Civility

Civility

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
April 30 1998 3:30 AM

Civility

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       I enjoyed reading your latest comments, even though they interrupted my afternoon gnash.
       OK, yes, there's something in what you say. Moral and cultural introspection is a game that societies play in relatively prosperous moments, when there is no immediate crisis to preoccupy them. It's no coincidence that there was little talk of moral decline in the early 1940s, when we were fighting a war, or the early 1930s, when a quarter of the population was unemployed. It's the comfortable decades that yield harvests of social critics who lament the erosion of civility, the decline of community, and collapse of individual moral standards. The 1920s were awash in this sort of argument. So were the 1950s, when the pages of every intellectual magazine rang out with warnings that Americans had sold their souls for material comfort and were living lives of spiritual emptiness in a monotonous sea of suburban conformity.
       If your point is that we are talking about civility because relatively few of us are broke or hungry, then I agree with you. But I don't see why that invalidates the argument or cheapens the issue. Being adequately housed and fed, we are in a position to notice that we have come to maul each other rather badly in the clinches of everyday life.
       Tracing the reasons for this is a complicated business. But as a charter baby boomer, I am willing to accept much of the responsibility on behalf of my generational cohort. Something happened in this country around 30 years ago. Tens of millions of us came to adulthood believing that we were entitled to just about anything, and if we did not achieve self-fulfillment or get what we wanted in a given situation, it was someone else's fault. Hence the conversational gibberish of the late 1960s: "Do your own thing"; "It's not my bag"; "Let it all hang out." Or the one that is far more chilling but equally appropriate: "By any means necessary." Any means. Even if you aren't sure what the end is.
       I know you will find it a bit of a stretch from the first three slogans to the last one, but all of them are clues to the values and biases of the biggest and most self-centered generation this country has ever produced, the generation that has set the tone for American popular culture throughout its lifetime and has in the past two decades dumped quite a bit of its dubious ideology on the children it has raised.
       I can't prove it, but I think the baby boom individualism of 30 years lies somewhere at the root of the incivilities of the 1990s, from road rage on up. Any means necessary.
       By now you will have observed that I am employing the first rule of neoconservative debating strategy: When in doubt, blame everything on the 1960s. It gets you out of some tight spots. I also think it's pretty much the truth.
       So long. It's been fun.