Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1998
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JUNE 1998



P U B L I C    P O L I C Y    A N D    I N T E R N A T L.    A F F A I R S

"Are We a Nation of Boors?"
Author's Notebook
By Dale Keiger

If civility is fundamentally a matter of acknowledgement--and after six months of reporting on the Hopkins Civility Project, I concluded that it is--then a lot of things about our anonymous, urban societies begin to make more sense. For example, for years I've been fascinated by the popularity of sports regalia. When I walk down the street in Baltimore, I pass kids wearing Green Bay Packer caps, Chicago Bulls shirts, and Baltimore Ravens sweatpants. Sometimes, all three will adorn the same kid. When I was boy, sports clothing was limited to ballcaps and T-shirts, and we would wear only the stuff from our knothole baseball team, or the Cincinnati Reds. No one ever would have dreamed of wearing, say, a Yankees cap or Dodgers T-shirt. The Reds were the hometown team, and we were loyal.

These kids I see today, they're loyal to...what? Yes, here in Baltimore I see plenty of Orioles and Ravens gear, but clearly the loyalty of youth, and adults, as well, is not steadfastly with the home teams. That kid wearing the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls tank-top is not loyal to Chicago, a place he probably never has seen. He's loyal to a style, to an image, to a mystique, to Nike (whose swoosh-logoed cap probably adorns his head). Why? To be sure, pervasive mass media plays a significant role. But also, I think, that kid lacks loyalty to Baltimore because he doesn't feel acknowledged as someone who matters, who is part of this city, part of an intricate urban weave. In dozens of ways, he's told he doesn't count, doesn't matter. He's unacknowledged as a citizen of worth. So the hell with it-his loyalty is up for grabs, with shrewd marketers doing most of the grabbing.

All around me, cars sport bumper stickers that tell me about their drivers. I've Got a Great Kid at Franklin Middle School. Musicians Know the Score. Vietnam Veteran. Pro Family-Pro Children-Pro Choice. I'd Rather be Bowling. Dedicated to Pissing Off the Radical Right. Why is everyone telling me these things? Why is it important that I know your church, your kid's grades, your leisure pursuits, your sexual orientation? The answer, I think, is that people feel unacknowledged, daily. They plaster their identities on minivan bumpers because they feel a quiet desperation to be recognized, to fit somewhere, to show that they matter to someone, since daily urban life tells them that they matter for nothing.

Strike a blow for civility, and clean bumpers-look a stranger in the eye tomorrow, and tell her, "Good morning."