[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a profound and important political theorist and ethicist, died yesterday I was lucky enough to have met her perhaps a handful of times, being able to ask her a question or two about this or that work of hers, at various conferences and dinners over the years. I wish I could have known her better, and learned from her more, because far more than any of the other philosophers and theologians I’ve felt inspired to write encomiums to before, Elshtain’s work mixed theory, politics, history, and faith together in a way which mattered to me deeply. Save perhaps Charles Taylor or G.A. Cohen or Fred Dallmayr, I can’t think of another scholar whose intellectual work overlapped with my own professional life that mattered to me more.

The surprising part of that claim, as I acknowledged it to myself yesterday, is that its heart is not to be found in Elshtain’s major works of scholarship. Her work on Jane Addams is an important addition to her many writings on democracy and civil society over the years; her book on Augustine was hugely influential to my thinking about Christian realism; and her earlier writings on women in the context of both war and public life, most crucially her twin essays “Antigone’s Daughters” and “Antigone’s Daughters Reconsidered,” are essential texts in second-wave “difference feminism.” All that I know (and I haven’t even mentioned her final major work, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self, based on her Gifford Lectures, mainly because I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet)…and yet, that’s not the stuff which made her voice so vital to my own reflections. No, the Elshtain that mattered to me was the public intellectual of the mid-1990s, the author of numerous essays and reviews for First Things (which posted a fine, brief tribute to her yesterday) and The New Republic, and of a short, wonderful book (a revision of her Massey Lectures), Democracy on Trial, which I have used multiple times in my classes over the years. The voice Elshtain used in those comparatively short writings was a kind but trenchantly common-sensical one, the voice of someone of genuinely conservative cultural and religious sensibilities who was dealing honestly and straightforwardly with the manner in which social and economic changes–many of which she openly acknowledged to be positive–were obliging those in her camp to be clear and uncompromising on just what they wished to conserve, and why. For Elshtain, the what was, primarily, a well-marked out public space, one which separated the public from the private (a distinction which she saw grounded significantly in the real, bodily, natural characteristics and rhythms of men and women and children and family life), and which thereby opened up a space for open-minded (but never abstract or theory-driven) education and debate and compromise. The why of such a space was very simple: the possibility of genuine democracy, and the civic virtues which popular self-government make possible. Hence, Elshtain was a conservative defender of culture, community, manners, and tradition for the sake of good democratic government and civil society–which meant that those trends and ideas which she challenged, while often overlapping which those whom conservative Republicans throughout the Clinton years already regularly and gleefully attacked, were approached in a manner that made her words stand out. Certainly, at the very least, they stood out for me.

At the time, I considered Elshtain’s arguments to be of a piece with those of various communitarian writers, both left and right: William Galston, Michael Sandel, Amitai Etzioni, and others. There’s a good deal of truth in that association. Like Alan Wolfe or Mary Ann Glendon, she saw the language of rights as being “increasingly [expressed] in individualistic terms as their civic dimensions withered on the vine”; like Robert Putnam, she was very concerned with social capital, and wrote persuasively about how the “black and white, winner-take-all” model of juridical politics “preempts democratic contestation and a politics of respect and melioration”; and like Sheldon Wolin, she feared that the “new ideology of difference” represented a kind of “exclusionist sameness,” one that would dissolve the more important category of “citizen,” within which, by contrast, a “broad measure of similarity…support[s] a notion of membership that entails equality of rights, responsibilities, and treatment” (Democracy on Trial [1995], 14-15, 27, 74-75). To this day, I am comfortable describing Elshtain as part of that post-Reagan movement to dig deeper into and do more with the explosive transformation of American (and international) liberalism following the end of the Cold War, to add civic republicanism and participatory democracy–or, in other words, to add Alexis Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt–to American political discourse. In the years before 9/11–after which Elshtain’s own political sympathies and her deep connection to the Augustianian/Niebuhrian tradition of realism led her (like many others, unfortunately) to mostly accept without much dispute Bush’s War on Terror–her arguments stood as a powerful conservative complement to what might be seen as a broad work of vital communitarian renewal.

But now, in retrospect, I wonder if it might not be more accurate to describe her voice during those years as one that played a part–perhaps a small one, but perhaps not–in laying the groundwork for a different, more localist and more realistic, conservatism. The kind of conservatism I have in mind here was, of course, pretty much completely foreign to the Reagan years, and during the Bush years it took refuge in various libertarian, traditionalist, and/or paleoconservative corners….but which today, in our moment of technological and financial overreach and social and sexual transformation, it has found itself, I think, echoed (if not strongly affirmed) by certain mainstream voices in surprising ways. I go back to her review-essay “Suffer the Little Children,” a harsh–but with a tragic, rather than a vindictive or mean tone–takedown of Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village (and book which, I should note, I like and am willing to defend), published in The New Republic on March 4, 1996, and I see in it not just a sharp democratic and civic rejection of the cult of expertise, but an insistence on putting modernity’s cultural costs to the family (particularly those costs which flow from educational attainments, economic diversification, and the general suburbanization and professionalization of American society) front and center:

I am no a family-above-all person. Some families are rotten and the children in those families should be spirited to safety as quickly as possible. But truly rotten families are, thank God, few and far between. More commonly we have good enough families or almost good enough ones. How high do we place the threshhold in assessing good and bad parenting? Whose business is it anyway? Here Clinton makes one of the more lamentable moves in her book. She is dead-on about the importance of being attuned to the needs of infants, feeding them, cuddling them, holding them, but in a discussion of the fact that there is not “substitute for regular, undivided attention from parents” we learn that the “biggest difference” that emerged from a study she cites and endorses, was “in the sheer amount of talking that occurred” in various households. It is no surprise that Clinton favors the chattering classes, but she proceeds to malign poor and working-class parents because they interact less with their children….

