Articles, Blog

Roundtable Discussion on Jean Bethke Elshtain: Politics, Ethics, and Society

October 8, 2019


– My name is Michael LeChevallier, and I am a PhD candidate
in religious ethics over at the University of Chicago, and with Debra Erickson I’m
happy to welcome you here today. We both organized this panel. I also especially want to welcome members of Elshtain’s family who’ve actually joined us here today. It’s really fitting that
we are gathered here for this round table, as this year marks the fifth anniversary of
Jean Bethke Elshtain’s death. She was buried at Fort Collins, Colorado. And when colleagues, mentors, friends, or even loyal critics and
fierce interlocutors pass, it is we who remain, who
get to take up the task of evaluating what they left behind. It’s also fitting that we engage
with Elshtain’s work here, in Denver, Colorado. We are within driving distance
of the small town of Windsor, where Elshtain was born, and Timnath, the village, as she called
it, where she grew up. And it was interesting years ago looking through her bio, because Timnath always was followed by this
curious parenthetical note, population 185. With this declaration of
185, she was identifying it as one of the many small towns that she defends in her work. At 185 people, it would
qualify, I imagine, as among those landscapes one seeks out, she writes one that not necessarily is always warm and friendly, but rather one that is recognizably human. That has discernible form and scale, and invites us to inhabit and engage it. She writes in Real Politics, page 320. With this parenthetical,
Timnath appears untouched by the sprawl and growth
that now characterizes it. Fixed as an anchor for
her moral imagination. For Elshtain it is in the village, or rather it is what is made possible in this type of place. A place where one can
know one’s neighbors, that she locates the
real stuff of politics. It’s also in Timnath where Elshtain developed her love of films, sneaking into Ingrid
Bergman’s Joan of Arc, and later cutting off her hair to model after her childhood hero. It was there where she
was struck with polio, and turned her attention to books, relying upon the Timnath’s bookmobile, a mobile library that
serviced small communities to explore the war writings
of journalist Ernie Pyle, Abraham Lincoln, and so many others. Elshtain attended public
schools in Colorado, and graduated from Colorado
State University in 1963, transgressing already
the public private divide that she would later write about as she brought her kids in tow to class. She pursued a PhD in 1973 from Brandeis University
in political theory, and became the public
speaker, prolific writer, mentor, professor, and teacher at the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst, at Vanderbilt University, and later at the University of Chicago where she taught from 1995 until her death. In the midst of her teaching career, Elshtain’s research moved
in multiple directions, unconstrained by tradition
or disciplinary boundaries, addressing themes like
feminism and the family, democracy and civil society, religion, theology, and politics, and international relations and just war. Yet even these broad
themes do not completely cover her career as an academic
and public intellectual, which also included forays into bioethics, political commentary, and pop culture. 2018 also marks the
publication of the first book of secondary literature
devoted to Elshtain’s work. Jean Bethke Elshtain:
Politics, Ethics, and Society. You can find it at the University
of Notre Dame press table with a generous discount. It comprises of essays by scholars, like Francis Fukuyama, Michael Walzer, Lisa Cahill, and two of
our panelists here today. It seeks to both critically
engage with the broad themes that Elshtain wrote on, and to point out new directions, extending many of the conversations to which she contributed in her career. This panel, in many respects, is an extension of the
conversations sparked in that book. And we’ve set before the
panel the challenging task of evaluating Elshtain’s work
now that her canon is closed. We are joined today by
former friends, colleagues, interlocutors, and students of Elshtain. Victor Anderson is the
Oberlin Theological School professor of ethics and society
at Vanderbilt University, the Divinity School, African
American and Diaspora studies, and the College of Arts and Sciences. He has served on the
editorial boards of the Journal of the American
Academy of Religion, the Journal of Religion, the American Journal of
Theology and Philosophy, and is author of three books, Beyond Ontological Blackness, an essay on African American religious and cultural criticism. Pragmatic Theology:
Negotiating the Intersections of an American Philosophy of
Religion and Public Theology, and Creative Exchange:
A Constructive Theology of African American Religious Experience. He has recently completed an edited volume with Dr. Lewis V. Baldwin entitled Revives My Soul Again: The Spirituality of Martin
Luther King with Fortress Press. James Turner Johnson is distinguished professor
emeritus of religion at Rutgers University. His research and teaching
have focused principally on historical development and application of the western and
Islamic moral traditions related to war, peace, and
the practice of state craft. He is the author of 11 books of which the most recent is Sovereignty: Moral and
Historical Perspectives with Georgetown Press. An editor or co-editor
of six or more of which the most recent with Eric Patterson is the Ashgate Research
Companion to Military Ethics. Robin Lovin is the Cary Maguire University professor of ethics emeritus at Southern Methodist University, and a visiting scholar in theology at Loyola University Chicago. He joined the Southern Methodist
University faculty in 1994, and served as dean of
Perkins School of Theology from 1994 to 2002. Prior to this, he was dean
of the theological school at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and a member of the faculty
at the divinity school of the University of Chicago. His most recent books are Christian Realism and the New Realities, and An Introduction to Christian Ethics. He has also written
extensively on religion and law and comparative religious ethics. He is an ordained minister of
the United Methodist Church and teaches regularly at the Russia United Methodist
Theological Seminary in Moscow. Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Barber professor of religious studies
at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He was educated at Georgetown University, and the University of Chicago, and is the author of Evil
in the Augustinian Tradition and The Theology of Public
Life, among other books. He is currently co-directing a major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation
on religion and its publics, and finally responding to
this panel is Debra Erickson, philosophy instructor at
Bloomsburg University. She regularly writes
and presents on issues ranging from environmental ethics to ethics in the academy. She is also co-editor of Jean Bethke Elshtain:
Politics, Ethics, and Society. We are going to first
have all of our presenters offer their remarks,
allow for some discussion in response to Debra’s
remarks amidst the panel, and then we’ll turn to Q and A here, and you can see the microphones over here. So at a certain point I’ll invite people to join us for question answer. Right now please join me in
welcoming Victor Anderson. (audience applauds) – That’s what Jean would’ve done. I told Michael that’s
what Jean would’ve done. All right, gonna start by just saying there’s a gospel song that says I don’t know why Jesus loved
me, but I’m glad he did. I don’t know why Jean
loved me, but she did. I’m an unrepentant liberal progressive, and she knew it and we had a lot of fun back and forth with each other. So I hope my remarks actually reflect the kinds of friendship we had in disagreeing with each other. Seeing is believing, so the saying goes. It also goes for visions of more order, whether from the village
of Timnath, Colorado from where Elshtain caught
the vision for more order, or from the south side of Chicago where I caught a vision for
a rooted cosmopolitanism. Our different experiences
had determinant facts on our construes of the moral ordering of our social and political lives. From different experiences
come different visions and different moralities. More theorists also tend to evaluate one another’s moralities temperamentally. This too is projected from our
different moral experiences. So if philosophy is as
much a tone of voice as is what is said, then a tone of voice, tones of voice, through which we articulate
our descriptions, analysis, evaluations, judgment, our political moral concerns also matters. They reflect something
of the fellow qualities, the facts, the intonation,
disposition, the subjectivities. Now only are the communities from which our visions of moral order are cultivated, but also the passions
and weight of convictions we give to them. Elshtain and I had complete agreement on these formal statements, yet we were moral worlds apart in our descriptions, analysis,
evaluations, and judgments of the moral political
culture we inhabited. In my writings I could no more proceed anymore than Elshtain could, in the way of moral descriptions without acknowledging the debt
owed to my moral upbringing. Mine was a solidly
black, thoroughly urban, lower middle class neighborhood with large schools, high
crime, gang infested, police controlled, church
mediated, mixed family structured, and politically liberal progressive civil rights guided polity. Rights talk, which Elshtain was deeply critical of. Community organizing,
balancing competing claims, ameliorating differences,
reaching consensus and mobilizing for actions were critical to the common good of my community. From her moral optics, Elshtain might well find my
ethical polity way too thin. It bases for founding a substitute vision for the moral ordering of ethical polity. And this is just what she offered for public consideration
in her life and works. Namely, prospects for a
thicker more substantive effective filial ground
for an ethical polity. Elshtain was a communal village morality. Different from my liberal
cosmopolitan morality. Almost every commentator discussing the life and work of Elshtain
starts with the village. This was the paramount
symbol of her moral optics. Through which lens she looked out onto the political landscape of our times. She talked pneumatically
about two villages. The one was Timnath, Colorado. The other, the village of the mind. Remembering Elshtain,
William Gillespie writes, “Some people are shaped by the places “they come from in indelible ways. “Their ethos becomes the ethics “and defines their character,” unquote. Casting Elshtain’s life in
imagining the great plains, he turns to the plains stories which are centered on immigrants who came from the great plains and were shaped by the land
and their struggle to survive and build a life for
themselves, their families, and members of their community unquote. Gillespie saw Elshtain as, I quote him, “Easily characterizing these
immigrant plains people.” Claiming, “Her experience
growing up upon the plains “gave her the courage and the
resilience to become a pioneer “in many different
academic fields,” unquote. The editors of this great
and monumental book, in celebration of Elshtain also make Elshtain’s growing
up in the village of Timnath a pivotal starting point for
much of what has been said and written about her life, politics, ethics, faith, and moral temperament. Whether real or imagined, her village was a place of safety,
cooperation, nurture, and care. This imaginary formed her moral optics, giving sense and shape to her
moral political expectations of basic social institutions. The family, religion, and governance. Elshtain’s village located
values and expectations which she demanded of a
democratic ethical polity. Namely to ensure democratic tranquility, security, and protection. While showing a rather guarded
estimation of governance, Elshtain extolled the
family and church highly. Jay Mansbridge suggests, I quote, “Elshtain may have thought
about the family the way “she reported once feeling
