Who Steers America?

AMERICA'S quarter-century of dalliance with wayward family life, small- and large-screen violence, drugs, and general spiritual absenteeism is going out of style.

How else can you describe a nation where (1) the conservatives who swept the last election, (2) an outpouring of the most left-behind racial group, and (3) the erstwhile liberal president all are zeroing in on restoring family and community values through individual responsibility?

Evidence of such changed public messages abounds. But will this pendulum swing change the culture?

And is there a danger it might swing too far, into authoritarianism?

Commentators are focusing on whether the hundreds of thousands of black men who pledged to go home from Washington and change their communities will follow through on their pledge. That will certainly be important.

But the full answer will be written in lots of other communities as well: The screenwriting, book-publishing, and broadcasting communities. Teachers and professors. And, most of all, parents and teen peer groups of all racial and ethnic backgrounds - around dinner tables, in schoolyards, and at malls.

As the answer emerges, it should be of deep interest to much of the world. It's no accident that from France to Israel, Russia to China and Japan, other cultures both imitate and castigate American cultural influence.

Nor is it any accident that the great issue of skin color and the human family that Louis Farrakhan and President Clinton addressed Monday is growing in intensity as the world's peoples increasingly mix and collide.

In America, struggles over racial equality, how to improve education, and whether family and personal morality can be nudged by federal lawmaking have centered on the three branches of government. But this week the national capital also gained a second "bully pulpit." When Theodore Roosevelt coined that term to describe the suasive power of the presidency, he could not have foreseen that the Capitol steps would become a literal pulpit. A pulpit, what's more, from which a black Muslim citing Moses and Jesus and slighting presidents would preach a sermon of black-male penitence, self-discipline, and healing.

It was in many ways an extraordinary performance. The Farrakhan sermon was both focused and rambling, biting and magnanimous. Like Early Clinton oratory it was lengthy. It wove in numerology, Japanese banks (wrongly), and Masonic arcana into its theme of atonement. At the core, though, its message to the huge congregation of young professionals, gang members, blue-collar workers, and the unemployed was simple: Just say yes to moral, mental, and economic improvement. Just say no to violence, abuse, drugs, and degrading cultural influences.

Two other ideas bear watching for follow-through. One was the pledge of audience members to "adopt" a black brother in prison, to provide guidance and support. The other was the idea of a black community-development fund paid for by $10- per-month contributions. That potential treasury, to be disbursed by a board incorporating Mr. Farrakhan and the various political and religious leaders of established black groups, could be a fertile source of community bootstrapping. Or it could fund additional power for Mr. Farrakhan and his organization.

MR. CLINTON moved the other bully pulpit from the White House to Texas. There he urged Americans to reexamine their hearts on race and family values, but sought to wrest both issues from Farrakhan on one flank and his Republican opponents and the religious right on the other flank.

Obviously this triangular tug of war among Clinton; Messrs. Gingrich, Dole & Co.; and leaders of the black community over who owns the family- values issue will play a major role in the coming end-of-century election. That battle will take place on both the deep-felt and cynical levels.

The voting public in America (and around the world) would do well to remember two things:

1. There is a danger that authoritarianism and rigid old theologies could revive if the pendulum swings too far in the direction that fundamentalists at home and abroad pursue.

2. There is an opposite danger that true family and community improvement will elude us if politicians, the media, and each of us make this only a lip-service matter.

America has come too far back from experiments with license and irresponsibility to lose its way. But it needs to be wary of frightening itself into a lockstep, anti-knowledge alternative.

Steering a sensible course between the two extremes requires citizens that stay alert over the long haul. That will apply to reforms in education, health care, taxation, and the means by which aid is given to those left behind by society's progress.

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