I or We?

Would you like a nation where people cared more for each other but divorces were legally difficult? Welcome to communitarianism, a new movement with a controversial leader and the ear of the president.

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Wheeling a little black suitcase, Amitai Etzioni looks like a busy salesman heading for a gate at La Guardia Airport. Sure, at 65 he’s older than most of the weary Willy Lomans trudging down the jetway. But he has probably covered more ground than most in the past year, selling a political idea–communitarianism–on campuses, in public auditoriums, and in the halls of government.

Like a preacher who rails about sin and then offers the sweet promise of redemption, Etzioni speaks about social isolation and then offers a way to return to the warmth of “community.” The appeal from this unlikely leader, a George Washington University sociology professor and president-elect of the American Sociological Association, touches a vulnerable place in the human heart. In a time when mobility, suburbanization, and economic necessity have uprooted millions, many people feel an acute loss of connection. Etzioni’s exhortations to good works and selflessness seem to offer them a way to get that connection back.

“People feel alienation, that we are atomized, all living separately without enough common bonds,” Etzioni explains during an interview in the airport’s art deco coffee shop. “This creates a void. They say, ‘We are supposed to have a community, but we don’t, and we want to do something about it.'”

Amitai Etzioni’s communitarian movement began three years ago. It is not a political party, but a network of academics who are frustrated by the failure of national political parties to deal with problems such as crime and child welfare. Experts on law, civil rights, politics, ethics, and sociology, they borrow from the right and the left, blaming materialism and an excessive focus on individual rights for the disintegration of civic life. With Etzioni, they call for sacrifice and a “moratorium on the minting of new rights” so that citizens can turn their attention to service. Communitarians support the traditional family, favor moral instruction in the schools, and would fight crime by limiting some of our rights.

And, although they are not a political party, the communitarians’ political intent is quite clear. In their opening manifesto they decried “me-ism” and declared the need for a “major social movement” to influence national affairs. Toward that end, Etzioni and the communitarians are pressing forward with teach-ins, a flourishing new academic journal, and a toll-free telephone number that rings all day long with calls from people seeking advice and literature. Religious orders, universities, and civic groups are eager to hear the message.

“In the 1960s we went way too far with psychological self-interest,” Etzioni says, his English accented by the land where he was raised, Israel. “Then in the 1980s it was greed. One was Freud run amok; the other, Adam Smith. I am suggesting a third way that reminds us we are all brothers and sisters, but we can’t wait for government to take care of us. We all must sacrifice, take care of our responsibilities, do our share.”

When I first interviewed Etzioni two years ago, communitarianism was enjoying a warm reception. But just as it seemed as if no one could find anything wrong with this new political religion, the criticism has begun. Communitarianism is now important enough to warrant opposition. Some civil libertarians wonder if this neocon/neoliberal fusion isn’t a white male backlash in disguise. Is Etzioni just a Jerry Falwell in cap and gown? Could communitarianism be a thinking person’s Moral Majority?

“They are addressing real issues, and they have some feel-good rhetoric,” says Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska professor whose critique of communitarianism will be published by Oxford University Press. “But there’s a real threat, a danger behind the rhetoric that needs to be examined.”

The communitarians have it all wrong when it comes to the rights of individuals, he says. And their other proposals–moral education, preserving traditional families, clamping down on crime–are short on new ideas. “These people are supposed to be intellectuals, academics,” says Walker. “But their movement is mostly just moral exhortation. They do not offer a program that will make communities stronger. Instead, they just play on fears.”

When Etzioni began his campaign, even the American Civil Liberties Union–the defender of rights par excellence–was uncomfortable forming a critique. During one lengthy interview, ACLU President Nadine Strossen spent much of the time acknowledging Etzioni’s standing as a respected and admired scholar, before expressing her concern that Etzioni and his supporters might prove to be “majoritarians” who would trample the hard-won rights that protect people from illegal search and seizure and invasion of privacy. Looking at the communitarians’ social policies–their anticrime proposals, in particular–Strossen speculated that they might curtail the rights of minorities and the poor, while leaving the rich and middle class largely unaffected.

