The looming dual finales to the century and the millennium have so far inspired surprisingly little millenarian rhetoric, the end-is-nearism that has traditionally punctuated such moments with all sorts of strange predictions and behaviors. In times past, the close of a century, even more so of a millennium, typically generated fevered treatises on the certainty of a coming catastrophe and inspired large numbers of people to prepare maniacally for the destruction of the world, the second coming of Christ, or some combination of both.
In our times, by contrast, such anxieties have given rise to a spate of generally even-handed "Year 2000 Problem" magazine articles, action films such as Deep Impact and Armageddon, and gradually increasing air time for the early '80s Prince song "1999." Distressing perhaps, but hardly cataclysmic. For most of us January 1, 2000--or, for purists, January 1, 2001--seems to portend only another long weekend.
In this context, A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths, a 30-page "report" recently issued by the "the Council on Civil Society," represents a return to tradition. The council is a politically diverse group of two dozen "nationally distinguished scholars and leaders" that includes Institute for American Values President David Blankenhorn, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Princeton's John J. DiIulio, the University of Chicago's Jean Bethke Elshtain, National Parenting Association President Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Sen. Joseph Leiberman (D-Conn.), Harvard's Cornel West, and UCLA's James Q. Wilson--a veritable slugger's row of high-profile and influential public figures.
Their "call" for a renewal of familiar cultural institutions is spoken in the apocalyptic rhetoric long associated with century's end. The booklet also offers revelation (the other meaning of apocalyptic), showing how even the most seemingly innocuous arguments for "civic participation" often seek to limit and regulate alternative social arrangements in the name of a vague common good.
Though the authors grant in passing that "there is much good news" in America today, to them the immediate future looks darker than midnight: "Let us be honest," they intone. "In what direction are we tending?…[O]ur democracy is growing weaker because we are using up, but not replenishing, the civic and moral resources that make our democracy possible." As our country becomes an "increasingly fragmented and polarized society,"they argue, "our social morality deteriorates, [and] life becomes harsher and less civil for everyone."
The proof is everywhere around us, say the authors: "Neighbors not being neighborly. Children disrespecting adults. Declining loyalty between employers and employees. The absence of common courtesy, such as indifference from retail clerks, or being treated like a number by impersonal bureaucracies. Drivers who menace and gesture at other drivers."
The authors' solution to such incipient, if perennial, barbarism revolves around the hottest concept in today's public policy world: the revitalization of "civil society." Defined in the document as "relationships and institutions that are neither created nor controlled by the state," civil society includes "families, neighborhood life, and the web of religious, economic, educational, and civic associations [that] foster competence and character in individuals, build social trust, and help children become good people and good citizens." Sensibly recognizing the limits of top-down, centralized governmental regulation, the authors claim instead to favor "decentralized structures of authority and a rich diversity of approaches."
Not surprising for a consciously transpartisan document--the very first line boasts, "We come together as citizens of diverse beliefs and differing political affiliations"--the authors' "recommendations" largely consist of banal truisms gussied up in pretentious and often comically tentative language. They "call upon" parents to spend more time with their children; they "urge religious institutions to…oppose the trends that would push religion to the fringes of American public life"; they hope that youth sports leagues "will…deepen…their commitment to the ideals of sportsmanship, fair play, and respect for others"; they urge employers to recognize that "companies that do best are often those that do not treat their workers like replaceable commodities"; they "hope" that their "fellow citizens will consider supporting National TV-Turnoff Week."
Some of the authors' more potentially controversial proposals--for instance, they "urge government at all levels to expand the ability of parents to choose the schools their children attend"--are laid out in grandly abstract terms, lacking the details that might actually provoke meaningful dialogue and debate.
More interestingly, for all their talk of a "rich diversity of approaches," "voluntary associations," and "openness to other views," the authors are quick to suggest rules that would tip things toward their own vision of the good society. Hence, they advocate that the federal government recognize the "married-couple household" as a "basic unit of taxation" and give tax credits to parents who put off education to raise "young" children; they support making divorce tougher and counseling "requirements" for those about to get married and those in troubled marriages; they outline a $500 tax credit for individual contributions to charitable organizations whose primary purpose is the alleviation of poverty; and they hint strongly that, absent "voluntary" regulation, "public officials" should oversee television programming content.
There is, of course, little remarkable in such a wish list--indeed, as far as these things go, the council's proposals are relatively minimalistic, even as they slide easily from moral suasion into state-sanctioned coercion. But what finally raises A Call To Civil Society from the blandly self-important to the fundamentally disturbing is its conclusion that "civic participation…is ultimately a means, not an end in itself." The authors write, "[E]ffective civic engagement requires a public moral philosophy. Absent a guiding set of shared moral truths, voluntary civic associations can be just as harmful to human flourishing as any big government bureaucracy or big business bureaucracy."
In the name of "decentralized authority" and "rich diversity," in other words, the report's authors deny the messiness, confrontation, and deep-seated disagreements endemic to a social order predicated upon life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By defining civic participation as a means to a predetermined end--"We hope that all of us…might strive to understand morality less as a question of individual taste and more as a question of what is true"--the authors elide precisely the true decentralization of authority and the diversity of approaches that a flourishing civil society should cultivate. In their world, truth is apparently obvious, perhaps a matter of one-time revelation; there is certainly no tolerance for the idea of pursuing truth through any sort of ongoing process of competition and criticism.
It takes no particular courage or insight to suggest that parents try to do a good job of raising their children, or that youth sports leagues "re-examine" their attitudes toward sportsmanship, or to pooh-pooh "materialism" without defining the term. But what about the disagreements that loom beyond such obvious and minimal points of consensus?
The "question of what is true" is not part of a short-answer, easily scored test; it underlies the different ways in which people choose and struggle to define themselves and to live their lives. More important, by what right and to what extent should one group be able to impose its definition of "truth" on the rest of society?
What does it really mean, for instance, to be a "good" parent? Can, say, Christian Scientists be good parents if they refuse their children certain medical attention? Is such a religious belief a matter of "individual taste" or revealed truth? What about individuals and groups who invoke the great American maxim, "Leave us alone!", which was forcefully articulated by such 19th-century believers in "civil society" as Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Do such characters represent the quintessence of civil society, or are they its greatest foes?
If A Call to Civil Society represents what the "civil society" movement is ultimately about, it has little to say to individuals and groups that are already going about the task of building meaningful lives. Indeed, to the extent that it substitutes foregone--if unspoken--conclusions for robust debate, it actually undermines dialogue where it is needed most.