Communitarian Letter #32


Question: Are the culture wars over?
Spent: America after consumerism
A Disarmed Palestinian State?
Obama’s words in Cairo on democracy
Progressive Security and Conserving Rights
Combating crime with the help of the internet
Thoughts on Communitarianism, Government, and Society
Good Reads
Upcoming Events

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Question: Are the culture wars over?
In a June 3, 2009, New York Times blog discussion on guns, gay rights, and abortion [here], David Brooks wrote: 

Most people of course don’t see even these issues through an ideological lens.  They see social issues through a more fundamental prism.  They are aware that they live amid a web of relationships, which they treasure.  They seek to preserve the sense of civic order that gives security to their lives – not some abstract things called community, but the specific community they inhabit… Americans increasingly see gay relationships as just another part of the fabric of connections that make up their communities.  As a result Americans are becoming more accepting of civil unions and gay marriage. People also treasure the specific subcultures they inhabit…the threat to limit gun ownership is seen as an assault by urban people on rural life and rural communities…
Finally, on the subject of abortion, Americans are pulled by conflicting communitarian impulses.  On the one hand, I think most people sense viscerally that somehow an abortion is a tear in the moral fabric – whether they are pro-life or pro-choice.  On the other hand, they don’t feel communities can be formed on the basis of compulsion and they are uncomfortable imposing such complex and uncomfortable moral decisions on one another… Most people, even on those hot button issues, gravitate toward positions that seem to best preserve unspoken communal understandings…There are fewer and fewer culture warriors in America.  Most people want order and peace.

What do you think of these comments?  Is communitarianism winning?  Please email responses to


Spent: America after consumerism
by Amitai Etzioni
The New Republic, Wednesday, June 17, 2009

“Much of the debate over how to address the economic crisis has focused on a single word: regulation. And it's easy to understand why. Bad behavior by a variety of businesses landed us in this mess--so it seems rather obvious that the way to avoid future economic meltdowns is to create, and vigorously enforce, new rules proscribing such behavior. But the truth is quite a bit more complicated...The upshot is that regulation cannot be the linchpin of attempts to reform our economy…What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered, is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life…
             “The link to the economic crisis should be obvious. A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens is a culture in which people will do most anything to acquire the means to consume…But it is not enough to establish that which people ought not to do... Consumerism will not just magically disappear from its central place in our culture. It needs to be supplanted by something…”
            To read the full article, go here.


