Above: In the American Philosophical Society's Benjamin Franklin Hall, newsman Paul Taylor (right) led Thursday's session on campaign reform. Of the forty members who attended, shown above, left to right, are Provost Don Randel of Cornell, Prof. Jay Rosen of NYU, Prof. Cass Sunstein of Chicago, Calvin Trillin of The New Yorker, Prof. Edna Ullmann-Margalit of Hebrew University, and Prof. Robert Wiebe of Northwestern.

Below: Dr. Judith Rodin moderating last week's plenary session of the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community.

The Penn National Commission: Focusing on 'Hot-Button' Issues

For its second meeting, the Penn National Commission on Society, Culture and Community singled out what President Judith Rodin called "three of America's most provocative issues"--affirmative action, campaign reform, and immigration--as it assembled last week in Philadelphia's historic Olde City district.

In the two-day meetings June 11-12, the Commission set out to build on the work of its first meeting, held on campus last winter ( Almanac December 10 and Compass December 17, 1996), by focusing on "how governmental policies and the intrusion of mass market values and incentives into areas of social, cultural, and political life have affected the tone, form, and content of public culture and debate," PNC Executive Director Stephen Steinberg said. At Wednesday's first plenary session, keynote speaker Kevin Phillips spoke on "The Market, the State, and the Dynamics of Public Culture." In this session --which was open to media and invited guests--Phillips, the best-selling author of Boiling Point: Republicans, Democrats and the Decline of Middle Class Prosperity and The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath, focused on some of the issues raised in his latest book, Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street, and the Frustration of American Politics. As moderator, Dr. Rodin led that session's roundtable discussion on the role that market values and practices, as well as governmental policies and incentives, play in producing "a public culture characterized by incivility, intolerance, polarization and community fragmentation, in which reasoned public debate is discouraged."

The Commission then met privately in three sessions focused on current policy debates that exemplify deeper social and cultural trends: "a culture of intolerance," "the failure of leadership," and "the fragmentation of communities," Dr. Steinberg reported. Each of these "hot-button" issue sessions included a lead-off presentation followed by roundtable discussion with the Commission members:

"Affirmative Action and the Culture of Intolerance" was addressed on Wednesday afternoon by Harvard Law Professor Christopher Edley, Jr., author of Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race and American Values, who as special counsel to President Clinton led the administration's review of affirmative action.

"Campaign Reform and the Failure of Leadership," also on Wednesday, was led by Paul Taylor, a newspaper reporter who covered national politics and social issues at The Washington Post, until in January 1996, when he left to create the campaign reform organization, Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition.

"Immigration and the Fracturing of Community" was the topic for essayist Richard Rodriguez' presentation on Thursday morning. Mr. Rodriguez, the author of the award-winning books Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father, is an essayist for "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," and writes for Harper's Magazine, U.S. News & World Report and the Sunday opinion page of the Los Angeles Times.

Thursday's session concluded with the initial meetings of three working groups that have been formed--one on Culture and Public Behavior, one on Leadership in a Democratic Society, and one on 21st Century Community.

The Penn National Commission brings together 47 leading academic, professional, and political figures, including five Penn faculty, from throughout the United States and around the world to consider the causes of and possible responses to the increase in intolerant and uncivil behaviors, ideological polarization and community fragmentation in American society and abroad.

Over the next two years, President Rodin said, "It is our expectation that [the Commission] will generate and share broadly a body of ideas that will help to foster a more reasoned and reasonable public discourse within a more robust and diverse public culture."

Future meetings of the Commission will be held in Washington, D.C. (December 1997), Chicago (June 1998) and Los Angeles (December 1998). The Commission membership will return to Philadelphia in June 1999 for its final meeting. For the full membership list and other information on the Penn National Commission, see the website, , where a summary of proceedings is expected shortly.


Volume 43 Number 36
June 17, 1997

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