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Communitarianism

With a platform that seems equal parts liberal and conservative, a fledgling political movement urges American to stop obsessing about rights and take some responsibility.

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"A friend of mine told me, 'The older you get, the more you sound like a Republican. It's scary.' I agree. It is scary. But now I can say, 'I'm not a Republican. I'm a communitarian.'"

Delmarie Cobb is young, black, a fifth-generation resident of the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, and a TV producer. She runs Deleco Communications and the Publicity Works out of a Loop office, and she was involved in Bobby Rush's successful primary campaign for Congress. She knows she's no Republican. To explain why she's now a communitarian--someone who believes Americans need to accept more responsibilities and assert fewer rights--she described the night she and her mother rode a packed bus home after seeing Boyz N the Hood.

"There were two 14- or 15-year-old boys standing over me, and sitting in front of us was a woman in her 50s and her grandson, about eight years old. Every other word those two boys used was 'MF.' I looked at them--nothing. Finally I tugged on one's T-shirt and asked him to bend down. I said, 'Do you think you could get through a sentence without punctuating it with "MF," "S," and all that? You know that little boy is looking up at you, and his grandma is sitting there. You're showing no respect at all.' And he said, 'Yes.' When he straightened back up he wouldn't tell his friend what I'd said. He didn't say anything until they got off the bus."

Joy Rasin, a member of the village board in west-suburban Hinsdale, tells a story that from her point of view shows the other half of the communitarian equation. "Back in 1987 the board put all spraying of parklands on hold. [After some delay and public complaints] the committee I chair studied the subject thoroughly. I'm a gardener and a Sierra Club member. I don't like to use chemicals myself. I know that spraying doesn't necessarily take care of the problem--you have to have the ground in good condition. A group here called Environmental Advocates of Hinsdale supplied us with a great deal of very helpful material. They came up with the phrase 'integrated pest management,' and that is the program we voted in: limited use of carefully applied chemicals, and then seeding, aeration, fertilizing, raising mower heights.

"Then three individuals, one of whom at least is a member of the Environmental Advocates, brought an action against the village with the state Department of Human Rights. They claimed that they were handicapped by chemical sensitivity, that our spraying kept them out of the parks, and that therefore we were denying the right of access to handicapped people."

If you agree that Cobb was right and the Hinsdale environmentalists wrong, then you may be a communitarian without knowing it. There's no shame in not knowing it: only in the past couple of years have communitarians acquired a name, an academic guru (George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni), a national activist group (the Washington, D.C.,-based American Association for Rights and Responsibilities [AARR]), an intellectual quarterly magazine (The Responsive Community), and a formal platform (whose Chicago signers include John McKnight, Jane Mansbridge, Newton Minow, and Adlai E. Stevenson).

Communitarians are likely to applaud Delmarie Cobb's initiative and deplore the suit against Hinsdale. According to AARR executive director Roger Conner, the Hinsdale plaintiffs are "trying to place their desire not to have chemicals sprayed on the weeds on the same plane as the efforts of physically impaired persons to have access to a work site so that they can work for survival. This chronic expansion in rights rhetoric . . . [tends to] diminish the core liberties on which we all depend."

Conner can tell these tales all day. There's the one about the Michigan 17-year-old who played Nintendo for so long that she got an inflamed thumb, and sued the toy store where she bought it. And the one about the Mobile, Alabama, sewer worker who got too fat to fit through manholes, was fired, and sued successfully for unemployment benefits. "It's almost as if we think we have the right to be happy, and if we're not, then it's someone's fault. We've gotten the idea that the way to solve social problems is to convert interests or desires into rights, because once you have a right, the discussion is over. But as we elevate more and more desires to rights, our dialogue becomes one between the mute and the deaf."

To Jay Miller, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, such talk is an annoying mixture of the obvious and the absurd. "I don't understand why people who believe in community think they have to attack individual rights," he told me a few days after debating Etzioni and Conner under the auspices of the Chicago Metro Ethics Coalition at Roosevelt University. "Either they're borrowing from the right wing or they are right-wingers themselves. Thirty years ago, when I worked for the American Friends Service Committee, Dr. Etzioni was a great peace leader. I don't know what's happened to him."