about the Catholic Church. “It is something that is always there. “One secure point of reference “in a fragmented and apparently
random world,” unquote. Quoting Elshtain she writes, “I know what to expect of the church “in a time of pervasive despair. “There are hungry to be fed,
trembling to be clothed, “homeless to be housed,
frightened to be comforted.” Mansfield concludes, “This is what she also
expected of the family. “In the end it was also “what she expected of a just government “and a hegemonic power on
the world stage,” unquote. In Augustine and the Limits of Politics, Elshtain pneumatically extends the moral ethos of the village to the life of the mind
and its contours writing, and I quote her at length, “My village is more likable
because a humbler place. “It has boundaries of course, “but extends hospitality
to all strangers wandering “pilgrims to the laws, the forlorn, “the bowed, and the timid. “It’s a rather simpler place
that lives in the mind, “but it is a human landscape. “A site within which
beings such as ourselves “enact daily against small
gestures of kindness and trust “and care in speaking
out for fair treatment “that are just the stuff of lived life. “Because that is not all that
beings such as ourselves do. “The village also has its
share of malicious gossip “and backbiting and pettiness and scandal, “because people have to
live and work together. “None of this is codified “into rival ever serial sites of camps.” “They understand what it
means to into the quotidian. “They understand forgiveness.” Elshtain’s village
optics looks on the world outside the village
with a robust pessimism. One not filled with laughter
as Nietzsche espoused, but hers was a pessimism
filled with lament. She was in good company
with many communitarian narrative political theorists, and public theologians and intellectuals concerned with the threatening shape which rights talk, identity politics, perceived rabid individualism, consumerism, and popular culture were determining our contemporary moral and political culture. Seen from Elshtain’s village optics, our highest ideals are reduced to particular individual
and personal interests. Our shared life is jeopardized by internalizing group interests, private venture, and
autonomous decision making can truly deprive a sphere
of family, marriage, sexuality, reproduction, and childcare. Even when she critiqued public
policy, technology, genetics, she tended to do so with these concerns being first in her mind. Elshtain lamented the erosion
of American civil society and its mediating gardens,
as she called them, which I quote her, “Locating the child for example “in his or her little estate, the family, “which was itself nested within a wider “overlapping framework of sustaining “and supporting civic institutions. “Churches, schools, and organizations “such as unions and mother’s
associations,” unquote. Her village gardens were,
and I quote her again, “A honeycombed vast network that offered “distinct texture social ecology “for the growing citizen,” unquote. The family was most
representative of this garden. It is the worldly politically generative social deposit, as she called it that gave concrete
formation, and I quote her, “Of intergenerational
trust, neighborliness, “and civic responsibility.” The family further
offered an ideal metaphor for the cultivation of
democratic spirit and piety, which were being threatened
by a regimented assault on marriage and the family. Martha Ackelsberg and Shanley
write, and I quote them, “Elshtain’s increasing fear
that the value in reciprocity, “responsibility, and love that “characterize family life at its best “were in severe jeopardy.” She had little truck for what she labeled family life institutions, as distinct from marital families. It did not seem to credit the possibility that gay parents could
develop the same sort of intergenerational ties that characterize her idealized heterosexual family. Other thinkers who
worried about the erosions of the institutions of civil society, and within any communal ground for cultivating civic
virtue joined Elshtain. By them no doubt, my liberal
cosmopolitan morality would be certainly judged thin, abstract, calculating, structural,
and yes, rights guided. Of course they would be
only partially right, and I may find Elshtain’s
village morality overly thick, and prioritizing the
traditional conception of marriage and family. And just as Elshtain saw
intolerance and ridicule in the tones of voice of
those who disagreed with her over these matters, her
own moral tone of voice displayed contours of the
village mind she espoused. Namely, humbleness,
hospitality to all strangers, wanderings, pilgrims, the lost forlorn, the bowed, the timid,
kindness, trust, secure. One commentator says, when it
came to ethics that matters, Elshtain’s moral tone
of voice and temperament led friends and critics
to see someone forthright, unswerving, uncompromising, tough, at times combative,
exhilarating strain of heroic and tragic, and undeterred
by hostile destructors. I have to admit my friends, that’s the Jean that I met and I loved. Like so many others, I too appreciated not only Elshtain’s candor, but experienced her
nurturing and mentoring of students and young scholars. In the end, our moral
disagreements on matters for which we both saw so
much at stake were in the end not really reducible to
thinner or thicker moralities, but whether there was enough
openness, and graciousness to embrace that generous pluralism without the need of
forgiveness, thank you. (audience applauds) – And please join me in welcoming to the stage James Turner Johnson. (audience applauds) – Good morning. I first met Jean Elshtain when she and I were both invited to present papers at a conference at Chaminade
University of Honolulu in November of 1987. Her book Women and War
had just been published earlier that same year, while my Can Modern War Be Just? Had appeared in 1984. Both of us by that time had
other books to our credit, but the conference organizers
expected us to take account of these most recent
works in our presentations and that we did. Because of our overlapping interests, Jean and I continued to cross paths at subsequent conferences,
and a relationship grew between us that continued to develop until her untimely death in 2013. I remember specific moments especially. She included an article
of mine as a chapter in her 1991 edited book, Just War Theory, and we worked closely together on a project to stimulate dialogue between American and Arab intellectuals in the wake of the
terrorist attacks of 19, I’m sorry of 2011. Finally I was one of those invited to present a paper at the last of the conferences on her work, sponsored by the MacDonald Foundation at the University of
Chicago Divinity School. My subject there was what was
left unsaid between our work, despite its overall thematic similarity, and I was looking forward to a conversation with her on this. A conversation that was, alas, not to be. You’re invited to read
what I said in the book, the paper that I gave there and the book that
Michael and Debra edited, as well as the other essays
in this provoking book. But today while I’ll talk
about the same major theme of our differences, and
what fell between us, my focus will be on different
aspects of this theme. Mike and Debra in organizing this panel, asked each of us on the
panel to talk about, among other things, what Jean got right and what she got wrong. I think that for me, what is important is the differences that I
will be talking about today, and the ones that I focused on in my paper for the Chicago conference, which appears in the
book that Mike and Debra edited on the basis of those
conferences on Jean’s work. I have too much respect for her work to be ready to label any of it wrong. Rather, what I think is important about it is the perspective she brought in selecting and treating
the issues she dealt with in her scholarship, as well
as what wisdom we may adapt to changing circumstances
from her judgments. Those judgments scholarly,
moral, political, and otherwise. Jean and I were certainly different in how we approached particular issues in our relationship, in our scholarship. Notably the ones where
work had the most uncommon. How to think about the nature
and meaning of just war, and of sovereignty. Despite this difference of approaches, my respect for her, her work, and the memory that remains of the closeness of our relationship keeps me from labeling her approach wrong. Rather, my interest is
still to think about the value to be found in her perspective. Her scholarship and mine were in fundamental ways mirror images, as is seen in our respective approaches to the two subjects we treated in common, just war and sovereignty. On just war, I have been
interested in the details of how the just war idea came into being and developed historically. My focus has been to look at the details, hoping to identify the
most important ones, and discern their interconnections so as to get to the truth
of what ought to count as just war thinking, and its implications in contemporary contexts, where one finds a proliferation of conceptions, conceptions of just war and
different kinds of meaning drawn out of these conceptions. Some of these competing conceptions I regard as well and truly wrong. Others among those competing conceptions, I appreciate for what they offer, though I wish they had sought to use the historical foundations,
development, and application of the just war idea more fully. Among these latter, I group
the conceptions laid out by Paul Ramsey, Michael Walzer, and of course Jean Bethke Elshtain. As for Jean’s and my very
different books on sovereignty, my interest was as with just war tradition to carry out a detailed
historical excavation, and extrapolate from the
meanings found there, getting from that to the matter
of sovereign responsibility, today and in any time. Jean’s approach to both these topics, just war and sovereignty, was instead to identify major themes and concentrate on drawing them out. On just war, I find in her work evidence of the influence
of both Walzer and Ramsey, though while she cites Walzer
in Just War Against Terror, for example, she doesn’t
cite Ramsey there. The connection I see
really between her thinking about just war and Ramsey’s may have more to do with
their similarity of thinking on this topic in terms of its
Augustinian Christian roots, or indeed their similar
ways of thinking about and using Augustin in defining their own conceptions of just war. On sovereignty she was
clearly more concerned than I with the religious element capsulated in the idea of the sovereignty of God. Where my focus was on the
way medieval scholars, to be sure, Christian clergy, adapted and used the
conception of natural law drawn from Roman law and culture. To put the differences between us simply, my approach is to work from the bottom up, from the details of what can be found by historical investigations while hers was to work from the top down, from identifying general
phenomena and ideas spread across the culture, or the thinking of a particular figure. Then explore and apply these to provide meaning in her own political and historical context. I said earlier that our
different ways of working were effectively mirror
images of each other, and this can be seen also in
our intellectual development. She began as a political theorist, interested in a specific
historical figure, Alexis de Tocqueville, and moved from there increasingly towards exploring Christian ethics in religion. I on the other hand began in the field of Christian ethics and moral thinking, and moved from there increasingly
towards political themes and historical method. Our origins matter in both cases, and in Jean’s it is her lifelong
connection to Tocqueville that to me stands out as the guiding clue to the nature of her scholarship. When one reads Democracy in America one encounters a search
for overarching themes that can be used for moral,
political, and social profit. In Tocqueville’s words
quote, “My wish in my effort “to describe democracy in America “has been to find there instruction “by which we may ourselves profit. “I confess that in America
