The Quest To Restore Common Decency


The corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Essex Street here offers an unsavory view of what's fueling one of the fastest growing movements in academic, political, and philanthropic circles.

Cars speed through the intersection to cheat a changing traffic light. Cheek-pierced children in low-riding pants panhandle for change. Wads of gum stick to bus-stop benches. Has America lost all semblance of civility?

A growing number of people think so, and their concerns are spurring a new field of research and activism into the causes of rising unruliness.

The civility movement, so to speak, gained fresh momentum this week with an anonymous $35 million contribution to the Boston-based Institute for Civil Society. The institute, along with a handful of new commissions founded by retiring members of Congress, seeks to rebuild the neglected structures of community.

"There is mounting evidence that cultural and moral concerns are displacing tradition economic concerns," says William Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland who is heading the new National Commission on Civic Renewal. "There isn't a society on earth that can govern by laws, rules, and regulations alone. We need a majority of citizens to practice the norms of self-restraint."

The problem extends beyond America's street corners, say politicians, scholars, and community leaders who have joined the debate. Members of Congress shout across the aisle, and even yanking one another's ties, for the sake of party dominance. Girl Scouts around a camp fire sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and the music industry wants royalties. Nobody seems to RSVP anymore.

Such tears in the social fabric go deeper than bad manners, experts say. They are rooted in the citizenry's crisis of confidence in public institutions. And they underscore the public's lack of involvement in volunteer organizations that knit a community together, even as these groups are being asked to shoulder greater responsibility for society's welfare as Washington pulls back.

How has a society that Alexis de Tocqueville once celebrated for its genius of volunteer association lost its civic compass? That's a subject of endless debate, but the biology lesson of the bullfrog may offer a clue. When the students tossed the frog into the boiling water, it leapt out. But when they placed the frog in cool water and slowly brought the pot to a boil, the frog adapted itself slowly into soup.

"We keep adapting our society to more and more deviancy," says Pam Solo, president of the Boston-based institute. "Across the board, respect and appropriate behavior have been breached."

Kevin Starr, the historian and state librarian of California, charts the social breakdown over several decades. Society, he argues, was once based on a premise not unlike military rank. A soldier always has someone above him to obey, but also to strive to equal. The ranking officer serves not only as an example, but also as a promise all may climb in rank through hard work.

Americans once believed that society offered the same promise. Etiquette, Mr. Starr argues, "expressed that social contract." But baby boomers coming of age in the 1960s judged that social contract to be a hoax. Being respectful did not help black Americans break segregation, they noted. Defiance did.

Starr makes two other points. First, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam exposed millions of American men to the military and its rules of behavior and respect. But a whole new generation of adults never faced the draft nor the structures of military discipline. The other is that society's view of wealth has changed. Through the 1950s, wealth was an untarnished symbol, and refinement was a quality of those who had it. Now wealth is tarnished, as much a symbol of greed as success, so that the social norms of the upper classes are not as valued.

The cry for etiquette is no newer than partisan bickering in Congress. Both are as old as the republic. But this new wave of interest in civic renewal has its roots in the public's growing perception of a moral erosion, and civility is just one part of the concern. The new organizations devoted to strengthening the structures of community are just as focused on renewing trust and participation in government.

Interest is snowballing. Georgetown University in Washington sponsored a forum last month on such issues. Two congressmen, Rep. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois and Rep. David Skaggs (D) of Colorado, have invited colleagues to a retreat in Hershey, Pa., in March to forge closer personal ties across the ideological divide.

Ms. Solo says the Institute for Civil Society is focused on building alliances between social sectors that might not otherwise connect. "Criminologists looking at youth crime," she says, for example, "say we must intervene much earlier in the life of a child. So we'll bring together child-development experts and criminologists to assess public and private responsibilities" in this field.

The National Commission on Civic Renewal was founded recently by retiring Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn and former GOP Education Secretary William Bennett. It will assess the state of civic participation and identify groups doing good civic work.

The National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, started by former GOP presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, is studying the role philanthropic organizations should play in rebuilding social structures. It will issue a report in June and disband. "The way we look at it, if philanthropy was once the advance man for big government," says Bruno Manno, head of Mr. Alexander's commission, "what role should philanthropy play when it is the advance man for smaller government?"

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