(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 22)

Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is an author with a long history of concern for issues vital to the moral and ethical health of America and its beleaguered democracy. In The Culture of Disbelief Carter examined the trivialization of religious devotion by American law and politics. In Integrity, which is in many ways a useful precursor to Civility, Carter underscored the necessity of taking the time to deliberate about what is right and wrong. He exhorts people to have the courage to do the right thing, even when there are obvious costs; and he shows the importance of being able to articulate what has been done in the cause of justice and why it has been done. Only with this kind of integrity, firmly in place, will civility ever have any real meaning, and investing civility with meaning is the primary purpose of Carter’s new book, Civility.

Civility, in Carter’s view, is not synonymous with manners or etiquette, although it invariably involves these; it is a much deeper commitment to respect or even love fellow citizens in a way that will govern persons’ actions toward them. Civility is not simply the acquisition of polished outward forms but a deeply moral belief that it is wrong to treat others as if they are objects or as if they do not matter. It is clear throughout Civility that Carter’s own convictions about civility stem from his own profound Christianity, a Christianity as deep, abiding, fair-minded and magnanimous as the teachings of Christ himself. Consequently, his words ring out, not just to the choir, but to all persons of good will, no matter what their religious convictions or lack of them might be.

In the first section of his book, “The Collapse of the Three-Legged Stool,” Carter reviews American history concerning civility, discusses the role of the 1960’s in our current democratic dilemma, and puts forth the first few of the fifteen rules suggested throughout the rest of the book for the project of reconstructing civility in American life. The three legs of Carter’s metaphorical stool are family, religion, and the common school. All three legs were relatively intact in the often eulogized 1950’s. America was undefeated in war, had a much imitated Constitution, practiced an unofficial religion in its own nationalistic form of Protestant Christianity, was the world’s greatest industrial power, enjoyed a low divorce rate, and had a system of public education that was the envy of the world. There were only three television stations in those halcyon days and all the programs were alike, because the myth was that all the viewers were alike as well—white, prosperous, middle class and content in their own version of a Levittown suburb.

A myth so militantly Pollyannaish was bound to give way to other realities eventually, but while it held sway, it also gave the nation a common ground on which to build upon the notions of civility handed down from the nineteenth century. Consensus, however, is often just the flip side of repression, so Carter is quick to point out that the same set of shared values that created the Comic Book Code also produced the anti-Communist House Committee on Un-American Activities. The repression of the 1950’s ensured a backlash with which all of America is more than familiar: the 1960’s.

Suddenly, all the fundamental verities came into question. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave official recognition to the fact that America was a country of more than one race. The Vietnam War proved that Americans of good will could differ about their sense of nationalistic duty and that American military invulnerability was highly questionable. The Free Speech movement empowered students in ways never before imagined, and the academy abdicated its authority in ways that still undermine its ability to educate America’s youth. The Chicago Democratic Party convention in 1968, the Kent State massacre of 1970, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the proliferation of television stations with different kinds of programming, and the explosion of the Apollo spacecraft with three American astronauts on board all shook America’s faith in its cherished institutions and ushered in an era of postmortem relativism that redefined the terms of engagement.

Other people were no longer fellow travelers; they were strangers who might make one’s way in life more difficult by making one rethink all the comfortable traditions of a collective past. The mistake of the 1960’s was to conclude that because some of the old myths had cracks and because some of the old rules were demonstrably bad, all rules had to be abandoned. The problem for the student of civility is to figure out how to return to the basic goodness of a shared culture without squelching dissent or creating new monoliths of repression. Carter, who believes that civility is basically an ethic for relating to strangers, posits that we can achieve...

(The entire section is 2083 words.)