Amitai Etzioni: America’s communitarian-in-chief

Amitai Etzioni is America’s communitarian-in-chief, the most prominent figure in the movement to balance rights with responsiblities, shore up the family, and knit together neighborhoods–while keeping the Right at bay. A liberal intellectual worried about the decline of civic virtue in America, Etzioni, who teaches sociology at George Washington University in Washington, DC, holds out a vision of community grounded in dialogue rather than demand, uncoerced community consciousness rather than fundamentalist censorship.

It’s hard to imagine a thinker who disproves–and disapproves of–the idea of the social prophet as scorned, solitary visionary more than Amitai Etzioni does. This gregarious sociologist, a key developer and tireless promoter of the strain of thought called communitarian (he refuses to turn the word into communitarianism) is one of the most visible public intellectuals in the United States. And the communitarian message, which enjoins a balancing of individual rights with group responsibilities as a means of knitting up the torn fabric of American life, has been garnering so much official attention (William Galston, a leading communitarian public policy expert, is a special assistant to Bill Clinton) and media exposure lately that Etzioni is actually feeling nervous.

‘There’s so much interest in what we are doing,’ the 66-year-old Etzioni says in his genial, rapid-fire German-accented English–he was born in Cologne, grew up in Israel, and emigrated to the United States in 1957–‘that I am desperate to respond to it all. The time is right. People want to rebuild society from a moral point of view.’

Among the people who want to rebuild society from a moral point of view, of course, are the zealots of the evangelical Christian right. In a sense the communitarian movement, which grew out of conversations between Etzioni, Galston, and other academics in the 1980s, is a way for liberal intellectuals to engage questions of family, community, and individual responsibility in terms that are more generous, more hopeful, and, above all, more tolerant of debate. ‘The Christian right has a ready-made answer, in Scripture. They move quickly from faith to indoctrination to policing,’ Etzioni says. ‘Communitarians don’t appeal to law, but to people’s judgment. If we can’t convince people, then we are out of business.’

Some liberals remain unconvinced, and call the measures that communitarians back in their manifestos and books, and in The Responsive Community, the journal that Etzioni edits–mandatory public service for students and welfare recipients, restrictions on divorce, programs to trace the sexual contacts of HIV-positive people–majoritarian inroads upon personal freedom. Etzioni has ready and unrancorous responses.

‘The subtitle of The Responsive Community is Rights and Responsibilities,’ he points out, ‘not Responsibilities and Rights. Half of the story we tell is about rights, and we put them first. When we as a nation mindlessly multiply rights and ignore the responsibilities that go with them, then we actually undermine the rights.’

At the same time, Etzioni insists that the communitarian essence lies not in this or that policy, but in its call for honest conversation. ‘In all these years in the United States,’ he says, ‘I have never gotten used to the fact that Americans can’t seem to find a middle ground between superficial contact and angry confrontation. Community, which we are trying to build, both creates and benefits from dialogue, in which you open up to others, get upset, work things out, and continue together.’

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