Suzanne Fields

Privacy ain't what it used to be. Civil libertarians rail about how the government intrudes on the privacy of the individual, but the government is not the only intruder. We have met the enemy, and he is us. I sat in my doctor's waiting room the other day, listening to the ringing cell phones and the conversations that followed. One man argued with his boss over why he wasn't selling as many shoes as the boss thought he should be. A teenager accused her boyfriend of flirting with another girl. A troubled woman was telling someone about the terrible things Alzheimer's disease was making her mother do.

I didn't want to know about any of this. A voyeur is someone who gets kicks from watching others, but there's no kick in listening to someone's conversation when that someone doesn't care whether you're listening or not. Since nearly everyone talks louder on a cell phone, eavesdropping is not a choice.

In their award-winning documentary, "The Intimacy of Strangers," filmmakers Eva Weber and Samantha Zarzosa capture cell phone callers revealing the most intimate details of their lives -- not only do the men and women in the documentary not care who's listening, they've given written permission for the public distribution of their conversations. Everyone wants to be a celebrity.

If privacy ain't what it used to be, what we once quaintly called manners have vanished, too. New York magazine, always quick to spot the trendiest needs of its readers, creates "The Manual of Contemporary Urban Etiquette," which includes, only half in jest, such topics as "the polite way to steal a cab" and "the proper behavior after a one-night stand." Forget flowers or a phone call or even an appreciative note after stealing away in the wee hours of the night: "If you made no false promises to close the deal, then you simply need to be polite." Sex has been reduced from minimal morals to no manners at all.

Conservatives want to amend the Constitution to define marriage as limited to a man and a woman, but sophisticated urbanites, having moved on to another dimension, are troubled over how a straight guy should react to a pass made by a gay guy. A man with the problem (and apparently there are lots of them in certain precincts) is told to laugh and say "my girlfriend wouldn't like that." He should definitely avoid being patronizing by saying something like, "How sweet, I wish I were gay."

Manners once ripened from morals -- you could read Jane Austen -- and were the values parents instilled in their children so they wouldn't embarrass their parents in public and might even grow up to be upright citizens. But that was when there was a clear differentiation between childhood and adulthood. Now we have adults who want to be children.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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