275. "Which Values Matter Most?," The Weekly Standard, (November 20, 1995), pp. 17-18.
Intellectuals are about as susceptible to fashion as car makers; a little less so than designers of ties. Currently "civil society" is as chic as it gets. The scholar to quote is Harvard political scientist Bob Putnam. From the headquarters of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City io the paneled executive dining rooms of the World Bank in Washington D.C., his study of Italian local governments is lionized. Putnam found that the rich traditions of civic culture made for strong democratic institutions in the North, while both are lacking in the South.
Those who seek to stay au courant but are not civic minded enough to read a whole book can cite Putnam's headline-grabbing article "Bowling Alone." Half a dozen columnists feasted on it, telling Americans that they are losing their civil society. Membership in practically all voluntary associations has been dropping since 1960. As a result, these "mediating" bodies, which stand between the state and the individual, protecting our liberties, have been become flabby. Bowling serves as the arch symbol: While nobody actually bowls alone, people now tend to bowl with a few friends rather than with a bowling league. Watch for increasing democratic disarray, warns Putnam.
The call for restoring civil society in America is backed up by numerous other scholars who are "in" these days. Benjamin Barber at Rutgers, for instance, never tires of telling Americans that they must stop being mere consumers and again become active citizens. Harry Boyte at the University of Minnesota contributes a summons to a "new citizenship." Miss Manners is reported, on good authority, ready to help the cause with a guidebook of her own. Adam Seligman's The Idea of Civil Society provides heavy-duty scholarship on the subject for those who really want to do their homework.
One wonders how anyone has any time left to discharge their civic duty, given the numerous conferences, symposia, and seminars on the subject. Most everyone seems keen to restore civility in America and to export the ideals of a civil society to other countries, especially former communist ones. I just found in my mailbox a brand new newsletter listing selected international events and modestly entitled "The Civil Society: World Wide."
Like other recurrent fashions, these models of the good society are fitting but far from novel. They were already the rage among the ancient Greeks and were adopted by the founding fathers. Nor have they lost their appeal over the centuries. If we are to move forward as a nation, we shall have to agree with one another on our course. This is best achieved when those who have fundamentally differing views respect the same ground rules that make for civility at a town meeting: Thou shalt not demonize the opposition nor characterize all differences as matters of absolute values. Thou shalt recall that after all the shouting subsides, we will still have to work and live together, members of the same community.
While restoring or maintaining civility (take your pick) is surely desirable, the preoccupation with manners and voluntary associations can all too readily serve as a means of avoiding the tougher moral issues of the day. It is so much easier to extol the virtues of civility than to talk civilly about the virtues we need to uphold. President Clinton has been playing it safe recently by talking a great deal (in seven speeches in eleven days, according to one count) about the need to find common ground which is the civil thing to do, but saying precious little as to what that common ground might be or ought to be. It is here that the going gets tough.
As a society (forgetting for a moment the government and its deficits, taxes, and regulations), we must come to terms with a whole cluster of issues that will shape our country's moral infrastructure for the future. Shared values do not fly on their own wing; if they are to guide our lives, they must be sustained by specific social arrangements. Under prodding from social conservatives and religious groups, as well as from the work of several social scientists, Americans have increasingly come to realize that all these arrangements are in disarray. But there is little agreement on how they may be mended.
A good place to start is where Dan Quayle left off: with the number-one element of any society's moral infrastructure, the family. There is now enough evidence to convince anybody who will yield to data that children are better off, all else being equal, with their natural parents, all two of them. Some conservatives therefore Wish to encourage or pressure women to stay home. Liberals still argue that any combination of adults can attend to children, from aunts to day care personnel. Communitarians favor peer marriages, in which both parents have the same rights and the same responsibilities; both participate in the education of their offspring. There might be still other ways to proceed. But, is Montesquieu put it, no wind will do for a sailboat that fails to designate a port. Without fundamental agreement about the makeup of the family, neither social mores nor public policies can be fashioned.
The second element of the moral infrastructure is the schools. Here, both religious advocates and liberals have been insisting that public schools (which still enlist 88 percent of American children) not teach values. It is often observed, correctly, that parents and churches best provide such education. But a flood of illegitimacy, drug abuse, and youth violence attests that they do not suffice. Should we wait until schools are privatized? Is there a way to agree on a limited program of character education in public schools? If yes, what should it encompass? Control of impulse? Empathy? And who will decide? Parents? Educators?
Last but not least, communities themselves serve as an integral part of the moral infrastructure. The very web of civil associations, churches, and neighborhood relationships favored by the civic-culture champions also helps sustain the moral order. It is here that people are appreciated when they live up to the moral tenets of the community and gently censured when they do not. But a community can only perform this function when there is a reasonably wide consensus as to which values shall be affirmed. It is a dialogue we keep shying away from, under such slogans as "It's the economy, stupid" and its Republican equivalents. ("I am not a preacher," said one GOP presidential candidate recently when asked about values issues. He spoke more candidly than several others, who hold similar non-positions.)
It is certainly true that America could benefit from more civility. Indeed, civil discussions might well be the first step toward a new social-moral agenda. However, what American society needs most is a widely shared understanding both of the moral state of the union and, above all, of which values are to guide efforts to mend it: Traditional? Religious? Spiritual? A new secular ethics? Simply being civil is not enough.