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Jewish World Review June 28, 1999 /14 Tamuz 5759

Ben and Daniel Wattenberg

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Ben Wattenberg


To sir with love -- MANNERS AND MORALS are going back to school next year.

The Louisiana House recently followed the state's upper chamber in approving (89-19) a bill that will require students in kindergarten through grade 5 to address teachers and school employees as sir and ma'am. Once the tots have the hang of it, the law will work its way up a grade each year until all grades are covered.

Then, faster than you can say To Sir With Love, the U.S. House of Representatives approved amendments that will allow states to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms and make it harder to sue public schools when students pray or read the Bible on school grounds.

The reaction of the left-leaning opinion elites to these moves to restore manners and morals in the schools has been a predictable and self-contradictory mixture of grave, ACLU-style First Amendment hyper-vigilance and you-can't-be-serious sarcasm.

Establishment clause absolutists fear that religious war is always just over the horizon: Start by tacking the Ten Commandments up on the particle board, and the next thing you know, our classrooms are sectarian combat zones, scholastic Beiruts.

At the same time, opponents want to dismiss these small steps to restore decorum in public schools as empty, politically opportunistic gestures: Kids are mowing down their classmates and you want to... hang the Ten Commandments in classrooms and make 8-year-olds call their teachers "Sir"?

Don't make me laugh.

"What happens after the next school shooting?" wondered Maureen Dowd, for example. "Will Congress mandate that the rest of the Bible be stenciled across high school walls?"

And poor Mike Foster, the Louisiana governor behind the state's new address code. When he tried to reassure a skeptical Bill Press on CNN that "we're not going to hang these kids" if they don't comply, a theatrically "relieved" Press retorted, "Oh, good -- I'm glad to hear that."

What does one say to the almost comically exaggerated forebodings of the establishment clause absolutists? To their argument that posting the commandments in classrooms leads by ineluctable degrees to, as Dowd seemed to suggest, "the Crusades, Henry VIII, Salem, Father Coughlin, Hitler, Kosovo..."?

Somehow, it brings to mind Woody Allen in "Manhattan Murder Mystery." He drags his wife (Diane Keaton) out of the opera before it is over, explaining, "I can't listen to too much Wagner; I get the urge to conquer Poland."

It is hard at first not to laugh off the notion that mandating certain niceties of address and displaying the commandments is going to stop psychotic teens armed with TEC-9s.

But then again, they used to laugh at the "broken windows" theory.

Back in 1982, criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson argued that serious violent crime was intimately connected to seemingly trivial public disorder -- aggressive panhandling, public drunkenness, graffiti and their now-famous broken windows.

Such disorder sent signals to the law-abiding and criminal classes alike that the police were either unable or unwilling to maintain order. The former were intimidated; the latter were emboldened. Coming down hard on public disorder, they argued, would reverse the signals, giving the law abiding the courage to reassert themselves in their communities and giving the bad guys pause. A vicious circle of urban decay and crime would be replaced by a virtuous circle.

In 1994, New York Police commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani adopted "broken windows" as the basis of their enforcement tactics. They started running in turnstile-jumpers and harrying squeegee guys -- to the derisive laughter of elite opinion-mongers and the indignant yelps of hyper-vigilant civil libertarians.

But, felonies in New York dropped by 50 percent and murders fell by 68 percent (1993-98). Among the happy byproducts of the policy, the police discovered that many of those they charged with minor infractions were also wanted for more serious felonies. Now, New Yorkers don't laugh at broken windows anymore.

Like fixing broken windows, requiring decorum in the classroom and posting the Ten Commandments seem insignificant in and of themselves. But they, too, send important signals: If we don't tolerate rudeness, we certainly won't tolerate truancy or drugs or weapons in school. And such signals have self-reinforcing feedback effects. Ultimately, from small beginnings, perhaps disorder in the schools can be transformed into a climate conducive to learning.

Things came full circle in New York recently when Mayor Giuliani handed out wallet cards -- to the police -- reminding them to address citizens as sir and ma'am.

If New York cops can learn to show a little respect, then anyone can, even American teen-agers and -- who knows? -- maybe even New York Senate candidates like Mr. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, is a contributing editor for and George.


06/15/99: Crime hawk turns
06/04/99: The forest and the trees
06/01/99: Must we still subsidize 'cultural pollution'?
05/24/99: Whatever happened to Kittlitz's Murrelet?
05/17/99: The contribution revolution
05/10/99: 'MacArthur' not wanted for Belgrade
05/03/99: Reality: home and abroad
04/26/99: John McCain: born leader
04/19/99: Gore in the balance
04/13/99: Hollywood is sharing the spotlight
04/05/99: Lessons of Vietnam, and Serbia
03/26/99: Politics as dog food
03/19/99: Bush-whacked Bush-whackers
03/08/99: Axioms for good politicians
02/26/99: L.A., D.C. try to get back to the past
02/23/99: The sprawl brawl
02/11/99: Celebrated lives writ short
01/28/99: Who's afraid of the Euro?
01/25/99: The Vast Right-wing conspiracy and Danny Williams: The last word (hopefully)
01/14/99: Sum of scandal? It's OK
12/31/98: Predictions? I don't think so
12/11/98: Better dead than read?
11/25/98: Polling the Pilgrims
11/13/98: The icon and the iconoclast
11/06/98: What happened? Nothing!
10/28/98: Two billion never-borns!
10/22/98: Election pundits know nothing
10/15/98: The too-big-to-fail doctrine
9/29/98: The Jerk Factor at work
9/24/98: American civic engagement thriving
9/16/98: Anatomy of a cover-up
9/09/98: Draft Joe Lieberman!
9/03/98: Get over it, folks
8/28/98: McGwire. Maris. Ruth. Clinton.
8/20/98: Is consuming a Big Mac eating?

©1999, Creators Syndicate