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BILL CLINTON: If you really want to help my agenda, what can be done in your community to help people walk the streets and fight crime?

KERRY O'BRIEN: Bill Clinton is a believer. So is Britain's Tony Blair and France's Jacques Delors. They are all supporters of the new ism that's sweeping America - communitarianism which stresses the power of unity and the need for a sense of community over individual rights.

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JAMES FOREMAN: The power belongs to the people, and whenever the people ask for it back, just merely walking out in the streets together as a group united, they can always get it back.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The movement's guru is an American socialist named Amitai Etzioni, and he's on Lateline to talk about his moral renaissance. That's our story tonight.

From the Clinton White House to some of Europe's most prominent leaders, the ideas of an American academic are making an enormous impact as politicians search for new ways to break the social malaise within Western democracies. Amitai Etzioni is a Washington sociologist who has founded a movement for moral revival called communitarianism which claims that it can save society. Much of Etzioni's philosophy is feel-good rhetoric about saving the family, discouraging divorce and teenage pregnancy, and winning back blood-soaked streets for the community, but his ideas are influencing Clinton's domestic policies in America. His echo can also be heard in the speeches of new British Labour leader, Tony Blair, who is shaping up to become Prime Minister, and other influential European leaders like France's Jacques Delors.

Etzioni says Americans have become so obsessive in their demand for individual rights that they have lost sight of their obligations towards each other, that communities can only be restored through a revival of mutual responsibility. It's a sentiment, he says, is transferable to other countries with similar social problems, but as an impressive core of Republicans as well as Democrats in America have moved to embrace the thrust of communitarianism, critics on the right and left are voicing concern about some of the practical applications proposed by Etzioni and his disciples.

In a moment, Amitai Etzioni meets one of his strongest critics, but first, Washington correspondent, Tony Jones, looks at communitarianism at work.

TONY JONES: When crack cocaine took hold in the 1980s, many Black American communities began to come apart at the seams.

UNIDENTIFIED: We'd had a crack cocaine game and everything went down the tubes, really, and that was the killer drug; no question about it.

TONY JONES: The impact is in the statistics. Homicide is now the number one cause of death among young Blacks, and in the last few years, more Black men have gone to gaol than to college. But instead of waiting for someone else to solve the problem, some communities decided to take responsibility for themselves.

JAMES FOREMAN: ... the hoodlums who wanted to ... the drug market in our community, and we decided that we didn't want that to happen, so ....

TONY JONES: James Foreman was one of a small group in Anacostia in crime-ridden south-east Washington who decided to drive the criminals out of their neighbourhood.

But this started from within the community itself?

JAMES FOREMAN: Right. It started right here.

TONY JONES: They started the Orange Hats, unofficial and unarmed community police who take to the streets every night.

So what you're saying is that you took the power back into your own hands.

JAMES FOREMAN: The power belongs to the people and whenever the people ask for it back, just merely walking about the streets together as a group united, they can always get it back.

TONY JONES: This grassroots activism seems to have worked. Foreman's leafy, working-class neighbourhood is one of the safest in the overwhelmingly black south-east Washington.

JAMES FOREMAN: How's everything going around here tonight?

TONY JONES: In the past five years, 286 Orange Hat groups were formed throughout Washington - 14,000 people, and the movement has spread further to 18 different states.

It's one of the most successful examples of what's now being called communitarianism. The philosophy holds that Americans have become so self-obsessed, they've forgotten they have to live together in communities.

WILLIAM D'ANTONIO: The ideal is for us to return to a balance between the personal rights and the personal wants that we enjoy, to recognise the other side, that those rights and wants and desires carry with them significant responsibilities.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Professor William D'Antonio is part of an influential group of academics and politicians who champion the ideas of Amitai Etzioni, the guru of communitarianism whose new book, The spirit of community, is a call for the reinvention of American society, a society severely damaged by what they call the selfish message of the Reagan years.