Several things have happened to Etzioni since 1962. A University of Chicago colleague told him about a study showing that most young Americans would want to be tried by a jury of their peers, but would seek to avoid serving on one if called. He heard a member of a TV studio audience blurt out, "The taxpayers shouldn't pay for this [the S & L mess], the government should!" He learned that in Maryland organized motorcyclists oppose both mandatory helmet and mandatory insurance laws--in other words, they claim the right to ride unsafely and to have society pay the bills if they get hurt.

During his brief visit to Chicago Etzioni first urged an extremely basic form of communitarianism on his audiences: just speak in full sentences, please. "It is completely meaningless to talk about children's rights unless you tell me who is responsible to respond to those rights. Somebody has to be the other side of the coin. The sentence is incomplete unless you tell me who has the responsibility. It's the sheerest kind of demagoguery and cheap politics to say 'I have a right, I have a right' without telling me who is going to provide."

Of course using complete sentences is just the beginning. According to the platform drafted last fall by Etzioni, Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, and others, full-fledged communitarians endorse (among other things) participatory democracy, the two-parent family, parental leave, moral education in the schools, mandatory national service, drug testing for those whose jobs directly affect public safety, contact tracing of AIDS carriers, and slashing the power of private money over political campaigns. They take a dim view of divorce, tax evasion, and campus "speech codes."

Disorienting, isn't it? The items on this list at first seem to have been pulled at random from both liberal and conservative camps. So do its signers--liberals like Henry Cisneros, Harvey Cox, Carol Tucker Foreman, and Lester Thurow along with conservatives Bryce Christensen of the Rockford Institute and Richard J. Neuhaus.

But leave the labels out of it. The signers are fed up with liberalism and conservatism. In Why Americans Hate Politics, political reporter E.J. Dionne Jr. used communitarian language to skewer both sides:

"Unlike liberals, conservatives are willing to assert that 'community norms' should prevail on such matters as sex, pornography, and the education of children. Yet the typical conservative is unwilling to defend the interests of traditional community whenever its needs come into conflict with those of the free market." Hello, Dan Quayle! Liberals, on the other hand "speak constantly about having us share each other's burdens. Yet when the talk moves from economic issues to culture or personal morality, liberals fall strangely mute. Liberals are uncomfortable with the idea that a virtuous community depends on virtuous individuals. . . . Liberals rightly defend the interests of children who are born into poverty through no choice of their own. Yet when conservatives suggest that society has a vital interest in how the parents of these poor children behave, many liberals accuse the conservatives of 'blaming the victim.'"

What makes communitarianism a coherent ideology and not just a grab bag of things Mom told you is its concern for what Etzioni calls the "moral infrastructure" of society. "If you leave children alone--hide them in the attic and neglect them--they do not develop any human features at all. We civilize children. Later they develop individuality." Thus the importance of functional families: through them the community creates the individual. (You can see why there are no libertarian names on that manifesto.) "In those cases, maybe about half, where families fail to do this [provide moral education], then schools have to step in. I differ with the education community's focus on cognitive skills. That's good, but if you have no capacity to defer gratification or control impulses, you can't be a good student or a good human being."

Communitarians talk more about changing people's values than about passing new laws. You can't legislate that people admonish foul-mouthed teenagers on the bus, or that they refrain from filing lawsuits based on strained interpretations of rights. Instead, the communitarian manifesto urges that Americans adopt "a spirit of reconciliation. When conflicts do arise we should seek the least destructive means of resolving them . . . [and] favor settlements that are fair and conciliatory even if we have to absorb some losses."

As you might guess from that passage, communitarians as such have little interest in economics--a sphere in which the voluntary absorption of losses is not often rewarded. Etzioni says that communitarians could be either socialists or free-marketers, as long as they speak in complete sentences about who pays. Etzioni's own economic views do not tilt to the left: asked if government should be the employer of last resort, he describes that as a palliative, not a solution: "You have to restore the private sector."