I saw more than an America. “I sought there the
image of democracy itself “with its inclinations, its character, “its prejudices, and its passions.” In Just War Against Terror, this approach led Jean to take us on a focus on justice, and the Christian responsibility to serve it in the political community. In this, she was very much in contrast with so many contemporary
just war thinkers, whose only use of the idea of just war is to find ways to limit
any use of armed force. This was not high on
Jean’s list of priorities. Tocqueville’s words could serve as the description of her
approach to scholarship, but one also thinks of Reinhold Niebuhr’s conception of justice as that which leads towards the
idea of the kingdom of God. It always must do so, though
it never may achieve that goal. We are always on the way, and what matters in the wisdom to be found in particular forms like
just war and sovereignty is how we should act in the meantime to serve the ideal sought. Now this approach carries
with it the caution that one always needs
to be open to revisiting the particular conclusions
reached in a given context, and this fits well with another of Mike and Debra’s questions
to us presenters. What is worth revisiting? My answer to this is any and all of it is worth revisiting. Both for the continuing
wisdom to be found there, and to rethink what is found to fit new contexts and questions
as these develop. This is not though a particular
answer to Jean’s work, though I think that her
methodology and that of Tocqueville intentionally opens the door to this. But I would give the same answer to the purpose of scholarship generally. We scholars do not do our job unless we are continually
open to revision and growth. Jean filled a certain
kind of role in her work in that as her career
developed, for various reasons, she became a public intellectual. One who worked on the borders between scholarship for its own sake, and its implications for public life and the course of the nation as mapped out by policy and governmental decisions. Her coming into this role means that especially towards the end of her career, she should be viewed
as not only a scholar. This role gave her a
kind of public presence and a kind of influence that others in the academic community
will never achieve, although some of us may nibble at it more closely than others. It also gave her a respect for the responsibility that
political leaders bear. And a hope to influence
this responsibility. To take the measure of
how well the influence of a public intellectual endures, requires taking a long view,
much longer than we have here. Not judging it narrowly by
one’s immediate context. There may though need to
be a substantial change in the nature of our
national political discourse before there is room once
again for the public influence of such a person as Jean Bethke Elshtain, though her scholarship endures
in its own right, thanks. (audience applauds) – Please join me in welcoming
Robin Lovin to the podium. (audience applauds) – Well, unlike our first two speakers I really can’t begin by
defining a field of disagreement with Jean in my own work. I think we always perceived ourselves as very close together. Certainly she was generous
enough on several occasions to say that she thought we
shared a common understanding of the basic principles of politics. Of course, she also believed
that those principles justified the invasion of Iraq, and I remember saying at several points during that period in our history that I hoped she was wrong about at least one of those two ideas. That we shared these common ideas, and that they justified the invasion. I think what Jean and I had in common, and it’s echoed certainly in what both Victor and Jim have said, is this Augustinian perspective that lies behind her
understanding of politics. I keep coming back to Augustin
and the limits of politics. Someday we should do a whole
session of several hours on that book, and its key idea about the limits of what you
can accomplish in politics. About the idea that political
solutions to problems are always temporary, partial, and limited by the narrowness of our own vision. Jean learned that both from her own experience and from Augustin. She discovered in Augustin that what her intuitions taught her was also deeply rooted in
the Christian tradition. And that in our time, the
deficiencies of our own politics become more and more apparent as we see that politics against that tradition and that background. We need to read Jean again to learn how to ground ourselves in that Augustinian view of history and deal with the limits of politics as we experience it today. In one way, what confronts us
in Augustin and in Elshtain is an account of politics that
is profoundly pessimistic. Augustin’s sharp contrast
between the city of God and the earthly city
warns us against thinking too highly of ourselves, or expecting too much from our leaders. Augustin never allows his
eschatological certainty that history is leading
us toward the city of God to underwrite some kind of Eusebian notion that the Roman empire is going to be the vehicle that gets us there. And while Augustin the
neo-Platonist sometime seemed to share Plato’s assumptions that reason can know the
good in some absolute sense, Augustin the Christian
pastor never expects that our misguided wills are going to do what our reason tells us we ought. We don’t fail at this, because we’re in the wrong
place at the wrong time. We don’t fail at it because
we’re so unfortunate as to have bad leaders who
can’t carry out God’s plan as clearly as we see it, nor should we rest our hopes on a politics that succeeds by, how should I put it? Building a wall between the city of God and the earthly city. For the distinction
between the city of God and the earthly city, while it is ultimately of great interest,
is a distinction such that we can’t be sure at present who belongs on which side of the wall. Any answer that tempts us to distinguish one group of people from another tempts us to think that we could solve the problems of politics by changing or eliminating
somebody who is not us. We can discern the real
limits of politics, only by recognizing that
whatever the problem is, we are always part of it. The limits of politics are
written into our human nature. But, Augustin and Elshtain don’t then say what we might expect them to say next. Augustin does not say the
world is, human society, is a fragmented and violent place where there are no goods worth having, and you should turn away from that as quickly as possible to the commonwealth of the heavenly city, which is the only place where
you may expect any real good. Instead, Augustin says that
there is a good to be sought in human society. And he even encourages
Christians to seek it at some cost to themselves. The good that’s available
to earthly society is peace, which all people are united in wanting, even when they go to war, and even when their political
talents extend no further than the coordinating
efforts of a band of thieves. In a true commonwealth of
course, peace would be lasting because love would be united on an object that would not change,
and could not be lost. But that’s not the kind of
peace to which Augustin thinks the human society he sees
about him can aspire. What our politics can produce
is a peace for the time being. A peace in which people are united by the sharing of limited goods sustained in a shared effort that for the moment
overcomes their skepticism about each other’s motives. Those are the limits of politics
we learned from Augustin and much of Jean Elshtain’s work was about encouraging
contemporary Christians to live within those limits. Perhaps I should even say
rejoice in those limits. For Jean Elshtain clearly loved this work. In all of the public forums
that she was part of, in the daily life of institutions, and in encouraging her
students and the work that they were doing beyond the academy. She was interested as she said in how, this is a quote from her, how our work in small ways
and about small things contributes to the overall harshness or decency of any social order. These achievements are
the result of compromise and second thoughts and partial successes and we know that the good we do depends on those compromises
with the wills of other people, and the compromises
with our own ignorance. We learn in experience that we have to be satisfied with that. Only those who have
little or no experience of real politics feel what
John Rawls once called the zeal to embody the
whole truth in politics. What we seek is peace. Limited goals of limited duration achieved by compromises that only partially solve the problems. Limited goals, limited decisions,
compromises put in place by people who have to make those same decisions all over again. And if they don’t have
to be made again by us, they’re gonna have to be made
by those who come after us. That’s the nature of politics limited as Augustin
and Elshtain saw it. This politics within limits has to be defended not just against those who want to withdraw from the human city and wait for God’s plan, but for much of the past century, the task of limited politics has been to defend that work in small ways and about small things against ideologies that told us that we don’t have to limit
ourselves to small things. That this Augustinian piece is not enough. That we could make a choice that would reshape the
future once and for all. Choose the race, choose the
nation, choose the revolution, and you won’t have to
make any more choices. That was the worry of the 20th Century and Elshtain and others were
very good at articulating Augustin’s sense of the limits
of politics against that. But I wonder if today our task is not slightly different. To worry less about those who think Augustin’s politics offers too little, and begin to pay attention
to those who are telling us that peace for the time being
is really too much to expect. People who go to work in
small ways about small things. People who do all their politics
in that village environment that we’ve been talking about, undertake that difficult task because they’re seeking
genuine human goods. They believe that a
society that figures out how to share those goods
will be a society at peace at least for the time being. But those who would pursue this
Augustinian limited politics are increasingly being drowned out by those for who there are no, being drowned out by those
for whom there is no peace, but only winners and losers. And when you look at it that way, the time being is swallowed up in an immediate now for
which there is no history because nothing determines our choices apart from our own interests, and there is no future because the only consequences that matter are the ones that we will
experience for ourselves. As these voices become more insistent, it’s going to be necessary for the heirs of Augustin and Elshtain to make a case for the ongoing
search for limited goods that are shared among people who have created a piece for themselves for the time being. But this will not be a realistic politics of lowered expectations. Increasingly, the idea of
peace for the time being is the politics of aspiration. And I think it’s important
that we do aspire to it, and not just withdraw into communities where we can tell each other
stories about the city of God. For though we may realize a larger good in more complete ways in that city, for the time of this life, it
is this piece of small things and shared goods that makes us human. (audience applauds) – Please join me in welcoming Charles Mathewes to the podium. (audience applauds) – I was one of Jean’s
students several years ago, and in best grade grubbing way let me say that I want to start by saying I’m delighted that no one has noted that today is the 155th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. A text that Jean loved dearly, and we talked about repeatedly although I think we both agree that the Second Inaugural is actually a better piece of work. Let me also say that I’ve been on a number of panels honoring people, but I think Michael and
Debra got this right, that Jean was unique in
being the kind of person who would’ve wanted a
panel on what she got right and what she got wrong. I think the idea that she was
