Civility and Democracy

by Patrick J. Deneen on March 2, 2011 · 21 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

manners

Alexandria, VA In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, a chorus of voices – mainly, if not exclusively on the political Left – arose in denunciation of the decline of “civility” in contemporary political life. Somewhat incredibly, some of the more prominent voices on the political Right – such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin – denounced these calls for civility. There were efforts – often successful, in fact – to point out that the Left was just as likely to be uncivil in its words and deeds. Still, it’s a disturbing spectacle to see so-called conservatives defending incivility. It was Edmund Burke, after all – the founder of modern conservatism – who lamented the decline of chivalry in Revolutionary France. Still, in the main, there was at least a moment of circumspection and even conversation after the Tucson shootings about the role of civility in our political lives, though that moment seems largely to have passed with little more than cosmetic efforts to be less offensive (where they existed at all).

One should expect little deep thought about such a matter as “civility” in contemporary political and social life, but there seem to me to be fewer more important questions facing our society today. Yet, the fact is, for all the hue and cry about the dearth of civility in our lives and times, as a culture we are actually more deeply opposed to civility than might even be suspected by its passing proponents. Modern – especially liberal – society is designed largely to undermine civility. Rather than lament its dearth, we should understand more fundamentally the deeper systemic causes of its decline.

Completely absent in the passing fury over the decline of civility was even a momentary reflection on the etymological origin of the word. Like the related word “polite,” civility can be traced back to an ancient word for “city” – cives in Latin, polis in Greek. This is hardly an incidental or irrelevant relationship. The ancients understood that there was an intimate relationship between life in the city and the activity of civilization. The city was not fundamentally understood (as in its liberal conception) as a vehicle of mutual convenience aimed at the pursuit of maximum individual self-fulfillment. Rather, the city was the necessary sphere in which humans became fully human, in which the higher parts of their natures were cultivated through practice and habituation to become self-governing and, with the limits of our inescapable self-ness, to be oriented toward a concern for the common good. The ancients understood that such an orientation required a life-long and concerted effort to combat the human propensity toward self-centeredness, and that it could only be effected in relatively small societies in which the distance between my immediate good and the good of the community was not too vast. Politics, and political life, was thus a kind of schooling in self-governance and common weal, with the aim of political life being the cultivation of citizens, not the encouragement of individual and self-defined goods.

In this context we can understand why “politeness” and “civility” are so closely connected to the ancient conception of politics. Manners – those expressions of civility and politeness – is a basic form of training in citizenship. By enacting a considerateness for others – even where this may not be actually our initial reaction – we become habituated into the practice of being other-regarding. Far from being punctilious and effected, manners are actually those earliest forms of training in civic life, the attendant “formalities” that make civic life more than simply a contrivance for self-interested individuals. They are also a kind of training in self-governance: for instance, table manners exist not to increase our capacity to consume more faster, but to slow us down, to allow us to ingest slowly, to reduce our consumption and at the same time to encourage the arts of conversation and companionship as the primary way we experience our most basic instinctual consumption (courtship customs, of course, afforded the same training in matters sexual).

First Hobbes and then Locke rejected this conception of politics as too confining for individuals. Instead (Locke particularly) commended a conception of politics as an arrangement of mutual convenience that was organized to allow for the individual pursuit of happiness. The cultivation of manners was rendered secondary to the training of people to become useful and productive members of society (“industrious and rational”), better to increase material growth and power that would in turn offer more opportunities for human liberation from natural constraints. Liberty became defined not as “self-government under laws self-imposed,” but as the greatest possible absence of restraint. Manners necessarily faded in importance – instead, liberal society favors “authenticity” and “self-expression” those watch-words of our individualism that excuse all manners of public and private offense.

A mannered society thus relies less on laws as the way we enforce social norms: a polite society needs fewer policies and police. A liberal society inevitably has more of the latter, less of the former. Ironically, a liberal society will come to rely on the enforcement mechanisms of the State as replacements of practices of civility. As Aristotle noted, the law-suit will replace civic friendship as a prevailing norm. Politics itself will come to be understood – in the famous words of Harold Laswell – “who gets what, when, and how.” For the ancients, the emphasis was on the the “who”; for moderns, the emphasis is on “gets.”