"Community" is a warm, fuzzy word. But minorities and those suffering from injustices may not care for warm fuzziness. The vigorous revival of the U.S. community spirit during the gulf war was more frightening than inspiring to those who didn't share it. And on March 26, when Etzioni, Conner, and Miller butted heads in Chicago, the fourth member of the panel--Sokoni Karanja, president of the Centers for New Horizons on South King Drive--politely but firmly distanced himself from both the communitarians and the ACLU.

Karanja's reservations are especially interesting because on other occasions he sounds much like a communitarian. When asked (in a recent newsletter produced by the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children) how he would stop kids from getting shot, he did not first insist on his community's right to a new or restored government program. "Most of what I would do is different from laws. . . . The things that I think have to be done are around the whole idea of creating values, based upon truth, justice, righteousness, balance, order, propriety, honor. . . . There needs to be a return to the deep values, [which] basically the larger society has set out as its guiding light but never really practiced. Without those nothing long-lasting is going to happen in society."

But confronted with a pair of articulate communitarians, Karanja weighed their ideas in the balance of his greater Grand Boulevard community--a community "which has not one public school out of 51 that is providing sufficient education to insure entrance into college for 10% of its student body . . . which has more deteriorated public housing than any in the City and perhaps the country . . . where several billions of dollars worth of development is going on between 12th and 22nd on its North end and the Republicans and Democrats through the remap process just took it from the control of African legislators."

Karanja continued, "I think that the Responsive Communitarian Platform has some power and could be part of a moral voice in the nineties. . . . [But] White America can not expect to continue to give itself all the goodies and then have a call for moral rights and responsibility and expect anybody who is broadly and deeply oppressed to take the call seriously. If this new movement continues without the kind of indepth, revolutionary commitment of a John Brown, the only realistic response for the African community in America is Mqowa!--Black Power, Power to the People."

Neither Etzioni nor Conner answered Karanja face-to-face March 26. When I repeated his point to Conner later, he replied, "Overcoming racial barriers is a central idea to the communitarian movement. We believe that feelings of mutual obligation and voluntary restraint are missing, and one of the barriers to those feelings is racial stereotyping." But, he went on, "People whose thinking is dominated by what others did to them are hurting themselves. We have to have a sense of responsibility for our own lives and not let excuses about what others have done impede us--while being clear about needed changes."

Not surprisingly, some feminists share some of Karanja's skepticism. In the first issue of the Responsive Community (Winter 1990/91), former Mondale campaign- issues director William Galston penned "a liberal-democratic case for the two-parent family" ("the best anti-poverty program for children is a stable, intact family"). In the next issue, University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz rebuked him for allegedly having told women to "revise their lives because the family needs them. Galston doesn't try to rouse the reader to storm Washington, demanding family supports, better school programs, etc. Such institutional criticism is only mentioned in passing in his plan. The major exhortation is to the couple, and it is my personal and professional belief that the sacrifices necessary to stay married weigh more heavily on one sex than on the other."

In a similar but more moderate vein, Northwestern University political scientist Jane Mansbridge (author of Why We Lost the ERA) signed the communitarian manifesto, but she still has reservations about the section on families, which she thinks too absolute in asserting that "moral education is not a task that can be delegated to baby sitters, or even professional child-care centers," and too exclusively middle-class in its reference to fathers and mothers "consumed by 'making it' and consumerism" at the expense of their children.

The academic-intellectual wing of communitarianism may be vulnerable to criticism for being a bit too white, too middle-class, and too male. The activist wing of the movement--the American Association of Rights and Responsibilities and its executive director Roger Conner--is harder to pigeonhole. But if anything, the activists bother civil libertarians more.