WILLIAM D'ANTONIO: Many of us who read that period and who believed that we, as individuals, have a social responsibility to our society to realise that responsibility within our local communities and within the larger side, it really felt that Reagan had carried the message to an extreme that was going to hurt us for years to come.

TONY JONES: Not surprisingly, communitarians have a firm toehold in the Clinton administration.

WILLIAM D'ANTONIO: Yes. It is a fact that the Clinton administration listens to these ideas. Dr William Gulson at the University of Maryland who was co-founder with Professor Etzioni of the communitarian movement is President Clinton's deputy for domestic affairs, and so we have a person centrally committed within the White House.

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BILL CLINTON: If you really want to help my agenda, what can be done in your community to help people walk the streets and fight crime? And the most important thing you could do is to figure in my judgment, to help carry out my agenda, is figure out whether in your community everything has been done to make the streets safe, the schools safe, the kids have a better future, recreational opportunities for kids, the kind of things that make community strong.

TONY JONES: Bill Clinton often echoes the high moral tone of the communitarians. Communitarians discourage divorce, stress the value of the family. One of their biggest campaigns is against teenage pregnancy.

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BILL CLINTON: If you really want to rebuild the families then people have to decide I'm not going to have a baby till I'm married, I'm not going to bring a baby into the world I can't take care of, and I'm not going to turn around and walk away when I do it. I'm going to take responsibility for what I do.

TONY JONES: It's a public morality that undercuts some of the posturing of the religious right.

UNIDENTIFIED: Teenagers have the energy, imagination and intelligence to make a difference in our communities. All they need is a chance to show what they can do.

TONY JONES: Some states have brought the communitarian ideals into their school system but here, in Maryland, they've gone a step further, making community service compulsory.

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UNIDENTIFIED: Maryland is the first state in the country to require students to perform service as a high school graduation requirement.

UNIDENTIFIED: By the time you're finished 8th grade, you will have completed one of your high school graduation requirements which will be a total of 75 hours worth of community service.

TONY JONES: The whole idea has touched some raw nerves among right-wingers.

SCOTT BULLOCK: And there was the idea amongst many people on the left that the 1980s in America were a period of greed and selfishness and materialism led by Ronald Reagan, of course, and that schoolchildren having lived through that, must be pulled out of that era into a new meaningful, I guess, 1990s.

TONY JONES: This group's first year of community service was an environmental project.

As if to illustrate communitarian complaints, some students have now taken out legal cases against their schools arguing that compulsory community service violates their constitutional rights, rights set out under the 13th Amendment of the Constitution which was set up to abolish slavery by outlawing involuntary servitude.

SCOTT BULLOCK: Under the Constitution, you simply cannot force people to provide free labour for other people, and that's exactly what these programs require.

TONY JONES: Scott Bullock, a lawyer in the right-wing funded Institute for Justice, plans to take the cases right up to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

SCOTT BULLOCK: I think it's incredibly important and I think it really gets to some very fundamental issues over what constitutes volunteering, what individuals owe to the community and, in particular, the role of government in determining what citizens owe to the community, if anything.

UNIDENTIFIED: But it will be exciting. I think you're going to enjoy it.

TONY JONES: The notion of compulsory service has provoked a debate in the communitarian movement. The movement's leader, Professor Etzioni, has said it's wrong to make it mandatory, but nonetheless, communitarian groups have joined the legal battle to defend the schools. So it's now become a test case for the ideas of social responsibility.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That report from Tony Jones.

And now, to America and our studio guests.

Amitai Etzioni is President of the American Sociological Association. A former senior adviser to President Carter, he's the founder of the International Society for the Advancement of Socioeconomics and has served as a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, Harvard Business School and, currently, at George Washington University. He's the editor of The responsive community: rights and responsibilities, a communitarian quarterly, and Dr Etzioni is also the author of 14 books, including The communitarian bible: the spirit of community, and he's in our Washington studio.

Samuel Walker is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. He was a member of the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1983 until this year. He's also the author of eight books and is currently writing another book in response to communitarianism called The rights revolution, to be published by the Oxford University Press early next year. And Professor Walker is in Omaha. This discussion was pre-recorded.

