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Amitai Etzioni, who championed the virtues of community, dies at 94



Amitai Etzioni, an American Israeli sociologist who served as a senior policy adviser to the Carter White House, taught at George Washington University and championed the virtues of bedrock institutions — family, school, local government — while promoting the philosophy known as communitarianism, died May 31 at his home in Washington. He was 94.

The death was confirmed by his son, David A. Etzioni. The cause was not immediately known.

Dr. Etzioni, a German-born Jew who fled the Holocaust, fought for Israeli independence and launched his academic career in the United States, was a wide-ranging intellectual with a soft voice that belied his bustling energy. He wrote hundreds of academic papers and more than 30 books, both for specialists and general readers, on topics including foreign affairs, sexual ethics, organizational theory, nuclear proliferation, privacy, morality and the costs of the space race.

Unlike many of his peers, he sought to connect his research and findings to policymaking, seeking to bring sociology “out of the Ivory Tower” and “into the real world,” as his colleague Richard M. Coughlin once put it. He wrote guest essays for publications including The Washington Post and New York Times, gave frequent television and radio interviews, and worked at the Brookings Institution as a guest scholar before joining the administration of President Jimmy Carter in 1979 as an adviser.

“Sometimes Amitai Etzioni seems to be a one-man profession,” Time magazine declared in a 1975 profile that labeled him “The Everything Expert.” The magazine noted that Dr. Etzioni, who was then teaching at Columbia University and leading a New York think tank, the Center for Policy Research, had recently “debated Wernher von Braun on the space race, helped Betty Friedan start a ‘think tank’ for women, testified as an expert on an abortion bill, and received a National Book Award nomination” for “Genetic Fix” (1973), which explored the fledgling field of genetic engineering.

“Staid social scientists tend to view him as a pushy hustler,” Time observed, “and the American Sociological Association’s newsletter has received complaints that he is quoted entirely too much in its pages. But his influence is not doubted.”


Dr. Etzioni rose to scholarly prominence with his book “The Active Society” (1968), a 700-page study of social change in which he examined the role that individual action, power and consensus play in shaping history.

But he became best known as the chief spokesman (or “guru,” as some journalists called him) for communitarianism, a centrist philosophy that earned him an audience in the 1990s with leaders including President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

As formulated by Dr. Etzioni, the philosophy was somewhere between the political left and right, combining a liberal emphasis on social justice with a conservative belief in personal responsibility. It aimed to maintain and repair society and its institutions, just as environmentalism sought to safeguard the natural world.

“We are not simply individual citizens or economic creatures who have self-interests,” he told The Washington Post in 2004. “We have not just rights but also obligations to our family and country and even the global community.”

Dr. Etzioni was not the first to use the term “communitarian,” but helped develop and popularize the concept while promoting policies that included parental leave, more restrictive divorce laws, mandatory national service and increased drug testing.

To promote the movement, he founded a nonprofit organization, started an academic journal and directed the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, where he was a faculty member starting in 1980. He also organized Capitol Hill teach-ins that drew senators including Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Al Gore (D-Tenn.).

Some critics worried that communitarianism threatened to erode civil liberties, and saw traces of authoritarianism in the philosophy’s emphasis on traditional values and moral education. Dr. Etzioni insisted that his movement — or “move-let,” as he jokingly referred to it in the early 2000s, after it had begun to fade from relevance — was far different from conservative factions like Moral Majority, which he considered “morally obnoxious.”


“The right wing thinks that authoritarian schools with dress codes and ‘Don’t ask any questions of the teacher’ and ‘Salute’ are the way to bring up upright human beings,” he told The Post in 1982. “And in my judgment, that gives you people who obey as long as the policeman hovers over them. Then the moment he turns away, they return to their impulses.”

Reporting on a communitarianism teach-in in 1992, the Times paraphrased Joan W. Konner, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, as remarking that the philosophy “appeared to be one part church sermon, one part reassertion of old values, one part political campaign message and one part social movement.”

To Dr. Etzioni, that description just about summed it up. “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” he replied.

An only child, he was born Werner Falk on Jan. 4, 1929, in Cologne, Germany. As the Nazis took control, his podiatrist father and homemaker mother escaped to London. He was left in his grandparents’ care before a relative smuggled him to Athens, where Dr. Etzioni reunited with his parents, spending a year in a Greek school while his family worked through visa issues. They immigrated to the British mandate of Palestine in 1937.

The family settled in a cooperative Jewish settlement outside Tel Aviv, where Dr. Etzioni adopted Hebrew names (Amitai comes from the Hebrew word for truth). As a teenager, he fought for Israeli independence as a member of the Palmach, an underground army unit, and began filing newspaper dispatches that served as the basis of his first book, “A Diary of a Commando Soldier” (1952).

When the fighting subsided, he “traded bullets for Buber,” as he put it, enrolling at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to study under Austrian-born philosopher Martin Buber. He received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1954 and a master’s in 1956, and moved to the United States to earn a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1958.

Later that year, he joined the faculty of Columbia University, rising to become chairman of the sociology department. He was later president of the American Sociological Association, a national scholarly society.


Early in his career, Dr. Etzioni focused on the nature of large organizations and irked some of his peers with his advocacy work, including on behalf of nuclear disarmament and the anti-Vietnam War movement. He also went against the tide in condemning the space program, writing in his book “The Moon-Doggle” (1964) that “the moon race is a symbol, not of power, maturity, and confidence, but of haste, waste, and reluctance to accept the fact that no one will gain superiority in this age … in a small world that has to accommodate us all.”

Dr. Etzioni’s first marriage, to sociologist Eva Horowitz, ended in divorce. He married Minerva Morales, a Mexican-born scholar, in 1965. She died in a car crash in 1985. In 1992, he married Patricia Kellogg, a physician.

In addition to his wife, of Washington, survivors include two sons from his first marriage, Ethan of Tel Aviv and Oren of Seattle; two sons from his second, David of Scottsdale, Ariz., and Benjamin of Chandler, Ariz.; two stepchildren, Cliff Kellogg of Washington and Tamara Kellogg of Cambridge, Mass.; and 13 grandchildren. Another son from his second marriage, Michael, died in his sleep in 2006, at age 38.

In an essay for the Times that year, Dr. Etzioni wrote of the anger he felt in confronting first the death of his wife Minerva and then the death of his son, who left behind a 2-year-old boy and a pregnant spouse. His belief in God was “severely tested,” he said, and he was enraged by suggestions that he was mourning the wrong way, lingering too long in anger rather than finding his way toward acceptance.

“A relative from Jerusalem who is a psychiatrist brought some solace by citing the maxim: ‘We are not to ask why, but what,’ ” he wrote. “The ‘what’ is that which survivors in grief are bound to do for one another,” which for him meant playing with his son’s young child, Max, and checking in with relatives through daily calls.

“I presume that many a psychiatrist and New Age minister would point out that by keeping busy we avoid ‘healthy’ grieving,” he concluded. “To hell with that; the void left by our loss is just too deep. For now, focusing on what we do for one another is the only consolation we can find.”

Source: Washington Post


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