Amitai Etzioni, the energetic sociologist at George Washington University, has brought forth a new journal, the Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities. Yes, another public policy journal. And this one is even homely to look at. But it does take a provocative position.

As Etzioni lays it out, "It is empirically wrong and morally dangerous to view individuals as monads or rights-bearers existing in isolation, or to view the commons as merely an aggregation of individuals... . The community has a moral standing coequal to that of the individual."

For example?

"While people with AIDS must be protected from invasions of their privacy and from job and housing discrimination, the community must be protected in its efforts to curb the spread of the disease to others. While drug dealers' civil rights must be observed, the community must be provided with constitutional tools that will prevent dealers from dominating streets, parks, indeed, whole neighborhoods."

This is either alarming or unexceptionable, depending on your view of the world. For some help in locating the new magazine politically, its positions are regarded as dangerously anti-libertarian by the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, and the Responsive Community is defiantly proud to say so. "We have been labeled 'fascists' before we were born," notes Etzioni.

On the inaugural issue articles menu: William A. Galston's "Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family," Jarol B. Manheim's multi-point program for restoring society to basic civic literacy and Mary Ellen Gale's elaborate prescriptions for drawing the line against racial speech. Among the editorial advisers are Benjamin Barber, Jean Elshtain and Daniel Yankelovich. Four quarterly issues, $24 (institutions, $60). Write the Responsive Community, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 282, Washington, D.C. 20006.

Character Studies

James Webb, the novelist and former Navy secretary, has taken a minor character from his new book ("Something to Die For") and spun a tale around him for the February Washingtonian. He's Billy Parks, an aging black chauffeur with a wry eye on his lifetime career in Washington driving for a succession of secretaries of defense. Though "Driving the Man" is frustratingly sketchy, Parks evidently has a story to tell -- not only of having listened discreetly to the hollow braveries of his power-wracked passengers, but to the sound of his own tears as his sons are shot dead in the cruel shadow of federal Washington. There's enough here to make you hope Webb will let the story grow into something more substantial.

Speaking of characters, John Irving leads Publishers Weekly's spring book announcements issue (Jan. 24, 440 pages) with an intriguing essay about the mechanics of writing a novel, stressing the need to know exactly where you're going before you start, before you even set down the first sentence.

Irving must be at least slightly in the dark about where his novel-in-progress is going, given that he presents, for our delectation, four possible opening sections. With clinical detachment, he explains their relative merits and defects, and holds out the possibility of using another opening altogether before he's done with the book in a few years. Garpomanes and other Irving fans will want to get their hands on this issue.

Milking and Bilking

This is the stuff "60 Minutes" is made of: "Milking Medicare," Common Cause's January-February investigation of a hardy industry that has sprouted at the edges of the Medicare system. It's called the durable medical equipment industry -- makers of wheelchairs, hospital furniture, canes, crutches -- and this story examines the seedy side of a legitimate enterprise.

The typical scam is this: Posing as official medical personnel, the shady operators ascertain, often by telephone, what an older person's ailment might be. Then they tell the target he or she can have certain medical equipment -- for free. Then they get the physician's signature, and the equipment is shipped -- often to the recipient's surprise and dismay. Then they bill the government (this means you) for its 80 percent share, and -- since business is gangbusters, and they make the equipment -- the scam artists forgo the 20 percent bite that would be their due as manufacturers, a small sacrifice for this kind of sitting-duck rip-off.

Various U.S. attorney's offices are probing these scams, but the problem may be that many of them are not, strictly speaking, illegal. And, naturally, federal budgets for investigating fraud have been whittled to nothing. The industry's trade association admits that there may be a few rotten apples in an overwhelmingly honest barrel. The authors are Vicki Kemper and Peter Montgomery, associate editors of this aggressive magazine for Common Cause members.

Another January-February article will bear close reading (for foresight or its opposite) as the air war continues and the ground war intensifies. "Problem Weapons in the Gulf," by Jeffrey Denny, lays out the dozens of design goofs, construction problems, cost overruns and testing failures that have plagued some of the allied aircraft, armor and weaponry. The Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, the M-1 Abrams tank and the Dragon antitank missile are on the list; the Patriot missile is not, at least one reassuring sign.

Six bimonthly issues (and membership), $20. Write Common Cause, P.O. Box 220, Washington, D.C. 20077-1275.

Public Parking

Urban parks are the landscape architecture we all have a piece of, and for whose beauty we need pay no landscape architect -- at least directly. Landscape Architecture, the elegant and expensive-looking magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects, devotes its January issue to that topic, with special attention to parks you may not have seen or heard of unless you've lived in Buffalo, Dallas, Indianapolis, Berkeley, Denver or Lowell, Mass. The February issue continues with exploration of urban waterfronts in New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio, San Jose, Charleston and Vancouver.