To hear contemporary liberals lament the decline of “civility” is thus more than a little galling. Modern liberals are the heirs of a longstanding effort to liberate people from the “little platoons” that tempered individual self-expression. Hearing their decrial of contemporary “incivility” is a bit like the man who, after insisting on his wife dress as revealingly as possible, gets upset that other men are leering at her. By that same token, “conservative” defenses of “incivility” are even more aggravating, perhaps even more than the well-publicized “conservative” re-introduction of polystyrene coffee cups in the House cafeterias.

Civility is indeed a lost art of our time, but not because of talk radio or growing partisanship. These are symptoms of a deeper disease. Until we frankly diagnose our condition, we remain a patient whose diseases continue to metastasize, all the while complaining that what really bothers us is a hang-nail.

{ 21 comments }

avatar Tom Casaletto March 2, 2011 at 11:33 am

A motive for civility–other than mutual survival–is the conviction that the other is a child of God, as am I. When this
clarity is lost, the other can easiuly become only an obstacle
betweem me and what I want.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 2, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Civility is not about survival, it is about prospering and inasmuch as the current societal mindset is absorbed within an assumption of decline, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with something less than civility until the standing-room-only crowd of recriminations have screamed themselves out.

After watching the “liberal” wing pillory the “conservative” wing for their angry behavior in the wake of the Tucson shooting, it was marginally amusing to watch the “liberals” bellowing picturesquely at the “conservatives” in Wisconsin. Is there perhaps a Federally Funded clearing house staffed by Cretins that produces protest placards? Its getting to the point that even the spelling of curse words is becoming a stretch.

I suppose when one’s “unfunded liabilities”, otherwise known to us civilians as “things I rilly rilly want but caint afford” are about as much as the value of one’s domestic produce, incivility will have a way of garnering the attentions of all.

The chickens have come home to roost. Lets kill and eat them quick and then complain about the lack of chickens.

avatar bill.who March 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm

re: Wisconsin protests, D.W. Sabin asks: “Is there perhaps a Federally Funded clearing house staffed by Cretins that produces protest placards?” No, it is actually funded by several of the news channels to enhance incivility and stimulate outrage.

There were almost none of the over-the-top signs that the 24 h news channels like so much. Most signs were similar to “We are Wisconsin”, “This is a PEACEFUL demonstration”,”Layoffs do not Create Jobs”, the ever popular “Kill the Bill” and “I love public employees” (on a dog). Incivility on signs was almost always mild “Walker is a weasel, not a Badger”, “Screw us and we multiply” and “I want to poop on Scott Walker’s lawn”(on a puppy). Likewise, very few of the signs and flags carried by the counter-protesters when they showed up on the Saturday before last were over the top either. I did kind of wonder why so many were carrying Obama signs though.

The demonstrations in Madison have rightly been overshadowed by the turmoil in North Africa – but even so they have been poorly covered given the magnitude and staying power of the protests. That, I think, is because there has been no violence. There has been no uncivil conflict. This does not make for compelling television. Riot suited police advancing on violent demonstrators with crazy signs is good TV. Real world cops in workaday uniforms smiling and taking cell phone pics of colorful protesters while chatting with more of the same — not so much. The “compelling” TV is what we see, and one way we learn that incivility is normal.

The demonstrations have been stunningly civil, unless you think that raucousness is necessarily uncivil. People have behaved respectfully toward one another. One Saturday some Tea Party folks showed up there was no physical separation from the folks protesting the bill (separation was the plan initially, but there were simply too many protesters and too few counter-protesters to make that work). Occasional spirited discussions ensued. Once again, not good TV – good citizenship.

avatar CK March 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm

“For the ancients, the emphasis was on the the “who”; for moderns, the emphasis is on “gets.””

Is this why the term “politics” is seen in such a negative connotation in the modern world (e.g. “playing politics”). Perhaps the emphasis on “gets” should be termed partisanship, not politics. The partisan is worried about interests, while the person engaged in politics is worried about the common good.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Thats good to know bill.who but I did espy more than one placard emblazoned with picturesque invective that I would not use around grandma even if granny was a retired stripper. The media likely fixated on them as you suggest.

