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As Long as We Remember...

July 22, 2005

Civility: The Curse of the Thinking Class

Roy Meachum

Regardless of their other purposes for coming together, the decent and caring human beings who formed the Committee for Frederick County seem positively fixated on attempting to restore good manners where they had seldom been before, notably the public political forum.

>From the very outset I had serious problems with the notion that any >group would set itself up as the arbiter of what passed as passable behavior among politicians and the media. For "civility" to really work, it still seems to me, a serious lobotomy would be required; an operation that severs all passion, leaving people incapable of rousing emotions on any subject.

The word itself smacks of dusty skin reeking of violet water and rice face powder; it lingers as an anachronism that vanished with the stern injunction one must do no more than cross one's ankles in public and never - heaven forbid - the legs! And not just females: I remember being lectured on that score.

Readers might be more familiar with the once-strong taboo against ever discussing in polite company the chancy topics of sex, politics and religion. I suffered that excruciating boredom, notably at formal Washington dinners where diners were also programmed to talk equally to their partners on either side. I once had a former ambassador's wife interrupt her own talk to switch her face in the other direction. Protocol above all!

None of those past prohibitions lingers and for good cause: Life is far more interesting out of a moralistic straight-jacket tailored by others, in this instance the Committee for Frederick County, which would curb constitutionally guaranteed free speech.

No one has ever reported, in public or private, who first proposed adoption of the word "civility" as the shorthand for what the committee is trying to say. I suspected then-schools superintendent Jack Dale, simply because I knew the office was self-endowed with the heavy sense of Divine Right.

Dr. Dale, to his credit, exercised his Promethean powers more lightly than some predecessors, especially Noel Farmer, who delighted in calling on the carpet members of the Board of Education, his nominal bosses. I could be wrong, of course; it may have been any of the other honorable ladies and gentlemen, including County Commissioner Jan Gardner.

But then I strongly question committee member Gardner's enthusiasm for the concept of courtesy and thoughtfulness towards others, because of the way she robustly supported colleague John "Lennie" Thompson's tooth-and-nail attack on Frederick Muslims' hopes of building a mosque and school.

Had she subscribed in the least degree to the "civility" dogma, the University of Notre Dame graduate would have comforted women and their children mercilessly exhausted by Mr. Thompson's Star Chamber tactics. She did not, voting to continue a late-night hearing until the early morning hours, ignoring the number of sleeping kids in the Frederick High auditorium. Would it have made a difference if the families had been her fellow Catholics?

Your suspicions are entirely correct if you sense I find laughably tragic the committee and its pretense of acting as the watchdog on the community's public etiquette. Furthermore, the rest of us have every right to question the honorable ladies and gentlemen's sincerity.

In the six years since the committee issued the first pronouncement of its civility platform, the atmosphere in Frederick's corridors of governmental power has degenerated to the level of brawls. Courtesy, consideration and respect among public officials have been dumped in the community's toilet tank.

The chief offenders are the aforementioned Mr. Thompson and the city's current mayor who takes second place to no one for abrasive and destructive behavior, including offensive speech. Jennifer Dougherty has morale among ci ty workers down to the depth where it has to reach up to touch a snake's belly.

During the worst decline in custom, mores and fundamental consideration for others witnessed in my long professional years, the so-called Committee for Frederick County has scarcely issued a peep; now it threatens to thunder the heaven with hypocritical bombast, lest any and all candidates in this year's municipal races hesitate to grab their forelocks, bend deeply and kiss the committee's royal feet!

What more can be said about any organization founded in imitation of the hollow bombast of the Wizard of Oz?

Civility, indeed!

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