The Nation, July 14, 2003
Toward the end of his memoir, My Brother’s Keeper, Amitai Etzioni recounts meeting with the political consultant Dick Morris. Morris has recently been banished from the White House for consorting with an eavesdropping, toe-sucking prostitute (Or was he the sucker? I can never keep that straight.) Morris wants to co-write a memo on communitarianism with Etzioni with which to wheedle his way into Al Gore’s good graces in time for the 2000 election. Morris is in rehabilitation mode, and in the middle of their meeting, the multi-tasking Machiavelli conducts a brief phone interview with a Christian radio station. “Yes there was a spiritual vacuum in the White House…. I contributed to it.” When asked what religion he practices, Morris replies that he plays the field. “I work for both parties. Would you expect me to sign up with one religion? I atone in all of them.”
The anecdote is puzzling in more ways than one. What leader of a moral social movement would bother to meet with an apparatchik like Morris, especially after he had been so thoroughly disgraced? Even more puzzling is why Morris would want to meet with Etzioni, the “guru” of the nebulous communitarian movement. I would suggest that the answer to the first question tells us a lot about Etzioni, while the answer to the second reveals the secret of communitarianism’s success in the early 1990s.
The Zelig of public intellectuals-Time magazine once dubbed him “The Everything Expert”-Etzioni has weighed in on nearly every major policy debate of the past forty years. In addition to founding the communitarian movement, he has written several well-regarded academic texts and dabbled in politics. He was a senior adviser in the Carter White House (where he learned “the difference between being a public intellectual out on the hustings as compared to being a member of the king’s entourage”) and has been credited with influencing the centrist, “Third Way” positions of the Democratic Leadership Council, and of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
Etzioni’s disparate projects coalesced in 1990. The central idea of communitarianism-which he expounds on in The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda (1993), The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (1997) and Next: The Road to the Good Society (2001)-is that a society must balance liberal rights with community responsibilities. Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon has likened communitarianism to “democracy’s environmentalist movement, helping to heighten awareness of the political importance and endangered condition of the seed-beds of civic virtue.” Communitarians conceive of society as a three-legged stool, held up by the forces of the state, the market and, yes, the community. They are skeptical of the rights-oriented, legalistic, interest-group politics of the liberal state. A precursor to the “third way” movements of recent years, communitarians want to “leapfrog the old debate between left and right and focus on the role of the community, culture, and virtues rather than on either the private sector or the government,” Etzioni writes.
A nice theory, but how does a movement that eschews “politics as usual” (rights, laws, etc.) go about changing societal values? Rather than coercing behavior via laws, communitarians advocate using one’s “moral voice” to persuade fellow citizens through shame and appeals to community norms. “Communities lead with their moral voice, appreciating those who act responsibly, and chastising those who do not,” Etzioni writes.
The movement’s policy recommendations run the gamut-depending on your perspective-from innocuous do-gooderism to authoritarian intrusiveness. Communitarians advocate mandatory national service, campaign finance reform, the two-parent family, sobriety checkpoints and drug-testing for people (like engineers and pilots) whose jobs give them tremendous public responsibility. More controversially, communitarians advocate covenant marriages-in which a couple agrees to participate in marital counseling and delay divorce for a few years if one partner files for it-as a way to “encourage” (a word communitarians use a lot) family stability. Furthermore, they argue that people at high risk for HIV should be tested, and if the results are positive, should be encouraged to inform their previous and prospective sexual partners.
While not on the same philosophical level as the communitarian writings of Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, Etzioni’s work has provided the most sustained institutional response to the liberal individualist project, of which John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice is the most powerful expression. Much like the neoconservative movement from which he says he takes inspiration, Etzioni is more interested in influencing policy than philosophy. To paraphrase Irving Kristol, Etzioni is a liberal who was “mugged” by community.
As the age of Reagan waned, Etzioni sensed that
a reaction was setting in to the excessive individualism that neoconservatives and their followers helped to foment. The country was yearning for a less one-sided way of thinking, a third way between the worshipers of the market and state-hipped liberals and an approach that would not ignore core social-moral values. To effectively respond, the American renewal project needed a school rather than merely individual thinkers, each working on his or her own.
To this end, he founded a journal, The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities, which is published under the auspices of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies of The George Washington University, where Etzioni is a university professor. In 1991 he published “The Communitarian Platform,” which announced the movement’s principles. And he surrounded himself with an impressive group of thinkers: Mary Ann Glendon, an expert on family law and civil rights; William Galston, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, who was issues director for Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign and Deputy Assistant for Domestic Policy under Clinton; the political theorist Benjamin Barber; the ethicist James Fishkin. Over the past decade, Etzioni & Co. (the names above, as well as Robert Bellah, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Nathan Glazer, Martha Minow and others) have churned out hundreds of books, monographs, position papers and editorials, while also sponsoring dozens of panels and conferences across the country.