“In the 1960s we went way too far with psychological self-interest,” says Etzioni. “Then in the 1980s it was greed.”

These days, criticism of communitarianism is less guarded because, after three years of touring like an evangelist, Etzioni now influences the power elite. His articles appear in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine. His book, “The Spirit of Community,” was recently spotted on Bill Clinton’s desk. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros and White House domestic adviser William Galston have come out in favor of the communitarian agenda, and Sen. Bill Bradley goes so far as to say that communitarianism “promises to shape a new political era in much the way progressivism reshaped our nation a century ago.”

As a consequence, people are beginning to think critically about what it means to translate such fuzzy, feel-good rhetoric into action. “This is the Clinton administration’s version of ‘family values,’ something vague and moralistic that everyone supports but no one seems to be able to define,” says Professor Walker. “I suspect that what the communitarians, and especially Etzioni, really want is to be influential with the White House. If that’s an accomplishment, then they may already be achieving something.”

Indeed, the administration has planned a long series of communitarianism-inspired “town meetings” on the theme of “unity” to be held across the country. Cisneros wants to hand out housing vouchers that will help the poor move into communities, rather than sticking them in government apartments that become poverty pockets. Likewise, the White House’s tough-on-crime talk is framed in rhetoric about citizen responsibility, and President Clinton uses heavy doses of communitarianspeak in his speeches.

“Community, personal responsibility, caring for others, that is his kind of talk,” notes Michael Gauldin, who was Clinton’s press secretary in Arkansas and now serves in the administration. “It was in his big speeches of the campaign, the Georgetown speech, and the Democratic Leadership Conference speech. He does believe it’s time to focus on the community.”

But critics suggest that this rhetoric is just playing to a nostalgic ideal, conjuring up a romantic fantasy worthy of Hollywood. The communitarian agenda appeals to many Americans who feel that the stability and harmony of the old days–say, the 1950s, when they were young–is preferable to the apparent instability of 1990s America.

“There’s a nostalgia for community, this kind of vaporous thing that the old folks had that must have been better,” says Bennett Berger, a sociology professor at the University of California at San Diego. “But people forget that there’s always a price you pay for conformity. There is also a price that comes with the freedom of modern times. Part of that price is a degree of alienation.”

In Berger’s analysis, freedom from the bondage of old-fashioned community is worth the price, and we can soothe the feelings of alienation by seeking “communities of choice” based on work, friendship, or some other common interest.

Berger’s warning notwithstanding, some of the communitarian ideas are appealing alternatives to go-it-alone individualism. Communitarians propose acts of kindness and civic virtue. They promote public service for high school graduates and efforts to increase voting and jury participation. They want public funding for congressional elections in order to defang political action committees.

Other proposals emphasize peer pressure over laws. For example, they favor responding to “hate speech” with loud, continued condemnations rather than lawsuits. This is precisely what happened after an anti-Semitic speech at New Jersey’s Kean College. Community leaders spoke out against the prejudice, and Gov. Christie Whitman promoted free screenings of the film “Schindler’s List” to put anti-Semitism in perspective.

They also believe in “public humiliation” for certain crimes. In Sarasota, Fla., for example, courts require convicted drunk drivers to confess with a bold bumper sticker on their car. In Lincoln County, Ore., men who are caught hiring prostitutes (or engaging in any other nonviolent crime) can plead to a lesser charge if they declare their guilt in the local newspaper.

But the communitarians would go beyond unusual sentencing options and social pressure. They want to muster the force of institutions to make people do the right thing. Communitarians believe that crime has reached an emergency level and feel that some rights may have to be sacrificed to make the streets safe. This has been tried in the Detroit suburb of Inkster, where one neighborhood was cordoned off and residents could enter only through a police checkpoint. Other ideas include notifying the sex partners of people diagnosed with the AIDS virus and a go-slow approach to divorce, two measures that prompt immediate opposition from vocal interest groups.