We should get used to it as hard choices are not going away. Connecticut’s governor appears to think he can tax our way out of the foolhardy debt his predecessors on both sides of the aisle left him to deal with. Cost cutting is certainly mentioned but it is usually cost shifting in practice…..a little Three- card monte.

avatar Tim Holton March 2, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Richard Sennett’s 2008 book The Craftsman despite it’s many flaws does point out that it was Hephaestus, the god of craft, who gave people not only craft skills but along with them, and not coincidentally, civilization. Sennett fails to fully illuminate the reasons for this connection, but does dwell on an apparent relationship between craft and manners. Working with things using appropriate force that respects the nature of one’s tools and materials (typically, the obvious connecting word “gentle” as both a way to work effectively and a way gentlepeople behave, escapes him), as well as cooperating with co-workers for a real common goal are both learned through the arts. More fundamentally, it seems obvious that when people moved down from caves in the mountains to the houses Hephaestus provided and formed civic society grounded in nearly everyone offering his or her manual skills to the community, the bonds of real mutual sustenance created not only civilization but conditions of general civility.

With all due respect, today’s academic scholars and intellectuals, such as the folks on this site appear to be, seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the centrality of manual labor and material culture. This would appear to be one example. A compelling prescription for restoring civility would be to restore the arts–not Art in the contemporary, debased meaning, but the arts in the true sense–that make civilization.

avatar Sam M March 3, 2011 at 8:19 am

Unfortunately, if we go back to a simpler time when things were supposedly more civil… instead of union people holding placards, they’s be talking about children writhing on pikes, calling opponents “hatchet-faced nutmeg dealers,” harping on sexual indiscretions and attacking close family members as illegitimate.

http://reason.com/blog/2010/10/29/attack-ads-circa-1800

I hate to go through this again. But if someone is asserting that there was a more civil time, please disclose when that time actually existed so we can go back, look at the rhetoric from that era and either confirm or deny your claim.

“… (courtship customs, of course, afforded the same training in matters sexual).”

Of course? Someone call Sally Hemming’s office and let her know.

In the meantime, I will agree that Mike Huckabee never should have chided Obama with “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” And it was incredibly uncivil for Obama to respond with “Gone to the White House. Ha ha ha!”

Wait…

It seems to me that what we are looking for is not actual civility, but rather, we want people to lie to themselves and to others about how much civility matters. Or to at least wear a powedered wig when they accuse the other side of torturing children on large metal poles.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 3, 2011 at 10:05 am

Sam M.,
Your continuing assertions to the effect that criticisms of the current dearth of civility and cultural sophistication means the critic assumes there was a halcyon past misses the point by a country mile. Sure, ….we are human, brutes, fallen potentials, serially noisome but the fact remains that this era of unprecedented comfort and leisure has produced a generation of slothful want and indiscriminate yearnings which, among other things, glibly accepts the idea that Pornography is an element of Free Speech as promulgated by the Framers in their , Ho Ho ho :”Living Constitution”. Boil it down and your point simply arrives at the sordid conclusion of “it was always bad so let us enjoy the bad.”. Believe me, I enjoy an awful lot of bad things but I also maintain an abiding understanding of the good and this relativistic , impatient culture would seem to not want to make such a distinction because it is bad for business. We enjoy our little standing along the wayside, tittering about the car wreck.

It is not about prosaic and powdered wig mythology, it is about catching up to the remarkable potentials of modernity ….as opposed to remaining mired in the mud and sanguinary pleasures of more primitive times. As Ed Abbey chided us, we may be the most pampered serfs in all history but we are serfs nonetheless. It is past time to take ownership of the idea of the simultaneous obligations and rewards of liberty…. In This Time. Unless, of course, you’d rather dwell in the house of the French Tennis Court instead of this rustic and hence more pragmatic American Republic.

We should look for civility. In fact, we should demand it even though by all accounts, it would appear to be something we busy humans bargain away as soon as the poker hand gets difficult or the market share might be obliged.

Let the Straw Man and his relativistic carriage rot.