Amitai Etzioni, you want to achieve a new moral, social and public order based on restored communities without puritanism or oppression, and you'd focus on a number of areas to assist this moral resurgence like schools, family, law and order, persuading people to accept increased social responsibility, but who would be the moral arbiters? Who would establish the ground rules and how would you limit the danger of puritanism and oppression that you yourself are against?

AMITAI ETZIONI: All of us, the only way a community can change its direction if you're going to have the kind of open, inclusive, democratic dialogues we had in the New England Town Hall meeting in which we all sit together and discuss things with one another. We, in this country, had discussions like this about sexual harassment, about women's rights, about the environment, about minority rights, and, in each case, after a billion hours of conversation, we moved forward with a new consensus into a new direction.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But at the same time that you talk about avoiding the dangers of oppression, you talk also about limiting rights.

AMITAI ETZIONI: No, absolutely not - absolutely not. The basis of rights, the foundation of rights, is that people will assume their responsibilities. There is no contradiction between rights and responsibilities. On the contrary, they interlink simple examples. American studies show, feel very strongly about their right to be tried before a jury of their peers, but they don't want to serve on it. Now, if you want to have the right to serve on a jury, you have to serve on it, otherwise there will be no jury of your peers. Our studies show that Americans want less government but they want more of every conceivable government service. You cannot have less government and pay less and get more services. There is a contradiction. If you want to be given, you have to give something back. That's the basis of our civil society.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Samuel Walker, before we look more closely at how communitarianism would work in practice in a few key areas, what are your broad concerns about these attempts to tap something as benign as trying to appeal to the spirit of community?

SAMUEL WALKER: Oh, I think there is something very genuine in the communitarian movement. It speaks to some very real concerns about very real problems that Americans have, especially crime and the family. I think my main concern, though, is that much of the communitarian program is really very vague, happy talk. There's really nothing of substance there, and some of their other proposals are really very dangerous and, contrary to what Professor Etzioni just said, he really does want to scale back on some very important rights. So I think there's a very dangerous element to it.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. Well, we might go to some of those specifics now. Amitai Etzioni, you say, and I quote: 'We hold that the family, without which no society has ever survived, can be saved without forcing women to stay at home or otherwise violating their rights'. By what formula would you save the family?

AMITAI ETZIONI: Well, let's start with the fact that we have to have, again, one of those conversations. We tried for 25 years to say 'Anything goes', and we have, now, the consequences of this social experiment. We have 12-year-olds getting pregnant, promiscuous; we have epidemics of AIDS; we have juveniles who don't know right from wrong. Basically, the parents - men and women - simply walked out on their children in many parts of our country. The results are intolerable. It's exactly what you would have predicted.

The family always was the first agent of moral education. That does not mean you have to go back to authoritarianism. Both fathers and mothers must invest more in their children. No, I will not send the police after them. I will urge to their better sense, their better self, and encourage them. I will celebrate them, I will value them when they become parents again.

Then there are economic changes we can make. There are already 12 million Americans working at home. We have the technology which allows you to mix child care, being home when the child comes back from school. We have 10 million children coming back to liquor cabinets and TV sets. These are not good educators. We can have more flex time. There are many things we can do to enable parents to be parents. Without that, we cannot hope to lay the foundation for a moral, civil society but it will come only about if we convince each other - just the way we talked each other into this 'Anything goes', if we convince each other that that will not work and we'll assume our parental responsibilities again voluntarily because we recognise how right it is to do so.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Because when things are reduced to simplistics like a statement that communitarianism would discourage divorce and teenage pregnancy, you could easily see how some might assume that you can only do that by some kind of coercion.

