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Bothering About America : REDISCOVERING AMERICA'S VALUES by Frances Moore Lappe (Ballantine: $22.50; 352 pp.; 345-32040-9)

April 30, 1989|Walter Russell Mead | Mead is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Miffln)

At times of great religious or ideological change, when two contending world views threaten to tear civilization apart, concerned intellectuals have tried to frame the issues as clearly as possible in dialogues, literary discussions between two imaginary speakers on opposite sides of the chief controversies of the day.

This is what Frances Lappe, author of "Diet for a Small Planet," has tried to do in her new and unusual book, "Rediscovering America's Values." She quite rightly sees that the debate between two related but conflicting philosophies--liberal and conservative--lies at the heart of contemporary American life and hopes to clarify the issues while advancing her own preference for what we might call the post-liberal option: not the centralized system of 20th-Century socialisms but a decentralized, communitarian alternative that has roots in American radicalism and affinities with the "small is beautiful" movement.

Often, though not always, Lappe succeeds in clarifying, if not reconciling, the differences between these rival voices in American life. Unlike many left-wing critics, she both understands and is prepared to discuss the passionate commitment to freedom which lies behind the opposition of many on the right to the welfare state. To recognize the insight contained in an opposing point of view is one of the hardest things to do, and the mark of a generous mind; Lappe succeeds brilliantly in this difficult task.

Over the course of this book, unlike any other you are likely to see anytime soon, the two voices conduct a running argument over subjects as diverse as welfare, defense policy, employee ownership, affirmative action and the minimum wage. In a pyrotechnic exhibition of erudition the arguments of both sides are supported by statistics and by citations from philosophers, economists and statesmen who have grappled with these questions through the ages. For much of the book, both liberals and conservatives will feel that Lappe has succeeded in presenting their views fairly and completely.

Not everyone will agree that she has succeeded everywhere, and total success is ruled out by the dialogue form, which limits to two the number of views that can be aired on any one subject. This can sometimes cause problems. Differences among conservatives, for example, are wide and deep; some conservatives are libertarians who want to see the state out of the bedroom as well as the boardroom; on foreign policy issues a substantial and possibly growing conservative minority would like to see the United States pull troops out of Europe and confine its military strategy to the defense of the national territories. Given the dialogue form, only one conservative position can be expressed, and it is not always clear that Lappe has chosen the strongest alternative.

Still, Lappe's relentless fair-mindedness helps make this a remarkable and valuable resource for groups in churches and other organizations who are seeking common understandings and approaches to social problems. It will also help individual readers clarify their own personal values and one hopes that it will be widely used in college programs on current affairs.

A running dialogue between two unnamed speakers on a variety of political topics may not seem like the most entertaining read on offer today, and this is certainly not a book to be swallowed in a single sitting. But the questions the book addresses are so important, and Lappe manages to engage us so thoroughly in the unfolding argument, that we get involved in the running debate. We cheer and hiss as different points of view are put forward; at times one wants to throw the book across the room in frustration; at times one wants to cheer Lappe's ability to reduce the conflict of our time into a clear outline.

But since debates over values will never be settled, the argument over them in Lappe's book sometimes gets stuck. The topic may change from chapter to chapter, but the underlying debate is the same all through the book. As a result, the book lacks a dramatic quality of moving toward a conclusion and sometimes sinks into a stale reiteration of old arguments on both sides

As a child, Lappe would listen to her parents and their friends debating the issues of the day in their Texas kitchen and in their church groups. She pays tribute to the work of Robert Bellah and the co-authors of "Habits of the Heart" in exploring the connections, or lack of them, between the religious and political values that shape American life. Yet there is very little explicit discussion of religion in "Rediscovering America's Values."

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