Issue 60 (2012)

Communitarian Observations

I often write about rather different matters, but in my mind they all deal with one core question: the guidance our shared values, especially the common good, provide to our public policies.

We would especially appreciate any comments about our nine minute video “You Don’t Need to Buy This”—above all, how your children, students, or other young people responded. And let us know if we may share them in the next newsletter.

Viewers’ Comments

Do we “really need” symphony orchestras? Do we really need to “really need” something before we buy it? I don’t think so! Alternatively, we could say, sure we do! We need to feel free to buy what we like, including if it’s whimsy that motivates us. I’m not sure what your list of preferential needs would be, but either it’s very thin, in which case the “no” answers to the above questions provides evidence that a life with nothing but needs being fulfilled is scarcely worth living; or if we say “yes,” then we have a thick enough notion of needs to cover all cases. Sorry, but I want to continue to let people spend their money as they like, silly or not.”

– Jan Narveson, University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada

“Love, intellectual stimulation, appreciation of nature, building a better America, the pleasure of voluntary service and community building – it’s all a lot more satisfying than consumerism gone amok. When is having enough material goods satisfactory? How can we reach a level of security about our health, our future, our education and then say – “enough! – let’s focus on love, happiness, intellectual growth, community, caring for others.” I admire your lifelong work on structuring our values so that success is measured by something more meaningful than earnings and consumption.”

– Betsy Cavendish, President,Appleseed

“I like this – it always brings me peace when I hear the words of wisdom … its why I come and spend some time with Adbusters

– Anonymous

“This would have been more interesting if it addressed desire and what motivates them. If you ask someone whether they really need something they are likely to say no but “I want it” or “I don’t need it but want it anyway.” The desire for most material things are not there based on needs but on wants, desires that most people never really consider nor understand. The actuality of wanting something and having the ability to get it is justification that really doesn’t need justifying, but if we get people to become aware not of only their desire but what is motivating that desire then you can actually move someone to transcend a “want,” the desire.”

– Anonymous

Consumerism and the “Chinese Dream”

Some in China are beginning to see that buying into American consumerism is not the only means to develop their country. “Success in the ‘American Dream,’ ” notes Peggy Liu, the founder of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, or Juccce, “used to just mean a house, a family of four, and two cars, but now it’s escalated to conspicuous consumption as epitomized by Kim Kardashian. China simply cannot follow that path — or the planet will be stripped bare of natural resources to make all that the Chinese consumers want to consume.” The “Chinese Dream” they argue is about “more access to better products and services, not necessarily by owning them, but also by sharing — so everyone gets a piece of a better pie.”

See Thomas L. Friedman’s article in The New York Times

From My Diary

The Pentagon is constructing a rationale for very great outlays for the Air Force and Navy, after ten years during which the Army got first dibs. Much of the funds will go to the AirSea Battle strategy, many details of which are classified. However, it is clear that it involves building and updating ships, planes and weapon technologies to the tune of billions of dollars. The Pentagon stresses that the ASB plan “is not about a specific regime.  It’s about our ability to confront [anti-access/anti-denial] systems and overcome them no matter where they are or how they’re presented.” Well it seems safe to assume that the aim is not New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. Nor is there any other nation in that part of the world that this new escalation can be aimed at but China. Not even North Korea.

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A cover story of The Economist is dedicated to a new dream for India. It entails India giving up its social market and many government regulations and social programs in favor of “liberal” economics. This is needed according to The Economist in order to save India from continuing to be “condemned to a dismal 3-4% increase in annual GDP.” The Economist ignores that practically all the economies that have the kind of regime it advocates for India—grow more slowly, if they grow at all. Indeed on the very next page The Economist notes that the British economy is shrinking. Dream on.

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In a rare on the record meeting of the Council of Foreign Relations in DC, David Bradley, chairman of Atlantic Media, told the audience about a visit Bob Bennett made to the Clinton White House. He was allowed to park right in the heart of the compound, next to the White House proper. When he left the car, the secret serve agent told him, “You must be from New York.” When Bennett responded, “How did you know??” The agent said “Only New Yorkers lock their cars here…” Today, he might have to say Chicago instead.

