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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.

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.

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."

RELATED ARTICLE: What Is Community?

Margaret Atwood


The United States has promoted individualism so much that the responsibilities of giving to a community, and vice versa, have been trampled by rampant individualism. Canada hasn't gone in that direction of extreme individualism: my mortgage; my bank account; no pies when I hurt my leg, and I won't bring pies to you. Americans tried to weld some sort of fellow feeling in all of this- -to shed their ethnic roots and be part of an American identity but, paradoxically, an individual. Community as once proposed meant all Americans. That was the myth. All were not included in it.

Richard Rodriguez


America is not based on a communal notion. It's a low church Protestant culture whose major discovery was the individual face- to-face with God. Our greatest myth is about a boy who leaves home with a runaway slave, has no mother and a drunken father. We don't know how to share our individualistic culture. There's nothing more American than for me to say I'm better off because I'm Mexican, and I want to exclaim my distinction. If Mexicans, people of mixed blood, really want to be subversive, they should say "I'm going to marry you, or your daughter. You'll eat my food, and we'll be friends."

Susan Faludi


The ideal community for Americans is often an escape from political engagement. Europeans are so much more engaged. Community here is running away to the suburbs. The media has become our pseudocommunity. People don't belong, but if they're part of a sound bite, they feel part of a larger world. It's the false idea of the media as a public forum, an idea encouraged by politicians. People take their intimate stories on TV talk shows, replacing political engagement and community, which would actually bind people, with psychology and therapy.

E. L. Doctorow


Communities appear temporally rather than spatially. They form as circumstances demand, and when the emergency is over people go back to their semi-estranged mood. Communal expressions that really matter on a day-to-day basis are probably made by people who have no thought of community. A surgeon who only wants to make money and live well and has a lousy bedside manner still contributes. The Korean grocer on the corner who works hard trying to survive may feel a foreigner, but the store is a contribution to the neighborhood. I don't know if you can ask for more.

Noam Chomsky

political analyst/linguist

Community is PR bullshit designed in the 1930s by the corporations, when they became terrified by the collapse of their society brought on by the Wagner Act and the labor movement. They developed new techniques to control the population and inculcate the concept of living together in harmony--all Americans, all working together: the sober workman, the hardworking executive, the housewife. And Them--the outsiders trying to disrupt. Community is a bit of a joke. Only labor has succeeded. That's why business hates unions. They can create real community and democracy.

Ram Dass

author/spiritual activist

Our inordinate concern with individuality has marked our group identity. I'm part of the problem. The '60s were about individual freedom, and we threw out the baby with the bath. We're dealing with the effect of imbalance; we're so focused on separateness that we've lost interconnectedness, the inherent gregarious nature of humanity where we need others to give us meaning. The web of violence in this culture is clearly connected to the breakup of these types of systems. But look at the Crips and the Bloods, now meeting together as a new kind of community structure.

Amy Tan


My community was more like an extended family. My father was the minister of a Chinese church, so it was as if my whole world was Chinese. The sons of the women I called Auntie were like brothers to me. I know I can go up to a person on the street who is also Chinese and ask questions and get information, because there is a sense of community. We are both Chinese people in America: That's community based on being different. In China that wasn't true. It's too diverse, regional. I identified more with Shanghai people than with Hong Kong people, for example.

Frances Moore Lappe

activist/writer/political theorist

People are looking for community in all the wrong places. It's not goodwill and like-mindedness, it's daily experience in workplaces and neighborhoods and churches and civic groups. The Sonoma County Faith-Based Community Organizing Project is a prime example of concerned people coming together--farmworkers, African-Americans, whites of all classes, professionals, nuns, accountants, lawyers. They got together candidates for the school board, for example, and judged them on how well they listened to constituents' concerns. It's a two-way process of public officials accepting accountability and citizens taking an active role.

Barbara Kingsolver


There's no shame in depending on each other. There's heroism in ordinariness and connectedness and using relationship skills to get through difficult times, as opposed to the isolated heroism of the cowboy. Look at the things in your living room or refrigerator and realize they were made by thousands of people on different continents. The lemons we buy at the grocery connect us with a food chain, with people coming up from Mexico, being sprayed by pesticides. It's easier to see just a lemon, but only when we see the whole line can we feel connectedness and responsibility.

Harry Edwards


We need a new definition of community. We're a nation of nations; we're not homogenous like Japan. We need to look at pluralistic reality in terms of all interests, including white male, while recognizing the concerns of those in the minority opinion. It's good business to have everybody involved in the national life. A black community should produce students who can go to the universities equally--without affirmative action or Head Start--and it's in our mutual interest to see that the competence and quality are there to provide that equal opportunity.

Ellen Goodman


There has always been a tension in the United States between individualism and community. The economy deals with us as individuals: You achieve success or you don't. We typically divided America into men as individualists and women as caretakers of the family and keepers of community--until women had to go to work and saw themselves as individuals rather than as members. The baby boom generation broke from family; there were so many of them it seemed like the whole country. Now that they have families they have more longing for community.

Theodore Roszak


Our culture builds bigger and bigger--bigger forces, corporations, and trading alliances. The thrust toward the global in government, communications, and business goes against the human need for smaller, face-to-face communities. There is a disintegrative quality to reaching out beyond neighborhood and nationality lines. When computer networks are organized and we have 500 TV channels, common culture will disintegrate; we will have smaller enclaves for smaller groups. I can't predict what kind of community it will be, but the new community will be in reaction to the crushing bigness of systems.

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Title Annotation:includes interviews with various authors and social and political analysts and their definitions of community; increasing popularity of communitarianism as developed by sociologist Amitai Etzioni to restore a sense of community and social connection among Americans
Author:D'Antonio, Michael; Krasny, Michael
Publication:Mother Jones
Article Type:Biography
Date:May 1, 1994
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