In a sense, the story of communitarianism is the story of Amitai Etzioni-a story that might itself have been lifted from the pages of a Leon Uris novel. Smuggled from Germany in 1934, the 5-year-old Werner Falk (as Etzioni was born) moved from Italy to Greece, and finally, in 1937, to Haifa, where he thrived in the communal life of a kibbutz. His father fought against Hitler under the auspices of Great Britain’s Jewish Brigade, and young Amitai-his adopted name was created by fusing the Hebrew words “truth” (emet), “tree” (etz) and “Israel” (Zion)-did his part by smuggling fleeing European Jews into Palestine. In March 1947, at age 18, he attended a meeting where David Ben-Gurion announced, “The time is right for us to take the ultimate risk and demand and fight for the formation of a full-blown state.” Writing in his diary, Etzioni wavered between dedicating his life to “riches and status” or to “service for the common good.” Soon after, he quit school and led a platoon in the Palmach (the commando unit of the Haganah) in the fight for Israel’s independence. (Two-thirds of his unit were either killed or wounded defending Jerusalem.) His first book, A Diary of a Commando Soldier (a collection of newspaper columns he wrote during the war), was a bestseller. The 21-year-old Etzioni had discovered his public voice.
Lacking a high school diploma, Etzioni had difficulty finding a university that would admit him after the war. Luckily, Martin Buber was looking for students to attend his new institute. In addition to studying Kabbalah with Gershon Scholem, Etzioni worked with Buber himself, and was profoundly influenced by the philosopher’s notion of “dialogue” (“a give-and-take during which people open up and reach each other profoundly”), as well as his famous distinction between “I-Thou” relationships (treating others as fellow human beings) and “I-It” relationships (treating others as objects). Later, while studying sociology at Hebrew University, Etzioni discovered the concept of “anomie,” the condition of spiritual aimlessness that Durkheim argued was the result of modernity’s loss of social fabric. The essential concepts of communitarianism were in place.
Etzioni arrived in Berkeley in 1957. Eighteen months later-having received a PhD in sociology in record time-he landed a job at Columbia, home to the legendary sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, as well as the iconoclastic C. Wright Mills. Although Etzioni’s scholarly work was well within the confines of 1950s quantitative social science (his first book was titled A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations), his activism soon got him into trouble with his more “value neutral” colleagues. After Lazarsfeld called him onto the carpet for writing a review of the art film Hiroshima Mon Amour (“The last thing we need is another C. Wright Mills,” he scolded), Etzioni concluded that the “images from Hiroshima sufficed to confirm my belief that humanity could not possibly do without my administering to it.” He vowed to become a scholar and an activist, a public intellectual. “Here I stand; I can do no other,” he announced to his wife, invoking Luther.
It is in the sections in My Brother’s Keeper on his career as a public intellectual that Etzioni’s memoir is most revealing. He is clearly a man who revels in the wonkish public-policy battles that take place beyond the seminar room (which was one of the reasons he moved to DC’s George Washington University). And he is clearly a man of conviction-the “conviction” typically being that he is correct, his ideas on “the side of the angels.” But it isn’t enough to be right; it drives him crazy when he isn’t credited for his insights. He writes, “I was pissed about those occasions in which I had been able to see around the corner-on matters of considerable public import-but for which my observations were not appreciated. Why do many people find such claims so annoying?” (I wonder.) Unlike most public intellectuals, Etzioni isn’t satisfied merely to pen the occasional editorial, write a crossover book and appear on television. He yearns for “the special high that I tasted in Israel, of participating in a project that was larger than life, greater than self. For accomplishments that changed something in the real world.”
Etzioni’s memoir is replete with examples of his intellectual activism. In 1962 he implores Martin Buber to ask Pope John XXIII to defuse the Cuban missile crisis by placing calls to John F. Kennedy and Fidel Castro. Etzioni opposed the Vietnam War (Winning Without War, 1964) and railed against the diversion of money from the War on Poverty to space exploration (The Moondoggle: Domestic and International Implications of the Space Race, 1964). In 1968 he and his colleagues formed a human chain around one of the buildings occupied by protesting students at Columbia University, where he was a sociology professor. His 1973 critique of the budding bioengineering movement (Genetic Fix: The Next Technological Revolution) was nominated for the National Book Award. More recently, he has weighed in on campaign finance reform (Capital Corruption: The New Attack on American Democracy, 1984), privacy (The Limits of Privacy, 1999) and race (The Monochrome Society, 2001).