interested in the argument, and the conversation that would go forward always strikes me as a
distinctive part of what Jean was, who she was, and something
we can carry forward. When I was her student, once we had a conversation
that prompted my paper in some ways in the mid ’90s, and she was angry about something
the Clinton administration or somebody in American
government was doing, and there was a little pause and she said, “The thing is, we won’t
get these years back. “We are in a unique position now, “and we will not get these years back. “History will come for us again.” And it feels to me like
that was one of the lessons that Jean was always trying
in her urgencies to give us, and I always think about that most days. In book one of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his criticism of Plato with the reasonably famous statement that we honor Plato not
by simply honoring Plato but by honoring the
truth that Plato pursued. Jean Bethke Elshtain was not Plato, and I am definitely not Aristotle, but I think that that would be an attitude that she would accept as well. My thoughts today are
really in that interest. When Jean Elshtain died, a number of those who noted her death on
the web and elsewhere suggested that she had long
outlasted her best years. Too bad she hadn’t died a
decade or more before, in 2000 or at least 2001 they said, before she became a defender of the George Bush administration or an apologist for torture. But really, they implied, she was part of a moment in history that
had definitively passed. As part of the generation
of anti-anti-anti liberals who clustered around the
new republic in the 1990s, one of those who complained,
sometimes sneered, these critics said, at those who defended the core ideas of liberalism against those who essentially attacked it, Elshtain was of a certain
post-1960s worldview and in some important ways
unintelligible outside of it. When irony died on September 11, 2001, her moment had passed,
or so those critics said. Well you may not be
interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is most
definitely interested in you. And while our world is certainly different from the world that Elshtain knew, and also the critics of her inhabited, our world still has echoes and resonances with the world that she had. It’s different in fact
from all of those worlds in ways that none of
them could have foreseen so that many of her critics
are as much at sea today as she ever would have been. So perhaps now that the topsoil of history has been turned over several times, we can see better what is
durable in Elshtain’s work. What I want to propose is
that Elshtain’s thought partly equips us for facing
some of the most basic and pressing challenges of today, and also partly in its very failures teaches us lessons about how
to address those things better. Consider this. While we face a number of
interlocking challenges, overlapping crises today, I’d say that we have two distinct areas of problematic concern. And Elshtain has something
partial to say to both of them. One crisis is what I can call the crisis of liberal institutions. By this I mean the large
scale crisis of commitment to institutions in the liberal world. The world that Kant imagined
with remarkable perspicacity and perpetual peace. That world, imagined in the 18th Century, but largely really constructed
in the 20th Century, and really in the post World
War II era of the 20th Century, seems today threatened
by corrosion from within and subtle, insidious
assault from without. That attack is crucially
fueled from the outside, both by fundamentally illiberal forces of political authoritarianism,
such as Russia and The People’s Republic of China, eager to encourage this liberal
world’s self-destruction, and actively seeking to do so. And also indirectly and sometimes directly by deeply illiberal structures
of global capitalism, corporations, and finance which are actually enabled and created by the very liberal internationalism which they necessarily, I think, also in part structurally oppose. That’s one kind of crisis,
the crisis of institutions. We see this being discussed in a lot of, especially political commentary today. The other crisis we face, not unrelated to the above obviously,
is what we can call the crisis of pluralism. For a number of reasons, humanity is currently churning together at a rate not only never before seen, not only never before imagined, but really never before possible. The global reach of liberal capitalism, with its unprecedented
migratory flows of labor, has caused population
changes where populations had been mostly the same for hundreds or even thousands of years. These changes throw up new
configurations of difference which people in these areas, new arrivals as much as
old ones, have to confront. This is a matter of ideological
difference to be sure, but also religious and
above all I would say, sexual and gender and racial
and ethnic differences, and it’s most immediately the struggle with white supremacy in the United States which currently consumes our politics. It’s worth our while, and this is a good Jean
moment it seems to me, to step back and recognize
how radical a change this rising pluralism is
for our species as a whole, and how likely it is that this challenge is far more profound and durable than we have yet recognized. Consider in a kind of
quasi-Aristotelian way this sort of just so natural history. For most of our history, homo sapiens has seemed to live in small communities of intimate kin groups with
around 300 to 500 people, each of which with its
own different language, culture, and way of living. Each of which kept well
clear of all others. But since the agricultural revolution, about 11,000 years ago, and then since the rise
of axial age religions, 25 to 2,000 years ago, we’ve been combining together
in ever larger configurations, sharing common languages,
common social structures, common belief systems, that have forced us to find our tendencies towards
separatism and suspicion more akin to apartheid than a judicious respect or prudent indifference. It’s also worth our while to
see how the crises of pluralism and of liberal institutions
powerfully interact. As the contemporary political
theorist Jan-Werner Muller suggests in his What is Populism? One of the most central
features of the populism currently raging throughout
much of the world is a hostility to pluralism
and a resentment at politics, conceived as Robin was saying as a give and take form of bargaining between individuals and groups as they negotiate their power relations. So understood, populism
requires pluralism, ironically, as it needs an other against
which to define itself. And it also needs structures
of liberal institutions which enable the politics that it wants therefore to complain about, and generate resentment against. So Muller says that in fact, populism is an inevitable shadow of pluralistic liberal
democratic societies such as the ones we
hopefully still inhabit, and I would want us to
say aspire to inhabit for the coming centuries. Jean Bethke Elshtain had a partial vision of both these challenges, but I think that her work was
interestingly too sensitive to her American academic context at times to see the full shape of
them as they developed both in the US and around the world. Ironically her work was hampered by her annoyance at potential allies, especially the second generation Rawlsians who surrounded her. She saw the institutional crisis only as its evidence
failed to be articulable in the dominant liberalism’s aphasia about Berkian institutions,
it seems to me. Most of all famously, the family. And she saw the challenges
of pluralism largely, though not exclusively,
under the similar failure of the dominant liberalism’s
narrow-minded secularism. Now she was right about
both of these failings okay? And the realization of this is visible in the way that after
she said these things, the work of Saba Mahmood
in Politics of Piety and the work of Robert
Putnam in Bowling Alone both garnered enormous support for these two facts about our world. But, in her annoyance,
she focused her attention more at her colleagues in the academy than at the challenges of real
forms of ugliness and menace that we collectively face. She thought the dominant
liberalism could not and would not learn. I would argue that in
the past couple decades, it has in fact learned. Consider as an example her
worries about religious liberty. Her warnings were prescient, but I would argue more
prescient about how the category would be weaponized by
religious conservatives who have convinced themselves that they were about to be persecuted, than as an analysis of the situation. Consider that she said, in 1999, this is the worry she had. Orthodox Jews would be
compelled to give up the external insignia of their faith. Catholic hospitals and doctors
forced to perform abortions on pain of punitive measures, and the Catholic Church forced
to ordain women priests. All Christian schools and academies are force fed some national agenda from which none is permitted to waver. These are interesting worries, and they have some possible
hypothetical concern for us, but they seem misplaced
in our culture today, where hostility to people of color on the part of the white
majority is actually rising. Where, and this is a quote
from the Anti-Defense League, “The number of anti-Semitic incidents “was nearly 60% higher
in 2017 than in 2016,” and that was the largest
single year increase on record, and where white people have a 20 to one wealth advantage over black people, but they don’t even know it. And where, while Americans overall are twice as likely to say
there is more discrimination against Muslims than against Christians, the numbers are almost precisely reversed for white evangelical protestants. Political thinking must begin
from a cool appreciation of the actual facts on
the ground before us, no matter what our ideologies
invite us to perceive. I would submit that her judgments were sometimes misjudgments
when they appear, they emerged when she let
the intensity of her concerns override the weight of the
evidence that she could gather. This misjudgment I think was not just a failure of imagination. It’s also a political failure, in a way. She failed to see the possibilities
of working with others across the differences
that she had identified. Because of a misproportioned
apprehension at times of the various challenges
facing her moment. Her work was often governed
more by an annoyance at what she saw as liberal and feminist pieties and platitudes
than by an apprehension of what those pieties and
platitudes were meant to oppose. She recognized the
value and the imperative of including marginalized
and oppressed voices in democratic deliberation but she feared that the
imperatives of liberal inclusion dangerously suffocated other voices in the rush to right ancient wrongs. She saw the value, she inhabited, she embodied the value
of feminist impulses, but she also worried about the corrosive
effects of what she saw as some forms of a trajectory in feminism towards androgyny in a way
that would corrode, she feared, the civic and human value of
institutions like the family. But she failed to realize, I think, that her aggrieved indignation
at people down the hall should not eclipse her alarm at the people marching with torches in the streets. To confuse these is perhaps a pathology not without precedent in the
precincts of the academy. Last year I read Fritz Ringer’s book The Decline of the German Mandarins, the German academic community 1890 to 1933 and I really wished that
Jean had been around to talk to about it. I would recommend it
to all of you as well. To be honest, I hope the concern this book
rose with me never goes away. I wish that if Jean had read the book, we had had the chance to talk about it. I bet she did, and I’m sad that
I never got to talk to her. Now a touchy defender
of Elshtain on all this, and I can easily be one of
Jean’s touchy defenders, might reply that this analysis holds her to an impossible standard. Aren’t all of us understandably provoked by our most proximate interlocutors? Anybody who has been in a faculty meeting would immediately affirm this. And let’s be honest, the triumphant and self-regarding elitist