Tim Holton,
We had a lengthy review of the idea of Craft and Motorcycle Maintenance some months back and you raise an interesting point. Perhaps things come to easy for us these days. It seems a stretch that we should all be craft traders in this modern world but if we all were to adapt the Craftsman’s Ethos, the idea that our every produce, from the intellectual and conceptual to the kinetic and tangible is an element of loving labor, we might not be so blithe about the current notion that work is something which intrudes upon leisure. Decadence is the word that comes to mind.

avatar Sam M March 3, 2011 at 10:04 pm

“Your continuing assertions to the effect that criticisms of the current dearth of civility and cultural sophistication means the critic assumes there was a halcyon past misses the point by a country mile.”

But the criticisms I see here ARE based on the idea that things are woste than ever, or uniquely bad now. I am not making this up. Allow me to quote from above:

“… in Revolutionary France… there was at least a moment of circumspection and even conversation about the role of civility in our political lives, though that moment seems largely to have passed…”

Tell it to the guillotined.

“Completely absent in the passing fury over the decline of civility
I presume the modifier “modern” was used for a reason. See, modern society undermines civility. I think this presumes some pre-modern society does not.

“Completely absent in the passing fury over the decline of civility…”

Nothing deslines unless it had previously reached an apex.

“Politics, and political life, was thus a kind of schooling in self-governance and common weal, with the aim of political life being the cultivation of citizens, not the encouragement of individual and self-defined goods.”

This sounds an awful lot like halcyon days. And conveniently forgetful of, say, the phalanx.

“For the ancients, the emphasis was on the the “who”; for moderns, the emphasis is on “gets.””

Not halcyon days?

“courtship customs, of course, afforded the same training in matters sexual”

Note the past tense.

“Modern liberals are the heirs of a longstanding effort to liberate people from the “little platoons” that tempered individual self-expression.”

To be liberated from theese platoons people at sme stage had to have once been under their sway, I presume.

“Civility is indeed a lost art”

I don’t know how to say it any more clearly. For civility to be a lost art, we would have once had to possess it.

I can’t quit fathom that you can read the original post and see it as anything other than, “We used to be civil, but now we are not.” I mean… there are the quotes. I did not make them up.

And for the umpteenth time, I am not arguing that we should accept anything. Rather, I am interested in the truth, because I think it is the best path to progress, or at least something like it.

I used this example before, but here we go again: Society has a problem with boys. Because boys are intnsely interested in girls. So much so that they do a lot of really stupid crap. So we need to keep them in line. Which isn’t easy.

But it’s REALLY not easy if you start the conversation with an assumption like, “The real problem we face is that boys are SUDDENLY INTERESTED IN GIRLS. Because in my day, boys didn’t like girls. They were perfect gentlemen, had no salacious interests, and had sex purely for procreation.”

Well, OK. Except it isn’t true. Worse, it’s damaging. It makes a myth out of the past, and misguides our decisions about the future.

Civility isn’t a “lost art” any more than lust is a new invention. It just isn’t. But that’s what’s being claimed here.

Unless I am reading “lost art” in the wrong way. But what else can it mean?

avatar Sam M March 4, 2011 at 8:41 am

Now that I think it through, probably the best example of what I am talking about here is health care, specifically emergency medicine. Someone new to the field might come in and see that emergency services typically lose a ton of money. So they might be inclined to groan about this fact, look for people to blame, and find ways to fix it.

I would suggest that they look back in time to an era in which emergency medicine was profitable so we can emulate what was done at that time. What they will quickly discover, however, is that emergency medicine has ALWAYS lost money. It’s inherent in the process. People have a way of getting sick at inconvenient times, so you have to staff 24/7. They also fail to get sick at regular intervals, so you need to OVERSTAFF 24/7. So you either underprovide the service, or you supplement it with services that make money so you can afford to lose money on the ER.

That is not to say you have to “accept” substandard service, or “accept” making unsustainable investments. You have to find a way around it. You need to deal with your particular moment in time and al that entails.

But the first thing to NOT do is come in and talk about “the decline in profitability,” or the “lost art of sustainability.” It frames the discussion in an entirely unproductive way and it flies in the face of reality. And anyone who spends political, financial and emotional resources in turning a profit in the ER is either going to fail, or provide an ER service that’s not actually an ER service.