AMITAI ETZIONI: We have a very, very clear and specific program. We want to have what most European societies have - child allowance. We now give, after a big fuss, a parent who has just had a child, 90 days, three months, unpaid leave, if they work for a large place which has more than 50 employees. That's ludicrous. Sweden, Britain, France, all give them a year of paid leave so they can bond with their children. That's a very specific proposal helping parents. We're not talking about the fact that we could reduce our pollution, our traffic jams, our neglected children if more parents will be enabled to work at home. That's a very specific agenda. Then we allow for more flex time which allows people to come in different schedules. The fathers can come at different times than mothers, and there's somebody at home. These are all very, very specific programs. They do not involve coercion. They involve enabling parents to be parents.

But let's not disregard the moral climate of a society. We had a period that if you went to a cocktail party and you ran into a woman and you said 'What are you doing?', and she said 'I'm a mother', you would walk away because there's nothing to talk to a mother about. We downgraded parenting. We are now turning around and saying to each other 'We made a mistake'. We need to turn around and say 'If you want to work outside the household, that's your right, but if you want to find ways of combining your employment with attending to your children, we respect and appreciate what you're doing'.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Samuel Walker, it's fairly hard to argue against in the broad, isn't it?

SAMUEL WALKER: Well, I would agree with Professor Etzioni's basic program. What we need in this country, what we do not have, is really a comprehensive program of social supports, including family leave, prenatal care, child care and really a comprehensive health care program. But the best way to advance that, I think, is through the language of rights, insisting on a right to health care; a right to child support; a right to family support. So I think he's wrong in directing so much of his attack on rights rather than emphasising the positive aspects of this program.

AMITAI ETZIONI: I've never ever attacked or downgraded rights.

SAMUEL WALKER: That is not true, Professor Etzioni. You have an article ....

KERRY O'BRIEN: Sorry. Amitai Etzioni, we'll just let Samuel Walker elaborate and be more specific about that, and then I'll give you a response.

AMITAI ETZIONI: Okay.

SAMUEL WALKER: It is absolutely not true. He's being very disingenuous, this evening. He, just this month, published an article in the Washington monthly, which was attacking the ACLU and attacking the whole idea of fighting for individual rights. If you read his book, in The spirit of community, he repeatedly attacks what he calls 'rights absolutus', and his program relating to crime is very much a call for scaling back on many individual rights such as protection against unreasonable searches and seizure. He's really being very disingenuous tonight. That's not what he has said in the past.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Amitai Etzioni, in responding to that, you might also address the fact that you propose a transitionary moratorium on new rights which you suggest might be for about a decade.

AMITAI ETZIONI: Yes. One of the best ways to protect our rights is not to invent new ones just in order to multiply rights because, like any currency, you undermine it when you invent like the following. There's a gentleman who sued one of our superstores - Macey's - for the right to play Santa Claus. He was on some drug. Macey's thought he would endanger the children and they offered him a different job and he sued for the right to play Santa Claus.

We already have a law in Santa Monica, California, that if there's a line in front of the women's room, they can declare an emergency and use the men's room, but a woman brought a suit that she would like to use the men's room any time, even if there's no line. These kind of things trivialise rights and undermine them.

So those who really cherish rights have to understand that we must protect our basic rights, we must fight for them, but if it trivialises them that way, we're really undermining them. We don't protect our rights.

Our credit card companies who charge 18 per cent interest. When Congress tried to put a ceiling on how much interest they can charge, they took a full page of advertising saying that Congress was about to take away the right of Americans for credit cards. There is no such right. So when people invent rights of this kind of capricious nature, they are undermining rights; not me.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Samuel Walker.

SAMUEL WALKER: Well, I think it's easy to pick some absurd case out of the millions that arise every year, so I don't think he's really made the point. I think if you're really concerned about the family and about children, one of the best ways to do that would be to champion children's rights and a child's right to support by both parents. So if a father walks away and does not support that child, I think it's fully consistent with the idea of both supporting the family and rights to force that father to support that child. But again, I think the way to think of that is in terms of children's rights.

AMITAI ETZIONI: ... suggestion is part of the communitarian platform. Just for the record, if you will turn to The spirit of community, you will find it appendixed, the full text of the communitarian platform and you will find a very clear statement that fathers cannot walk away from their children. They are obligated to bring them up.

