362. "Bush's community-based plan faces bumpy road." USA Today (August 30, 2001) p 13A.
This fall, President Bush plans to roll out a whole new slew of initiatives aimed at shoring up the moral foundations of the country. These include providing Internet links to connect grandparents and grandchildren, encouraging the media to clean up its act and strengthening character education in schools.
Each measure by itself is hardly earthshaking, does not require the approval of a divided Congress and most likely will not usher in a new moral age. However, the president hopes that together they will help nurture the "seedbeds of virtue," those social institutions that make people better than they would be otherwise. The new measures are all said to reflect a "communitarian" philosophy. This should delight me to no end because I have often been credited with being "the leader of the communitarian movement." That said, while the president's goals are admirable, he cannot enact morals. He can only hope to exhort a divided public, because in the end, it is only the communities themselves that can ultimately bring about change.
What exactly is communitarianism? Moral values do not fly on their own wings. For them to be sustained, they must be undergirded by social institutions, especially by families, schools, neighborhoods, places of worship and voluntary associations -- all elements of community. All of these institutions have weakened over the last generation, as has our moral conduct. And this is not just my personal observation alone. Millions of Americans have told pollsters that even when the economy and the stock market were climbing, the country was moving in the wrong direction because it was failing morally.
As the White House heads down this road, its track record so far has not been especially encouraging: This is the administration that antagonized most of the world by abruptly walking away from the Kyoto Protocol on global warming; the team that announced (and immediately retracted the statement) that arsenic in the water was nothing to lose a drink over; the party that assumed faith-based initiatives would be only modestly controversial, and at least welcomed by the right wing.
They are about to hit a whole series of bumps in the road with their communitarian initiatives:
* Internet links: Provide better e-mail communications between grannies and grandpas and their grandchildren? As a grandparent of five, who are spread between Tel Aviv, Israel, and Seattle, I consider this a neat idea. But I can already hear the chorus of critics asking why should the government do what America Online and its ilk are doing quite well, thank you? And won't better e-mail make for fewer true-blue personal visits?
* Media coverage: The administration wants news organizations to increase their reporting of "good news." While this may be a popular goal -- we are too often bombarded daily with stories of Mideast violence, missing interns and congressional partisanship -- the Fourth Estate will rightly tell us that its job is to report newsworthy events as they occur -- the good and the bad.
* Character education: Strengthening character education in school is essential. Often children are raised without moral and social values because their families are overworked and unsure about what character education they should provide. Schools must often step in. Even when families do a perfect job, character education must be rounded off at least in the first grades.
But, critics will rightly ask, "Whose values are you going to teach?" Liberals will see character education as an attempt to introduce religious education into public schools. Conservatives will fear liberal indoctrination.
Furthermore, numerous educational initiatives -- including President Bush's program for early testing to measure academic achievements, and Laura Bush's new drive for early reading skills -- will require schools to spend less time and resources on character education.
So it will go for all of the other communitarian initiatives the president proposes.
The fact that the initiatives Bush plans so far are modest will help. And to a significant extent, the campaign is based on presidential exhortation, which the president plans to do in trips across the nation this fall. And the other steps are largely symbolic, meant to signal a direction the nation ought to move in, rather than carry it to the new Zion. This approach is highly appropriate, given that the issues at hand are moral ones. The president should not even try to legislate a new moral code.
Ultimately, much of the work needs to be done in communities by communities. The president can foster such efforts, cheer them on, give a helping hand here and there, but no government should take over the work that must be done by families, schools, neighborhoods, places of worship and voluntary associations -- or it would become very uncommunitarian and, much worse, utterly fail.
Amitai Etzioni is founder of the Communitarian Network, and his two communitarian books are The Spirit of Community and The New Golden Rule. He is also a member of USA TODAY'S board of contributors.