Berkeley, California. -- In recent years the molders of public thought have been waxing enthusiastic about the movement called communitarianism, whose message is that Americans ought to be less individualistic and more deeply connected to society. The idea has a kind of Sunday-sermon goodness flavored with a light touch of social criticism -- a perfect mixture for the magazine essay or the political speech.
Unfortunately, it completely misses the real problem that people have to deal with in today's world -- which is not an absence of community, but a surfeit of communities.
The contemporary communitarian movement -- led by sociologist Amitai Etzioni and endorsed by prominent intellectuals and political figures such as economist Lester Thurow and Vice-President Al Gore -- advocates neighborliness and civic virtue.
Good communitarians are people who give blood, serve on juries, send their children to public schools, use public libraries and public transportation, vote regularly, donate time to volunteer work. The heavies are people who are more concerned about individual rights -- like the ACLU types who protest too much about minor restrictions, such as curfews, that take away a bit of personal freedom but contribute to public order.
There's little that anybody could find fault with in the movement's basic theme of social responsibility. Its weakness lies not in its intentions, but in its complete misreading of what is going on in the world.
Life has changed in fundamental ways for most people, and no amount of moral exhortation can re-create the idealized existence in intimate and familiar connection to a single town or neighborhood. Americans are all becoming multi-community people, and this presents a different set of problems.
Sometimes conflicts between the demands of different communities -- such as a professional community and the community of the family and neighborhood -- wreak havoc with marriages. Sometimes people can't decide which community they most want to belong to, and spend their time and energy shopping among churches, self-help groups and other societies looking for a true home. Often communities become possessive and make demands on their members for more time, loyalty, energy or money.
It's a bit ironic that, in a country accused of losing all sense of community, the word itself is so ubiquitous in ordinary dialogue. We chatter endlessly about the gay community, the black community, the business community, the environmental community. The communitarians, with their newsletter and their quarterly journal, are yet another community.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the great observer of American life, spoke of our "passion for associations," and that was long before the Internet. Today, new associations can be formed literally overnight and with no regard at all for geographic limitations. A recent book, "The Virtual Community," describes the societies in cyberspace that are becoming a rich forum of human interaction for many people.
Americans are not the only multi-community beings: More people are in motion around the world than ever before, and that completely changes the social rules. The causes of mobility are many and mixed -- some are pulled to new places by hopes and opportunities, some are pushed out of old ones by political chaos or natural disaster. While staying in one place is still considered the norm, most people have at one time or another been migrants.
Sociologists have even invented a new term to describe the lives of people on the move: "multi-locality." "Individuals, families and communities are no longer rooted in one place, nor are they placeless. Rather, people have multiple linkages to multiple places," notes Prof. Lilian Trager of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Migrants, for instance, maintain ties to hometowns while forming new communities -- sometimes to each other through computer hookups.
The global media are creating yet another set of linkages. Events in distant lands -- wars, famines, earthquakes, floods -- come bursting into American living rooms, prompting many viewers to want to do something for the misery of others.
All these developments create a confusion of new connections, new identifications. But as Americans develop multiple loyalties, even nascent global loyalties, they have less and less sense of how to fulfil them. In an era when community is no longer rooted in place, sermonizing about voting or serving on juries offers no solution. The real question is how to develop and sustain lasting ties in the absence of proximity, how to find intimacy in a world where borders no longer exist.
Walter Truett Anderson, a fellow of the Meridian Institute which studies global governance, is author of "Reality Isn't What It Used To Be." He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.