So the Madison Common Council has reinforced the supposed "right" of children to congregate unsupervised by any responsible adult until late at night (11 p.m. weeknights, midnight Fridays and Saturdays). No, the little darlings, neglected by their parents (should they be lucky to have a set), remain beyond the reach of our policing authorities.
Apparently, our council thinks police Chief Noble Wray is a Bull Connors wannabe, indiscriminately wielding baton sticks, fire hoses and dogs at innocent cherubs. My experience has been that the Madison gendarmes are the first line in our community's deep and rich social services system. But what do I know? (Cue Kyle Nabilcy.)
If the nocturnal denizens of our parking lots and basketball courts, under-aged and aimless, were practicing their French pronunciation or rehearsing their roles in a Thornton Wilder play rather than turning the air blue with coarse invective, I chance to say there would be little complaint.
But suggesting that there be any curfew at all grates the ACLU crowd, which is of the mindset that individual liberties are like the universe is thought to be: ever-expanding into infinity (and beyond!) without compensating responsibility.
At the Mt. Vernon bookstore, I purchased a small handbook entitled Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.
At the age of 15 George Washington copied these rules from a 17th-Century English book of etiquette called Youths Behavior, or Decency in Conversation Amongst Men. That tome in turn derived from a 16-Century set of behavior rules compiled by French Jesuits. This was far before Washington had established his wealth. (Ultimately, he became probably our wealthiest president.)
The diplomatic corps etiquette maven Letitia Baldrige tells us that this code of conduct "molded his character and helped him assume the leadership of his country. ... The young writer refers constantly to modesty and self-restraint; he reminds us of a need for habitual consideration of others. ...He did of course, grow up in ...an era in which good and bad behavior were clearly understood by adults. ...He would find our society today extremely foreign and probably unkind."
Hey, Letitia, you ho. Tell that to the Madison Common Council.
Of course, she is correct. So I reproduce some of the 110 Rules of Civility here, with a mind toward our young and unrestrained inhabitants. See if they don't seem relevant today, albeit archaically worded. (I reproduce the unique capitalizations and spellings.)
George's rules of civility
2nd: When in company, put not your Hands to any Part of the body, not usually Discovered. (I.E., keep your hands off your groin!)
8th: At Play and at Fire it's Good manners to Give Place to the last Comer and affect not to Speak Louder than Ordinary. (I.E. Hold it down, homie.)
12th: Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs; Rowl not the Eyes, lift not one eyebrow higher than the other, wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak.
16th: Do not Puff up the Cheeks, Loll not out the tongue rub the hands or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the lips too open or too Close.
49th: Use no reproachful language against any one; neither Curse nor Revile. (I.E. Enough with the trash talk.)
52nd: In your Apparel by Modest and endeavor to accommodate Nature rather than procure Admiration keep to the Fashion of your equals Such as are Civil and orderly with respect to Times and Places. (I.E. Hike your pants up.)
53rd: Run not in the Streets, neither go too slowly nor with Mouth open go not Shaking yr Arms kick not the earth with yr feet, go not upon the Toes, nor in a Dancing fashion.
56th: Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for 'tis better to be alone than in bad Company.
68th: Go not thither where you know not whether you Shall be Welcome or not. (I.E. Get off my lawn!)
73rd: Think before you Speak; pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.
109th: Let your recreations be Manful not Sinful.
110th: Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial Fire called Conscience.
Can we please add this to the curriculum of our public schools?
The external practice of virtue
Historian Richard Brookhiser writes that the Rules ...
Are concerned with etiquette - how to walk, talk, dress and eat. These are the externals of life and they can strike us as superficial. Yet ...externals have a way of working inwards. The Rules are exercises in attention. In order to decide when to properly take off your hat, you must first be aware that there are others about you that you should salute. ... This awareness of our social environment is necessary in dozens of situations in life, from the dinner table to the fire (Rule #98: "Spit not into the fire, especially if there be meat before it.")
Whenever we talk, drink or spit, we have to be mindful of those around us, whether they are friends or strangers, because they, like us, have sensibilities that are deserving of respect. Civility, as it turns out, is an external practice of virtue.
What Washington's code of conduct comes down to are these two core (and mutually reinforcing) principles:
- Be considerate of others
- Show some respect for yourself.
Material poverty (and that is a relative concept) is no excuse for acting anything other than a lady or a gentleman. Put another way: poor ways produce poor results. We're kidding ourselves if we think we're helping these poor "victims" by sanctioning anti-social behavior.