Like Clinton, I recoil when I hear a parent shout at a child. I, too, cringe when a parent is curt, abrupt and dismissive. But I recognize that this is not the same thing as neglect, not the same thing as abuse. Perhaps, as the late Christopher Lasch insisted, the working-class or lower-middle-class style aims to instill in children a tough, early recognition that life is not a bowl of cherries, not a world in which everyone is telling you how great you are; that their lives will be carried out in a world in which they tasks they are suited for, the jobs they do, the lives they live, and even the way they talk (or do not talk) will be scrutinized and found wanting by their “betters.” I know that Clinton would argue, in response, that she means no invidious comparison. But the comparison is there and it is invidious. According to her book, the higher the income and education, the better the parenting, all other things being equal….Don’t get me wrong. As a general rule, children shouldn’t have to…[suffer]. And no group of children should be stuck in such a situation as a permanent condition. But life is hard, and its necessities bear down on people. In the light of such recognitions, it is best at times to restrain ourselves and not rush to intervene and fix everything and tell people struggling against enormous odds that they are doing a crummy job. Sometimes Clinton understands this, sometimes she doesn’t (“Suffer the Little Children,” 36, 38).

Harsh, as I said. But then Elshtain turns that same analysis on herself:

Those of us who have departed our villages and taken up residence in more complicated places should, in an unblinkered way, face the fact that we are not doing exactly what are parents and grandparents did. Some things were lost; something we gave up. This hit me with great force when, with my husband and children, I drove out of my grandmother’s yard about twenty years ago. She was by then utterly bowed over–the years of stoop labor [Elshtain’s family, as she explains in this essay, had come to northern Colorado in her grandparents’ time as immigrant labor, working the beet fields] had taken their toll–but she came out to the car for a last goodbye, thrusting into my arms more homemade noodles, another loaf of rye bread, freshly gathered eggs, a new apron, another remarkable quilt. What would I had to my own grandchildren, I wondered, as they lingered in the yard with their own families? Will I give them offprints of articles? Copies of my latest books? I suppose I will. But I will not comfort myself with the notion that this is the same as rye bread and quilts. It isn’t. I made a choice. That is sometimes called growing up (“Suffer the Little Children,” 38).

Elshtain does not condemn herself for her choices, nor does she condemn (at least not whole-heartedly) the Baby Boomer mentality that she was born only a few years in advance of–on the contrary, as those who knew her and know her writings well can attest, she had no interest whatsoever in defending those whose conservatism would lead them to reject the progress which the social and economic choices of women like Jane Addams had pointed towards. Ever the Augustinian, she just wanted to insist that the conservative agenda she supported never reduce itself to a Panglossian best-of-both-worlds utopianism. Conserving certain things did not mean being able to graft those things without change on the present situation. Instead, her conservatism was of an Oakshottian sensibility. She wished to conserve the traditional family–just like she wanted to conserve the simple, direct, communal (and non technologically mediated) public space–because she thought those to be the best possible arenas for people to learn how to work out, and live with, the limitations and tragic compromises which attend all our lives. That’s a powerful claim, one rooted in an (I think, at least) essentially incontestable, deeply Aristotelian, philosophical anthropology. We really are, I believe, creatures of community, beings whose language and whole ability to interpret and interact with the given world simply reveals how much our mutual belonging conditions us, intellectually and otherwise. Even if–as I strongly suspect would have been the case between Elshtain and I, if we’d somehow have been able to have a conversation about same-sex marriage or some similar topic–we would have come out on different sides of any given argument over what all that natural and social belonging obliges us recognize and what it obliges us to reject, we nonetheless would have shared enough fundamentals regarding our limits and our place as human beings to be able to productively talk about it. And, ultimately, keeping such democratic conversations going–conserving their basic moral and civic requirements, as it were–was, from all of what I read by her, her most important intellectual goal. That’s the sort of conservatism that I want be a part of, and I am in Elshtain’s debt for having helped me see, a little bit better, just what it entailed.

I would have liked it if Elshtain’s communitarian and democratic sensibilities had directed her to think more about economic matters as opposed to cultural ones, and while I value her culturally-attuned engagements in foreign policy, I think ultimately she made the same mistake many others of us did: allowed her own theory (in her case, a putatively hard-headed “realism”) to guide her thinking about the actual people and actual institutions conducting this actual war. But for now, I’m not thinking about where I believe she went wrong; I’m thinking about how often her arguments, even when they didn’t persuade me, pointed me in the right direction. There won’t be any more of that now from her, which is our loss. Jean Bethke Elshtain, requiescat in pace.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture