For Philadelphians, sometimes it seems like sports is the day’s top story. Sports are to many Philadelphians what politics or the arts, to some degree, are to New Yorkers. For this reason, perhaps, one of the more common features of the Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News, and for that matter any newspaper, are caricatures, cartoon distortions of well-known figures.
The idea is not new. The Romans would regularly depict political figures in cartoonish ways and even Leonardo Da Vinci playfully rendered such distorted pictures. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, some of the cartoons are aimed at coaches—Chip Kelly was a favorite, and I am certain that the primary cartoonist of the Inquirer is lamenting the coaching change for that city’s football team (Eagles), even as the San Franciscans rejoice.
But why do we enjoy these satirical portraits? Because cartoons can take the edge off a situation as easily as they can, with clever social wit, put an edge on one. For example, a political cartoon, such as James Gillray’s portrait of William Pitt and Napoleon carving up a plum pudding meant to represent the world highlights playfully the pressing issues of the early nineteenth century. Pitt uses both a knife and a trident-shaped fork to suggest England’s maritime prowess, while the feather-chapeaued Napoleon cuts off a substantial portion of the globe representing Western Europe. This picture, in a way, simply stated the obvious—taking the edge off a moment of great concern globally. It is one of Gillay’s best-known pieces, and widely recognized as one of the best and most thoughtful caricatures ever made. Those of the coach in the Philadelphia Inquirer, not so much, at least not outside of Philadelphia proper.
But the point of this blog is not to review the history of caricatures or even to offer a few examples of them. Rather, it is simply this: I want to suggest that we now live in a world of distortions. Caricatures, once just funny pictures, now seem have jumped off the page into the real world. American politicians (and Americans in general) seem to me distorted, oversized, cartoonish. Either they are so cautious about what they say that they won’t dare use a word that could be in the least deemed offensive, or they will avail themselves of any word at all, even those that might have made George Carlin blush, if that were possible. They are either at the furthest limit of one side of the politically correct spectrum, or just the opposite, so far in the other direction that they could care less whom they might offend. The old-fashioned notion of decorum is gone, it is dead (or at least it seems so now) and it is no longer even talked about.
I imagine that even sophisticated college students may not know the word any more, unless they happen to take Latin. Yet infrequently nowadays do college students take the time to learn Latin, for it requires an inordinate amount of time. It forces you to slow down and think; it forces you to be thoughtful. And, well, I suppose with no Latin, there is no knowledge of what decus, decoris (n.) means; and then, no English derivative, decorum, or its deeper meaning. And without decorum you’re left with either extreme political correctness on the one side, or a complete dearth of it on the other.
Is it just me, or does that not seem to ring true to you, too? Now I’m not suggesting that there should be a “middle ground,” for there is no true middle ground between one kind of ridiculous mind game and another. But mightn’t there be something like moderation? There is a difference between these two ideas. Middle ground, at least the way that some folks construe it, is quite often seen as mere fence sitting, an attempt to hedge one’s bets or, worse yet, apathy. But moderation is something like decorum. I won’t have that extra piece of pie because it would be immoderate, indecorous. I won’t have that extra drink because by indulging in immoderate behavior I might say something unseemly. In other words, the notion of decorum, which must be undergirded with a healthy sense of shame, has been driven out precisely because people seem to feel no shame. Yet I leave aside the question as to whether we feel no shame because we are indecorous or whether we are indecorous because we feel no shame. Simply put, we do, and we are.
An example of what I mean can be seen in two different types of eating disorders. The anorexic will consume very little, so little that that person can but barely survive, and, in some very sad cases, die. They have put food out of their life as they are starving themselves. These I would liken to those who are extremely politically correct. They have a disorder: they believe that they have a right to put words or ideas out of their lives. They demand “safe spaces” because they are so easily offended. They must control their environment, and like the anorexic, they have very inadequate and distorted mental picture of themselves.
The indecorously opinionated person, who deliberately seeks to be crass and rude, is to my mind, something like the morbidly obese person. Such folks will respond aggressively to those who offend them. They will just keep heaping it on, like a person too heavy who takes an extra helping or two even when they know, deep down inside, that they should not. Yet even these comparisons are not fair, for neither the anorexic nor the morbidly obese person can be held accountable for their decisions, as they suffer from a mental disorder that had driven them to one of two extremes.
Rather the people of today’s cartoonish world, who are merely reflected in our politicians, are actually more like Pixee Fox, who has undergone surgeries to become cartoonishly slender or Homer Simpson (“literally” a cartoon character), who apparently in one of this most popular episodes of that television show purposely gains weight to achieve disability status.
Such, it seems to me, are we these days, and perhaps we should not be surprised if our politicians merely reflect us. Either we heap it on indecorously or, worse yet, we are offended on behalf of just about anyone in the world, especially those on behalf of whom it is politically expedient to be offended. Both are distortions of the real thing. That real thing, practically invisible these days, is the decorous, balanced, sensible and honorable person, who is simply polite and kind because it is the right thing to do, not because they want to curry favor or seem holier-than-thou (or more-PC-than-thou). They do not natter negatively on Twitter or prate provocatively on Pinterest. They do not seek merely to be confrontational or endlessly try to find something to be offended about in the name of social change. They do not conveniently revise history, judge those who have served our country courageously, or officiously attend upon the words of others hoping to find a way to pronounce condemnation and to vaunt their own moral superiority.
We find examples of decorous individuals described in great detail in Cicero’s On Friendship, in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics (book 8), or Seneca’s Moral Epistles (9). But who reads these folks anymore?
So few do precisely because we live in a cartoonish world. We even prefer movies rendered from comic books: stories set to the silver screen that have real actors behaving cartoonishly. We have self-distorted; we have become too thin with political correctness or too fat with crassness.
Decorum. That’s what we need now more than ever. And that is what we have always needed. What ever happened to the idea of two people from two different political parties actually respecting each other? Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan, how I hope you cannot see from heaven what a cartoonish mess we’ve made of all this. As things are now, perhaps we should “beg for … a discreet patience / Of death, or of worse life.”
And now it is time for me to go back to the book I’m writing, and you to your morning coffee or walking your dog. If you’re reading your paper, do grin a bit at the caricatures of the coaches of sports teams, whether in the Inquirer or the Daily News. But be wary of the cover of the NY Daily News, that simply takes too much liberty in the name of freedom of the press, for you needn’t look too closely at such distortions, if you live in the same cartoonish world that I do. Distortion, cartoons, caricatures are not just in the papers anymore. They’re walking about everywhere. And they are everywhere because it seems that no one takes decorum seriously. For my part, I am setting out on this new year not worrying about micro-aggressions, or what the politically correct flavor of the day might be; conversely, I shan’t seek to be crass, crude or wanton simply to provoke. Rather I am taking the boring path, one that seeks moderation, decency, and old-fashioned decorum. “Yet never knows what course that light doth run; / So let me study that mine actions be / Worthy…” I don’t have to go to Rome or Greece or England to walk where Cicero, Aristotle, or even John Donne once trod. I can do it in my own neighborhood, my own home, with my own family and friends. That is the way of the old Latin word decus, decoris, which means “dignity.” Care to join me?
 John Donne, A Litany, X. The Martyrs
 John Donne, A Litany, VI. The Angels