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George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni has labored mightily to advance “communitarianism,” a philosophy that tries to reconcile the often competitive demands of liberty and responsibility, but at the heart of communitarianism is the idea of “community”and when Etzioni looks at his own he finds it wanting.
Etzioni, whose new book, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society, has just been published, lives in a Foggy Bottom co-op. While the building offers a convenient hike to his GW office, Etzioni acknowledges that the neighborhood doesn’t provide much sustenance for the soul.
“People in the high-rise buildings barely know each other,” he says. “Occasionally you’ll have a somewhat forced Christmas party or a pool party, but most of the time it’s strangers passing each other like ships in the night. Most people don’t even attend the co-op meetings.”
Asked to list the basic components of a good community, Etzioni cites public safety first, followed by inviting public spaces and the existence of “enablers” who take it upon themselves to organize community events. Washington, he says, has too little of the first, barely enough of the second, and almost none of the third.
Etzioni knows from communities. Driven from Germany by the Nazis when he was a child, Etzioni settled in pre-Israel Palestine, grew up in a cooperative village, and
later spent time in a kibbutz. He points out that the
amount of kibbutz community spirit ranges all over the map: Some frown upon personal coffee cups as insufficiently communal, while others permit their members a broader private sphere.
But Etzioni insists that his notion of communitarianism doesn’t set the bar anywhere near that high. He ranks the American locales he’s lived in relatively high on the community scalenot just the academic environments that surround Columbia University and UC Berkeley, but even humble Bethesda, where he spent several years.
“There, we knew the people down the street,” Etzioni says. “We met them during parents meetings. My late wife organized a neighborhood patrol. We’d invite each other to our houses.” Etzioni adds that it’s not as if D.C. is devoid of good neighborhoods; he cites Adams Morgan and Chevy Chase as examples.
Have people simply given up on the public realm in favor of the private sphere? “I don’t think anybody is beyond redemption,” Etzioni suggests hopefully. “People can be enticed. We still yearn for community.”Louis Jacobson
Etzioni will participate in a panel discussion concerning The New Golden Rule at 4 p.m. Feb. 12 at George Washington University’s Marvin Center. See listings for details.