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I got an email from the Iran-based Press TV International News that asked me to participate in either “News Analysis” or “Money Trail,” two shows on their network. I chose news. I was then told that I will be contacted in the next week. Well someone must have discovered that I am not on Iran’s most loved scholars’ list. I should add that when I was the guest of the reformers in Iran in 2002, I was very cordially treated. Well, I guess, you cannot win them all. To see why some in Iran may not love me, check out “Can a Nuclear-Armed Iran Be Deterred.”

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Coming Soon

Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World(New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2012) by Amitai Etzioni — Available in October 2012.

“Here is a book that tells us how to combine humanitarian values with a tough-minded approach to security issues. Etzioni is a liberal realist, and his sober and well-researched book never loses sight of the moral goals which should inform US foreign policy in a period of rapid change and increasing uncertainty. A must read, especially in a presidential election year.”—Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“Amitai Etzioni takes the reader on a tour de force of the world’s ‘hot spots’—from Asia in assessing China’s rise, to the long-term repercussions of the Arab Spring on the Middle East; from a European Union whose very future is in doubt, to the nooks and crannies of the new global disorder. He shows us why neat and quick solutions to the complex foreign policy issues of the twenty-first century—simply deploying drones, task forces, and Marshall plans—is not feasible, especially in this new age of austerity. But he goes on to lay out strategies that can manage and mitigate these challenges over the long haul. In contrast to other books in recent years prescribing remedies for international ills, which are quickly dated or overtaken by events, Etzioni provides a perspective that will remain relevant and useful for years to come.”—Nikolas K. Gvosdev, senior editor, The National Interest and professor of national security affairs, US Naval War College

Cooler Heads in the South China Sea

The United States is realizing that the escalating tensions in the Far East, especially between China and Japan, should no longer be viewed as an opportunity to contain China. Instead, our first priority should be to get everyone to calm down.

At issue are the territorial rights over some forty piles of rock, most uninhabited, some barely sticking out of the water. These conflicts already have led to large nationalist anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and similar anti-Chinese demonstrations in Japan; saber-rattling activists planting their nation’s flag on some of the islands; and clashes between vessels of several regional nations—all fueled by increasingly hot rhetoric by public leaders. These smaller clashes look increasingly like the type of incidents that can spin out of control and lead to more serious conflagrations.

Read the rest at The National Interest

Insulting the Prophet, Insulting Humanity

It was wrong to produce and to distribute a trailer for a movie that depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a child abuser, a womanizer and a fraud. But before you jump all over me—man, have you never heard of free speech?—please note that there is a difference between having a right to say something and the notion that saying it is right.

Legally, our constitution allows for such drivel, allowing Americans to make films that they know are deeply offensive and distribute them to others. We tend to look the other way even when such material is intended not merely to provoke others, but is also motivated by deep-seated hate or bigotry, a form of speech banned by the laws in several major countries including Canada, Germany and the mother of modern democracies, Britain.

We live, however, not by law alone. We have moral codes.

Read the rest at The National Interest

The Myth of Multipolarity

One of the major pieces of conventional wisdom these days is that the United States is declining as a global power and that the world is moving toward a “multipolar” system in which many nations will have sway. As Robert Kagan reports, “when most people think of a post-American world, they think of a return to multipolarity—an international configuration of power where several powers exist in rough parity.” Charles Kupchan likewise postulates a weakening of U.S. primacy and the establishment of a multipolar world that will not have a “center of gravity” but will instead be characterized by a diffusion of power among several major world players.

China is said to lead the parade of the new powers, followed by oft-cited India and Brazil. All kinds of other countries, from Turkey and South Africa to Nigeria and Indonesia, also made it to the list.

Continue reading on The National Interest

Elections: The European Way

If you are concerned about the tons of money that flow into our elections and the campaigns that drag on and on, but are told there is no way to limit the amount of dough involved — have a look at the way the Europeans do it.

How the French do it: Campaigns for the presidency last the two weeks preceding the first ballot and the week between ballots (if necessary). Campaigns for National Assembly (their Congress) open 20 days before the first ballot. Contributions from corporations and nonprofit organizations are prohibited. Contributions of more than €150 (about 200 USD) must be paid by check or online, with the donor’s identity disclosed. The total expenditures a campaign can make are capped.

