211. "The Slings and Errors of a New Publication," The Chronicle of Higher Education, (September 11, 1991), p. B3.


If you are thinking of starting a quarterly publication, lie down until the urge goes away. I did not; I am still standing, but barely. The economic, social, and intellectual curve balls that I have had to field in the past I would not wish on my least favorite people.

The publication odyssey of the journal The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities began surprisingly easily. William Galston, professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland, and I were lunching and discussing the polarization of social philosophy--the pull of radical individualists from one side and the tug of authoritarians from the other. Those representing a middle ground, we realized, had no platform for expressing their views.

We examined a series of issues: What would be a middle ground on the issue of public safety, for example, for those concerned with the rights of victims and of criminals? Would "the middle" favor national service and would such service be mandatory or voluntary? Would those in the middle be "pro-family" while seeking to insure equal rights for women and men? We sensed the outlines of a new position.

We invited 15 colleagues who represented various points on the ideological spectrum (leaving out the extremes of both ends) to a workshop. We found a surprising amount of consensus on the need for a new position and on its main outlines, and people agreed that a new journal was the obvious place to explore such a position. Most of those who attended the workshop and a few others agreed to serve as the editorial board. James Fishkin, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, and Mary Anne Glendon, professor of Law at Harvard University, consented to serve as co-editors along with Bill Galston and myself.

Overnight, we had given the journal a nascent social philosophy and a whole bunch of editors. So far so good.

As we prepared to begin publishing late last year. established publishers were telling us that times were rough. University budgets were tight, and libraries that used to order new journals quickly were cutting periodical subscriptions instead. Advertisers also were cutting back their budgets.

Moreover, the costs of reaching individuals who might subscribe to a new publication are nearly prohibitive. You buy a subscriber list from an existing publication similar to your own at $65 to $ 100 per thousand names. You print a handsome brochure (despite the fact that printing costs are rising faster than inflation). You drop a bundle at the post office. If you get a half-percent return on your mailing, you arr considered lucky. So each new subscriber who sends in $24 for a subscription costs you about $100, and you hold on to many new for only one year, I am told. (Our first issue was published in January 1991, so I do not know yet how many of our subscribers will renew their subscriptions saving us an expensive courtship.)

Because you are losing nearly $76 per subscriber, you need deep pockets to start a publication. Indeed, we hear that founders of another new publication raised $1 million from liberal foundations and left-leaning millionaires before they started publishing. We raised $30,000 from two foundations and from friends. All of our editors work as volunteers. My university chips in a bit. We pray a lot. We got more than a one-percent return on our first mailings, so we seem to be on to something. If only we had the money to do more mailings!

Besides needing money to get started, we needed writers. Everybody I know writes or wants to write to share his or her ideas with the world. I was sure authors would be lining up outside our office. But for quite a while all I could see from my narrow window was the hot-dog vendor. In preparing our first issue, we appealed to a long list of established talent. Most people we contacted said they were committed to other projects for the next few years and woefully behind schedule as it was. Three sent in articles that clearly had been written for another purpose and had languished in their drawers after prior rejections from God knows how many publications.

Above all, it was hard to find people to write articles that would fall somewhere within the new territory we were trying to chart. We set no narrow requirements, but we did flag our approach as one trying to reconcile individual rights with community needs. Writers seemed to prefer championing either the libertarian or authoritarian side.

The first author who responded to our invitations wrote about whether free speech on college campuses should be curbed to prevent racial slurs. He gave the question the standard treatment: The First Amendment is sacrosanct; no other values should be taken into account; the American Civil Liberties Union knows best. I called him. "We're all in favor of free speech," I said, "and prohibiting racial speech by force of law may, indeed, not be the solution.

"But don't you agree that if you were on a campus and hounded for the color of your skin, it would be desirable to have some non-legal remedies? For instance, to combat a rash of racial incidents, a college could have a teach-in on racial tolerance, and so on."

