May 28, 1998
Vol. 17, No. 17

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    Questions of a civil society

    By Shula Neuman
    News Office

    This June promises to be exceptionally busy for Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor in the Divinity School.

    Elshtain is currently involved with three different commissions that are studying the notion of a civil society and how we can renew American civil life. The first group, which held its culminating meeting in New York City this week, is a group Elshtain founded and the Divinity School helped fund, called the Council on Civil Society. On June 4 and 5, a second group, the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community, of which Elshtain is a member, will hold its meeting here in Chicago. The third entity Elshtain is involved with, the National Commission on Civic Renewal, is headed by William Galston, a former member of the Clinton Administration's domestic policy staff, and co-chaired by William Bennett and Sen. Sam Nunn. That commission will release its findings at a press conference at the end of June.

    For Elshtain, the only person who is a member of all three commissions, the feasibility of a civil society and democracy's ability to sustain itself are of the utmost importance.

    Where does the interest in a civil society come from? The notion of a civil society is something that impresses itself upon you if you are at all concerned with the condition of American democracy. If you are paying attention to American politics in your life and are worried about what's happening to our formative institutions -- our economic institutions, churches, schools, political structure -- then those are questions of civil society. The condition of our formative institutions helps us assess how we are faring as individuals and as a country. To anyone who cares about democracy as more than just a set of procedures, civil society projects come naturally.

    What does the term "civil society" mean? Nobody was talking about civil society 30 years ago, although people were talking about what was happening with American democracy. We were discussing what happens when too much power flows to the center and away from the peripheries, about what happens when some of the vitality goes out of life at the local level. These are the questions that became posed as issues of civil society about a decade ago. Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America had a lot to do with the formulations of these matters, as did the experience of dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe. People like Vaclav Havel helped spark the discussion.

    What do Central and Eastern Europe have to do with it? The authoritarian state apparatus under which they lived destroys civil society. In the 1970s and '80s, people started paying attention to the dissidents in those parts of the world. We saw people going to jail and risking everything in order to try to achieve a society that they found exemplified by the United States. They saw that in the United States, for example, people had multiple associations -- people are not required to have a singular loyalty. They saw the United States as a place where human diversity is displayed and recognized and need not become a source of division. Some of the most interesting and robust thinking about civil society came out of Central and Eastern Europe.

    But is the United States really a model example of a civil society? There is a certain irony that dissidents were looking to us for theories and practices of democracy, even as we began to realize we weren't necessarily living up to our ideals. We recognized that maybe we weren't in such great shape. Maybe some of our theories as well as our practices aren't working out. We can't ignore the effect of events in Central Europe as being a catalyst for our own discussion of civil society. What happened there and is still happening in other parts of the world serves as a lens we can hold up to our country in order to evaluate it with a critical eye.

    What are some of the things being discussed about a civil society now? The Council on Civil Society is issuing a report wherein we explore the fact that you cannot offer a strong argument on behalf of the American democratic experiment without talking about the moral claims that have always been a part of that experiment. The founders of this country articulated the moral ideas from the outset that we have certain "inalienable rights," that certain truths are self-evident.

    How are morality and democracy dependent upon one other? Democracy works best if there is a roughly shared notion of what is good for people and what is not good, and if these things apply to all people everywhere. For example, it is good for people to have decent families, safe neighborhoods and good schools. These are not just conveniences. This is not a tendentious argument; it is a set of moral claims about the good of human beings. Our view is that this kind of discourse has fallen into disrepute because there are people who say that you can no longer make any strong moral claims. Our view is that denying these possibilities is a recipe for disaster that would usher in a world in which the strong devour the weak. However, if we agree on the fact that there is such a thing as the dignity of persons, then we can argue about the details and particulars of public policy.

    Are there practical applications of the commissions' work? The objective of these commissions is to provide a framework of evaluation for our civil condition. We need to see where we are and where we might be going and offer some recommendations. For example, if you are a parent, the Council on Civil Society gives some very specific suggestions about what you can do. The National Commission on Civic Renewal is trying to influence public policy at its highest level. Right now, the Penn Commission is divided into different task forces. Some of them are studying how we understand community, affirmative action or education. I'm on a task force that examines public discourse -- how to craft arguments for public consumption.

    Do you see examples of people acting to re-establish a civil society? The local priest who launched the campaign against "The Jerry Springer Show" is a good example. Here is a show that features people shouting epithets and punching out each other. The show is all about actually getting people to fight rather than discuss their differences. And at the end of the show, this creep, Springer, tells everyone to be "good to one another." That is nauseating. What does it say to our culture? Is this is the way we should talk to one another? So I say "hooray!" to those campaigning to boycott advertisers who sponsor Springer.

    Are you saying that American popular culture features a lot of incivility? I find much of American popular culture to be enchanting and energetic. But we need to separate the gross stuff from the energetic stuff, even if we don't agree with the message. We can see that there is something life-affirming in much of American culture. But there is also plenty of -- let's face it -- garbage.

    After the Council on Civil Society adjourns, what do you plan to study next? I have a new initiative that looks at the results of data emerging from the research of social scientists. It shows that people who claim church affiliation are more likely to be more active in their communities in a specifically civic way. The question we want to look at is how the church, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, helps with the formation and understanding of the self -- how does it come about that people take on the task of civic involvement? This project will require a lot of field work. We are going to have people actually sitting in Sunday schools to find out what is being taught today. How are we being shaped ethically in such settings?