Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 20 1997 3:30 AM

 Get answers to your questions on morals, manners, and macroeconomic policy.

ASK PRUDENCE

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Beginning this week, Prudence, drawing on her rich experience of life, will answer questions submitted by readers. She will respond to questions about manners, personal relations, politics, economics, and other subjects. Questions should be sent to Prudence@slate.com. They should not exceed 200 words in length. Please indicate how you wish your letter to be signed, preferably including your location.

Dear Prudence,

In the past, when escorting a young woman to my automobile after, say, coming out of a restaurant, I would unlock the passenger-side door for her first before walking around to the driver's side. On modern cars with power locks, however, unlocking the driver's-side door automatically unlocks all other doors. This innovation makes first unlocking her door a superfluous and illogical gesture.

Where do you come down on this question of chivalry vs. logic? Is it insulting to unlock her door first when we both know it's unnecessary?

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Sincerely, Lovelocked

Dear Lovelocked,

There is no conflict here between chivalry and logic. Chivalry requires not only that you unlock the door but also that you open the door for her, hold her arm to help her enter, see that the edge of her skirt has been removed from the door frame, and then close the door. Helping her enter can also be the occasion for sweetly kissing her on the cheek. Modern gadgets will not do all that, and real men don't want them to. Something has to be left for the men to do.

Anyway, the idea of a conflict between chivalry and logic is mistaken. Chivalrous gestures, even though not utilitarian at one level, have a utilitarian logic at another level. Chivalrous gestures are a means of communication, and that is useful. When you hold the door for the girl, even though she is quite capable of doing it for herself, you are communicating the fact that you care about her and want to be her helper. Unless you are a great poet, it may be the best way you have of communicating those sentiments to her. Which gestures communicate what changes over time, as does other language. In my time, at least, holding the door communicated respect or affection or some other favorable emotion--depending on the personalities involved. What holding the door for your girlfriend communicates is different from what holding it for your mother-in-law does.

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--Prudence

Dear Prudence,

Ever since Seymour Hersh's book came out detailing the raw side of Jack Kennedy and the dark side of Camelot, I've been wondering what JFK did in today's context that warrants an eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery. While there are few precedents anywhere in the world for eternal flames to honor individuals, there are even fewer precedents for turning them off once ignited. I don't suppose many would argue that JFK has greater stature than Washington or Lincoln, so isn't it a little silly to honor JFK in so unique a fashion? What, if anything, can be done that doesn't come across as overtly partisan or anti-Kennedy?

--Troubled in Arlington

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Dear Troubled in Arlington,

To snuff out the JFK flame at Arlington National Cemetery would be more trouble than it is worth. What is important is the flame of admiration and affection for JFK that burns in the hearts of many Americans. When that flame burns out, as I think it soon will, the flame in the cemetery will not matter. No one will go to it except to roast marshmallows.

People flock to the Lincoln Memorial because they revere Lincoln as a man who rose from humble origins to become president of the United States, save the Union, free the slaves, and write some of the most profound and moving words in the English language. If the same marble structure in the same place were dedicated to William McKinley, no one would go there.

In a prime location opposite the White House is a statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse. Thousands of people pass it every day, but no one stops to look at it. It will be the same with the JFK flame, in time.

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--Prudence

Dear Prudence,

Christmas was 25 days away when a fair number of my neighbors had already placed lights around their homes and fully decorated their trees. I like to think of myself as somewhat festive, but why has Christmas turned into a full-month affair? What can we do to keep this holiday from becoming the national bore?

--Scrooge

Dear Scrooge,

Reread your life story in A Christmas Carol. If you have no problem more serious than boredom with an excess of Christmas, you are fortunate indeed.

--Prudence, tolerantly