Saturday, April 5, 2008

WSJ Discovers Civility

There's a very nice write up of the civility campaign in Saturday's WSJ (subscription required), with a cameo from blogger Jesse Newburn at Hometown Columbia. We often wonder why you don't see well-told pieces like this in the local media.

Here's how it kicks off:

COLUMBIA, Md. -- Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, 15 miles northeast of here, has a professor of civility. He is P.M. Forni, a 56-year-old Italian of elegant comportment and genteel speech who, a few years ago, set out to imbue America with "gracious goodness."

Who in the Sam Hill does he think he is?

That's what Heather Kirk-Davidoff thought when she noticed a proliferation of bumper stickers on cars around her neighborhood here in Columbia, a city of about 100,000. "Choose Civility in Howard County," the stickers said.

The best comes at the end:

Then came a rap on the door: It was the guest he had agreed to invite for an hour-long cordial exchange on the question of civility. Dr. Forni seated Ms. Kirk-Davidoff at his glass-topped table, offered her a fruit tart, which she declined, and cut the small talk.

"I have a sense you have an objection to my work," he said.

"You know, I live in Columbia," said Ms. Kirk-Davidoff. "It's a community built to foster civility."

"A utopian enterprise," Dr. Forni said, going on to talk of longitudinal behavioral studies and the function of mirror neurons. "You don't like the fact that people should be told explicitly what is good and what is bad?" he asked.

"It's the rules," said Ms. Kirk-Davidoff. "When we learn rules without learning compassion, the rules can do the opposite. Jesus didn't say, 'I am the rule,' right?"

Dr. Forni was quiet for a moment. "Yes," he said. "Jesus said, 'I am the way.' If I had met you before, probably I would have used 'way.' The 25 ways of being considerate and kind."

He managed a smile. The pastor smiled back and stuck out her hand. The professor of civility shook it.

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