The Spirit of Community Essay - Critical Essays

The Spirit of Community

Communitarian founder Amitai Etzioni’s THE SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY could signal a change from the 1980’s “Me Decade” to the 1990’s “We Decade.”

Communitarians say they seek a middle ground between too much personal freedom without consequences on the one hand, and too much central control and responsibility to authority on the other. Already, the general idea, if not the specific movement, has been embraced by Clinton Democrats and New Paradigm Republicans, independent Perotistas and ex-militant Baby Boomers who’ve become parents—all of whom suspect there’s too little sense of community, civility, and citizenship in contemporary society.

People must temper individual rights with mutual responsibility, says Etzioni, a George Washington University professor and former White House adviser. Growing responsibility—and responsiveness and respect—for a community may require a drastic restricting or redistributing of rights: alcohol and/or drug checkpoints, mandatory youth national service, moral education, gate-controlled entries to some neighborhoods.

“We can’t wait for change to trickle down from our nation’s capital,” Etzioni says. “The restoration of our communities... must occur now, and is essential to reaffirm and communicate our shared values.” Exactly who shares which values isn’t defined precisely, but there’s a vague notion that any “nesting box”—from part of a neighborhood to the European Community—could qualify. That very vagueness leads to an uneasiness here. There’s no mention of “earned” rights, such as job seniority, for example, nor a suggestion of the future for public-interest or special-interest advocates, nor even how associated costs could be covered. And Etzioni criticizes “radical individualists” while praising “the underrepresented majorities,” not unlike Richard M. Nixon might.

Nevertheless, the author’s hopes for grass-roots action, increasing tolerance, limits on lobbying, and campaign finance reform all resonate with populist, progressive ideals. And Etzioni readily concedes that the book is meant to start discourse, not end it.