On the other hand, if you can demonstrate that there was a time in which profitability and sustainability were the norm, examining that era COULD be a productive exercise. But you have to actually look at the books. It doesn’t matter if people talked and talked about how profitable it was, or if polite society agreed never to mention the harsh reality in public.

Talking about the decline in civility requires the same reality check. To say that this era demonstrates a “decline in civility” demands more than pointing to uncivil discourse in the modern era. It demands that we establish a standard against which to measure the decline.

This seems axiomatic, and it is more than picking nits. Striving for something and returning to something are two different things entirely.

You can make an argument that there was a Golden Era, and you can make the case for a decline. I disagree. I say we are as civil as ever, if not more. But if you say there is a decline, then refuse to name an apex from which we have declined, that’s begging the question.

I agree that it’s wrong for people to swear at each other in public. I agree that it’s wrong for people to be uncivil in many of the ways in which they are uncivil. I agree we should reject that and seek solutions. But unles you can demonstrate that there has been a decline, I don’t see why groaning about a decline gets you anywhere.

avatar John Médaille March 4, 2011 at 8:42 am

I like this line from “No Country for Old Men”: two old sheriffs discussing the rise of evil represented by the killer Anton. One says, “I think when we stopped hearing “sir” and “ma’am” the rest followed.”

avatar D.W. Sabin March 4, 2011 at 10:32 am

Medaille,
Not to forget “beg yer pardon”.
The Cohen Bros. make films that keep the business interesting….that, and independent film….except the banal and hopefully left behind “mumblecore”, one of our present fruits of static civility.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen March 4, 2011 at 10:55 am

Sam M.,
You impute to me much – including the suggestion that the French Revolution was a high point of politeness (go back and re-read what I wrote, carefully. Don’t be embarrassed to apologize). That propensity to willful misreading alone should lead any reader of your comments to conclude that you aren’t to be taken very seriously. But, I’ll take the bait – I promise, just this once, since I know you’ll consider this an invitation to continue in your accustomed vein, which it is not – to suggest that you slow down and reflect before you start putting together words that bear a tenuous relationship to reality.

I was responding to widespread claims – advanced particularly in light of recent events in Tucson – that society has become less civil. It was actually voices on the Left that implied that things were better in the past. I thought the irony of this implicit claim was rich indeed, since it was the philosophy of modern politics – broadly speaking, liberalism – that sought to rupture the connection between “cives” and “civility.” I sought to point out that according to ancient theory, a commitment to civility requires a set of social assumption in which a connection between “civility” and “city” and “civilization” are understood to be mutually reinforcing. I argued that modern philosophy is premised upon a rejection of this connection.

In your effort to root out any misplaced belief that anything from the past is worthy of consideration (and, just to be clear, my argument was focused on ancient theory and its relationship to the claims of liberal theory in light of contemporary lamentations about the decline of civility), you offer as evidence to the contrary counter-examples like Sally Hemmings and the phalanx (for the record, I’m opposed to Jefferson’s treatment of Sally Hemmings, but I’m a bit more upbeat about the phalanx). Such a tactic is an invitation to your rhetorical opponent to offer any number of counter-examples of modern horror, such as the “reductio ad Hitlerum,” which can then quickly devolve into a game of who can muster ever-more unrelated and irrelevant examples to bolster their position, but I’m not going to engage in a game that’s not designed in fact to prove anything, but rather goes in search of evidence of dubious relevance for positions one already holds. For someone who claims to be a ferocious defender of a true understanding of the past, you bring a suspicious propensity to dismiss anything that’s not contemporary by means of a drive-by example that supposedly disprove any more general claim.

What interests me more is your real motivation. You seem to be arguing as follows: in the past there were principled claims to civility, but in fact behaviors (apparently, you think, ALL behavior) fell far short of those claims. In modern times enlightened people have dismissed those principled claims and attendant niceties – such as lessons in etiquette, table manners, courtship and the like. You argue “we are as civil as ever.” And – if your arguments about the boorish past are correct – we are also as uncivil as ever. You would have us remove the cant and hypocrisy, and live up, or down, to our true natures. You seek authenticity.

