Respect for history is one lesson that all schoolchildren have learned. As the beneficiaries of the educational establishment's fervent mission to spare them the tedium of memorizing dates, they may not know which came first, the Crusades or the Persian Gulf War, but they know the importance of respecting the past.
This knowledge was not necessarily acquired at school, Miss Manners has observed. Rather, it came with the force of the practical world of commerce.
These are the children of people who are still mad because their parents threw out their old comic books, tin lunch boxes, campaign buttons or fashion dolls after only a decade or two of abandonment in the ancestral attic. Naturally they have endeavored to impress upon their children, who would also have heard them impressing it upon the errant grandparents, the enormous financial loss this represents. It has become an article of faith that no article is worthless if kept long enough.
Whether this alone, any more than parental recitals of life's other bitter lessons, would have been sufficient to teach children the meaning of tradition is not known. But the economic theory of yesterday's trivia being today's treasures was reinforced in their own lives. They have heard of collectors frantically interested in what they have scarcely had time to outgrow using for innocent play, and the soaring value of small stuffed animals and merchandise associated with television shows. The idea has been planted that their own toy chests are potential gold mines.
Another current show of respect for history involves stockpiling artifacts at what are loosely termed historic events--which is to say current events deemed, in the enthusiasm of the moment, to be of lasting interest. This is the sort of occasion where one hears young people declaring, "Someday I'll show my grandchildren this," and tries not to envision those future grandchildren rolling their eyes while the old folks reminisce about meeting a long-forgotten figure or witnessing a passing event.
Miss Manners thinks it lovely that people have become so history-conscious, no matter how they arrived there and whether it extends beyond stockpiling stuff. Etiquette is tradition-based, although it does change (when Miss Manners says it does, not when individuals want to justify ignoring perfectly valid rules). This is why it is unreasonable to expect practical explanations about why we observe certain habits and rituals: Things are often done the way they are because that is the way they are done. Makes sense to Miss Manners.
All she asks is that people show a little more respect for the present while they are busy venerating the past. Too often she has observed people elbowing one another aside, making demands, disrupting events and pilfering goods, all in the interest of obtaining views, photographs, recorded comments and souvenirs.
She understands that all this is being done in the interest of history. But if we sacrifice the civilized present in an attempt to preserve it, the future is not likely to take much of an interest in it, no matter how many mementos we bequeath.
(c) 1999, Judith Martin