Issue 66 (2013)

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.

From My Diary

recent poll lists things more popular than Congress: cockroaches, traffic jams, root canals, DC pundits and Donald Trump.


The NRA was criticized for running an ad suggesting that if Obama’s kids are protected by guns, why shouldn’t others? Well if the NRA wants the guns to be wielded by federal agents and no one else—as is the case in the White House—that is well worth considering…


I fully realize that readers cringe when an author reminds them that he was right and his predictions held up. At the same time, I tell myself, unless one keeps some kind of record of past forecasts—how is one to claim credibility when making new predictions? I hope I hence will be forgiven for pointing out that in November in The Huffington Post I wrote going over the “fiscal cliff” for “five minutes, or day, will save us from a major economic dislocation.” Which of course what the Congress did, pulling together a deal on January 1 (after the midnight deadline). I also wrote, given the power of what I call ‘the conservative party’ (practically all of the GOP and quite a few Democrats), I expected Obama’s desired threshold for higher tax rates of $250,000 would be increased to $500,000 (it went to $450,000), the estate tax rate would not be re-raised to 45% (it wasn’t), and that dividends would not be taxed like other income (they aren’t). See next: the conservative party keeps winning on many fronts from greatly limiting all new measures to protect us from guns to unduly slashing social spending. For more, see “Gridlock?”


It’s the Egyptian Economy, Stupid

The Western media faithfully reports every twist and turn in the evolution of the Egyptian democracy: President Morsi decreed today . . . The supreme court ruled that . . . Parliament resolved . . . Demonstrators demanded, and so on. But the main dynamic in Egypt at this stage is an economic one. Unemployment is rampant, the economy is in the doldrums, tourists are avoiding the country, foreign-currency reserves are being depleted and funds promised by various Arab and Western supporters are at best trickling in. 40 percent of the Egyptian people live on fewer than two dollars a day. 25 percent survive on less than one.

The dominant narrative that the Western media has imposed on Egypt and other Arab Awakenings is the same conception of political regime change embraced by neoconservatives. It is a tempting narrative that makes for big screen blockbusters, one that will warm the heart of any well-fed Westerner on his way home from a steady job: They overthrew the dictatorship without firing a shot, by putting their bodies on the line or at least into the square. New leaders were elected and they are on their way to make a Western-style democracy. True, some hiccups are acknowledged. The voters gave an edge to groups that seek to impose some version of Sharia on their nation, but all good narratives have some setbacks. Soon, the narrative continues, the people will tire of the Muslim Brotherhood and get—what the Western media assume they “really” want— a secular, Western-minted democracy.

Unfortunately, this story has some deep flaws.

Read the full article in The National Interest.

The Big Eye Is Not in the Sky

New York City is installing a system that will track people 24/7, using thousands of closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs), radiation and license plate readers, and other technologies. If it works as promised, Microsoft — which is developing the software — stands by to sell it to your city. The invasion of privacy is much greater than anything we have seen so far. You can see this by comparing what any one CCTV or a license reader tracks, to the new Domain Awareness System (the name of the new system just installed in New York City) does.

A typical CCTV, mounted on a bank, office building or residential unit, “sees” who was at a given place at one point in time. A license reader will “know” that your car was at a given intersection at this or that second. These surveillance technologies typically lose this information after a few days. One cannot draw a profile from such instruments that will reveal much about a person beyond a single act. It may tell that you were at a bar at 3 p.m. when you were supposed to be at work, but typically only to the bartender. It may record that you were at Victoria’s Secret when you told you wife you are going to walk the dog, but that is as rule as far as it goes.

Keeping read on The Huffington Post.

Obama’s Foreign Policy: Three Stages of Hope

When President Obama first entered into office in 2009, he was riding a huge wave of hope. He was going to engage other nations rather than confront them, work closely with allies rather than rush ahead unilaterally, restore the good name of the United States across the word and win over the Arab “street.”

In the following years, whatever success this strategy of engagement did yield, it did not measure up to the original expectations. Iran did not engage, North Korea continued its intransigent ways, the “reset” of the relationship with Russia did not stay reset, and the Arab street curved in many different, unexpected ways. True, the U.S. is more popular than it was before Obama first took office; true, U.S. allies carry more of the burden (especially in Libya) than they have previously. However, compared with the unrealistic expectations generated by President Obama’s first election, these achievements seem rather limited. Moreover, this stage — between 2009 and 2012 — was dominated by criticism from the left (e.g., “too many drones,” “too much leniency granted to the CIA” and so on) and the right (e.g., “too soft on Russia, China and Iran”).

Read the rest on The Huffington Post.

Chuck Hagel and China

The media has paid a great deal of attention to the positions of Sen. Chuck Hagel on Iran, Israel and even gays. Much more attention should be paid to his views on China.

The next secretary of defense will face a major strategic decision that will affect the future of the world order, the structure of our military forces and the size of our defense budget for decades to come. The decision concerns whether to treat China as a nation that the U.S. military will have to confront sooner or later—or as a nation with which we can coexist peacefully.

One may say that the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia in 2011 shows that this decision has already been made and that a future conflict is inevitable. But President Obama’s proclamation that the Far East should become the top priority as our presence in the Near East winds down, is open to rather different interpretations.

Read the rest in The National Interest.

