A virtual debate about the real world

Amid the smoke of the culture wars, one author negotiates with himself

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DEBATING THE GOOD SOCIETY: A QUEST TO BRIDGE AMERICA'S MORAL DIVIDE By Andrew Bard Schmookler MIT Press 422 pp., $29.95

In "Debating the Good Society," Andrew Bard Schmookler imagines a Socratic dialogue striving to bridge the gap between battling sides in America's culture wars.

Cast primarily as an e-mail discussion among two dozen people from various points of view, Schmookler's book turns what could have been a cheap device into something truly provocative. Instead of focusing on a single protagonist, he uses the format to open up a variety of perspectives, leaving many unfinished and inviting further investigation.

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His core concern is a search for the sources of good order in society. He presents two competing visions - a conservative, religious vision of human nature as essentially sinful and a countercultural, secular view of human nature as essentially good.

Summarizing a core argument of his underappreciated "The Parable of the Tribes" (1995), Schmookler explains that if people "are not organized in a way that can contain the evils of power-seeking that may arise, their world will come to be dominated by what might have begun as a very tiny evil exception to a not quite universal benign rule." That earlier work was primarily concerned with absolving human nature of responsibility for the spread of that evil exception; now he's concerned with organizing a way to contain it. This struggle clearly shapes his approach to the culture wars, but much is still left unexplained.

Members of the two competing factions he presents here provide a measure of internal disagreement and debate, but these groups leave important viewpoints under-represented - or absent. There is only one traditional secular liberal, who appears more as a centrist criticizing both sides, and no religious liberal.

This latter omission echoes common misperceptions and undercuts any reading of "Debating the Good Society" as an accurate real-world portrayal. But that's not really the point. Schmookler isn't wrestling with cultural opposites as they are in the world, but as they live inside him. He is modeling a struggle that each of us must engage in for ourselves - though perhaps in very different terms.

Unfortunately, the author virtually ignores the vast, multidisciplinary research in recent decades that supports the fundamental goodness of human nature, the superiority of nonpunitive discipline in childrearing, and the success of restitution over retribution in criminal justice.

He surely knows of this material, but he keeps it out of play. This is a clear indication that his book is not meant to encompass the entire debate, but to pursue certain fault lines, showing each side's greatest strengths.

As the two competing visions are found wanting, one participant steps forward to suggest a synthesis: an evolutionary view of how hierarchies, imposing restraints, can arise from the bottom up.

Here the lack of a liberal theologian in the group seems particularly acute. Someone versed in the concept that God works slowly but perceptively through the material world could challenge the secular/religious dichotomies Schmookler leaves unresolved.

But is this failure or an invitation for engagement by others who can supply the missing pieces? A key theme of Schmookler's is the need to regard our knowledge as a work in progress. From that perspective, some "failures" are far more valuable than most successes.

Schmookler's willingness to cast himself into the breach may perhaps be even more valuable for its flaws as a comprehensive document. For if peacemaking waits upon perfection, it will never begin.

*Paul Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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