The author seemed to agree. but the revised manuscript ended with the statement that racial slurs have been with us forever and not much can be done about them. Such a conclusion seemed to slight the pain of those who suffer racial attacks. When we declined to publish the article in the first issue, members of the editorial board, friends, and editors of other publications received a bitter letter from the author saying that we had invited him to write for us and hence could not refuse him. That was my first taste of an editor's life.

I did not have to wall long for the second serving. A colleague submitted an article that was pro-family, the family being a subject that we wanted to explore in each issue. The article covered much ground: in fact, it had a page or a paragraph dealing with most issues ever raised concerning the family, including divorce, abortion, equality for women, and differences in sexual preferences. We asked the author to expand on any one of the issues he had raised and to leave out some of the others. His overview, it seemed to us, did not allow him to do sufficient justice to his many points. The next thing we heard from him was a letter accusing us of rejecting his article because it was pro-heterosexuality.

Although we have received several flattering letters from readers and friends, few of the authors we have dealt with seem to be pleased, even when we have published their articles. They tend to feel that all editing and queries diminish their copy, which is just fine as it is, thank you. Most press us to publish their pieces in the very next issue. And if we comply, many still bristle if we publish someone else's essay closer to the front of the journal. "Isn't mine as sexy?" they ask.

Our biggest challenge, however, has been to keep our voice clear enough so that it adds to the intellectual give and take and avoids the labeling applied by extremists on either side of various issues. The norms of debate and criticism seem to have frayed. People and groups with whom we respectfully disagree seem all too ready to characterize our middle-of-the-road stance as siding with their strongest opponents. Thus, even though we stress our commitment to both rights and responsibilities, because some of us hold that responsibilities must be enhanced at this stage in history in areas such as willingness to commit to a year of national service or willingness to undergo drug testing, we are depicted as authoritarians wanting to impose our moral code on all others and eliminate rights.

For instance, many of us consider the use of highway checkpoints to stop drug dealers a form of reasonable search, but our critics say we want to do away with the Fourth Amendment (which prohibits unreasonable search). And because we tend to interpret the Second Amendment as a communitarian stance--allowing "well regulated militia" rather than an individual right to bear arms--we are said to be in favor of abolishing individual rights.

In a letter to the editor of Business Week, one writer said our views were comparable to those advanced by Mussolini and Hitler, on the basis of a story he had read about our quarterly in that magazine. Tibor Machan, professor of philosophy at Auburn University, wrote in an op-ed piece in the Orange County Register that "the mirage of a unified, organic community with its own needs and its own rights is a myth. Let us not be deceived by it and yield even more of our rights to the renewed but essentially worn-out call for subjugation of the individual. In my view, communitarianism is really socialism in a new disguise, with some people wishing to call the shots for the rest of us in line with their own valued objectives."

We, of course, do not wish to subjugate anyone. We believe that communities arrive at moral standards by consensus. No coercion is involved. To charge us with subjugation when we say that what we stand for most is community--people treating each other as basically deserving of the same standing--is completely erroneous: it's like accusing a Republican of being a Democrat. Such wrong labeling precludes reasoned debate because critics start from premises that aren't valid.

Despite such frustrations and the realization that starting a new quarterly is a sure way to make enemies and lose friends en masse, as well as being a fabulous way to lose all your money and more in a hurry, our experience has been exhilarating. We seem to have reached a lot of people. We hear from a surprisingly large number of them, from all walks of life and all parts of the country, who tell us that our course is right. Fashioning a "communitarian" position--that is, clarifying the moral voice of the community--is of service, they say; our efforts help them examine where the appropriate balance lies between rights and responsibilities--for example, what constitutes a "reasonable" versus "unreasonable" search of suspects, how moral education can take place in schools without indoctrination, and how the family might be preserved without returning women to an inferior status.

Some readers have even explored setting up local groups to discuss the themes considered in the journal. Two national political leaders have told us that if we garner more of a following, they may endorse some of our viewpoints. (Indeed, we shall include a Communitarian platform in one of our next issues, to try to spread the word and garner more endorsements.)

Given this volume of interest, our journal could not be as off base as many of our critics claim--even if it will exhaust us totally to keep it going.

Amitai Etzioni is University Professor at George Washington University.

The Communitarian Network
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