The Conservative ‘Party’ Dominates

There is a very widely shared myth about “Washington.” Accordingly, there are two camps, the right-wing GOP and the left-leaning Democrats, who are more or less matched. Each control one house of Congress, and command about half of the electorate. Hence, the gridlock.

Actually, much of American politics over the last four years or longer should be understood as a contest between the conservative “party” (most of the GOP and good part of the Democrats) and a liberal minority party. Recent case in point: On December 28, the conservative “party” in the Senate — 42 Republicans, 30 Democrats and one Independent — voted to extend foreign intelligence law, known as FISA. The bill was opposed by civil liberty advocates for threatening Americans’ right to privacy.

Gridlock exists when one party pulls east and the other party pulls west and, hence, nothing budges. This is not the case in Washington. Here, most times, one party wants to move east and the other wants to stay put. Thus, what appears as gridlock is actually one conservative blocking victory after another.

Read more on The Huffington Post. LINK TO GRID

Consider out videos.[link to our web] Most popular: you don’t need to but this. Soon to come “Don’t touch my Medicare”.

Recent Publications

“Gridlock?,” The Forum: Vol. 10: Iss. 3, Article 9. Available online now, print on January 15.

The article documents that there is actually very little gridlock in the American political system. Most of the time, what the article calls the conservative party (most Republicans and a sizeable number of Democratic legislators) gains its way—even if that means blocking action. This is the case in foreign policy, homeland protection, and economic policies (though not in cultural issues). In addition, conservatives changed the rules of the game in their favor and block truly liberal nominations.

Polls show that for every American who identifies her or himself as a liberal, there are two conservatives. Practically all Republicans see themselves as such, but many Democrats are not liberals. The political system works quite well from one specific viewpoint: it delivers what the majority says it wants. This raises a question: if Congress represents well the majority—why is the majority so unhappy?

Comments on this article are especially appreciated. Send them to Amitai Etzioni at [email protected].

See the attached document for readers’ comments on “Gridlock?” along with my responses.

I Read

In a piece in the Washington Post on balancing public safety and individual rights when it comes to the mentally ill, James B. Gottstein, who was himseld taken to the hospital by the police during a manic episode and now runs the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights, discusses the merits of using informal mechanisms instead of relying solely on police force:

If the police knock down your door and haul you off and you get upset, you get labeled as ‘ hostile’ and ‘labile.’ If you decide that you’re not going to react to these provocations, you get labeled as having ‘a flat affect.’ If you think something is funny and you laugh to yourself, then they write down ‘responding to internal stimuli,’ ” he said. It’s not that people don’t want help, Gottstein said, but that “the system basically forces things on them that they don’t want.” He thinks it is “entirely possible to create a system where things are voluntary.” Essential are peer counselors – people once similarly diagnosed who might be able to connect with the mentally ill when the professionals can’t. There’s a largely unknown movement trying that approach. But he’s quite sure that’s not what people calling for “greater access to mental health services” these days are talking about.

Read the full article here.

New technologies are making it much easier to track their children. Chips worn on bracelets and smartphone apps enable parents and school administrators to keep tabs on young people’s whereabouts, listen in on their conversations, read their texts and emails, and even monitor their driving behavior. These devices are becoming increasingly popular in America, and privacy advocates see cause for concern. They charge that this surveillance is “dehumanizing” and that children who submit to being tracked by parents and schools will be more willing to accept government surveillance down the road. Read the rest in The Economist.

A recent New Yorker essay about today’s twentysomethings asks, “What have today’s twentysomethings done to reinvent the kind of life we dream of?” The answer: “they’ve contributed a lot to the structure of online culture; two-thirds of young adults surveyed in a 2011 study said they’d prefer an Internet connection to a car, suggesting a new social order.” Read the article here.

Few were likely surprised by the immediate and visible presence of religious communities following the tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Funerals were held at local churches and President Obama spoke at an interfaith service that included members and clergy of Bahai, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and both mainline and evangelical Protestant congregations. Notably absent was a strong response from the humanist community, perhaps surprising given that “nones” (those without religious affiliation) now make up 20% of the population. Humanists acknowledge that that lack the strength of community that makes organized religions so effective in times of grief. One reason that secular therapist Darrel W. Ray gives for humanism pastoral deficit has been its almost exclusive focus on the individual: “You can’t just be talking about cowboy individualists anymore. We have to get out of this mentality we’ve been in over the past 50 years of just saying how stupid religion is. We have to create our own infrastructure.” Read the rest in The New York Times.

“In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West.” This is the current state of science in Islam, but it wasn’t always so. When Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Muslim scholars advanced the study of mathematics and medicine, preserved the Greek intellectual heritage, and sparked the European scientific revival. And now, after decades of letting research budgets languish, governments in Muslim nations such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia are investing in science and technology. Read the whole story in The Economist.

Video Content

‘Hot Spots’ Book Discussion

Amitai Etzioni elaborates on the challenges posed to US leaders by certain ‘hot spots’ around the world, drawing attention to these foreign policy challenges in the context of his new book Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World.

You can see more videos on the ICPS website—great work, for good causes.

Upcoming Events


SASE 25th Annual Conference – States in Crisis

June 27-29, 2013 – University of Milan

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Edited by Ashley McKinless