The Magazine

The Communitarian

Amitai Etzioni on his life and times.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
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My Brother's Keeper

A Memoir and a Message

by Amitai Etzioni

Rowman & Littlefield, 448 pp., $35

"IF I DO NOT HAVE MY MONEY by five o'clock, I will accuse you of sexual harassment and tell your wife that we had an affair." That was the threat issued by an ex-employee to Amitai Etzioni, a renowned sociologist at George Washington University and founder of the communitarian movement. And she got her money because, as he tells it in this fascinating autobiography, "My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and a Message," "I have seen professors' careers ruined after they have been charged with sexual harassment, even if, in the end, the courts or hearings fully cleared them."

The young woman had been hired as a research assistant at a university institute Etzioni had created to further his communitarian campaign. She informed Etzioni that she was waiting to hear from the CIA where she had also applied for a job. She asked him for a grant to take a course which she said would further her research work. Etzioni approved a grant of several hundred dollars on her assurance that if the CIA job came through, she'd return the tuition fee. When she passed CIA clearance and prepared to leave, Etzioni asked for the tuition refund. After she refused, he writes, "I made a clear and regrettable mistake. I instructed the university to hold her last paycheck until the matter was resolved." And it was then she uttered her threat and collected the paycheck.

Etzioni doesn't make it clear whether his "mistake" was tactical or principled. In any case, this episode is part of the life story of one of our notable public intellectuals, one who at the age of seventy-four can look back on an extraordinary record of achievement--including a year in the Carter White House and, later, as an adviser to President Clinton. Not bad for a child refugee from Nazi Germany. (He was born Werner Falk but changed his name as a young pioneer in the pre-Israel Jewish communities in Palestine.)

And not bad, also, for someone whom the FBI once suspected of being a Soviet spy. In 1965, the agency organized a sting operation, sending an agent to see if Etzioni, who taught at Columbia University at the time, could obtain a secret report prepared by his colleague, Richard Neustadt, for President Lyndon Johnson. In 1990, Etzioni received a letter of apology from the onetime FBI agent confessing that the agency had suspected his loyalty because of his active opposition to the war in Vietnam.

HIS ROLE as a public intellectual is best characterized by two yiddishisms: kochleffel and kolboynik. The first literally means the big spoon used for stirring the pot, and the second, the expert on everything. His stance of universal expertise is merely the pose necessary for anyone who aims to be a public intellectual, and his big spoon is the age-old concept of "civil society," which he took from such figures as Adam Ferguson and adapted to a movement he labeled "communitarianism." It may well be, as Etzioni claims, that his message had a significant influence on Prime Minister Tony Blair and the development in England of what is today called New Labour.

In the words of the institute's official statement, "Communitarianism springs from the recognition that the human being is by nature a social animal as well as an individual with a desire for autonomy. Communitarians recognize that a healthy society must have a correct balance between individual autonomy and social cohesion." For Etzioni, "today's problem in our societies is excessive individualism" or the conflict between personal desires and moral commitments. He describes communitarianism as a "third way" between capitalism and socialism or perhaps more realistically, a "third way" between rampant liberalism and uncompassionate conservatism. In short he has made his movement one of the most successful soapboxes of modern times, successful in terms of fundraising and issue-raising, accompanied by a long list of publications. And Etzioni, a man of the center left, has managed to do this without engendering too many intellectual wars.

Etzioni may object to being categorized as "center left," since he claims communitarianism "seeks to leapfrog the old debate between left and right and focus on the role of community, culture, and virtue rather than on either the private sector or the government." Yet I don't know how else to describe an author who writes that the American economy under President Reagan didn't perform "particularly well" and "economic growth was sluggish." Etzioni also criticizes Reagan's personal life--"a previously divorced man who was estranged from his own children and not one to frequent church"--which is a curious thing to do for a public intellectual who worked comfortably for years with President Clinton ("the community builder, [who] served as the nation's number one healer").