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To understand somewhat the reasons behind the sorry state of manners in America, take one look at how Professor Stephen L. Carter defines the concept of civility :

    Civility involves the discipline of our passions for the sake of living a common life with others...

The notion, in this age of the self, that we should each yield something of our own feelings and desires in order to accommodate others is nearly heretical.  Add to that the idea that, at a time when the siren call for "diversity" has swept the intellectual classes, it is either possible or desirable to speak of a "common life", and you can see why civility is on the outs.

Mr. Carter, of Yale Law School, who frequently writes about religion, rightly perceives that the danger in our jettisoning civility as a social value is not merely that the culture becomes coarser and less pleasant, but that we lose the lubricant that helps the engine of democracy run more smoothly.  He lists five reasons that a democracy should value civility :

    1. By encouraging us to see even those with whom we disagree as full equals before God, civility
    enables us to hold the respectful dialogues without which democratic decision making is impossible.

    2.  Civility reminds us that in a democracy all our actions must meet the test of morality, and that
    our ability to discipline ourselves to do what is right rather than what we desire is what
    distinguishes us from animals.

    3.  That self-discipline, in turn, enables us to resist the tendency of the values of politics and the
    market to swallow all of public life.

    4.  Our adherence to standards of civil behavior serves, in Arthur Schlesinger's term, as our letter of
    introduction to our fellow citizens, thus helping to build community.

    5.  By treating each other with the respectful civility that our shared createdness requires, we help
    make bearable the many indignities and frictions of everyday life.

Professor Carter proceeds to look at how almost all of our institutions have helped contribute to the current atmosphere of incivility and considers how they might help to restore a climate of civility.  He does so with varying levels of success, with many of the shortcomings brought about, perhaps ironically, by his overweening efforts to be "fair" and to take on both the Left and the Right, the religious and the irreligious, abortionists and pro-lifers, etc..

In the process though, he misses one rather enormous point, one which explains much that he's troubled by : the creation and continued existence of a massive Federal bureaucracy.  We live today in a society where the government exercises control over virtually every aspect of our lives.  In a very real sense, we have replaced morality and civility with legality.  Carter is absolutely correct that a healthy liberal democracy requires that people share the same moral standards and that they acknowledge common rules of etiquette and manners.  This kind of democracy, which values freedom above all other ends, must have a citizenry which regulates itself, otherwise people can not trust one another.  And, of course, as the Constitution with its intricate scheme of checks and balances so amply demonstrates, even then you don't want to trust anyone too much when it comes to political power.

The America which now enters the 21st Century is simply not that kind of democracy anymore.  If freedom has not been entirely displaced as the ultimate value in society, it has at least been surpassed by equality.  Moreover, the ideal of equality that has been elevated is the radically egalitarian equality of results, as opposed to the equality which the Founders celebrated, the equality of men before their Creator.  Achieving this new kind of equality requires that freedom be restricted--it is obvious that equality is never produced in a world of Social Darwinism--in order to allow government to grant special advantages to the less able or to actually transfer wealth to them, so that, regardless of our differing levels of talents, intelligence, gumption, etc., we will all end up with roughly equal living standards.

It goes without saying that once you start granting government these types of powers, it won't stop at this rather limited, although still repressive, goal.  So the government has taken on ever greater powers to regulate our commercial and private lives, until today it tells the businessman how many parts per billion of pollutant he may emit and how many minorities he must employ, while telling all of us how many gallons of water our toilet bowls can use.

Given this essentially authoritarian system, where even the minutiae of everyday life is regulated by a powerful central authority, it is little wonder that the belief systems which we had previously internalized to regulate our own behavior have fallen into disuse.  In a world where most things are technically legal, we have to ask ourselves whether they are right or wrong, otherwise we can not live in harmony with one another.  In a world, as today, in which so many things are illegal, it is only natural to assume that those which have not been expressly forbidden must be allowed.  Perhaps it is just too much to ask a people whose entire lives are governed by laws, regulations, and the constant threat of lawsuits, to also adopt standards of civility, simply because it's the right thing to do.  After all, if manners really mattered, wouldn't there be Federal laws requiring them, a cabinet department in charge of them, and special interest groups to lobby for them ?

