Carroll's character regimen has a few flaws

May 08, 2001|By Michael Olesker

I SEE GREAT confusion coming to Carroll County, whose government wishes to impose itself in places where the human heart once sufficed.

Last week, the county commissioners voted to embrace a character development program they believe critical to good citizenship. Each month, countians will be asked to extol a specific "Character First" trait - 49 traits in all, one character trait per month, such as Kindness, Loyalty, Obedience or Compassion, with all good county citizens marching in character-trait lockstep each lofty, character-driven month.

Who could argue with such a noble idea?

Not I.

I wouldn't want to be accused of Unkindness, Disloyalty, Disobedience or Lack of Compassion and thus find myself dubbed a Bad Citizen by the Carroll County commissioners.

The program, the first of its kind in Maryland, will include flags waving above Westminster's Main Street and posters in school classrooms and county office buildings reminding citizens of the specific character trait they should be extolling in a particular month. Like Mussolini's trains, emotions will run on time.

But this does raise a number of questions.

Such as: What happens when someone foolishly exhibits Kindness, when it has been clearly marked that it is Carroll County's month for Loyalty? ("You idiot," we can hear the county commissioners crying now, failing to exhibit Compassion, Understanding, or Kindness of their own. "Everybody knows Kindness was last month! This month, you will be Loyal!")

Or: What happens after 49 months of government-sponsored fill-in-the-blank character traits? If they've run out of uplifting traits, how will Carroll countians know which traits to plug in? After four years of instruction from Character Trait Central, will they be able to emote at all without government assistance?

And: Will those failing to exhibit the proper traits find their livelihoods in any jeopardy? Will it be enough, say, for a county police officer to catch criminals if he is not Kind, Compassionate or Obedient in the process? What if a fireman helps put out a blaze but is insufficiently Loyal during Loyalty Month? (For that matter: To what, exactly, are countians supposed to exhibit this Loyalty? Loyalty to the county commissioners, perhaps?)

As The Sun 's Brenda Buote reported last week, Carroll County Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier told her colleagues, "A child goes to school and gets a character trait at school, a parent goes to work and gets a character trait at work, [and] they come home and share it as a family."


Despite Frazier's cheery, Mary Sunshine, 1950s TV sitcom outlook, reservations have been expressed about the program. It has been promoted by a fundamentalist Judeo-Christian group, the International Association of Character Cities, thus prompting some observers to wonder about traditional notions of separation of church and state.

Others may wonder about the sheer political thrust: Do conservative Carroll County residents want government sticking its collective head into people's personal behavior? This is a county traditionally uncomfortable with all manner of government intervention. Suddenly, they're embracing government sponsorship of human emotions?

It's not that anyone could disagree with the thrust of the county commissioners' desires. In the modern world, we all wish for signs of civility. But, in rural Carroll County, they've always had it. It's about a 40-minute drive from downtown Baltimore, but it's light years removed psychologically.

Why, Carroll County teen-agers are known to say "ma'am" and "sir" to their elders. In Westminster, police have been known to alert Main Street shoppers that their meters are about to run out instead of nailing them for annoying parking tickets. What the city of Baltimore logs in a week's worth of homicides, Carroll County might not endure in a year.

In other words, a sense of civility, and of good citizenship, and of all the grand character traits the county commissioners wish to induce by rote, these folks seem to know by heart and by instinct. Their sense of character comes from the stuff taught by their families. It comes from personal values.

It does not need to come from government officials attempting to put a smiley face on normal human emotion - no matter how uplifting their intentions.

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