What strikes me especially is your frequent invocation of the word “progress.” You imply that we can’t progress if we don’t move past a gauzy nostalgia about the past. But, in the final estimation, you conclude that “we are as civil [and uncivil] as ever.” It’s not “progress” you describe – it’s a kind of constancy of certain kinds of behavior, whether we like it or not. “Progress” consistsin being brutally honest about our brutal selves.

Mine was not an argument about a golden age, but about a better philosophy that might usher in a better future. It’s not about a return – it’s about a better way, albeit one that’s unrecognizable to you since it’s not couched in the language of “progress.” Ironically enough, I think it’s possible to improve our condition by means of a better self-understanding and a conformity to a different set of standards and principles than those that now predominate – particularly the dominant standards of utilitarianism and dominion of the human will. I don’t deny that we have and always will fail to live up to our standards. But, without better standards, we don’t have a hope of becoming a more civil, or more decent, society.

To that end, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there are times that we can learn from the past – not necessarily in every particular, but from time to time. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there were some generally better practices – habituations – that were widely practiced in the past that better conformed to these principles. Use of formality in speech and address was one, as Mr. Medaille suggests. Courtship is another. You seem to sneer at the idea, dismissing by the example of Sally Hemmings that courtship was never anything other than a veneer that hid widespread rape and abuse. I disagree that the practice has no merit worth of consideration. I would invite a frank evaluation of its merits and demerits, but that can’t take place when someone invokes the name of “Sally Hemmings” as a conversation-stopper.

One of the first acts of civility is fair-minded response. That’s been a hallmark of FPR – and especially its splendid commentators – since its inception. You seem to be new here.I invite you to spend some time reading through older posts and the thoughtful, respectful commentary that this site has attracted with remarkable consistency. Habituate yourself to the norms of civility that have been so healthily in evidence here, in contrast to most internet sites. You might even experience something of what I was striving to describe here. And then I would invite you to reconsider your comportment, as any society that seeks to defend a standard of civility will ultimately have to chastise the uncivil.

avatar Mary M March 5, 2011 at 8:27 am

I accept the argument which supports the deterioration of civility and the wound it leaves … as well as accepting that history does not support a “moment” in time of utter and sublime civility. It does seem to me however that in the past these bleeding wounds were at least regularly bandaged with successful attempts to control the bleed…In present day it feels as if we have nicked a larger artery and face exsanguination. (…a bit dramatic I admit.) I am thinking primarily of the classroom setting. (Do any of you have children?) The original (“Civility and Democracy” discussion) RESONATES with a core decline in classroom behavior – and the “thumbing of noses” response from parents when their children are “disciplined”. My impression is there has never been a time in history where such outlandish (i.e. rude, uncivil, disrespectful, etc.) behavior has been allowed from both students and their parents…and this arena is the bleeding artery I am referring to -

avatar D.W. Sabin March 5, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Mary M,
In this short paragraph, you catch a lot. Ahhh “exsanguination”…a particularly picturesque word. My children , day in, day out, impress upon me the idea that dogged investment has its just rewards. This is one of the interesting elements of the discussion. The Baby Boomers decided that the Family was a rumpus room and that the children were to become their friends. We opted to “get along”…..compromise is the standard word. Degeneration was the outcome.

However, when I look at no small number of the young these days, in the face of the rampant stupidity and spectacle about, I can think of no better equipped generation to take the challenge on. Hardship, of course reliably produces the best generations of Americans. Always has, always will because tempered steel is always the strongest.

If I were a betting man, I’d meet the bet that this congruence of liberty in the Maghreb with second thoughts in the West may indeed create a productive reckoning. Liberty and Reverence, one cannot long sustain without the other.

