Bring Back Respectability

"Bring Back Respectability," The American Enterprise, 1996.


Picking up trash, removing graffiti, asking the beggars to move on-at first I had trouble deciding which of these activities (any one of which would be easy to carry out) would be my choice for making our communities more livable. Then it occurred to me that all three have to do with respectability, or keeping up appearances. So perhaps the first thing we need to do is to think differently about public decorum.

Trash, graffiti, and begging are all things we once refused to tolerate. They are not so much dangerous as offensive, and because of this, they don’t get the attention we give to crime. But they are much like crime: They shock, they offend our sense of the way things ought to be, and in doing so they undermine our confidence that more grievous offenses will be dealt with effectively.

Why do we allow what we used to forbid? Because, I think, we have ceased to believe in the value of respectability. In the late 1960s, a notion very hostile to respectability, the notion that people can live lifestyles created by themselves and not dictated by others, grew up. It was said that people should abandon hypocrisy and live from the inside out, as though outside appearances were unimportant. A lifestyle based on self-expression was supposed to permit the individual to be honest to himself rather than be bound by others’ expectations.

But not caring what others think is a license for obnoxious behavior. You litter or leave trash behind. As a graffiti “artist,” you take possession of public spaces and leave your signature. As a beggar, you challenge and embarrass others.

UNZ [pdf]