A Disarmed Palestinian State?
            One can disagree with everything the new Israeli prime minster says and does and still admit that he raised an important question during his recent visit to the White House. Benjamin Netanyahu stated "I want to make it clear that we don't want to govern the Palestinians. We want to live in peace with them. We want them to govern themselves, absent a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel." The same issue was addressed by two leading foreign policy mavens not suspected of a pro-Israeli bias, to put it mildly, namely Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. Both favor pushing a two state solution on Israel, as they see it as the way to turn around the Middle East (which they define as including Afghanistan and Pakistan). Three elements of the plan the US is to push are well known (no refugee return, a divided Jerusalem, and redrawn 1967 borders), but the fourth is much less often explored. Namely that the Palestinian state be disarmed and that US or NATO troops be stationed along the Jordan river. They pointed to this condition in a new book America and the World, composed of interviews with Brzezinski and Scowcroft, conducted by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. In the book both authors agree that "they [Israel and the Palestinians] need a heavier hand by the United States than we have traditionally practiced" (87). Furthermore, Brzezinski suggests "an American line along the Jordan river" and Scowcroft favors putting a "NATO peace keeping force" on the West Bank. That is, they do not want the Palestinians to have what most people consider a true state, one that is free to arm itself.
            There are several problems in this approach. First of all, while the first three conditions are almost impossible to reverse once in place, the fourth one can be changed by a simple order from Congress or a future American president, or even the current one. Aba Evan once compared a UN force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border, which was removed just before Nasser attacked Israel, to an umbrella that is folded when it rains. The new umbrella is not much more reliable.
            Second, the American troops in Iraq and the NATO ones in Afghanistan are unable to stop terrorists' bombs and rocket attacks in those parts. There is no reason to hold that they would do better in the West Bank.     
            Third, there are very few precedents for demilitarized states--by force. A two state solution means to practically everyone involved, except a few foreign policy mavens, two sovereign states. A sovereign state is free to import all the arms and troops it wants. One second after the Palestinian state is declared, many in the Arab world, in Iran, and surely in Europe, not to mention Russia and China, will hold that "obviously" the new free state cannot be prevented from arming itself. And if this not allowed, any therapeutic effect the Palestinian state could have would have on the Middle East is about the same as the end of the Israeli occupation of Gaza: Either too small to measure or a negative one.
            A strong case for a two state solution has been made, but it better be based on the Palestinians developing their own effective peacekeeping troops and, arguably, on an Israeli presence on the Jordan River. Neither can rely on the United States, beleaguered as it is, or on the conflicted and casualties averse NATO to show a staying power for peacekeeping that neither has mustered in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Haiti, and which they never provided in Sudan and the Congo.
            In short, the Palestinians are surely entitled to govern themselves. However, if the West Bank is not to be turned into one giant terrorist base, part of the solution will have to be a credible way to ensure that the two states will live in "security and peace" with each other. It is a line practically all those who advocate the two state solution repeat--but rarely detail in full.
Originally posted by Amitai Etzion on TPM Café, here.


Obama’s words in Cairo on democracy
            On June 4, 2009, Obama spoke the following words, which we support and agree with, in Cairo:
            The fourth issue that I will address is democracy. I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.
            That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.
            There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.
            This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

For our discussion of this same issue, see Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy (Yale, 2007).


Progressive Security and Conserving Rights
            There is no reason for the Democrats to allow themselves to be painted again as the party that is weak on defense, an image that will haunt them when the next terrorist attack hits. Nor is there a reason that security and the protection of rights cannot be squared. One should not take lightly the marker that Cheney put down, just because so many good people hold him in very low regard. Republicans, and many other voters and our allies overseas, will ask "Did the Democrats neglect security?" when we are attacked again.
            President Obama's response tries to split the difference by drawing legalistic distinctions. He is closing Guantanamo, but is keeping it open, or least holding the detainees there for now -- maybe some other detention location or shipping them to Saudi Arabia will follow. He has divided the detainees into five groups, each of which he hopes to grant a different level of rights, enough to make even the eyes of a law student blur over. He is closing the military commissions by reopening them under modified rules. There must be, there is, another way.
            Democrats ought to start by making it plain that Cheney and his associates, far from making us secure, left us woefully exposed. There are several major security threats that were largely ignored by the Bush-Cheney Administration. It is the Obama Administration that is attending to these threats, and in ways that progressive people have little reason to oppose…
            For the rest of the blog, please go here.


Combating crime with the help of the internet
            An increasing number of local police departments are contracting with internet services to provide information to communities on illegal activities in their neighborhoods. These services can notify people by email, and allow them to track crime trends block by block.  Police are using these services to help change the behavior of residents and to encourage dialogue with communities so that more people will come forward with tips or leads. These services also encourage individuals to become more involved with their own communities.
Original article by Bobby White, in the June 3, 2009 Wall Street Journal.


