making a case for civility

One of my favorite columnist is Peggy Noonan, a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan who now writes for the Wall Street Journal. She was a producer for CBS before she worked for Reagan, and has written several books since, including the well-received Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now. (You can read her columns, without subscription, at

I covet her job, of course. I wouldn’t mind making a living writing a column once a week. But I appreciate her sensibilities as well. A devout Catholic, she has become more of a cultural critic than a political commentator. And a constant champion for civility.

Today, for instance, in Information Overload is Nothing New she reviews William Powers’ influential book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. She takes some time to reflect on a single chapter, a chapter about the Roman senator Seneca who bemoaned the information glut of the first century.

Noting the “restless energy of the hunted mind,” Seneca said “”the man who spends his time choosing one resort after another in a hunt for peace and quiet, will in every place he visits find something to prevent him from relaxing.”

Today, as Powers observes, we just want to know if the hotel has wi-fi. Both Noonan and Powers value the connects we might make, on Facebook for example, but both worry about our addiction to distraction.

Noonan puts it this way:

A lot of people seem here but not here. They are pecking away on a piece of plastic; they have withdrawn from the immediate reality around them and set up temporary camp in a reality that exists in their heads.

I see my own children do this and I don’t know if I taught it to them or learned in from them. But I’m grateful for the reminder of how dangerous this is.

Even Seneca was concerned about how the Romans were observing, grazing and skimming information “in the mere passing,” allowing the crowd to lead us into shallower lives, not deeper ones.

Noonan often makes me think about such things.

Two weeks ago she wrote about the Tea Party without ever mentioning it. In “America is at Risk of Boiling Over” she says the biggest change in her lifetime is that our citizens no longer expect that their children will have better life then they did, noting the huge disconnect between the political class and ordinary people. Our leaders, she fears, “make their moves, manipulate this issue and that, and keep things at a high boil. And this at a time when people are already in about as much hot water as they can take. ”

This lack of thoughtfulness is a constant theme for her. Last week she discussed the problems of customer service. In “We Pay Them to be Rude to Us” she writes about the airline attendant who cussed out a passenger over the intercom and then took the escape chute. She blames this on the collapse of good manners and sees this failure everywhere: in the doctor’s office and at airport security, pointing out that we no longer have the energy to object. She writes: “Just when we needed more than ever the formality and agreed-upon rules of manners to act as guard rails, we threw them aside. And now no one knows how to act anymore. ”

I wrote about the flight attendant too, but have to agree that she did it better. I suppose that’s why she gets the big bucks for it. And the talented artists to illustrate her point.

But I’m not jealous.

I’m grateful.

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