The Magazine


Nov 20, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 10 • By AMITAI ETZIONI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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 goverhments 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 Sbuth.

Those who seek to stay au fourant 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.