Catching up on the NYT Book Review from June 12, I was amazed to find that Julia Reed entirely missed the point of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (the review is on pp.8-9). Apparently, Julia Reed thinks Miss Manners (aka Judith Martin) is mainly of interest for her 1) rigidity; 2) nostalgia; 3) wit. It's a very positive review, but apparently Miss Reed is unaware that Miss Manners is of interest not for her views on table settings but because she is one of the finest political and ethical philosophers of our day!
Yes she is witty but there's a lot more to it. And Reed’s notion that Miss Manners is nostalgic is easily misunderstood. She wants to preserve some elements of the way people behaved in the past, yes, but this just makes her not a radical. Whatever she is, Miss Manners is not the sort of a conservative who “stands athwart history.”
If I had to characterize her, I would say she brilliantly synthesizes a kind of classical liberalism with a progressive communitarianism. In the hands of Miss Manners, etiquette teaches that what you do in private is your own business but offers a system that allows for harmony--and decency--in social relations. One of her maxims is that law often steps in where etiquette has, in fact, broken down. One of my favorite teachings from the Great One: when asked how to greet the members of a gay couple when introduced to them, she answers: “How do you do. How do you do.” Let’s put it a different way: “etiquette” might be well translated as derekh eretz.