AARR's biggest single project to date could mean a lot to poor communities nationwide--the publication and promotion of the book The Winnable War: A Community Guide to Eradicating Street Drug Markets, coauthored by Conner and Patrick Burns. "Drugs are killing more than just addicts," they write. "They are killing whole communities. Into once thriving neighborhoods has crept a culture of fear, with children sleeping in bathtubs to avoid stray bullets, with old people afraid to sit on their stoops, with parents afraid to send their children past hollow-eyed addicts in the park. Our children are being taught that crime pays and that hard work and honesty are a fool's game."

Conner doesn't imagine that the war on drugs as such is winnable. "We can't eliminate drugs until we can eliminate pain. But we can drive them underground," and reclaim the streets for everybody else. AARR has supported the push by community groups for antiloitering laws, helping to coordinate information from different localities and arranging for pro bono legal help when necessary. One such AARR-backed ordinance (in Alexandria, Virginia) was challenged by the ACLU and the NAACP, and overturned by a federal judge who found that it "sweeps too broadly and indiscriminately. . . . A person may be prosecuted under the ordinance for engaging in such innocuous activity as speaking in a public place for 15 minutes, shaking hands, and exchanging small objects such as business cards or phone numbers on small pieces of paper."

Antiloitering ordinances are bad enough, but AARR's antidrug stance infuriates Jay Miller, whose ACLU contends that only legalization can solve the U.S. drug problem. Enforcing drug laws on street corners means that police will arrest mostly those dealers who can't do business anywhere else--most of them people of color, even though some 80 percent of drug users are white.

"Who goes to prison? Blacks," roared Miller in a revealing exchange at the March 26 debate. "It's destroying the African American community--because of the illegality, the homicides. When [a legal drug purveyor like] Schenley wants to fight Seagram's, they don't shoot it out. They go to court, they advertise, they do other things. Now they shoot it out, they kill each other. And it's terrible.

"It's not happening in the white community though. It goes down differently in the white community. It's racism at its worst, and the drugs thing shows it up in the most obvious way."

In the wake of that crescendo, Conner almost hesitantly objected: "I think that this kind of playing of the race card, Jay, I think is really destructive--"

Miller interrupted him, shouting, "Well, it happens to be very true. You just read anything about it."

Conner: "Just a second. I started at the drug-legalization position, and I ended up at a different point. I may change again, because I'm trying to be open-minded about it. But to say that the position I'm taking is, quote unquote, a racist position, when it happens to be the view held by the majority of the African American community--"

Miller: "You're right, tragically."

Conner: "So they're wrong too?"

Miller: "Yes, they are. Kurt Schmoke is the only one who really understands this."

Conner: "So what I'm saying is, we need more dialogue and openness--and I respect the conclusion you've drawn, although I don't agree with it."

Miller: "The statistics--"

Conner: "But this throwing down of the race-card gauntlet to try to convert this into a racial debate is very destructive of community in the best sense of the term."

Miller: "The statistics are there. Look at the statistics. They tell the story by themselves."

Karanja remained silent during their exchange. Asked afterward about his community's views on drug legalization, he said it hadn't been discussed. Delmarie Cobb, who moderated the whole debate, was less reticent. She says the statistics tell a different story. "I've never done dope. I don't even allow jokes about it, because I believe that to tolerate it on one level is to tolerate it on any level. Twenty years ago if people had suggested urine sampling, or fingerprinting, whatever, I would have gone off like Jay did.

"But now, given what's going on in our world, I want somebody sampling something. I want metal detectors in the schools if they'll keep eight-year-olds from being shot. I've interviewed little kids who know the difference between the sound of a firecracker and a gun. So I have a problem with people who tell me what should be done in our community. This is not something Jay Miller has to contend with."

On his way to O'Hare Conner stopped on the far west side to discuss antidrug strategies with leaders of the South Austin Coalition Community Council and Northwest Austin Council. "If you get an antidrug loitering ordinance passed, you can plan that the ACLU will sue," he advised them. (AARR's post-Alexandria version of such an ordinance is more sophisticated, and probably more constitutional, than the version recently passed by the Chicago City Council.) "If you go through with it, we can get good pro bono legal representation for you right from the beginning. On this issue I think the ACLU is lost in the woods of their theory." Conner also pushed a "pet idea," which he says no jurisdiction has tried yet: confiscate the cars of people coming into the neighborhood to buy drugs, then crush one into a cube and display it, with before-and-after pictures, in shopping malls and on street corners throughout the area.