liberalism of the ’80s and ’90s which we now call neoliberalism
was certainly provocative. To borrow from David Cameron, “They used to be the future once.” In those days, liberalism
was not mocked by Bernie Bros and the hipster avant-garde in the nation. They were too busy trying to join it. Surely the suffocating
self-congratulatory smugness of those thinkers deserved
a kick in the pants. Perhaps there is something to this. A gadfly role can be a useful one. Certainly those thinkers were not the easiest to get along with. Undoubtedly they were cluelessly intolerant of religious voices, and glibly unwilling to
listen to counter positions. It took a while for the
critics of liberalism to be heard as something other
than either covert Nazis, empty-headed evangelical Reaganites, or dismissed as reactionary guerrillas for a counter-cultural
Roman Catholic church. But in fact, it was possible to have her assessment of the
world and not aim one’s fire wholly at those nearby who annoyed you. It was possible even in those days to keep your eyes more
firmly on the real dangers. Thinkers like Susan Moller Okin offered searching critiques
of Rawlsian liberalism without suggesting that the project as a whole could be bankrupt. An even more generally
appropriate example of this is Elshtain’s friend Charles Taylor, a thinker who never thought
that the dominant liberalism of the age was wholly
adequate to a human condition, but also never thought it was a disaster that needed to be expunged. And since the turn of the millennium, others have surprisingly shown up with offering analogous efforts, albeit from very different perspective. Consider the recent turn to religion in the writings of thinkers
such as Jurgen Habermas, and even, clutch your pearls
at this point, Judith Butler. The cosmopolitan Paul Gilroy is another figure who does this as well. In all this, there are
real lessons for us, negative and positive ones. Positively, we must strive
to do what Jean did. To keep reminding ourselves of the value of the breadth of perception, and the agility of imagination and empathy that is needed in the political task. We must struggle to let our vision range widely across the whole world, and deep into multiple resources, and always to keep a sense of proportion. Inevitably Elshtain failed at times to live up to her own high standards. Perhaps we should allow
that it was admirable to have had these standards
at all in the first place. Few of us manage them. Furthermore, her insistence on the ways that the petty concerns of academics could distort their
apprehension of the world is still very valid, even if it applies to her own work at times. In her presence, one felt
the pressure of an intellect probing persistently across
the whole spectrum of issues that must be addressed
in political thinking. She was not so much a
political philosopher, I say, as a political thinker. One who brought to
reflective self-awareness a much more adequate breadth of challenges for anyone thinking about politics than most of her colleagues
could ever imagine in things like political science. Never monocausal, never reductionist, never constrained by a
single idiom or vocabulary. She tried in her mental fencing
bouts with interlocutors, whomever they might be, to get them to see how
much more complicated and implicated in manifold issues were the political matters they thought they had successfully managed to isolate and address. I suppose it is no vast surprise that the principles that led
her to engage so seriously with so wide a range of
resources and thinkers would inevitably from time to time slip. And that’s the negative lesson. We have to recognize the
true political thinking of this sort is much, much
harder than we normally admit. Elshtain’s own all too human failure to realize her best
ideals is exemplary here. She was in so many ways
a remarkable thinker. Patient, engaged in serious abiding work with the thinkers and
topics she chose to engage. Insisting on thinking with them, in dialogue, letting them have their say and digesting it before answering back. I admire many of Elshtain’s monographs. Public Man Private Woman, Sovereignty, Augustinian and the Limits of Politics, but I actually think of
her best as an essayist. As someone engaged in the
thinking about politics on the ground as an ongoing conversation. Wanting to manifest that
conversation in her own work. She spoke in what she once called, borrowing from A.O. Hirschman,
“The horizontal voice. “The right to address others,
to call forth some sort of we “through the power of
words shared among people “committed to a common project.” But that is also to
say she was at her best at the genre at which most
people are at their worst. For all of our professed
interest in conversation, most of us are specialists in monologue. The trick about politics, this suggests, is simply that it is not something we naturally engage in at all. And yet we must engage
in it, and ever more so in the present moment
and in years to come. The multiple crises we face
are still in their early days. Both of their main waves are
looming on our horizon ahead. We are not yet in their wake. I hope Elshtain’s failures,
as well as her successes. Her life and her thought and her words and her deeds, can serve
as one small contribution to that larger human task. I deeply believe they can, for we will need all the help we can get. Thank you. (audience applauds) – And please join me in welcoming Debra Erickson to the podium. (audience applauds) – Good morning. It falls to me to attempt to tie together and draw out some themes
for further discussion from our panelists’ excellent commentary, and I’m gonna do this briefly, both to leave time for discussion and also because I’ve
been battling a cold. All of our panelists
in one way or another, commented on Elshtain’s method. Her approach to her subject
matter was distinctive, and it is part of the
reason that her scholarship has been so difficult to categorize. So I’m gonna start with a brief summary and then a couple of questions
for each of our panelists. Victor Anderson contrasted
Elshtain’s village ideal for politics with his own
rooted cosmopolitan perspective. He suggested that this led her to place certain institutions
like family and church at the center of her approach to politics. James Turner Johnson
directed our attention to Elshtain’s use of broad themes rather than granular detail in her work in contrast to his own more bottom up approach to similar topics. And though here I note that Elshtain began her graduate study
in medieval history before switching to
politics as a response to President Kennedy’s
call to public service. Robin Lovin described
Elshtain’s Augustinianism, which now seems out of
step with the times. In Lovin’s description of Elshtain’s place in contemporary discourse, it leads us to a kind of, originally a kind of
pessimism about politics, but in contrast to
today almost optimistic. And last, Charles Mathewes commented that at times Elshtain may have directed her attention too much on her peers in the academy, and not sufficiently to what
was happening on the ground, causing her to miss some both serious moral and
political challenges and also missing connections
with potential allies. These descriptions are in tension with Elshtain’s own view of
her method, as she saw herself always looking more to
real life than to theory. And she often expressed her disapproval at academics who flew so high, or worked at such a level of abstraction, that they missed the significance of the mundane activities of daily life. She did, after all, title one of her books Real Politics: At the
Center of Everyday Life. This is also the woman who
went to sit, listen to, and bear witness to the Argentine mothers of the disappeared, an experience that profoundly affected her thinking about politics. When one reads across
Elshtain’s body of work, one sees clearly that she had favorites, thinkers with whom she felt a kinship because they grasped something true, but as Lovin and Johnson suggests, her concern in appealing to these thinkers was not to excavate their
work at a minute level, such as identifying their influences or getting caught up in variant
readings of these thinkers. Rather, she picked up on a central theme or thrust in their work
which she thought captured something profound about
our human condition, whether in its perennial
or contemporary form, and she used that to
illuminate some aspect of her debate or issue
that had been overlooked. Was Elshtain a person of her era? Yes, I think so, and I think there’s work
to be done to examine exactly how she fit into the
scope of late 20th Century and early 21st Century political thought. Was she unique? Again, I think, and as you have heard, the answer is in the affirmative. Elshtain refused categorization, and she turned her formidable powers wherever she thought she could sort out wooly thinking and evasive wordplay. So now I want to pose some questions directly to our panelists, sort of comment questions
as is often the case. For Victor Anderson,
Elshtain’s village ideal, and your rooted or liberal cosmopolitanism as approaches did not
actually sound to me opposed so much as complementary. Converging I think in
your approach to politics as provisional, as a way of
dealing with or sorting out differences between competing groups or individual interests. And I thought here
particularly of Jane Jacob’s famous account of city life in New York which actually sounds a
lot like life in a village, where people know their neighbors and where they are not lost in the anonymity of an urban setting, but rather create street level
community block by block. I also wonder whether
Elshtain’s reflection on her childhood in
Timnath was not so much an exercise in nostalgia as a Tocquevilleian
description of thick democracy rather than the thin
democracy of the plebiscite. And I don’t think that’s what
you were describing either. So, I was wondering where you
might see points of connection in her emphasis on localism, and particularly in her insistence that all political solutions
are necessarily partial, requiring negotiation and compromise. For Jim Johnson, given your long history with Jean and the close relationship
between the areas in which you have both published, I wanted to know if there’s
one area of Elshtain’s work that you think should be
revisited, one in particular. Where would we start? And here I’m thinking, more specifically, if I was going to pose one question, what do you think is
the status of her book Just War Against Terror, 17 years after the war that
book talked about has started? And next for Robin Lovin, Elshtain believed in democracy and she also believed in politics. I remember that in 2010 when the Tea Party first made it on the political scene, to the horror of many
watchers in the academy, Elshtain approved of what she saw as its grassroots democratic character. Of course, we now have the advantage of five more years of hindsight, and I do wonder what Elshtain would have made of the 2016 election. It seems to me that what we are seeing now is not so much politics as anti-politics. People who are not able to
win through fair elections and democratic processes seek
to subvert those processes. I find Trump inexcusable
and a threat to democracy because of what I learned from Jean, but I wonder now whether
she would agree with me. So I guess I want to know
what you might think. And finally, for Chuck. In your remarks it seems to me the piece of work that
you were most referring to or might be most relevant to your remarks was Jean’s Democracy on Trial, and in that book one
of her central concerns had to do with pluralism and the inadequacy of identity politics as a response to pluralism. So I wonder here, what do you think about this analysis in our
current political climate? Was she right to worry? And in the preface of that book, she talks about how she has
joined the ranks of the nervous. So should we still be
nervous about those themes that she raised in Democracy on Trial? So in my brief comments here you can see, and from what was discussed earlier, there’s much to talk about and I look forward to the
conversation with our panel. Thank you.
