes too far,” it helps us all be a little more civilized.


15 thoughts on “Standards column

  1. bud

    My take on this issue is slightly different. The pendulum has swing very far to the casual side of the ledger since about 1960. I remember my first plane trip my mother insisted that I wear a tie! That was in 1968. Frankly that was a bit too much. The open, casual society that flourished during the 1970s-90s was wonderfully refreshing. But we’ve taken it a bit too far in the 21st century. We don’t need to go back to the stuffy, stiffness of the 50s, but a bit of decorum might not be such a bad thing.

  2. Dave

    Brad, this is a debate that has raged on for thousands of years. God re-imposed standards when HE had had enough of Soddom and Gomorrah. Hollywood, in general the entertainment industry, along with a cast of millions of standardless Americans, led also by an activist Supreme Court, have been dragging our culture into the gutter for years. Yes, we could use improved standards.

  3. bill

    Yeah,let’s take “propriety” back to 1955,when “obscenity-laced barrages of racist insults” was commonplace patois.

  4. bud

    Bill, you alluded to something that has disturbed me for years, this infatuation with the 1950s. Things are so much better today but people just can’t appreciate that.
    The 50s featured the following: State sanctioned racism. Limited carreer opportunities for women. Extreme corporate greed and exploitation (candied cigarettes for example). Fear of nuclear war. Barbaric treatment of the mentally retarded. Men were not allowed in delivery rooms. And the list goes on and on.
    The 50s really wasn’t the kind and gentle era that it’s characterized to be. Sure men wore ties at work. And yes, we’ve gone too far from certain social standards of the past; but in most ways we’ve come a long way from the represive era of not so long ago.

  5. judraysc

    I long for the old days when people did their dirt in the dark; now they do it “in front of me” AND insist that I say that it’s OK.

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