The last time I checked on them, our civil rights as American citizens included the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the United States Constitution, its several amendments, and subsequent acts of Congress.
As a result, with relatively few restrictions, we are free to speak as we choose to speak and behave as we choose to behave, although remaining responsible for the consequences of what we say and do.
Civilized speech and behavior demands adherence to moral, humane, ethical and reasonable use of those rights.
Over time, however, this last-listed nicety has been ravaged by changes in custom which would have horrified earlier generations and might well have motivated our Founding Fathers (not to mention our Founding Mothers) to employ corrective measures, including such things as an Ivory soap mouthwash and a trip to the woodshed.
Civility, sad to say, has frequently met the fate of customs and attitudes that were once observed reverently, but later went the way of horse-drawn buggies and innocent teenagers.
Those of us who are now long in tooth and short on short-term memory often dwell nostalgically on customs of the past, almost as often wondering whether some so-called social progress has been forward or retrogressive.
The symptoms of some such changes are numerous and raise many unsettling questions, a following few to wit:
When, for example, did genuine and unabashed demonstrations of patriotism fall out of fashion among sophisticated citizens?
When did neatness lose its priority in the way we dressed, especially those among us who perform in public and charge admission for our display of talent?
When did thrift in spending and prudence in saving virtually disappear from our financial planning (or, more accurately, the abandonment thereof)?
When was melody stripped from much of our popular music?
When did the burden of responsibility in parenting become optional?
When did respect for authority become an avoidable obstacle to unrestrained public behavior?
When did the daily togetherness of family life morph into individual involvement with audio-visual devices and digital dueling over the Internet?
When did coarse language become acceptable in formerly polite society?
When did religious displays and publications join X-rated entertainment and pornography in frowned-upon status?
When did God get expelled from our classrooms and houses of government?
When did committed marriage become an optional prelude to cohabitation?
When did welfare become an attractive alternative to low-level employment?
When did seniority trump genuine ability as a criterion for advancement?
When did true objectivity (always a rare element) almost completely disappear from news reporting and public debate?
When was the thumb of political correctness applied to the scale of modern justice?
And why were weapons of mass destruction admitted to the inventory of devices approved to justify our rights to self-defense and outdoor sports?
In raising such questions, I am fully aware that it may amount to my making of "number one" against the prevailing winds of current culture and exposing myself to descriptions of age-related obsolescence, a.k.a. Alterklocker's Disease. (Okay, so I made that word up, but you get the idea).
Nevertheless (or furthermore if we're still on the same page), at least some of the foregoing queries are more than merely rhetorical attacks on current mores or foibles. Therefore, to the extent that they reflect changes in our national behavior, and/or our sense of values, it might be argued that they deserve at least a few moments of reflection, even if they are to be later dismissed as the ramblings of one who is over the hill, out of step with the real world, or both.
In any case, things just ain't the way they used to be, sez I, and I'm not all sure that the changes are both progressive in nature and productive of a better America than the one I and my contemporary codgers inherited.
Many will argue that the more recent changes in our national lifestyle and ethical codes have been natural and necessary progression resulting from an updating of the civil rights built into the foundation of our country.
Even granting that this might be so, which I do not hereby concede, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that basic civility has taken a potentially crippling blow in the process.