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JOINING UP.

Nancy L. Rosenblum: Membership and Morals: The Personal Uses of Pluralism in America. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Pp. vii, 439. $29.95. 18.95, paper.)

This book is the product of a great deal of hard work, strong commitments, and sheer skill, especially in the dissection of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and opinions. Nevertheless, as a whole it is a disappointment. It is not what it purports to be. It is in fact unclear what it wants to be. Missing are major definitions--as well as some factual information--that could have focused and consistently structured the book's argument.

To judge by the book's title, the introduction, and the first pages of the conclusion, the book's central concern is with showing how the voluntary associations, which pepper American civil society in number and kind almost beyond counting, educate in ways that are as unpredictable as they are varied ordinary citizens in the virtues of liberal democracy. That is to say, on balance, the pluralism of voluntary associations in the United States works to improve the moral worth of all their members.

If this is truly the book's central theme, then readers would expect, at a minimum, a detailing of the major liberal democratic virtues, and then a survey of a wide sweep of associations focusing sharply on how they school their members in specifically these liberal democratic virtues.

What we get instead in the bulk of the book is, first, a long sustained analysis of the constitutionally contested rights of particularly Junior Chambers of Commerce and residential community associations to restrict their memberships, and, second, an equally long and sustained survey of the constitutionally protected rights of privately organized militia and other far-right groups to exist at all. In fact, it is an overriding theme of this material that, as a practical matter of public safety, it is better to have the people who join these far right groups, for all their weird anti-everything talk, closeted within whatever discipline they provide, than to have these individuals lonely out on the byways of the nation each on his own.

But to raise this issue is to point to an urgent question for which Rosenblum provides no answer. Who are these people who join these far right groups? More to the point, are they in any recognizable sense Americans? That is, what ideological baggage do they bring to their membership in these clandestine outfits? And once they have joined up, does that make them less American? positively un-American? or deviant Americans? And, oh yes, after their on average two-year stints in one or another of these outfits, is there any collectible evidence that their personal moral worth has been improved?

The lack of attention to the general ideological setting in which these specific groups appear seriously weakens the discussion of their plight especially in the light of their strident claims to be more uncompromisingly "American" than the rest of us (which in certain literal ways may well be the case). But these substantive weaknesses are compounded by major definitional problems.

What is this liberal democracy in whose needs we are by our associations to be virtuously schooled? For all the centrality it has to her argument, Rosenblum never mounts a sustained, focusing discussion of its major properties.

There are hints dropped here and there along the way. Early liberal democracy may have originated in demands for religious toleration. It may have developed alongside of demands by ordinary folk for more meaningful participation in the deliberative processes that lead to national legislation. On page 181, Rosenblum writes in the middle of a paragraph that is itself something of an aside, that "In a liberal democracy we are expected to refrain from public displays of cruelty and humiliation, and from expressing our moral and social judgments at every turn." These admonitions tie in with those she develops in the very last pages of the book that in the democracy of everyday life, we should strive always to treat each other with an easy spontaneity and also to be quick to speak out against injustices no matter how minor. These sound more like pleas for Christian forbearance and civility than the laying out of benchmark requirements for a clearly conceptualized vision of liberal democracy.

To work up a clarification of liberal democracy as a concept is not difficult. To do it, this reviewer would draw on a tradition that includes not only Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Green, but also John Adams, Madison, Calhoun, and Sumner. This would lead him to define liberal democracy's first principles as establishing a framework of law within which morally autonomous individuals are left free (that is, liberated) to pursue their personal interests. The relationship to capitalism is implicit--and very important. Such a definitional stipulation--or one of similar vein--would have gone far toward permitting Rosenblum to run a consistent and persuasive argument along the lines of her book's title.

But that could only happen if Rosenblum also developed a clear, sustaining definition of her central subject, voluntary association, and conceptualized systematically how and by what means an individual could become a member of one. Failure to provide her readers that service is the outstanding weakness of her book.

Dutifully, she quotes from Hegel's Philosophy of Right. But not the critical paragraph #260 on the nature of "concrete freedom." She would have done even better if she had quoted from Rousseau's famed chapter 8 of book 1 of The Social Contract: "The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces in man a very remarkable change, by substituting in his conduct justice for instinct." Working with these materials would have enabled Rosenblum to lead her readers to an understanding that volunteering to become a member of an association requires more than the abandonment of selfish pursuits and the development of feelings of belonging. It requires quite specifically an intellectual shift from one self-understanding to another, from thinking of one's self as one and alone to thinking of one's self as a member with others in a whole.

The paradigm for voluntary associations is marriage, in whose institution those who are joined must consciously shift from thinking of themselves as single subjects to realizing that they are now partners, husband and wife respectively. A marriage will surely fail if either party to it does not understand this process of being joined in matrimony.

Making that shift in self-understanding is the central requirement of joining any association. The clarity with which it is made and the profundity with which it is understood are measures of the moral worth of its members. Perhaps next time Rosenblum will trace this shift through all the voluntary associations she knows so well.

H. MARK ROELOFS, author of The Poverty of American Politics, is Professor of Politics in New York University.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Roelofs, H. Mark
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:1135
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