This odd phenomenon also explains why the Left tends to be so hostile to the idea of civility, and why it is the Right which generally engages in hand wringing over civility's demise.  Civility and morality have been replaced by the legalisms of the Social Welfare state.  Those of us who wish for a return to old-fashioned civility and morality should be forthright and acknowledge that we also want to roll back the Leviathan that the Federal government has become.  We should express our faith in our fellow men, our much greater faith than that of our opponents, faith that people are capable of regulating their own behavior without government doing it for them.

There is much confusion, on the Left and on the Right, about what the conservative belief in freedom really entails.  Libertarians assume that freedom necessarily includes the right to engage in almost any consensual behavior.  Liberals assume that free market ideology is a cover for allowing businesses to commit any predation, to exploit anyone, and that unfettered capitalism is little more than an appeal to our most selfish instincts.  Religious conservatives (or cultural conservatives) share both these fears.  But the fact is that freedom of the type that the Founders sought to secure, and which the fairly minimalist republic they founded presupposes, requires a populace which is ideologically homogenous and bound by a common morality and manners.  It is understood that people will not need every aspect of life dictated to them, because their shared cultural heritage of Judeo-Christianity will inform their moral lives.  It's little wonder then that the Left, which is necessarily hostile to the kind of unobtrusive republican democracy that was created here is also hostile to the morality and civility which made it possible.