Drug laws aren't the only issues that can make civil libertarians and communitarians yell at each other. "I don't think most people who are fond of the ACLU have really followed closely what they've been up to," Amitai Etzioni told a WBEZ interviewer in March. "The ACLU played a major, important, positive role in defending the freedom of speech. I salute them and support them in that, and that's why many of us have such good memories of them. But what they've been into recently is a kind of institutionalized paranoia, in which they automatically oppose every measure the state comes forward with to increase public safety."

This misstatement of ACLU history makes Jay Miller crazy: "The ACLU has always gone beyond First Amendment work!" And indeed it has long objected to metal detectors in schools, drug testing, and random sobriety checkpoints for drivers.

Interestingly, the ACLU usually objects in the name of efficiency, not constitutional principles. Miller can inundate you with clippings and citations showing that, for instance, police make more DUI arrests by patrolling the roads and stopping only those drivers who show evidence of being impaired than they do by running a fixed sobriety checkpoint. Communitarians reply that making arrests is not the only purpose; another is to vividly remind drivers (and all their friends and relations who hear the story) to stay sober. Miller cites research showing that no DUI deterrent works for very long; Roger Conner comes back with a recent study from New Zealand that seems to show that if you put a great deal of money and resources into checkpoints they will discourage drunk driving for a long time.

"This is a common debating tactic," sighs Conner. "They divert attention from a value conflict, instead of admitting that there are hard choices to be made. I want to ask, 'How many lives would I have to demonstrate being saved, with what degree of certainty, in order to change your mind?'

"We have to balance a brief subjective intrusion on your liberty against people's lives. How many lives does it take on the other side to shift that balance? Their position is utterly indefensible to anyone who's looked into the eyes of a person who's lost someone to DUI. Let's talk honestly about the values we're choosing between and balancing. I think the ACLU is afraid to.

"I don't think we have to choose be- tween community and the Constitution. I wouldn't want to live in a community that didn't believe in the Constitution. But civil-liberties groups in this country are stuck in a corner they can't get out of. That's why some of their positions have a certain childish quality to them--Jay jumps up and down and shouts, 'The rule! The rule! You're violating the rule!'

"They're like fundamentalists who believe that if they doubt one single word of the Bible, all their convictions will fall. For instance, we agree with People for the American Way that some community service should be required for high school graduation. But civil libertarians say, 'Oh, no, that's indentured servitude.' They come dashing out, like the old firehouse dog who just can't help himself."

Knowing that some ACLU members had been in the audience March 26, I asked Miller later what he had heard from them. He flashed his big grin. "I got an additional $25 contribution from one member. She wrote on her card, 'These people are really scary.'"

Communitarianism echoes some recent thinking among African Americans. (Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder wrote in the Responsive Community last spring about the need for black youths and families "to make lasting demands on themselves.") It has some obvious affinities with conservatism, especially the traditionalist kind, and some with liberalism. Communitarianism is also made to order for 60s veterans who sense that something has gone wrong but can't stand the complacent cant of mainstream politics. For those in the New Left who saw the problem as Out There--in the war, in the system, in the establishment liberals--communitarianism seems like a more-reasonable-than-average way to back off that position. Even the loud conflict between civil libertarians and communitarians usually involves only shades of interpretations of basic rights on which both agree.

But as a movement, communitarianism is barely started. There's no group in the Chicago area. Communitarians have all the problems that faced their ideological extreme opposites, the libertarians, back in 1972. Their ideas cut across conventional political categories, and they have few famous faces and few deep pockets to make them better known.

It has taken libertarians some 20 years to nudge their way anywhere near the mainstream of debate. If the communitarians are even partly right about what ails this country--if our moral infrastructure has more potholes than the Stevenson--then it had better not take them as long.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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