Jean Bethke Elshtain: The Moral and the Political


Jean Bethke Elshtain

by Katherine B. Jones

Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain died on August 11, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 72. A controversial public intellectual and prolific scholar whose works covered the gamut from defending the role of religion in politics to providing justifications for war and engaging controversies about and within feminism, Jean Elshtain defied easy categorization either as a thinker or as a person.

Jean was my friend.

We met first in 1982 through an exchange of letters Jean initiated in response to a review I’d written for Political Theory about her pioneering book, Public Man/Private Woman. In that book, she accepted the premise that distinctions between the concepts of ‘the public” and “the private” are central to understanding the history of Western political theory, as well as to shifts in a society’s shared consciousness of the meaning of politics. Distinctions theorists make between these two realms serve as the basis for their different and often contradictory determinations of “not just what politics is for but what politics has served to defend against.” Moreover determination of the scope and purpose of politics based on judgments made about the proper boundaries of public life are connected internally to determinations of gender. In general, she contended that Western political theory had asserted the primacy of a public realm dominated by certain men over the private, familial realm, dominated by women.

As I wrote in my review, “using the ‘prism of the public and private,’” Jean offered “a provocative account of the tradition of Western thinking, including contemporary feminist social theories” and attempted to describe “an alternative ‘reflective feminist discourse’ based on a ‘reconstructive ideal of public and private.’” Although there had been many analyses of the tradition of Western theory, what distinguished Jean’s was the comprehensiveness of her review, in particular its inclusion of the work of radical, liberal, Marxist and psychoanalytic feminist theorists.

Mostly, I’d found the work ambitious and valuable. But I’d pointed to its limitations, arguing that her promised reconstruction of a notion of the ‘public’ “remained as abstractly idealistic as her image of the private.” Jean wrote to say she found my review interesting and agreed that she’d left herself open to my criticism by implying that she—“or any political theorist who is honest and self-critical—could deliver up more than, finally, I could or can or would want to.”

What followed was a near thirty-year collegial exchange of ideas and a friendship that, though it had waned more recently—as much the result of both our peripatetic lives as anything—could have been picked up again with as much intensity and humor and good faith as when it began. Because what sustained our connection wasn’t that we always agreed—we didn’t—but we had a mutual commitment to that kind of honesty and self-criticism Jean had endorsed.

Jean fiercely held opinions starkly different from mine on a number of subjects. Her analysis of “the burden of American power in a violent world” in Just War Against Terror led to defend the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq, which I opposed. Her qualifications about gay rights and marriage equality, and where to draw the line between the public and private spheres of our lives put her at odds with my call for the elimination of heterosexual privilege in the realm of the private and my recognition of the need for state intervention to correct abuses of power in the private sphere. But she was the kind of thinker I admired even when we disagreed—she always listened and carefully considered counter-arguments. And she was the kind of person who didn’t let political disagreements destroy the solidarity of friendship. In fact, I would say that solidarity and “neighbor-love” were two of her cardinal virtues, which she put into operation in both her personal and public life with grace and wit.

In Public Man/Private Woman, Jean followed a line of argumentation proffered by Hannah Arendt, among others.  Just as Arendt had maintained that certain needs associated with bodily existence and emotional sustenance could only be satisfied in a private realm of intimate, sustained human connection protected from excessive public scrutiny, Jean contended a distinction between the public and the private was essential to the “human condition.” She was as critical of Plato’s regulation of reproduction in the interests of society, outlined in The Republic, as she was of Shulamith Firestone’s call for a cybernetic revolution that would free women from the “tyranny” of their bodies. While acknowledging that the private realm needed to be altered to better accommodate women’s interests and needs, Jean was especially critical of radical feminists, like Ti-Grace Atkinson, Susan Brownmiller, and Shulamith Firestone, for seeing politics everywhere, and for denying what Jean considered the unique function of “the family” in human psycho-social development.

Although she agreed that these feminists had identified important political issues, such as rape and domestic violence, she resisted what she saw as their thoroughgoing politicization of private life. Politics, she argued, must be a limited enterprise. But she also criticized liberal feminists for what she considered a particularly thin view of public life, one in which the concept of citizenship had been reduced to the self-interested actions of individuals allied into groups aiming for private gains. She thought public life needed to be revitalized on more vigorous ethical grounds than enlightened self-interest. Her writing on Jane Addams “social feminism” was particularly illustrative of her views on one way of relating politics and morality to reinvigorate democracy.

Notoriously, Jean’s defense of “the family”—“familial ties and modes of childrearing are essential to establish the minimal foundations of human social existence”—and her criticism of feminist assaults on “the family” generated acrimonious debate in the pages of such journals as The Nation. Jean wasn’t always as careful as she could have been to explain what sort of institution she was actually defending. But in Public Man/Private Woman she adhered steadfastly to the idea that the essential need of children (and also adults) for “attachments of a special kind—concrete, particular, and continuing” could only be met in the context of “rich, long-lasting cross-generational ties” increasingly difficult to sustain in the context of contemporary, capitalist society.

It was clear to her that one could defend the idea of a private-familial sphere with its own dignity and purpose, while at the same time demanding the family needed feminist reformation. Where we parted company was on the subject of gay marriage. “Typically Elshtainian, I suppose,” she wrote to me when I challenged her to explain why she’d lent her support and written an introduction to a collection of essays mostly critical of same-sex marriage, many implicitly attributing its acceptance to a threat to marriage itself, as well as top religious institutions and children’s well-being. “I don’t take sides on gay marriage–just argue about the need to have serious debates about this and lots of other hot button issues.” I disagreed with Jean’s interpretation of the issue of same sex marriage as mostly a debate about rights; I saw the demand for full, equal legal recognition of gay relationships as a call for equal dignity and an equally strong desire by same sex couples to recognize as legitimate another, non-heterosexual model of how to create “rich, long-lasting cross-generational ties,” and for many of the same reasons Jean had defended “the family.”

