Jewish World Review Sept. 5, 2001 / 16 Elul, 5761
Each measure by itself is hardly earthshaking, does not require the approval of a divided Congress and most likely will not usher in a new moral age. However, the president hopes that together they will help nurture the "seedbeds of virtue," those social institutions that make people better than they would be otherwise.
The new measures are all said to reflect a "communitarian" philosophy. This should delight me to no end because I have often been credited with being "the leader of the communitarian movement." That said, while the president's goals are admirable, he cannot enact morals. He can only hope to exhort a divided public, because in the end, it is only the communities themselves that can ultimately bring about change.
What exactly is communitarianism? Moral values do not fly on their own wings. For them to be sustained, they must be undergirded by social institutions, especially by families, schools, neighborhoods, places of worship and voluntary associations - all elements of community. All of these institutions have weakened over the last generation, as has our moral conduct. And this is not just my personal observation alone. Millions of Americans have told pollsters that even when the economy and the stock market were climbing, the country was moving in the wrong direction because it was failing morally.
As the White House heads down this road, its track record so far has not been especially encouraging: This is the administration that antagonized most of the world by abruptly walking away from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming; the team that announced (and immediately retracted the statement) that arsenic in the water was nothing to lose a drink over; the party that assumed faith-based initiatives would be only modestly controversial, and at least welcomed by the right wing.
They are about to hit a whole series of bumps in the road with their communitarian initiatives:
But, critics will rightly ask, "Whose values are you going to teach?" Liberals will see character education as an attempt to introduce religious education into public schools. Conservatives will fear liberal indoctrination.
Furthermore, numerous educational initiatives - including President Bush's program for early testing to measure academic achievements, and Laura Bush's new drive for early reading skills - will require schools to spend less time and resources on character education.
So it will go for all of the other communitarian initiatives the president proposes.
The fact that the initiatives Bush plans so far are modest will help. And to a significant extent, the campaign is based on presidential exhortation, which the president plans to do in trips across the nation this fall. And the other steps are largely symbolic, meant to signal a direction the nation ought to move in, rather than carry it to the new Zion. This approach is highly appropriate, given that the issues at hand are moral ones. The president should not even try to legislate a new moral code.
Ultimately, much of the work needs to be done
in communities by communities. The president can foster such efforts, cheer them
on, give a helping hand here and there, but no government should take over the
work that must be done by families, schools, neighborhoods, places of worship
and voluntary associations - or it would become very uncommunitarian and,
much worse, utterly
JWR contributor Amitai Etzioni, of George Washington University, has authored two books on communitarianism The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society and The Spirit of Community: The Reinvention of American Society Comment by clicking here.
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