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After being cut off by another driver in traffic and slamming on your brakes, you stop at the next service station for gas, your adrenaline still pumping, only to be made to wait by a clerk who is busy flirting with a girlfriend but who finally, after finishing a cigarette, emerges from his grimy booth and saunters sullenly to your car and stands outside the window, not speaking, barely glancing your way, waiting for you to state your needs, which he fulfills silently, neither cleaning your wind-shield nor checking your oil, and when he is done, he speaks his first words, "Sixteen-fifty, " and glowers at you when you lack exact change, but at last, after a period of further flirtation, drops a few greasy, torn dollars and some dirty coins into your palm, and now your blood is boiling, so you pull out of the station a little too fast, narrowly missing another motorist, who raises his middle finger and mouths an obscenity at you . . .
In the middle of the unruly nineteenth century, there were no automobiles, but America was a gog over railroads. For the first time in human history, horseback was not the fastest way to travel. An entrepreneur named Leland Stanford hammered a golden spike into a rocky Utah plateau, and the coasts were connected by three thousand miles of track. Everybody wanted to ride. Everybody suddenly had someplace to go. The owners of the railroads grew wealthy. Naturally, the passengers were divided into classes; that was the American way. The first-class coaches often had gold fittings, and the third- or fourth-class cars might have nomore than hard wooden benches, but all the trains were full.
Travel in those days was necessarily in groups. Nobody but the very rich could afford to travel alone. One bought a ticket and sat down in a train car full of strangers. Doubtless the excited passengers jostled each other for space, but although the Europeans were already looking down on American manners, it was not yet the nation's fashion to be rude. On the contrary, this remarkable new technology worked as well as it did, moving the citizenry from city to city, because the travelers understood their obligation to treat each other well. They purchased guides to proper behavior, like Politeness on Railroads by Isaac Peebles, and tried to follow its sensible rules: "[Whispering, loud talking, immoderate laughing, and singing should not be indulged by any passenger" was one. "Passengers should not gaze at one another in an embarrassing way' ran another.' Conductors were soon cracking down on passengers who "indulg[ed] personal preferences at the expense of other passengers. "°
Well, of course: to travel so far together, packed shoulder to shoulder like chess pieces in their little box, everybody had to behave or the ride would become intolerable. Everyone followed the rules for the sake of their fellow passengers, and they did so, as one historian has noted, out of a spirit of "self-denial and the self-sacrifice of one's own comfort for another's." Alone of God's creation, human beings can make those choices, setting aside their own needs and desires for the sake of living in society with others. And so this nineteenth-century understanding captures two of the gifts that civility brings to our lives: First, it calls on us to sacrifice for others as we travel through life. And, second, it makes the ride tolerable.
But nowadays we have automobiles, and we travel both long and short distances surrounded by metal and glass and the illusion that we are traveling alone. The illusion has seeped into every crevice of our public and private lives, persuading us that sacrifices are no longer necessary. If railroad passengers a century ago knew the journey would be impossible unless they considered the comfort of others more important than their own, our spreading illusion has taken us in the other direction. We care less and less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers. We may see them as obstacles or competitors, or we may not see them at all, but unless they happen to be our friends, we rarely think we owe them anything.
When I ponder the shape of this incivility crisis, I think of a boy wearing droopy pants (whom we encounter in chapter 4), the link between the New York Yankees and Levittown (which we discuss in chapter 3), and the obsessive Danish chess genius Aron Nimzovich (whom we will meet in chapter 17). But, perhaps because I am speaking of the way we travel, I most often think about the man at Houston Intercontinental Airport who skipped his security check and literally shut the place down.
You may remember the story. In July yes, a man raced past the security gates in Houston without bothering with such formalities as walking through the metal detector or having his carry-on luggage screened. The guards, taken by surprise and perhaps not as well trained as they should have been, were unable to stop the man--let us call him Selfish Passenger--who swiftly disappeared into the crowd. Probably Selfish Passenger was simply being selfish, but the airport authorities, rather than risk the chance that the man was armed, decided to evacuate both Continental Airlines terminals, requiring every individual in the two buildings-some seven thousand people-to leave and then to be screened again before reentry. This process took the better part of four hours. Selfish Passenger's rush through the gates delayed at least forty flights, caused thousands of fellow passengers to miss connecting flights, and generally made lots of people's day miserable. Civility. Copyright © by Stephen L. Carter. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.