– Thank you. (audience applauds) – So I’d like to open it now for the panel both to respond to Debra’s comments and to raise any further
questions you may have that came from our presentations. – In talking about Jean’s
thinking about polity, she and I had a lot of agreements about things that troubled
us about our culture. I had my greatest disagreements with Jean about what I call her overzealous near dogmatism about rights talk. I agreed with her about our moral culture that we had was insufficient for cultivating the kinds of civic virtues that she really espoused to, and I can’t find anybody who
would disagree with those. That point of view. But to me the family that she imagined, that’s not the family that many people, whom she loved, lived. So when you talk about the
lived experience of the family, that was not my experience and there was many ways in
which her idealized family just didn’t match 2/3 of
the world, that she loved. This is the ambiguity in dealing with Jean with regard to the people she loved most, how she idealized a solution just was not their lived situation. And so rights talk was the only avenue many of us had to get out of
that kind of village morality that kept many of us bound into very bad and abusive situations that
were hidden in silence. My disagreements and
conversation with Jean was really about, she was
not opposed to rights as such because she had a profound sense about, her humanism was wide. She cared a great deal
about global rights. She cared a great deal about human rights, but she translated that private rights, the privacy, becoming political, that troubled me. It is the case that when children
are abused in their homes, and the churches sustain them, her confidence in churches
I just didn’t share. Her confidence in families I didn’t share. I am a survivor of family abuse, and so when I’m reading her
there’s an existential level. I needed something more
in my conversation. Rights talk gave me a
point of transcendence from the embedded world that formed Jean’s
understanding of the political. And so my cosmopolitanism ought not to be seen as oppositional
to what Jean cared for. It’s just that Jean’s limited politics is just too limited for the kind of social political realities
that too many people have to transcend, and that’s really where our disagreements lay with regard to a kind of rooted cosmopolitanism. I kinda shared with Jean much
of what she worried about, but her limited politics
is just too limited for the majority of the world’s people, and the poor that she cared about and which civic rights
of marriage, family, and different kinds of
families is emerging in our realities to meet
people up against her very limited understanding
of the nuclear family. That’s really where I was coming from. – In thinking about the, what I would say about her attitudes as expressed in Just War Against Terror, I reflect on the, the experience I had in the
years after the 9/11 attacks and after the appearance of her book. When I used to assign the book as a reading, one of two choices that meant the students in
my war course could take to read and write a paper on it. And of the students that chose to read Just War Against Terror
and write their book, or write their papers on that. An interesting number of them were very critical of the position that they saw her as taking there, and in particular they
were critical of her, of the implications of her
argument for the war in Iraq. I have often wondered,
I wondered at the time, and I’ve often wondered since how many of the critics thought that it would
have been a good thing to leave Saddam Hussein in place, and how things might
have come out differently had the Bush administration
done a more responsible job in planning for the reconstruction of Iraq after the removal of Saddam. But that was not to be,
of course, and was not. I still think that the outcome is something that is only
gonna need to be viewed from a very long view. It’s a messy situation all in all, and it’s hard to make judgments about it purely in hindsight based on a particular perspective at a given time, but I think Jean’s judgments on this had to do with the whole notion
of political responsibility that I mentioned in my talk earlier, and the idea of sovereign responsibility as connected to the ideals of
justice and just war theory, and also in her understanding
of the ideal of sovereignty as a form of political leadership in which one expresses
a certain responsibility for the overall community and its good, as well as for the overall
political environment in which that community is located. If one judges her position
in Just War Against Terror by focusing on that, it seems to me that one comes out in a rather different place than if you focus on a
purely post hoc judgment about the way things have
developed since then. Her perspective did not guarantee that there would always be
pragmatically good results, and that’s one of the
problems with a position based in a moral judgment that is always inherently fallible. It’s a judgment that it seems to me can be learned from and used
to inform future judgments, and that’s part of the whole benefit of revisiting past judgements, but it requires a real
sense of history to do this, and that’s a sense of
history that many of us in this country unfortunately
find difficult to reach, or to sustain if we do reach it. – Well, the question I
take it in summary is what would Jean Elshtain
make of the politics that we have today? What you described is a
kind of anti-politics, and let me first take a view on that, and then I think I can try to respond from an Elshtain perspective. It is true that our politics today is in some kind of a crisis. The crisis to my mind has to do with the idea that politics has become almost entirely about getting elected and the mechanics that you go through in order to get elected. And most politicians today
haven’t the slightest idea of what they’re supposed to do next, after the election, right? And part of that is because
the electoral process seems no longer about
setting up a candidate who represents a position
and holds some views to which you might persuade an electorate. Maybe that was always an idealized view of what elections were about, but clearly today it’s a matter of identifying demographics,
and then manipulating the electoral boundaries and so forth to you know, get the desired
results at the polls. Getting elected you know, is a matter of how well you manage the electoral process. Now, in one way that’s not
an anti-politics at all. That’s people taking
politics very seriously, and at a very local level. Where I live in Chicago,
congressional districts you can see have been drawn to take in or exclude particular apartment buildings. That’s village politics. So I don’t want to say that that is in itself an anti-politics, but it’s politics shaped by the idea that once we are elected,
everything will be fine. Well of course, what happens is then the electorate is polarized, so that you have sharply
divided political positions separated by fractions
of a percentage point in the electoral process, and instead of governing, as
soon as you get elected you start concentrating on
winning the next election. I mean, this is simply
a recipe for dysfunction and we’re all experiencing it. It’s astonishing how
rapidly this has happened, and to have this discussion
and think about Jean and how she would have viewed such a thing is a reminder of just how rapidly the situation has deteriorated. It’s precisely because Jean Elshtain was
interested in real politics and not just in managing demographics that I think she would be appalled by where we find ourselves today. And I think the other thing that is obvious about that that kind of unites us across the spectrum of approaches
here, as Jim pointed out, the difference between the top down and bottom up approach
both is really important and it shapes some serious differences in the way we approach these
kinds of political questions, but whether you’re working
top down or bottom up, we’ve all got an eye on history, and as I tried to suggest at
the end of my presentation, a fundamental change of perspective that I simply think Jean would never, you know, would be speaking out against is that we are now focused
entirely on interest in the present with no view to the past, and the only consequences
we’re concerned about are those that are going to be experienced by the voters today. That’s not politics the way Tocqueville or
Augustin thought about it, and we’ve got a real problem figuring out how to reintroduce some of these ideas into the broader public discourse. – I think that a lot of
nice, decent right thinking white liberals like myself grew up drinking in a dream of a colorblind
society with our mother’s milk and I think the last 10 to 15 years has really disenthralled me
of the usefulness of that politically to understand our world. Because it’s clearly not colorblind, and it’s only the
colorblind white liberals who have been blind to color. The rest of the white
population has known all along that color matters, and people of color don’t need to be told that either. So I think if there’s an interesting worry about identity politics, as I’m trying to make
sense of that category, and I think it’s a good
worry in some ways, it’s the idea of the
illegitimate intrusion of improper features of human beings or persons into politics that ought not to be
introduced into politics. That in some ways
contaminated or confuse it. It definitely appears
in Democracy on Trial. The other place I found it in Jean most interestingly engaged is in her little essay Political Children on Arendt’s Reflection on Little Rock. She was very much a Tocquevillian. She was very much I think
thoroughly an Arendtian, and I think that’s a dimension of her that very much resonates
with a number of us. And in Political Children, I
actually was pleased to see, I went back to reread it
in light of this panel and found that actually she does identify the blindnesses that Arendt suffers from and that she was called out
for by critics at that time in the Reflections on Little Rock debate. But look, if identity politics is the illegitimate intrusion of
improper features of humanity into politics, I would say that in American politics at
least, and I think actually in European politics you see
this quite clearly as well, and probably elsewhere around the world, I won’t speak to that,
race and other identities are just facts of our politics that have in fact always
shaped our politics and continue to shape them. And to deny that is to deny the 3/5 Clause in the Constitution. I mean it’s like how much
more literal do we need to be to put race in, but to put it in the founding document of the nation? So that’s one thing, it’s