avatar Tim Holton March 5, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Well, I must say, I’m befuddled. I sit here on the Front Porch reading wonderful articles like your own “Abstraction” and “Progressives and Conservatives,” as well as Mark Mitchell’s pieces like “The Neighborly Arts”. Then comes along this bit of reasoning, done completely in the air (“transforming reality into abstraction,” to quote you to yourself), relying on vague, sloppy labels (what happened to, “These labels ['Progressive' & 'Conservative'] hinder often much more than they enlighten?”). When I suggest that the “deeper disease” is actually deeper than what might be found in the clouds of our “culture of abstraction” but in fact down on the ground in our material culture, the reply is in effect, get real —DW Sabin replying to my first comment, “It seems a stretch that we should all be craft traders in this modern world”. I trust that Mr Sabin did not mean to trivialize my position by reducing a point about material culture, civilization, to one about “motorcycle maintenance,” or that simply an attitude change, “adopting the Craftsman’s Ethos,” would cure the deeper disease he dismisses as my misdiagnosis. Does it seem a stretch to say that the modern world is in a crisis and that stretching is exactly what crises demand of us? Does it seem a stretch that we need more jobs? Does it seem a stretch that our economy and political culture are more debased since we began steadily exporting the work that is the foundation of communities? Does it seem a stretch that a mature nation might want to be able to at least dress itself? Does it seem a stretch to suggest we’re seeing uncivil reactions from those who once provided our clothes but now get nothing but our indifference to their life’s work? Again, my best argument can be found right here on this site-—this post from yesterday: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2011/03/they-were-expendable/ . Porchers seem, rightly, to be great boosters of Wendell Berry. If you like his prescriptions vis-a-vis restoring our relationship to nature in providing for our food, why is it such a stretch to think we could restore our relationship to the work of converting nature’s resources, through craft, to provide for shelter, clothing, furnishings and our other needs–and restore civility in the bargain? It’s all helping in the work of creation. Civilization is not primarily abstract discourse and dialogue. And building civilization is not the enemy of civility; quite the opposite. So to the philosophers this craftsman says, we must stretch or die.

Professor Deneen, seems to me you are uncharacteristically sloppy in dismissing the widespread and visceral reaction against an increase in incivility as liberal vectors of the disease created by Hobbes and Locke. Would your diagnosis of Mr Strickland’s anger (see post, “They Were Expendable,” above) be, “You’re just mad because you tried to follow Locke and be useful and productive members of society (“industrious and rational”), better to increase material growth and power that would in turn offer more opportunities for human liberation from natural constraints. Serves you right, you greedy bastard.”? Of course not. From what I’ve read you’re not of that bent at all. Catchwords in the political vocabulary of liberals I know are “tolerance” & “inclusivity,” which you perhaps would dismiss as pure relativism, a fundamental flaw of liberalism. But you can’t argue that they aren’t political instincts that tend toward civility. Why be galled? Surely you’ve discovered that engaged in productive work side-by-side with someone who might describe himself or herself as liberal that their views mattered less than the common cause–material cause–you’d taken up together. In overcoming through work differences of opinion we come down from the clouds of abstraction and find on the ground the cure for the disease of fractious (NOT conservative) abstract categories and loyalties– and most importantly the basis of civility.

But it seems you know this, which is what’s so aggravating. In this piece you rightly connect the material reality of the city and civilization with civility, but then treat civility as if it has nothing to do with the material engagement that building the city and sustaining life there provides. Rather, for you the city is a place for “schooling” in manners and polite discourse and, if I read you right, abstract cultivation in political ideas. In fact, again, you dismiss the importance of “useful and productive” work as a misguided liberal ideal and so much pandering to our baser instincts, like libertine greed. Surely “useful and productive” work has a place in your political philosophy, but why the prejudice against them as primary human activities? Isn’t work the first necessity of life? Why dismiss people who engage in it as suspect liberals? Why assume that it’s the scholars, those who’ve made a point of not cooking the meal or building the table, who invented table manners?

Didn’t mean this to be a rant—especially not intended to sound uncivil or disrespectful. Again, what’s aggravating is that this seems thoroughly inconsistent with other writings I’ve seen here by yourself and other Porchers. But it seems there’s huge room for clarity in the direction of material culture–of reality as opposed to cloudy abstraction. Case in point–I was somewhat amused by the teaser Mark Mitchell has for a recent piece, “Michael Pollin’s 36-hour Dinner Party”: “Is there a connection between building something together and community?” Well, let’s hope Front Porch takes itself seriously enough to at least entertain that question. With all due respect, the answer has been obvious to most of humanity—-the “slow kids” who’ve been doing the building-—since the days of Hephaestus.

avatar T. Chan March 5, 2011 at 11:18 pm

“Rather, for you the city is a place for “schooling” in manners and polite discourse and, if I read you right, abstract cultivation in political ideas. ”