Academic departments are often ranked by the number of times faculty work is cited in scholarly journals, and the pecking order of policy advisers depends on the power of their advisees. But how is one to gauge a public intellectual’s effectiveness? In Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (2002), Richard Posner analyzed the “public intellectual market” using data provided by Amazon.com rankings and popular press citations. Posner considers the public intellectual a kind of intellectual soothsayer who should be judged by how often his “predictions” hit the mark (utopians need not apply). I didn’t think anyone took Posner’s suggestions seriously until I read Etzioni’s memoir. In it, he provides exhaustive accounts of the reviews his books receive, as well as summaries-and quantitative analyses-of communitarianism’s press coverage. For Etzioni, the medium is the message. He believes that evidence of communitarianism’s influence lies in the number of times its “keywords” appear. “In the 1990s, the phrase ‘rights and responsibilities’ appeared some 6,183 times in the top fifty newspapers alone,” he writes. These were Etzioni’s Golden Years. “For months on end, we seemed to be on the front of most everyone’s Rolodex.”
The second half of his memoir is a cautionary tale for all would-be public intellectuals. I suspect Etzioni never recovered from his stint as a “member of the king’s entourage” in the Carter White House, and has spent much of his energy since then trying to whisper in the ear-any ear!-of those in power. “The trick was to find ideas that were both honestly communitarian and not impolitical.” Some trick, indeed.
While Etzioni’s dealings with Clinton and Blair have been well documented, in his memoir it becomes clear that Etzioni’s criteria for offering advice depend less on ideology than access. We witness him regress from a passionate intellectual to a Loman-esque figure, desperately hawking his communitarian wares to anyone who will listen. He tries to sell communitarianism to Helmut Kohl (not interested), Bob Dole (“There was no sign of their Christian spirit, that of reaching out and caring for vulnerable members of the community, which is so much a part of the values they were anxious to uphold.” Shocking!), and George W. Bush (“His tone and demeanor were often soft and conciliatory; that is, communitarian”). Etzioni implores Janet Reno to rethink her commitment to the Fourth Amendment (she demurs).
Etzioni’s media profile faded in the late 1990s. The communitarian message didn’t feel so fresh, and some of its policies seemed downright creepy. Despite Etzioni’s embrace of Buberian “dialogue,” his presentations felt more like monologues: No matter what the subject, “balancing rights and responsibilities” was always the answer. In 1994 the Guardian asked, “Is Etzioni just a Jerry Falwell in cap and gown? Could communitarianism be a thinking person’s Moral Majority?” Etzioni dutifully records that the movement’s media citations peak in the mid-1990s. “By the late 1990s, there were more and more days, then weeks, when no one called. Invitations to speak and to attend conferences ceased to pose scheduling problems; there were no longer any who wanted me to be in two places at the same time.”
Much of the difficulty had to do with his “third way” communitarian message. The political blood-sport of the Clinton era made Etzioni’s plea for nonpartisanship sound naive, if not disingenuous. If Clinton could gut welfare while simultaneously praising communitarianism (“You are my inspiration,” Clinton told Etzioni one New Year’s Eve), maybe the movement was more style than substance. Were communitarian ideas merely protective coloration for politicians of the left and right? Was a movement admired by Bill Bennett, Dick Morris and George W. Bush itself worth admiring?
And the more closely people considered Etzioni’s proposals, the more it became apparent that many were either stunningly obvious (“If the advocates of civil rights and those of public safety would stop butting heads, we would see all kind of ways to advance our security while minimizing intrusions on our liberty”) or absurdly Utopian (a “megalogue” on values between members of a super “community of communities”). Wish-and-make-it-so public policy.
I think the reason communitarianism never had the impact of, say, neoconservativism has to do with its message as well as its method of implementing its ideas. Communitarianism speaks the language of reform, not revolution. It seeks to temper the primacy of the individual, to tame the logic of the market, to alleviate our reliance on government and its laws. It is more “liberalism rightly understood” than an ideology in its own right. Etzioni is less a prophet for a new idea than a publicist for a worthy, but not particularly novel, point of view.
Toward the end of My Brother’s Keeper, he describes his relations with the Clintons: Hillary, who cites him in It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, and Bill, who casually leaves a copy of Etzioni’s book, The Spirit of Community, on his Oval Office desk during a visit by the press. It “was one more sign, to put it grandly, that these ideas were in step with history.” Not ahead, and not behind. And that, ultimately, is the problem.