A Community Needs a Center

THE basic dynamic of politics is ``us and them.'' Competition in a democratic society implies division. So long as the emotional charges that go with division remain manageable, the political process is contained within the sense of community. When emotional charges grow too intense, civility declines and the community can disintegrate. Leadership is the ability to envision, define, articulate, or show by example the values and interests which bind a community together. A community must have a center of common interests.

One of the more accessible forms of common interest is economics. The 12 members of the European Community continue moving toward economic union; political union, requiring concessions of sovereignty, remains a nominal but remote goal.

The first steps of West German linkage with East Germany are likewise economic: An agreement has just been reached whereby East marks are to be exchangeable one for one for deutsche marks, up to 4,000 marks per person. But East German leaders appear to favor the East-bloc arms collective over the West's NATO. The ambivalence of the German people, who are positioned between eastern and western Europe, may be in evidence here. Still, the Germans are having to confront the more awkward noneconomic implications of their reunifying community.

Americans appear ready to let Lithuania, the self-declared independent Baltic country, slip back into Soviet control. By rights Lithuania should be free. By Realpolitik, Moscow exerts the gravitational pull to hold it in the Soviet orbit. President Bush says his refusal to make an issue of Lithuania is endorsed by US public opinion. Without commenting about making policy by polls, it can be said that Lithuania lies outside America's sense of community.

In Israel, the split between the Likud and Labor parties reflects a fundamental division. Yitzhak Shamir is again taking up the task of forming a Likud-led government, after the Labor Party's failure under Peres. Some observers see no resolution to the issue of Israeli occupation of West Bank territory until another generation of Israelis rises to power - those perhaps from non-European lands, or younger Israelis for whom the Holocaust will be a generation removed. The status of Jerusalem, now a heated issue because of government-sponsored Jewish settlements in Christian neighborhoods, will likely be the last issue decided. Power-sharing between Likud and Labor, tested by the Palestinian intifadah, may at best help ``manage'' the territory issue until the Jewish community evolves enough to deal with it.

Abortion is the most visible divisive issue in America today. In Washington an anti-abortion rally endorsed by the president was staged last week. Meanwhile Connecticut is moving toward the legalizing of abortion, to guarantee the state's residents the right to an abortion. When the president takes sides on an issue like abortion, for whose ``community'' does he speak?

The American political experience displays a durable core of ideas. These have to do with individual liberty and with equality, which citizens recognize and respond to.

Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's great flutist, soon to begin her soloist career, observes that the ideal flute sound ``has to have great depth. And also it must have a center.''

To have depth, communities must have diversity. This is so whether the communities are countries or cities or businesses or orchestras. The overtones of complexity, which politics should neither suppress nor exploit, reflect a richness of experience.

But communities must also have a center.

Residents of one diverse Boston neighborhood are said to have ``nothing in common but life itself.'' Families are losing their center - the rituals and rationale of binding. The Carnegie Foundation reports a decline in the ``social compact'' on American campuses, and recommends restoring college community values and expectations.

The Hubble telescope fascinates the world. Looking into space we feel united. Could we only look down on earth and observe what unites our communities.

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