Thoughts on Communitarianism, Government, and Society
            “The lesson I’ve learned is a twist on the old new Labour maxim. We say that individuals do best when part of a community. What I’ve learnt is that it can be impossible for individuals to flourish without a community. Without a set of values and standards that we share; without a set of obligations to each other that we honor; without a set of places and institutions that we feel we own. These collective goods allow every individual to get ahead in life. This has become my definition of communitarianism. And I learnt it not in books; nor in Whitehall. But from what we’re trying in Hodge Hill…Breaking the cycle of decline is not easy. But I want to offer three pointers on where to get started…”
            -To read more from British MP Liam Byrne’s presentation to the Fabian Society on a new communitarian perspective on opportunity during a series of seminars on social mobility, please go here.
            “This week our focus has been on the big question of the kind of economy we want to emerge from this downturn. But many in Britain today are asking a second question; which is what kind of society do we want to see emerge? If you ask that question, you’ll get a myriad of answers. But in my experience, the answers have a common theme. Because in essence, what people in England want today is a society where the price and the prize of globalization feel better balanced… To strengthen the values that we share; To guard against the unchecked pursuit of selfish self-interest, whether defined by ideology or greed; With boundaries called a concern for others. In our communities and in our market-places; our society and our economy. To seek to build not a country of soulless wealth, but a country with a wealth of soul…In a world where people move across borders more than ever before, can we in this country celebrate both our differences and also what we share?”
            -To read more from MP Liam Byrne’s remarks to Quilliam, titled “From common challenge to common purpose,” please go here.

            “In his essay ‘Atomism,’ [Charles] Taylor concluded that members of liberal societies have an obligation to belong to these societies, i.e. an obligation to actively care for its social forms, its common goods, its multi-faceted practices of freedom…last week I asked the first year philosophy students in my introductory course on social ad political philosophy…if they found that anything may be wrong with or problematic about the idea of an obligation to belong…and not one of them objected…If society protects the social conditions of autonomy, or agency, the most cherished social forms, then, yes, its members should recognize an obligation to belong and actively contribute to it…the reaction of my students may well indicate that the communitarian project has become an integral part of the defense of a sustainable liberalism, a liberalism that has gained reflexivity with regard to the social and political conditions of individual collective freedom…we know for a fact that the course of present Dutch government has been directly inspired by communitarian thought.”
            - To read more from Dr. B van den Brink’s commentary at the Trudy van Asperen lecture on May 14, 2009, please go here.


Good Reads
For an outstanding article that uses Mill’s On Liberty to show the numerous and profound internal contradictions in libertarianism, liberalism, and utilitarianism, see Christopher Clausen’s “John Stuart Mill’s ‘Very Simple Principle,’” (Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2009.

Peter Augustine Lawler’s article, “The Human Dignity Conspiracy” (Intercollegiate Review, Spring 2009) gives a valuable review of the various conceptions of dignity found in Human Dignity and Bioethics, a collection of essays commissioned by the President’s Council of Bioethics.


Upcoming Events

“Immigrants, Minorities, and the British Nation”
Amitai Etzioni
July 13, 2009
Birkbeck College
London, United Kingdom
            For more information, contact Professor Dina Kiwan:


"The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics," 20 Years Later
SASE 21st Annual Meeting, Capitalism in Crisis: What's Next?
Thursday, July 16, 2009
1:30pm - 3:00pm
13 rue de l'Université, Amphithéatre Jean Moulin
Sciences Po
Paris, France
            This even is organized by José A. Ruiz San Román (Universidad Complutense Madrid), and will feature several critics of Amitai Etzioni, including Edward Lehman (NYU) and Pablo Garcia-Ruiz (Universidad de Zaragoza).  The critics will open, and Etzioni will respond.


“The Contributions of Behavioral Economics to the Study of Socioeconomics”
SASE 21st Annual Meeting, Capitalism in Crisis: What's Next?
Friday, July 17, 2009
1:45pm - 3:15pm
13 rue de l'Université, Amphithéatre Jean Moulin
Sciences Po
Paris, France
            Chair: Jonathan Zeitlin
            Participants: Michael Piore (MIT), Wolfgang Streeck (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies), Amitai Etzioni


“European Society or European Societies?”
Social Theory Conference
European Sociological Association
September 2-5, 2009
Lisbon, Portugal
            For more information, go to


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