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The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda.

To say this book has something for everyone is not to trivialize it. I challenge readers, regardless of their political leanings or ethnic persuasions, to resist using their highlighters at least once.

In fact, it all makes such sense that I wondered: Is this guy for real, and this movement too good to be true?

This guy, sociologist Amitai Etzioni, became a household name to me back in the 1970s when - before word processors - I typed (and retyped) my brother's master's thesis. This movement that Etzioni has cofounded advocates that we take care of our society in the way we believe we should take care of our environment.

"Communitarians," he writes, "are dedicated to working with our fellow citizens to bring about changes in values, habits and public policies that will allow us to do for society what the environmentalist movement seeks to do for nature: to safeguard and enhance our future."

The movement was born in 1990 when - at the invitation of Etzioni and William Galston - 15 ethicists, social philosophers and social scientists met to explore a number of issues facing society. Among those issues: the concern that Americans are too grabby, too demanding and too selfish.

This group adopted the name communitarian "to emphasize that the time had come to attend to our responsibilities to the conditions and elements we all share, to the community." In his book, Etzioni takes up three main communitarian agendas: how to raise our moral voice; how to save the moral and civic order of communities; and how to reenergize our political system.

When commercials for the state lottery and films like "Indecent Proposal" prod us to speculate what we would do for a million dollars, we may rightfully assume that morality sports a price tag and can be bought and sold as thought, lessly as a convenience-store burrito.

What society needs, argues Etzioni, "is a change of heart." The family is the first transmitter of shared moral values, followed by the school. Beyond those two, our neighborhoods, work environments and ethnic associations also mold attitudes and condition behaviors. He supports every point throughout the book with anecdotes and examples, many of which readers will recognize from recent news accounts.

Only after we have resuscitated our moral integrity, can we begin to concentrate on our civic responsibilities. Voting readily comes to mind, but however important, it is not enough. We must further recognize that no right is absolute and that every right carries a responsibility. (Sounds sort of like high school civics class, doesn't it?) Along this line, Etzioni is a strong proponent of a year of national service, which he suggests be fulfilled either the year after high school or college.

Next, he comes down hard on political action committees and special-interest groups, calling them the cause of what most ails our political system. Running for office must be affordable to all so that would-be public servants are not beholden to inherited wealth or to wealthy influence peddlers, either before or after Election Day.

No, none of this is too good to be true. Etzioni may be guilty of a certain idealism, but many Americans already live communitarian lives without having heard of the movement. We pick up trash along our adopted streets; we volunteer in our children's schools; we pound nails for Habitat for Humanity; and we shovel snow from the driveways of our elderly neighbors. So why is it not working?

It is not working, Etzioni would suggest, because as mere individuals who "do the right thing" we have no clout; our efforts are diluted in a larger sea of indifference. What is needed is a movement, a broad agenda that will capture people's imaginations. Every recent successful social movement has staged a theatrical gesture to rouse the lethargic masses - sit-ins, Earth Day, freedom rides. "Without such dramatic approaches," he speculates, "it may not be possible to mobilize reform movements."

If these 250 pages of provocative text are Etzioni's first salvo in promoting the movement of communitarianism, I can hardly wait to see what he does next.

Judith Bromberg is director of resource development for the Central City Catholic Schools in Kansas City, Mo.
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Author:Bromberg, Judith
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 10, 1993
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