Jean primarily saw herself, as she wrote in Public Man/Private Woman, as standing in the tradition of a Christian “bearer of witness” for the voices of the silenced, ignored, abused or invisible members of society; she was a “disturber of peace…offering up moral and political judgments at each point along the way.” And perhaps no way more disturbingly than when she wrote in defense of a “just war against terrorism.”

Over the course of her career, Jean’s scholarly interests had shifted from the analysis of political theory in feminist terms to the investigation of war and women’s roles in and against war. In Women and War, she took apart the myths of what she called “man as just warrior” and “woman as beautiful soul” to demonstrate the more complex history of women’s and men’s involvement in and resistance to war. Yet, after 9/11, her work took on a more concerted focus on Just War Theory, a tradition she had criticized in her own Women and War.

Just war theory postulates that there can be a moral basis for war (jus ad bellum), and that wars can be conducted within codes of morality (jus in belli). In February 2002, signing a letter entitled “What We’re Fighting For” Jean joined a group of sixty academics and intellectuals, including such public figures as Francis Fukiyama, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Robert Putmnam, who defended America’s armed response to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. In the epilogue to Just War Against Terror, Jean extended her defense to include the subsequent U.S. intervention in Iraq, which opened Jean up to being labeled, probably unfairly, a neo-con apologist for American hegemony. People hardly had to bother reading what she’d actually written; the label was enough to vilify her.

Although I disagreed with her views on the “war against terror,” Jean offered a careful explanation of how she’d reached her conclusions that such a war was justified. “We could do everything demanded of us by those who are critical of America, both inside and outside our boundaries, but Islamic fundamentalism and the threat it poses would not be deterred,” she wrote in Just War Against Terror. To Jean, Islamic fundamentalism meant “those who believe in a literal understanding of the Qur’an and condemn all who disagree, Muslim and non-Muslim alike; who have hijacked Islam…for their own intolerant purposes.” And this, in the name of tolerance, democracy, and the idea that “killing in the name of God is contrary to faith in God,” was what she believed the United States was fighting against.

Jean took Bin Laden at his word. “They mean it when they call us infidels…Those who despise our freedom as the mark of wickedness are not interested in our ongoing debate about the good and ill uses of freedom. It is freedom itself they despise.” With those who disagree with aspects of US foreign policy, she thought, “one can argue. One may even come to agree with them on some points. But one fights back against those who have declared you a mortal enemy unfit to share our beautiful earth.” At the same time, she called for continued vigilance about the justification and conduct of any such war.

Interestingly, in an earlier article on the just war tradition, Jean herself had argued for “us [the United States]—a strong and dominant nation of awesome potential force—to take unilateral initiatives in order to break symbolically the cycle of vengeance and fear signified by our nuclear arsenals.” Yet, to her, the September 11th attacks didn’t offer an occasion for innovation; they called for an armed response.

With our great power comes an even greater responsibility. One of our ongoing responsibilities is to respond to the cries of the aggrieved. Victims of genocide, for example, have a reasonable expectation that powerful nations devoted to human rights will attempt to stay the hands of their murderers. We have sometimes responded to such legitimate cries for help in the past, but sadly, we have failed to respond as often as we might. This wider understanding of America’s role in the world, and of why we cannot withdraw from the world simply because the terrorists would have it so, is a necessary feature of any analysis of war against terrorism…We must and will fight…to defend who we are and what we, at our best, represent.

Still we continued to need, she said, to be careful to distinguish justice from revenge. Yet, the ability to do so waned as the war in Iraq continued for a decade, with increasingly ambiguous results, and as the Obama administration expanded American intervention in Afghanistan, including more extensive use of highly questionable drone attacks. These facts, and the threat to privacy inaugurated by the expansion of “national security” mandated collection of personal data, made it more difficult, I think, for Jean to continue defending the “war on terror” on just war grounds.

Jean recognized that war was a dirty business and that responsible action involved getting one’s hands dirty—there was no pure place possible to achieve. But how dirty? And how are we to judge if the approach to policy decisions becomes increasingly secretive and beyond public scrutiny, justified by “national security” rationales? And if we are fighting to defend what we “at our best” represent, must we not also remain vigilantly reflective about what that “best” represents? How do we balance any justification for military engagement in defense of the idea of freedom or the protection of innocents with the continued pursuit of a more just and freer society at home? How can we pursue both sets of goals simultaneously? How much intervention? In how many contexts? At what cost? By what means?

I would have continued conversations with Jean about these subjects; she wouldn’t have shied away from difficult debates about just war, or same sex marriage, or the limits of politics. Because, if there is a red thread running through the corpus of Jean’s work—as well as through Jean’s character—it was the conviction that the moral and the political cannot be separated if one is to understand fully the meaning of either term. And she welcomed disagreement about how to connect them.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy | Creative Commons License

About the Author:

Kathleen B. Jones is a professor emerita of women’s studies at San Diego State University and the author of numerous books and articles on feminism and the women’s movement including Compassionate Authority: Democracy and the Representation of Women, Living Between Danger and Love, Women Transforming Politics, co-edited with Cathy Cohen and Joan Tronto, The Political Interests of Gender and The Political Interests of Gender Revisited, both co-edited with Anna G. Jónasdóttir. Her most recent, yet unpublished book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt is a personal narrative.