just that identity is there and it’s a politically operative fact. Furthermore I think, the most
powerful identity politics, at least in American politics today, and I would also say in the UK politics is white identity politics, which we never seem to notice is an identity politics of its own, because we code it as
normal or de-adjectivalized, or unhyphenated, but in fact it is a thoroughly
distinctive identity politics, and I would say that
its most recent example is the election of Donald Trump in 2016, where a large fraction
of white America decided it was better to try, as
the southern secessionists said in the 1850s, it was better to try to pull the temple down than to actually share the goods of a common nation with other people in this way. And so, I think the idea that we want to worry about identity
politics, A on the one hand, you’re right, we need to worry about it, but B, we don’t need to keep it out. It is already here. So that would be where I would go, and I think actually Jean would, in the move
from Democracy on Trial through Political Children, I
think there’s some possibility that, there’s some space in her thinking to think about that. That’s all, so. – I’d like to welcome some time
now for question or comment, friendly or otherwise
from the audience here. I do ask though for the sake of others who would also have questions to try and keep our
comments brief, thank you. I’m gonna start over on
the right, then move. – [Man] Sure, good morning. Can you hear me all right? I want to address particularly
Charles Mathewes’ comment that Jean’s prediction in 1999, about a growing hegemony of a certain kind of liberal correctness seems to be radically
off the mark in 2018, if I understood you correctly. But it seems to me that a
historical perspective here on a couple of different dimensions would be worth thinking
about that a little more. I wonder if you have
been traumatized so much by what happened in 2016 it’s
sort of all we can look at. I would suggest in two respects wondered about your response to this. First, if we went back behind 2016, if we looked at Barack
Obama’s administration and the trajectory of his social policies, and the way he was pressing a pretty unapologetic liberal agenda as Americans define liberal. I wonder if she in 2015 would
have looked pretty prescient and said yeah, you know what? This is in fact an
encroaching form of hegemony on various kinds of
religious institutions. So I wonder if it’s the Trump backlash that has seemingly disconfirmed that, but in a broader historical view, another few years from now
we may see something else. So I wonder how you’d feel about that if you went back to 2015 and just tried not to think about Donald
Trump for a minute, which I find to be always good advice. The second kind of historical
comparison it seems to me is, if I may, we are at the
American Academy of Religion, but if we get out of America
in our minds just a little bit, if we went just a little bit north, when Canadians passed same sex marriage in our federal parliament, there was in typical Canadian terms, a kinder, gentler backlash with two minority conservative governments and then finally majority
conservative government, but it was definitely a response. The demographics are
clear, definite response to what many Canadians felt
to be going too quickly, too much in an aggressive
liberal agenda as they saw it, as we saw it. Now, under Trudeau the younger, we’re seeing a pretty naked,
pretty confident hegemony of a kind of almost blithely obvious intuitive sense of what’s right, and he just does things
that he thinks are right and he’s quite confident that all right thinking people agree with him, and to a very drastic curtailment of religious difference
and freedom in Canada, which I think in some ways is paralleled by
developments in Australia. When I was studying American culture at the University of Chicago, I was constantly struck by how Americans seemed completely unaware
of the two cultures that I think are most similar to America, namely Canada and Australia. And yet in those two
very similar countries both in a sense of New World, both Anglo, both post-colonial in some ways, we see, in fact I think,
a fairly steady arc toward what President
Obama would call justice, and what Jean might have said,
a particular form of justice that may not be all that
just to other people. I wonder what you think about
looking at it in that way. – Thank you, so you
didn’t actually bring up the law school case in Western Canada, which is a fascinating one as well. I think there’s a lot of
empirical issues to look at on the two dimensions
you’re talking about. My claim was, and just to make it a little easier for me to defend myself, not that it was radically off the mark, but that it was a misapprehension of what are the real dangers here? I don’t know how Trudeau has interacted with the Supreme Court of Canada on this, but my interest actually is in religious freedom issues around Quebec, and especially around the Sikh
and the Muslim communities in a very intolerant French
nationalist community in Quebec. That would actually be I
think a larger infringement. If the worry is that conservative
evangelical protestants in Canada do not want to participate in social situations where other people who they
are not even related to can get married to people of the same sex, there’s a larger argument there about exactly what is the injury that those conservative evangelical protestants
are suffering from? And you and I, we know, you know, and there’s a larger literature
and religion in America on what exactly the
nature of that injury is. The Obama issue is a
really interesting one. Anyone who worked with the
people in that administration, and this is including
people like Russell Moore who is a Southern Baptist
religious liberty figure who was just at UVA two weeks ago, will tell you that there was actually a quite serious attempt
to try to negotiate this, and at one point I think it’s
going to be fascinating to see the full history of the debates
between the legal counsel in the White House, the Obama White House, and the various Catholic
organizations around Obamacare, and the degree to which they tried to work out a compromise around what exactly the churches would be forced to do. It finally came down to writing a letter, and signing the letter and mailing it to say that we don’t want to do this, and that was what they were, and so at that point, once we get clarity on what exactly was the
nature of the compulsion, then I’m happy to have a public debate about whether or not that compulsion actually amounts to religious tyranny. One last thing, I would say
it is not just 2016 that radicalized me. I am from Charlottesville, and we have had multiple events where people have come and
expressed religious liberty in a very un-liberal way, and I’m alert to the
fact that my colleagues who are Jews in Charlottesville, as well as Muslims, and many
Christians of multiple colors have felt deeply threatened by things that this administration,
unlike any previous Republican administration,
or Democratic administration, has not roundly and univocally condemned. So that’s my, again it’s about the estimation of what the weights are. I’m actually more comfortable
with someone like Doug Laycock who’s a legal scholar who
I know and respect a lot who worries about some of the directions of some of the democratic
party’s legal strategies on this, but clearly that strikes me
as not the kind of tsunami that we’re now seeing with people who actually dress up like Nazis marching in the streets
of America with torches, and saying Jews will
not replace us, right? That seems like a new thing. – [Mark] I want to thank the panel. I’m Mark Douglas, I teach at
Columbia Seminary in Atlanta. I grew up in Timnath, Colorado a generation after Jean Elshtain did. I started Timnath elementary
about the same time she started Colorado State University. My family, long time members
of Timnath Presbyterian Church, the only church in town. The church wasn’t much bigger than and the city wasn’t much
bigger than when I was there. The Bethkes did not go to
Timnath Presbyterian Church, because it was Presbyterian
although that meant kind of it was broad
denominationally protestant. Lutherans, they went into town, I think they went into Fort Collins. I think Jean told me that. There’s a romanticism of
Timnath in Jean’s work that is belied by the
experiences of those of us who grew up in Timnath ’cause Timnath is just a couple miles east of and across the interstate
from Fort Collins, where there’s a research university and where there’s a lot of kind of more cosmopolitan sensibility. This odd kind of romanticism and realism that I kind of find pervading Jean’s work from beginning to end is for me kind of both a signal of what
made her distinct, right? It shaped a vision that
was unique in the academy. It shaped a motivation that led her to get engaged in social issues. It shaped a perspective that was kind of a combative common sense
democratic sensibility. These two things are always
linked in her work, to me. And I wonder they are both the cause of what is most attractive in her work, and the cause that sometimes is most repelling to me in her work. If the question the panel
was asked is kind of what she got right and what she got wrong, I wonder if those two
are so intricately linked that we couldn’t separate them out with losing Elshtain entirely. So my first question
is can we separate out kind of what she got right
and what she got wrong? And the second question that
kind of follows from that, and maybe this is red meat for Chuck is how Augustinian is that actual vision as it plays itself out
over time in her work? – I really appreciate
the question because, the point of my paper
is moral optics matter. How we see things that seems not, may leave to believing but believing may be off site. And that is, our fears, our frustrations alike may make us turn back to the comforts of another time, another memory, and also remembering things
that may not be what they were, Jean did have, and this is
the complexing deal of it. Jean had this longing for a culture that could
do all these things that she really wanted to see happening, but she was also a realist. So as much as she could talk
about the comfort of home and all the other stuff,
she also understood about backbiting, gossiping, all the other stuff that
becomes part of village. I think when you take a metaphor and make it an ontological entity that almost become metaphysically the way we organize our political
and moral world around it, it’s the question of what
gets screened into that vision and what gets screened out. And what gets screened
out are often the things that she feared the most. She feared most the intrusion
