Stop Rapidly, Go Soothingly

An English police chief has pointed out that traffic offenders are not now treated so severely as when Sennacherib was king of Assyria. That resourceful monarch placed no-parking signs along the processional way to Nineveh, with the inscription: “Royal road, let no man lessen it.” Offending charioteers were slain and impaled on a stake in front of their own dwellings.

The Japanese, a remarkable people whose prime ministers have views on wife-beating, bring their own politeness to the same vexed problem. Spurning archaic references to a postilion struck by lightning, they offer today’s travelers a traffic manual, claiming to be in English, which should be required reading in these United States. “At the rise of a hand from a policeman,” it says, “stop rapidly. Do not pass him or otherwise disrespect him.” (Chicagoans may find this helpful.) “When a passenger of the foot hove in sight, tootle the horn trumpet … with vigor and express by word of mouth the warning, ‘Hi, Hi.’ Beware of the wandering horse that he shall not take fright as you pass him. Go soothingly by, or stop by the roadside till he pass away.… Doesn’t that do your heart good, bringing as it does courtesy into an area where it is not normally found?

It’s odd how the secular boys often get these things more in perspective than those who profess to speak the truth in love when neither truth nor love is easily discernible. The poet Dryden had strong views on the subject. “I won’t say that the zeal of God’s house has eaten him up,” he remarked of a certain bishop, “but it has taken away a large part of his good manners and civility.” By contrast there was the character in Sheridan’s The Rivals who awarded the ultimate accolade: “He is the ...

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