235. "Family is Basis of Community" Wisconsin State Journal, (April 11, 1993).


“What is Communitarianism?” we are frequently asked. We are a social movement aiming at shoring up the moral, social and political environment. Part change of heart, part renewal of social bonds, part reform of public life.

Change of heart is the most basic. Without stronger moral voices, public authorities are overburdened and markets don’t work. Without moral commitments, people act without any consideration for one another. In recent years, too many of us have been reluctant to lay moral claims on one another. It is a mistaken notion that just because we desire to be free from governmental controls, we should also be free from responsibilities to the commons, indifferent to the community.

Which values should the renewed moral voices reaffirm? Let’s start with those we all share. Nobody seriously maintains that lying is better than truth telling (other than under some rather peculiar circumstances philosophers argue about). Using force to push around other human beings – whether it is a police officer indiscriminately clubbing a civilian who is already shackled, or rioters pulling innocent people out of their cars – is something we deem to be unacceptable. Sexual harassment occurs, and although we may disagree about what exactly is encompassed by this term, we all agree that it should be considered morally inappropriate. And so on.

In the 1950s, we had a well-established society, but it was unfair to women and minorities and a bit authoritarian. In the 1960s, we undermined the established society and its values. In the 1980s, we were told that the unbridled pursuit of self-interest was virtuous.

By the 1990s, we have seen the cumulative results. There is now near universal agreements that the resulting world of massive street violence, the failing war against illegal drugs, unbridled greed, and so on – our well-worn list of ills – is not one we wish for our children or, for that matter, ourselves. Where do we turn from here?

To shore up the moral foundations of our society, we start with the family. The family was always entrusted with laying the foundations of moral education. In the renewed communities we envision, raising children is a job not for mothers alone, but for both parents. There is no contradiction between treating women and men as equals and calling for greater attention to, investment in, and, above all, a higher valuation of children.

Second in line are the schools. They are more than places in which people acquire skills and knowledge. They are places in which to acquire – or fail to acquire – education. Education includes the reinforcement of values gained at home and the introduction of values to those children whose parents neglected their character formation and moral upbringing.

Third are the social webs that communities provide – in neighborhoods, at work and in ethnic clubs and associations, the webs that bind individuals, who would otherwise be on their own, into groups of people who care for one another and who help maintain a civic, social, and moral order.

However, for these communities to be able to make their contribution, they themselves need to be shored up. This requires a new respect for the role that institutions, such as local schools, have in sustaining communities. Government needs to refrain from usurping their functions, planners need to make spaces more community-friendly, and all of us need to invest more of ourselves in one another.

Fourth, the national society must ensure that local communities will not lock in values that we, as a more encompassing and overriding community, abhor – such as burning books. And the national society should seek to maintain encompassing bonds that keep the many vying groups from turning hateful and violent toward one another. We can readily accommodate, indeed be enriched, by the cuisine, music and religious practices of the great variety of subcultures that make up America.

But all of these subgroups must subscribe to a set of overarching values: specifically the democratic process, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and the commitment to be respectful of one another.

As our moral order is shored up, we need to concern ourselves with the civic order. Individuals’ rights are to be matched with social responsibilities. If people want to be tried before juries of their peers, they must be willing to serve on them.

If they want elected officials that respond to their values and need, they must involve themselves in the primaries in which the candidates are chosen. Voting is not enough. They will also have to dedicate more time and energy to participating in local politics and institutions, from the community hospital to the local school board.

We need to remind one another that no rights are absolute. Even the freedom of speech, we all know, is refused to people who shout “fire!” in a crowded theater, unless there is a fire.

Testing those who have the lives of others directly in their hands for drugs, setting up sobriety checkpoints to stop murderous drivers, and asking people whose blood is being tested to allow it to be checked for the HIV virus are all reasonable responses to new massive threats we must deal with in order to make this society work again.

Finally, complaining about special interests is not good enough. Don’t get mad; get going. Special interests must be countered, and their money bags must be kept from corrupting our elected officials.

The political energy required to reform the political system and restore the public interest to the central place it belongs cannot come from anywhere but aggrieved citizens banding together to clean up politics.

During a dinner discussion of the Communitarian agenda, Dr. Joan W. Konner, dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University, puzzled over Communitarianism.

“It appeared to be one part church sermon, one part reassertion of old values, one part political campaign, and one part social movement,” she said. I could not have put it better myself. Our agenda, by necessity, is as complex and encompassing as the problems we face: beware of politicians promising simple solutions. We aim to change values, to alter mind-sets, and to promote public policy that serves the commons.

As encompassing as the new Communitarian agenda is, it requires much experimentation and elaboration. Above all, the agenda requires more good people and leaders who will join with one another to further develop the messages and form the social movement without which no basic change of direction is possible.

We do not have all the answers. But we are engaged in a genuine, shared undertaking. Many of these answers must evolved out of give and take among those who make the Communitarian movement their social, civic and moral home. It is, I assure you, a mighty fine place to start. May we hear from you?

The Communitarian Network
2130 H Street, NW, Suite 703
Washington, DC 20052
202.994.6118
comnet@gwu.edu