SAMUEL WALKER: We're agreed on that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Amitai Etzioni, you say that we hold that law and order can be restored without turning this country of the free into a police state ....

AMITAI ETZIONI: That's right.

KERRY O'BRIEN: ... as long as we grant public authority some carefully crafted and circumscribed new powers. Now, by what formula do you do that?

AMITAI ETZIONI: By what formula? These are .... rights. For example, recently we had a situation in Chicago where we have a public housing project in which 19,000 poor families live. In one weekend, we had 300 shootings and eight fatalities. The police were invited by the head of the housing project to sweep the public housing and take away the guns. There is no right in the Constitution to bear arms by individuals. The Constitution expressly talks about a right of well-regulated militia to bear arms, not of individuals.

Now, when that happened, the ACLU went to court and they stopped the removing of the guns from public housing. That is a good example where one invents rights which do not exist. Even the National Rifle Association, our most right-wing organisation, does not dare to go to court on these issues because they know every time they went to court over 140 years, the court declared there is not right of the individual towards guns. So we would favour entitling the police to remove firearms from private hands - indeed, indeed, indeed.

SAMUEL WALKER: I would like to respond to that. Once again, Professor Etzioni is being a little dishonest on that. There was a very famous case in Chicago and the ACLU did go to court and get an injunction against these sweeps, but it was not on the right to have possession of guns; it was on the searches. There was a violation of the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. So you had the police sweeping in, searching all sorts of people for whom there was no individualised suspicion. Again, there's no objection to the police seizing a gun that's being held illegally, but what he is really talking about here is that he wants to grant the police much greater powers than they have and to really erode some of the very important protections that are in the 4th Amendment.

AMITAI ETZIONI: The 4th Amendment talks about the - let's just quote it correctly - there be no unreasonable search or seizure. Now what is reasonable or unreasonable has been subject to some discussion at the margins. Basically, we're all agreed that nobody should march into your home or search your person.

SAMUEL WALKER: That's what the police were doing in Chicago.

AMITAI ETZIONI: That is not true, but there are arguments at the margin. In public housing, the question is in hot pursuit, if the police can enter. I suggested many, many court cases which justify that when people fire at you from the windows and kill people around the building, that the police does not have to wait, he can go on then. But these are technicalities. We get completely off the issue from this extreme organisation. We're not talking about the real issues. The real issue is that the moral fibre of this country and other societies like ours - it's not an American problem; we see the same problem in Britain, in Germany and other countries - that we fooled around with the moral foundations of the society. Schools no longer ....

KERRY O'BRIEN: But you see, the moral majority in America, the religious right in America, would espouse similar ....

AMITAI ETZIONI: Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no, Kerry. They want to force them ....

KERRY O'BRIEN: They certainly make similar noises. They would say ....

AMITAI ETZIONI: No, no. My line on this is very simple. The moral majority raised all the right questions and gave all the wrong answers. They want to impose - their answers are never arrived at by consensus, by dialogue. They are particular religious answers; they want to impose them on everybody else. That's the last thing we want. We want an open dialogue in which we all participate, and we agreed with each other that we made a mistake and we need to correct our ways in a way where everybody will have the same rights -women and men, fathers and mothers, children, all should be involved. Minorities - there should never be imposed solutions.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Samuel Walker.

SAMUEL WALKER: Yes, I would agree with that. The way to really achieve a full and a true community is to make sure that everybody has their rights. And so when Professor Etzioni talks about the dialogue, what that means is we have to guarantee the right of everybody to be heard. Now, what's going to happen - what does happen - is that there are some people who will say things that you and I don't like and you and I find offensive, and that's the importance of the 1st Amendment in terms of protecting everybody's right to be heard even though somebody would like to suppress them.

So again, all through the communitarian rhetoric, they keep talking about scaling down rights and a moratorium on rights, and it's really a very dangerous idea and it's one that's going to erode the idea of community.