Read more at The Huffington Post

Should colleges talk to parents about their kids?

I was walking to my study on the campus recently when I came across the annual ritual: Rows of cars were being unloaded by parents bringing their kids to college. There was a whole beehive of young people, with special T-shirts marked “staff,” who helped the parents carry the computers, boxes, and other gear. A generation ago, I had to schlep that stuff myself (with the assistance of my bewildered freshman son).

By the time I walked back home in the late afternoon, about half a dozen parents were lingering, chatting with each other, obviously reluctant to leave. They must have skipped the “letting go” event that my university, like many colleges, organizes to make the parting easier — as one college dean put it, “to take the gas out of the helicopters.”

Read the rest at CNN

Recent Publications

“The Limits of Knowledge: Personal and Public,” Issues in Science and Technology (Fall 2012), pp. 49-56

One of the most basic assumptions underlying much of Western thinking is that individuals are rational beings, able to form judgments based on empirical information and logical deliberations in their quest for a course of action most suited to advancing their goals. This is assumed to be true for personal choices and for societal ones—that is, for public policies.

But this message is being upended by insights from the relatively new field of behavioral economics, which has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that people are unable to act rationally and are hardwired to make erroneous judgments that even specialized training cannot correct. Being created by people, governments have similar traits that spell trouble for rational policymaking and the progress that is supposed to follow. Still, a closer examination suggests that the findings of behavioral economics are not so much a reason for despair as an indication of the need for a rather different strategy.

“The End of Rationality?” Contemporary Sociology 41.5 (September 2012), pp. 594-597

David Brooks writes that “Kahneman and his research partner, the late Amos Tversky, will be remembered hundreds of years from now.” It is a claim that will be hard to validate but may well hold true. I have even less doubt that their work would have been read with great interest over a century ago by Emile Durkheim when he was working on The Division of Labor in Society (first published in 1893) and by Talcott Parsons as he was preparing The Structure of Social Action (published in 1937). Both were towering sociologists who struggled with the same underlying issue that Daniel Kahneman’s work addresses: how rational are people? Are they able to make decisions based on empirical information and logical deliberations? And if not, what are the bases of their judgments?

Keep reading here.

“Amitai Etzioni Sosyolojisi”

If you happen to speak Turkish, Habibe Gülsüm Müftüler, a doctoral student at Marmara University Institute of Social Sciences in Istanbul, Turkey, wrote his Master’s thesis in 2011 and now a book on Communitarianism.

Check it out here.

I Read

Elizabeth H. Pope writes in the A Longer Life Is Lived With Company about a newly released study that found chronic loneliness in adults over the age of 60 is associated with poor health outcomes and earlier death. As older people lose friends and spouses to debilitating sickness, death and, increasingly, divorce, they lose the social networks that support not only mental and emotional health but provide access to proper medical treatment. The cure? “In the same way you exercise, pay your taxes and eat a healthy diet, you need to start replacing friends as soon as you lose them, particularly around retirement age,” says Dr. George E. Vaillant.

In Entitlements Are Part of the Civic Compact, William A. Galston takes on Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute’s claim that entitlements threaten to corrupt the American character.“America’s distinctively individualist ethos is alive and well,” says Galston, as is another core American belief: that the government should provide a reasonable level of comfort and security to the poor and aging.

In The Mind of a Flip-Flopper, Maggie Koerth-Baker describes why it is that rational arguments and factual evidence often fail to change people’s beliefs, especially their moral attitudes—and why we don’t trust those who do change their minds. Our beliefs make up our group identities—and when someone “flip flops” they become a morally suspect outsider. The key to overcoming this resistance to new ideas is not scientific studies and data, but “emotional, persuasive storytelling,” which forms the narrative basis for a newly conceived identity.

Upcoming Events

SASE 25th Annual Conference – States in Crisis

June 27-29, 2013 – University of Milan

SASE is organized into “networks,” one of which is dedicated to communitarianism and is run by José A. Ruiz San Román. Colleagues interested in presenting a paper or author, or organizing a session should promptly contact Professor Román at [email protected]


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