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Groups trying to restore lost art of civility // MANNERS, PLEASE

Dennis Rodman shouldn't have kicked that cameraman, and Roberto Alomar shouldn't have spit on the umpire. But what do you expect of spoiled superstars?

Even worse is the way ordinary people are behaving these days. Enraged drivers, sullen store clerks, pundits screaming on television, the casually obscene language among kids at the mall.

Yet what do you expect in a society where people hardly have time to talk to their children, much less meet their neighbors or go to church or vote? A place where polls say our trust in government, religion and each other has been declining for decades.

If you are alarmed by this coarsening of America, you are not alone. Just in the past few months, groups all over the country have decided to do something about it.

They range from a breakfast bunch in Sarasota to academics at well-funded think tanks in Boston and Philadelphia. Some want to see better manners; others are interested in civic renewal, a re-engagement of citizens in community life.

Believe it or not, civility is suddenly very fashionable in the Congress of the United States.

The world has always had its share of rudeness. One criticism of the new civility movement is that human beings are really no worse than they've ever been.

Yes and no.

The concept of civility dawned in the Western mind about 500 years ago, said Stephen Carter, a Yale Law School professor who is writing a book on civility.

"People ate with their hands, they urinated in the street and they killed each other over petty disputes," he said. "It was not a very civil time by our understanding."

So granted, standards change.

But even today's middle-aged baby boomers remember a time when elbows were kept off the table, elderly women were offered a seat on the bus and children got their mouths washed out with soap for saying words that are now common on the evening sitcoms.

That was also a time when mothers were expected to stay home, blacks sat in the back of the bus and war seemed a reasonable response to foreign policy disputes.

That is when the mistake was made, Carter said.

"In the '60s and early '70s, as part of throwing away what many people saw as a repressive system of standards, we thought the enemy was standards," he said.

Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University who founded the communitarian movement, agrees the old ways were unfair and authoritarian.

"We basically destroyed that society and . . . undermined all its institutions, from the family to the churches," he said. "We did not replace this society with any new shared understanding. We shouldn't go back to the '50s but find new shared understanding."

Enter the think tanks.