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Boston, a trendsetter in...niceness?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  September 20, 2013 01:12 PM

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Boston is known for many things, but public civility is not first among them. Former Boston University professor Daniel Monti thinks, though, that the city has gotten a bad rap. Monti, who taught sociology at BU from 1991-2009, argues in his recent book, "Engaging Strangers: Civil Rites, Civic Capitalism, and Public Order in Boston," that over the last 100 years the public culture in the city has become significantly more unified. His argument is based on hundreds of interviews with a wide range of people from the city. Gone are the days, he explains, when political and social differences threatened to flare into violence and disorder. This is not to say that everything is perfect in the city-economic inequality is growing, crime and racial divisions are still a problem. But Monti argues that, remarkably, Boston civic life continues to function with relative harmony even in the face of such divisions, making the city a trendsetter in America, and a sign that there's hope yet for our public discourse.

Ideas caught up with Monti by phone while he was in Chicago. This is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

IDEAS: Explain the premise of your book to readers.

DAN MONTI: The civic life of people in Boston has changed dramatically in the last century. Compared to the way people were treated publically, it’s a far more congenial and civil place than it was a few decades ago. The book chronicles all the ways everyday life in Boston has changed fundamentally and positively over 100 years.

This is a particularly interesting period in our country. The number of voices on the Left and the Right declaring that our culture is not very whole and that people seem disinclined to engage each other, those voices are on the rise, which makes the theme of this book all the more surprising. It’s a minority opinion in the intellectual community, but a very positive one.

IDEAS: What methods do you use to make that argument?

DM: I’m a social scientists and social historian, so my sources are historical as well as first hand observations and interviews that I did in my eighteen years living in Boston. From the day I arrived in 1991, I ostensibly began this book.

We’re talking about 18 years worth of field work in the city of Boston, talking to hundreds of people of different races, ethnicities, social classes, on every possible issue you could imagine. I’ve talked with priest, nuns, civic leaders, trouble-makers and saints, trying to understand better the mosaic of what Boston is and has become.

IDEAS: What are some specific examples of how Bostonians have become nicer in public?

DM: One of the main things I work off of is the famous French observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville. There are three or four lines of arguments he raises that I comment on, including the argument that Americans are more equal than alike. For all their differences in wealth, power, and prestige, [Bostonians] have come to look upon the city as theirs in a way that would have been surprising 100 years ago.

If you go back to look at the history of the late 19th-century, it was a far more rambunctious and contentious place. Something fundamentally has shifted on the social and cultural landscape of the people who live and work there.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the current era of civil comity is we’re in a period of history when we know economic inequality is growing more different, not more alike. This cultural comity has occurred in a period of time when we’ve become more unequal. In another period of history you would have expected people who were doing worse to take it out on their neighbors. They’re not doing that.

IDEAS: Isn’t it a bad thing that people who are worse off in America aren’t angrier about it?

DM: My job as a social historian is to describe and account for why, under such circumstances, people have not taken out after each other. Yes, the growth of inequality is real, but we are well-positioned to carry out that conversation with a sense of cultural concordance that we accept each other’s presences as cultural equals, in a far more civil and productive environment.

IDEAS: In recent years lots of people have argued that Americans are segregating into increasingly homogenous communities, in terms of ideology. Is the increased cohesion you observed in Boston partly a result of people with different outlooks moving away?

DM: As early as Tocqueville and James Madison, there was this concern that America would break up into small private circles and that the only realm to bring these different voices together would be politics. The irony is that hasn’t worked out recently. In fact, what you see is our political system has become an environment that seems singularly incapable of carrying on those conversations.

Even as our politics seem to be frozen in time and space, there are other realms where people from different backgrounds routinely confront each other, deal with each other, in an entirely workable fashion. Even some of the hot button issues of the day are being talked about in a way that is abrasive, but they lack the vehemence and violence that were commonplace in the 19th century.

That’s not nearly as Pollyannaish as it seems, because the whole book chronicles the ways people take after each other, fight each other. Boston isn’t crime free or conflict free, but the matter in which we conduct ourselves everyday is a lot more congenial, productive, and civil than in the past.

IDEAS: You call Boston's achievement "singular." Why has Boston been a leader in this increase in public civility?

DM: First of all, I don’t know how exclusive the lessons I have seen in Boston are. My guess is people in other parts of the country have learned these lessons, too. As to how unique the city of Boston is, one of the reasons the lessons stand out so clearly in Boston is people in Boston had a tradition of practicing tribal politics and talking about their respective animosities openly. The nature of our celebration has changed dramatically and those are hard won lessons that 19th century reformers hoped for but frankly never expected that people in Boston would embrace.

You can read more in Monti's book, "Engaging Strangers: Civil Rites, Civic Capitalism, and Public Order in Boston.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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