Beverly Gage reviews 'Civility' by Stephen L. Carter

By Beverly Gage
May 15, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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After the American Revolution, many among the middle and upper classes convinced themselves that decadence would soon destroy their fledgling republic. One primary symptom of the impending decay: sullenness and insubordination among their formerly deferential servants. This surliness, it seems, resulted from an excess of democracy -- from a damaging individualism that had replaced wartime self-sacrifice.

Now, after what he calls the "second American Revolution" of the 1960s, Yale law Professor Stephen L. Carter has joined that venerable tradition of complaining about the help. In his new book, "Civility," Carter takes to task gas station attendants who neglect to check the oil, pesky clerks "who will not address customers as Sir or Ma'am," teenage fast-food employees who get his order wrong and, of course, boys "wearing droopy pants." And that's just the first chapter. In the bad attitudes of America's service employees, politicians and urbanites, Carter has uncovered an "incivility crisis" that threatens to rend our social fabric. While he's aware that his complaints sound suspiciously like those expressed by worried elites throughout history, he maintains that "this time, we might be right." Selfishness and impertinence, he writes, have led Americans down a destructive path. Luckily for us, Carter promises that his own brand of self-sacrificing Christian morality will set things right once again.


Carter's goal -- "a society in which we act with, rather than talk about, genuine respect for others" -- seems innocuous enough. Accepting his premise about rudeness, though, can be another matter. As someone who lives in what many people consider to be the rudest city in America (yes, I'm talking about New York), I'm constantly surprised not at my fellow urbanites' rudeness but at their, well, civility. Contrary to Carter's assertions, people do still give up their subway seats for the elderly, they still hold the door for each other and they almost always say thanks when someone else does it for them. Maybe Carter's neighbors in the middle-class suburb of Cheshire, Conn., aren't quite so polite.

Civility crisis or not, though, who can argue with Carter's argument that people should be nicer to each other? Nobody -- and that's precisely why his book is so disingenuous. Carter claims that the "good character," morality and manners he seeks to revive constitute "pre-political" standards of behavior, yet many of his proposals for restoring civility are explicitly political. "The state must not interfere with the family's effort to create a coherent moral universe for its children," he says. And: "Civility discourages the use of legislation rather than conversation to settle disputes."

More often, though, the political messages in Carter's book are covert. In establishing his "crisis of incivility," he appeals to a universal "we," a "we" obsessed with the rudeness of "our" fellow citizens, confused about how to relate to others and desperately searching for answers. "A big part of our incivility crisis stems from the sad fact that we do not know each other or even want to try," he writes, sorrowfully, "and, not knowing each other, we seem to think that how we treat each other does not matter." Presumably, this "we" is meant to refer to an undifferentiated national "us." But you can't help but be suspicious that the "we" is a bit more specific -- say, middle-class, educated, Christian suburbanites like Carter. "We" probably doesn't include the loud-talking, droopy-pants-wearing, fast-food-selling teenagers who serve as Carter's icons of lower-class bad taste. You're left wondering if Carter, when confronted with such teens, manages to abide by his own first rule of civility: "Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not."

Beverly Gage

Beverly Gage is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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