The Quest to Restore Common Decency UNCIVIL SOCIETY?

Article excerpt

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. …