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A well-mannered campaign to perfect US civilization

Common Courtesy, by Judith Martin. New York: Atheneum. 70 pp. $10.95. The venerable tradition of etiquette is back in vogue. And ever since Judith Martin's ``Miss Manners'' column first appeared in 1978 in the Washington Post, she has been at the forefront of the etiquette revolution, drawing barbs and kudos as she dispenses advice thrice weekly.

Ms. Martin's new book, ``Common Courtesy,'' was derived from a lecture she gave at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Its 70 heavy vellum pages bound in elegant endpaper stock contain the key points in her campaign ``to perfect American civilization.'' Martin's task, as she sees it, is ``to adapt an etiquette system based on classes so it becomes appropriate for a democracy.''

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The class system is based on money, says Martin, and we have let business usurp our private lives. She would have us reclaim the realm of family and community life and find there the equality lost in hierarchies based on money or job title.

Martin's fans will be familiar with some of her arguments, but it is a pleasure to hear her hold forth in serious discourse. Indeed, the book is distinguished by the analytical framework it offers for an ancient and inexact subject.

The author is trying to shore up the cultural coastline after the ravages of the do-your-own-thing '60s, the ``me'' decade of the '70s, and the overworked-Yuppified '80s. She uses the best of what the social sciences offer: a sense of how we got this way and what we can do about it. All with nary a footnote to make you snooze! She is arch and uncommonly funny, and she knows her stuff. From `Common Courtesy'

The rationale that etiquette should be eschewed because it fosters inequality does not ring true in a society that openly admits to a feverish interest in the comparative status-conveying qualities in sneakers. Manners are avaliable to all, for free. . . .

American class distinctions are made with money. Class distinctions everywhere have always been made with moeny, or its equivalent in land, and never mind what may have been said here or in any other society about blood or breeding or education or taste or nobility of character. That is an illusion. Fine feelings, whether intellectual, aesthetic, philanthropic, or spiritual, require at least temporary indifference to one's immediate financial gain.

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