Unfortunately, this is further than Stephen L. Carter is willing to look.  His effort in this book, and it's certainly worthwhile, though inadequate, is too make the current American polity more civil.  For obvious reasons, in a book about how we all need to respect and listen to each other, he's reluctant to declare that you need to destroy the village to save it, but such may indeed be the case.  The revival of morality, religiosity, and civility is unlikely to come about until we tear down the superstructure of legality which is currently strangling our society.  Counterintuitive as it may sound, the best way to restore the sense of decency, the willingness to sacrifice for others, and the respect for fellow citizens--the love of our neighbors of which Carter speaks--is to get government laws and regulations out of our way.  These external restraints, however well intended, have tended to absolve us of moral responsibility for one another and for our own actions.  Far better to dispose of the artificial intermediaries between us and return once again to a culture where people are expected to develop internal restraints and a sense of responsibility.  Otherwise, limited prescriptions like the ones that Professor Carter offers here can do little more than try to treat a few symptoms, rather than the ultimate cause, of a potentially deadly disease.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Stephen L. Carter , William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law (Yale Law School)
    -Ethics and Public Policy Center
    -BOOKNOTES : Author: Stephen Carter Title: Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby Air date: September 29, 1991 (C-SPAN)
    -ESSAY : The Etiquette of Democracy (Stephen L. Carter)
    -ESSAY : Why state power grows and religious freedom recedes (Stephen L. Carter,  The Christian Century, October 11 2000)
    -ESSAY : The Trap of Scientism (Stephen L. Carter, The American Enterprise)
    -EXCERPT : from Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (National Constitution Center)
    -INTERVIEW : A CONVERSATION WITH STEPHEN L. CARTER  Integrity: Why we need a transfusion (DAVID L. MILLER, The Lutheran)
    -ARCHIVES : Stephen L. Carter (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "Stephen L. Carter" (Find Articles)
    -PROFILE :  The multi-million dollar black conservative professor (Joel C. Rosenberg, Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2001 / 26 Teves, 5762)
    -ESSAY : On the one hand, on the other:  Stephen Carter tackles religion (Roger Kimball, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY : Stephen Carter is black, intellectual, and ... Out of the box.  (Bill Kauffman, The American Enterprise,  Nov-Dec, 1998)
    -ESSAY : Dangerous Allegiances: Civil Disobedience and Community  (A Critical Reading of Stephen Carter's The Dissent of the Governed) (Antonio L. Casado da Rocha, Lic. Filosofía, University of the Basque Country at San Sebastián, Spain)
    -ESSAY : The Case Against Civility (Randall Kennedy, The American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, by Harry V. Jaffa (Stephen L. Carter, Books & Religion)
    -REVIEW : of CIVILITY Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy and THE DISSENT OF  THE GOVERNED :  A Meditation on Law, Religion,  and Loyalty.  By Stephen L. Carter  (Michael Lind, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Civility (Paul Gediman, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of Civility : Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy by Stephen L. Carter (Jay Tolson, CivNet)
    -REVIEW : of Civility : Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy by Stephen L. Carter (Mark Chmiel, National Catholic Reporter)
    -REVIEW : of CIVILITY :  Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy  (Dianna Marder, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -REVIEW : of Civility : Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy by Stephen L. Carter (Beverly Gage, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Civility (Stephen M. Boyd, Character Education Partnership)
    -REVIEW : of Stephen L. Carter: Civility  (Paul Gediman, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of God's Name In Vain The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics. By Stephen L. Carter (2000) (Brent Staples, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics by Stephen L. Carter (Daniel P. Moloney, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics by Stephen L. Carter (Terry Eastland, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of God's Name in Vain (Amy Sullivan, Sojourners)
    -REVIEW : of God's Name in Vain (Terry Mattingly,
    -REVIEW : of The Dissent of the Governed: A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty by Stephen L. Carter (1998) (Gary Rosen, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of The Dissent of the Governed: A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty by Stephen L. Carter (Patrick H. Samway, America)
    -REVIEW : of Integrity. By Stephen L. Carter (Gilbert Meilaender, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Integrity (1996) (BARBARA EHRENREICH, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of The Confirmation Mess Cleaning Up the Federal Appointments Process By Stephen L. Carter (1994) (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Culture of Disbelief How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion By Stephen L. Carter (1993)  (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE CULTURE OF DISBELIEF How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. By Stephen L. Carter (Peter L. Berger, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion. By Stephen L. Carter (Phillip E. Johnson, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of REFLECTIONS OF AN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION BABY By Stephen L. Carter (1991) (David J. Garrow, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Emperor of Ocean Park (Hiawatha Bray, Christianity Today)
    -AWARDS : Grawemeyer Award : Stephen L. Carter  "The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion"  April 26, 1994
    -Americans for More Civility
    -Character Education Partnership
    -Civitas International
    -Ethics and Justice Society
    -Liberty and Limits : The Federalist Idea 200 Years Later (PBS)
    -Religious Freedom Home Page
    -ESSAY : The Crisis of the Religious Black Intellectual (Norm R. Allen, Jr., Council for Secular Humanism)
    -ESSAY :  Christian Conviction & Democratic Etiquette (George Weigel, First Things)
    -ESSAY : Wanting More in an Age of Plenty : Our wallets are fat, but our souls are empty. (David G. Myers, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY : Having It All : Though a lot of us are free-market nuts, and others yearn to build a community that takes care of its members, there's no good reason America can't have free markets and a civil society (Daniel Yankelovich, Inc. magazine, September 01, 1999 )
    -ESSAY : Founding Rivalries : More like squabbling brothers than 'fathers,' how did they succeed?
(Jay Tolson , US News)
    -ESSAY : The Case Against Civility (Randall Kennedy, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY : Divided We Stand (Wendy Kaminer, The American Prospect)
    -SPEECH : U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (American Enterprise Institute (excerpted speech),  2/13/01)
    -ESSAY : Professionalism and Civility : Is it Time for a Different Approach? (Douglas S. Lang, The Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism)
    -ESSAY : PROFESSIONALISM: MORE THAN CIVILITY (Edward J. Cleary, Director : Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, Bench & Bar of Minnesota (October 1999)
    -SERMON : The Leaven of Our Virtue For the Rebirth of Our Nation III  Civility :  Matthew 5:13-16, 43-48; 7:12 (Richard G. Wolling, D.Min., Senior Pastor, Beverly Heights Church)
    -ESSAY : SERVICE TENSION : Cretinous clerks,  -- woolly-headed waiters, angst-ridden attendants --  you just can't get good help these days.  (MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Polite Society (RUTH SHALIT, Lingua Franca)
    -ESSAY : Hanging Out : In the Age of Indiscretion (Ken Ringle,  Washington Post, September 29, 1998)
    -COLLOQUY : Insubordination and Intimidation  Signal the End of Decorum in Many Classrooms (ALISON SCHNEIDER, Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -ESSAY : In defence of muckraking : What patrician journalism in South Africa needs is a heavy dose of impoliteness, argues (RONALD SURESH ROBERTS , Mail & Guardian)
    -Issue of the Week: How Rude! (Intellectual Capital)
    -ESSAY : Black liberals finally getting the message (Gregory Kane, July 2001, Baltimore Sun)