Americans felt a strong sense of community when they put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in the 1940s.

University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz, for one, has charged that the communitarians’ impulse to help children by restricting divorce amounts to “a hostage trade: wives for children.” While her criticism may ring true, many Americans are tired of the complaints of interest groups and would welcome an effort to impose order on thorny issues. When it comes to divorce, for example, people are aware that children suffer, but they don’t have the perfect solution. Etzioni seems to offer a way out.

In the 1960s, liberals destroyed the good–like the family and respect for community–with the bad, he says. “There was a fear of moral voices. But we are saying that there are values we can all agree on. And there is evolving a new consensus that we made a mistake about letting go of those values.”

Yet one person’s fond wish for community leads to another’s fear of repression. Americans felt a strong sense of community when they put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in the 1940s and persecuted suspected Communists in the 1950s. “These are examples of what can happen when people believe they are responding to a crisis that threatens the community,” says Charles Schultz, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and co-author with his wife Ruth of “It Did Happen Here: Recollections of Political Repression in America.”

“I was young during World War II, and I remember that ‘Japs’ was a very powerful word,” recalls Schultz. “I didn’t think twice about our country putting some of its own people–Japanese-Americans–into concentration camps, because it was at war with an enemy that put people in concentration camps. That’s how powerful this force can be.”

The communitarians are not advocating dramatic, wholesale attacks on individual liberty. Still, Schultz is skeptical of any movement that both reflects and exploits the desire for tranquil, safe, agreeable communities.

Richard Larson is a lawyer with MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He sees the communitarian movement as the reaction of a white, male-dominated power structure that feels threatened by thirty years of minority rights movements.

“I find this appalling,” he says of the communitarian proposal for a moratorium on new rights for citizens. “You can talk about the family and individual responsibility all you want, and that’s fine. But what about the basic need for a level playing field? That’s what the pursuit of rights is all about. It’s totally wrong to think that the job is done.”

Larson says the communitarians start with some erroneous assumptions, the first being that the nation is gripped by a crime wave that justifies extraordinary measures. In fact, according to FBI statistics, the national rate of violent crimes has leveled off in recent years, although many inner cities have experienced an increase. “The issue is a red herring, but it’s going to be used to justify a kind of tyranny of the majority,” Larson says.

Etzioni is sensitive to the charge that he wants to return America to the 1950s, a time marked by low crime and social order as well as racism, political witch-hunts, and the frequent repression of women, racial minorities, and anyone different from the white, male norm.

“Listen, I know that the KKK was a community of sorts. So was Salem at the time of the witch-hunts,” says Etzioni. “The cult in Waco was a community. So was Jonestown. I think we can guard against the excesses and still move forward, to more authentic ways of relating and joining together on projects to make life better for us all.” This is what Etzioni sees in community-based day care programs, local clean-up projects, and thousands of neighborhood watch groups. “It is possible to strengthen community without violating people’s rights.”

Etzioni is similarly sensitive to the charge of nostalgia and acknowledges the value of new forms of community. He is ready to recognize gay and lesbian communities, feminist communities, even the “virtual” communities that exist along the information highway. One of his favorite examples of this new style of community is about a man who sent sexual comments to a female user on an e-mail network. He was drummed out by others, who sent him thousands of messages condemning what he did. “Later, someone with a new sign-on, who seemed very much like the old guy, appeared,” Etzioni says. “He seemed reformed, so he was welcomed back into that community. It’s fascinating.”

This kind of example convinces Etzioni that he’s on the right track. “People are already doing it,” says Etzioni. “They don’t have to be told to build up their own communities.”

At La Guardia Airport, a smile crosses Etzioni’s face as he strides to the ticket counter and continues to reflect on the social movement he is building. “I’m even getting standing ovations from groups like the Points of Light Foundation, which is a pretty conservative organization,” Etzioni says with no apparent irony. “A standing ovation,” he repeats. “That’s never happened in my life.”

New York writer Michael D’Antonio’s book “Atomic Harvest” was recently published by Crown.


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