KERRY O'BRIEN: What objections do you have to Amitai Etzioni's proposal that people in responsible positions like a pilot of a plane, like a bus driver or whatever, should be subject to drug and alcohol tests before they conduct those duties as a sort of guarantee that they're in a fit state to do their job.

SAMUEL WALKER: Well, there are two things. First of all, if somebody has evidence of being unfit, they look like they've been drinking or under the influence of drugs, then there's no 4th Amendment objection to them being asked to take a test. I think, actually, the idea of drug and urine tests really misses the point. There are many people who will be unfit -many pilots, for example - who will be unfit to fly an airplane. They've had a family problem; there are financial problems; they haven't gotten any sleep; they aren't alert. A drug test isn't going to catch that person, and so ....

SAMUEL WALKER: There's all this mumbo-jumbo. The fact is, on this particular issue, American courts would again and again and again - and 90 per cent of our drivers of school buses, pilots, train engineers are routinely subject to tests and we've significantly reduced fatalities that way. That's not even an issue any more. You really have to realise that the ACLU is so far out there in a corner that's it's really not a serious participant in the public conversation. The public conversation is around the question how we're going to allow people to survive in their bedrooms, the problem of sleeping on the floor because they have to dodge drug-dealer bullets. We have to remember where we are. The biggest danger to fascism is not a little rearrangement of the law. It's when legitimate, important, vital public needs are not met. That's what leads to fascism.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Samuel Walker, when you do look at the sense of society in decay in the US with similar trends in other Western democracies, admittedly, the growing disillusionment with politicians and the way that they apply democracy, you must agree that some way has to be found to break the cycle?

SAMUEL WALKER: Yes, but I think the way to do that is not to scale down on rights. I think, on the question of crime, the real problem is if you look at our central cities, they are economically devastated. What we need is an economic policy that will give people jobs, give people hope for the future and allow them, on their own, to build strong families and build communities.

AMITAI ETZIONI: May I ask my colleague one simple question?

SAMUEL WALKER: Sure.

AMITAI ETZIONI: Did the ACLU come out against guns?

SAMUEL WALKER: The ACLU takes no position for or against gun control.

AMITAI ETZIONI: It takes no position, ladies and gentlemen - it takes no position. That's our curse. We have 200 million guns in private hands and the ACLU takes no position. That's all you need to know.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. We're getting close to time, but one of the things I'd like to pin down, Amitai Etzioni - you're in the process of score-carding members of Congress as good or bad communitarians.

AMITAI ETZIONI: That's right.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Presumably, that's based on how they vote on policy. So how do you translate communitarianism into health policy or education policy or spending on other important social infrastructure, for example?

AMITAI ETZIONI: A fair question. We are in the cultural, moral value business, so we rank members according to whether they favour or oppose national service; if they favour or oppose leave for parents to attend to their families. We rank them on their position about guns - are they for or against guns - and other such issues which tell us are they concerned about the well-being of the community or are they in the pocket of special interest groups.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Samuel Walker, I think that the ACLU does its own score-carding, too, so I can't imagine that you would object to that. And secondly, you've got positions in the community and you participate in the public debate. The moral majority does; various other special interest groups do. One assumes that the communitarianists simply take their place in society, press their case and the people of America can make their own decisions.

SAMUEL WALKER: Well, I think everybody ought to read Professor Etzioni's book because I think they will learn that he's been very dishonest, this evening. First of all, he keeps saying he's not scaling down rights - he does talk about that. On tonight's program, he misstated the facts of the Chicago housing authority case on two occasions and then he quickly dropped the, changed the subject because he knew he was - I caught him on that. So I think people ought to read his book and find out exactly what communitarianism is about.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay.

AMITAI ETZIONI: I think that's a fair suggestion, and I also suggest that it .... doubt at any of the ACLU policies. And they have a surprise coming. The last thing the ACLU defended was the right of lawyers to submit false bills. So go check at the ACLU, too, while you are at it.

SAMUEL WALKER: Once again, that was a very complicated case and he has misstated the facts of that again.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. We're out of time, I'm afraid, but thanks very much to both of you for joining us. Thank you.