of state’s sovereignty into that sphere that was so wonderful, comforting, private. But what got screened out is
that for so many other people it is the thing that she prized so much was not a place of safety. Our families were not
always a place of safety. Our neighborhoods were
not always cooperating. There wasn’t always peace and comfort, so it’s that tension
in Jean’s moral vision that I think draws many of us to her, but also make us go like this. Understand that the sense
of belonging’s important, but when you take a
metaphor of the village, and you make it an ontological symbol, it screens some things in, rightly, but it screens an awful lot out wrongly. So I think we have to live
with that kind of tension of what we prefer our aspirations and the reality that is
given us in lived experience. My point was that Jean’s limited politics is just too limited for the
kind of world we inhabit, that’s much wider and complex and her vision may not
be the most adequate one for understanding that complexity. – I especially like those two questions you posed at the end. One about how to judge
her right and wrong, and the other how to
judge her Augustinianism. I think that what I would say about whether we judge her right or wrong is that that always will
depend on our own perspective and our own context. There is a certain ability to find rightness and wrongness
of a more absolute sort in less complex thinkers than Jean was. She was a complex thinker, and she was fundamentally
I think a moral thinker, and disagreeing with other
people’s moral judgments is simply part of living
one’s own moral life. So I think there is a
kind of ambiguity there that is hard to fix in black and white terms once and for all. As to the matter of the degree
to which she was Augustinian, Robin may disagree with me on this but I would say that
certainly in detail terms she wasn’t very Augustinian at all. She was Augustinian in
the way that protestants of her generation were Augustinian, and this was very much a big picture way. It was a way that accorded with the values in the protestant theological
and religious culture of that period, and it was a way that had its own way of
shaping one’s commentary upon the political life of the country, but if one thinks about the details of Augustinian’s own position, that would require
reading all of his books, and what one finds there is
a great deal more complex than what was in this protestant understanding of Augustin, and it also would require taking account of the fact that after Augustin died, the way that his thought
was transmitted forward for the next several hundred years into the high Middle Ages, was through the collections of canons or little excerpts picked
out for their value in guiding the penitential, guiding how to live without sin, and that this gives a very
particular view of Augustin that is radically different from this way of viewing Augustin that emerged in protestant
culture in the ’50s and the ’60s. In Just War Thinking, which
I’ve written on in particular, the various canons that
are ascribed to Augustin that defined the idea of
just war in the Middle Ages do not come from City of God
Book One or The Confessions, which are the go-tos for this culture of understanding Augustin that emerged in our own lifetimes, or in my lifetime at least. This is a very different
way of thinking about it, and that is that signals to us I think that someone who approaches Augustin by looking at those sources is not going to be
Augustinian in the same sense as previous generations were, and maybe not even in the sense
that Augustin himself was. – And just to respond, I actually agree with Jim’s
characterization here. I think that one of the
things that has happened over the last couple of
generations in Christian ethics is that we’ve really started
reading those sources. Jim is one of the people who has kind of made us all do that. At the same time, I want
to defend the top down political theorist approach that was described there, including the contribution that Augustin and especially Augustin in the City of God makes to understanding contemporary limited political problems in an eschatological and
trans-historical context. That to me is a genuinely
Augustinian vision that people like Jean have
tried to make relevant to our present time, and that I guess gets back to the question about what’s right and what’s wrong. With due regard for the folks who put the panel together for us, I’m starting to realize that
the relevant question here is how are our times
different from, or similar to, the place where these
questions are being raised? So that’s obviously a huge question when you turn to Augustin, and at the same time it is, given the rapid pace of current change, a highly relevant question
when we start asking was Jean right or wrong
about this or that? – For the sake of time,
I suggest that we take the last two questions
simultaneously and briefly, and we may have time,
but if not we’ll always end sessions like this with more questions to walk
away with, so please– – [John] John Carlson from
Arizona State University. I want to thank all of you for your really really thoughtful remarks and I just wanted to
emphasize what may seem like a small point for some, but for a few of us
who are in the audience it’s no small point at all, which is just the deep love and nurturing that Jean
provided to her students. She never wanted clones. She was always open to working with people who had very different views, and having worked with
many of her students, very few of us had
projects like hers underway to our great sadness, we’ll probably never
reach anything like that. And one final tribute on that point is she nurtured us by getting us introduced to great networks of people. As I look at this panel,
with the exception of Chuck, every single one of you are
folks that I met through Jean, and I think that’s just an, and it’s only because I met Chuck before– – I thought you were excluding me from the great networks of people. (laughing) Which would be a sign of
prudence on your part. – [John] Anyway, okay so
on to my question here. It’s a question from where we
stand in this moment of time where we have now called
something identitarian politics which is a bit different than some of the early concerns of the ’90s about identity politics
that Jean talked about. But I want to make a distinction here that I think she would
have always understood was there’s a different, that she was always deeply
concerned with identity. So for all of her criticisms
about identity politics, and I think you have rightly shown that in certain places, she
far overstated the concerns, particularly from where we stand today. Wow, if she was concerned
about identity politics, what Chuck’s talking
about in Charlottesville far outweighs any concerns that she could have ever foreseen. She died before she saw that. – That’s also a bad form
of civil society too. – [John] That is a very
bad form of civil society. But having said that, she
is someone who of course was always concerned about her
own identity, of who she was. She spent, she went to great
lengths to develop that, understanding that through
prisms of gender, of religion. You’ve talked with her a bit about it in terms of disability
and things of that nature. Some of these things she
was more forthcoming about in her own work, so
identity is not something that we can ever leave out of politics. I think what most concerned her was, if we were to reform her thought, was not so much improper
intrusion of certain features into political life, but an
undue monolithic approach to certain features in political life. And so that always had
to be, it seems to me, rounded out by other forms of identity to which she spent a lot of time thinking about human identity. What does it mean to be human? How do we form certain kinds of, you know, common aspirations, common understandings across cultures, so
either through dialogue, through things like the humanities. An effort to actually
understand the human condition, what makes us common, similar, in spite of all of our
many, many differences. It was also, and I’m thinking here also about her love of films. The way in which films speak to the viewer in a way that is trying to draw us all in, however diverse we are in that audience, to the storyline. And I’m also thinking
about civic identity, and I’ll get to my question here. So civic identity, of
course civil religion et cetera et cetera. So what are the other ways then, that we can try to recover those things? Is human identity gone? Is civic identity gone? – Great, and this will
be our last comment. – [Laura] Hi Laura Alexander, University of Nebraska at Omaha. I want to say thank you as well. My question is we live
in a state centric system in a lot of ways, and
there’s on the one hand there’s kind of the worry that
the state can be hegemonic and kind of overwhelm the
type of local politics that we must do because
all politics is local in a lot of ways, and we see what happens when we don’t have those
kinds of local politics that really function at least
some kind of functional way. On the other hand, we
also encounter problems that seem not to be
able to be addressed by a system of sovereign states. Climate change is probably the one that comes first to my mind, but the churning together of
humanity that Chuck mentioned, the issue of horrible treatments
of migrants and so forth. They seem to be problems that
somehow have to be addressed at even a broader level or higher level than we can do in a system
of sovereign states. So there seems to be a
way in which the states that we have that are trying
to work together in some ways are unable to achieve the limited peace that Dr. Lovin was talking about. I wonder if you could just
pull out a couple of ideas or a couple of pieces of advice that you might see in Jean’s work. Think through where we go
with those sorts of problems. – And I’m afraid we’ll have to
take that into conversations outside of the panel now. For the sake of our host, the ethics group and the religion in politics group, we’re going to be bringing
this panel to a close to allow for their business meeting to have the time that they need. Jean had a deep love for Timnath, both romantic and real, and a deep love for Colorado, and the Elshtain family is here and they’re beginning to
create a scholarship fund for students at Colorado State University. So Errol at the front has more information with regards to that. But what we saw here I think
was a real tribute of love, if we understand love as Simone Weil called it, as attention. We saw a just and loving attention today to the work of Jean Elshtain, so please join me in thanking our panel for their great contribution. (audience applauds)

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