Mr. Horton, Professor Deneen is pointing to a more classical understanding of citizenship (and politics), not to ‘political ideas.” As for productive work — he is not denying the necessity of work, but he would critical of its being regarded as the highest good of a community (or, more exactly, of economic “growth” being the highest good, with the members being just instruments in bringing this about). Productive work may be necessary for survival and an aid in the exercise of virtue, but in itself it is not identical to virtue.

avatar T. Chan March 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Mr. Holton, my apologies for misspelling your last name. A crossing of the synapses…

avatar Paul Seaton March 6, 2011 at 11:07 am

A pedantic (and, hopefully, civilly offered) correction: the (chief) Latin word for “city” is civitas (as in Augustine’s phrases, civitas Dei and civitas hominis). Cives is the plural of civis, “citizen”.

avatar Sam M March 6, 2011 at 11:53 am

Actually, Mr. deneen, i o apologize for micharacterizing your views on the fench Revolution. No excuses, just a bad read and a worse cut and past on my part. If you are going to insist that it was willfully done, so be it.

But the rest of the critique stands. You say, explicitly, that civility is a “lost art of our time.” I disagree. I say “we” neve possessed it. even when we claimed to. The Ancients didn’t. The Founding Fathers didn’t. None of them. Maybe a few heroic folks here and there. But again, if you could mention an era or a place which was in possession of this art, I’d be happy to consider it.

As for this:

“I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there were some generally better practices – habituations – that were widely practiced in the past that better conformed to these principles.”

Yes. And I am pointing out that there were some generally worse practices–habituations–that were widely practiced in the past that conformed less to these principles.

As for willfull misreadings, you need look no further than your own comportment here:

“In your effort to root out any misplaced belief that anything from the past is worthy of consideration”

Please be specific. I am kind enough to try to offer specific examples. sometimes I fail at that. But I try. So please, given your self-assigned reputation as a charitable reader, please point out where I said or insinuated what I have quoted above. I will be happy to cut and paste quotations that say the exact opposite.

A similarly bizarre example of “charity” comes in your discussion of my use of the word “progress.” But actually, it wasn’t a single word. There was more at the end of that sentence. Perhaps you should re-read it and reconsider your contention that I am unable to recognize you obviously quite nuanced vision of what progress really is.

Perhaps you ought to read through some of the threads on your own. Perhaps there was a golden age of civility in the comments. If there were, I would suggest that it’s an art you have since lost.

avatar Patrick J. Deneen March 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Thanks for these many responses.

Paul, thanks so much for the correction of my rusty Latin (and I hope you’re well, old friend). Of course, “civitas” even more clearly reveals the etymological connection between the original Latin and “civility.”

To Sam M., I thank you for your retraction and apology regarding your misunderstanding of my mention of the “fench [sic.] Revolution.” I’ll let stand what I previously said in response to the remainder of your comment.

To Tim Holton, I think we may be in some violent agreement (notwithstanding the efforts of Mr. Chan to distinguish us). I don’t believe that anything that I wrote can be construed to diminish the centrality of “craft” to a healthy and more civil society, including one that is likely to be more civil. Indeed, I’m very grateful for your welcome invocation of Sennett’s book, and your reflection on how it relates to the cultivation of civility. The relatively smaller setting central to ancient theory in part was commended so that we could see the more clearly our mutual need and reliance. It was believed that a more immediate experience of our proximate needs and generational interaction would be more likely to induce a spirit of responsibility, care and beauty. Perhaps here one can bring together aspects of ancient theory’s emphasis upon virtue and more recent discussions of “practices” that are particularly to be found in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre (especially “After Virtue”). A society that rejects the exercise of “practice” aimed at the good of an activity that is intrinsic in the activity itself, in favor of a utilitarian ethic, will likely display both bad work and higher degrees of incivility.

In any event, the absence of a sustained discussion of craft in this piece was due to a difference in emphasis, not a rejection of its central necessity. Mr. Sabin is correct that the ideal of “good work” has been a central concern of FPR from the outset. I don’t see what I wrote here as a departure or rejection of that commitment, and I’m sorry if you understand me to be saying otherwise.

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