In Prospect

Spring 1998

We’re pleased, if a bit stunned, at the reception accorded our last issue, "An Agenda for Giuliani II." The mayor incorporated into his January State of the City speech a host of our suggestions, on matters from illegitimacy to the public schools to City University, and he devoted the whole of a second speech the following month to our ideas on how to make New York a more civil city. That "civility" speech in particular—in which the mayor generously acknowledged City Journal’s contribution—hit a nerve not just locally but throughout the U.S. The mayor found himself on national television expounding his views, and the response of Florida’s Republican Party chairman was typical: "His advocacy of civility is a message that most Americans kind of long for."

Only Giuliani’s hometown greeted the speech with bemusement, even hostility. Here, too many remain trapped, like fossils in limestone, in a worldview, formed in the 1960s, deeply suspicious of civility. Thousands of New Yorkers see the mayor’s call to civility as a threat—from those who man the public and private social service agencies (and have a financial as well as an ideological stake in the sixties’ nostrums) to Gotham’s jean-clad midtown journalists, who tote laptop computers in satchels that look like castoffs from the Paris student protesters of 1968 and who cherish a fantasy of perpetual countercultural rebelliousness. The threat they perceive is real. For the mayor’s speech is one more sign that the sixties are over.

That period’s slogans—let it all hang out; if it feels good, do it—rested on a conception of personal authenticity unadulterated by the stifling conventionality of an uptight and hypocritical society. They rested, too, on belief in a personal morality beyond the claims of mere law. These ideas found embodiment in (among other things) the sexual revolution and today’s cultural norm of expressive individualism, and they went hand in hand with a rejection of tradition, manners, decorum, standards—all elements of civility. So just as Mayor Giuliani’s successful campaign against crime flies in the face of such sixties’ shibboleths as the idea that the system rather than the criminal is to blame for crime, so his call to civility rejects that era’s claims to unlimited personal autonomy and reasserts the claims of others, of the community, upon the self. Teach kids civics in the schools or tell people not to blast music, Giuliani’s critics fear, and next thing you know you’ll have to limit your sexual freedom and accept that your life is tightly bounded by the responsibilities of adulthood and citizenship.

The ideas of the sixties nearly killed the cities—the era’s political ideas on crime, poverty, and welfare and also its cultural ideas on drugs and personal responsibility, on sex, marriage, and illegitimacy. Its contempt for civility also degraded urban life. Cities are among  mankind’s greatest works of art, a man-made realm where people live so close together that they must have attained a high measure of civilization to be capable of all the exquisite mutual adjustments necessary for our life together.

Many of these mutual adjustments are matters not only of manners and customs but also of law—traffic laws and nuisance regulations, for example, which the city has largely not enforced for years, in the belief that loud noise was a cultural norm for part of New York’s population or that rude, reckless driving is harmless. But of course all these nuisances, even when they are not actually dangerous, make people unwilling to live in big cities. Just as the Giuliani administration has disproved the old orthodoxy about policing and shown that attention to little offenses will prevent big ones from happening, it may well be about to disprove an even older orthodoxy: that you can’t legislate morality. The fact is, law, morality, customs, and manners are all points on a single continuum. At least if you enforce the existing laws against incivility, you can impress upon people their responsibilities to one another. That consciousness in turn will make them genuinely more civil. And that will further restore the city’s health and make it a richer medium in which every individual can accomplish the highest development of which human nature is capable.