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The Everything Expert | The Nation

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The Everything Expert

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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 multitasking 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."

About the Author

Robert S. Boynton
Robert S. Boynton, head of the Magazine Writing Program at New York University, is the author of The New New Journalism...

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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 seedbeds 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.

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