So I just saw (via Facebook) that Jean Bethke Elshtain, eminent political theorist whose last faculty appointment was at the University of Chicago Divinity School, has passed away.
I don’t have all that many regrets from my college days, except perhaps that I didn’t quite take full advantage of all the intellectual opportunities available at my alma mater, Vanderbilt. But one of my most glaring failures is that I did not take a class with Jean – she was at the time teaching in the political science department. I had an interdisciplinary major (Modern European Studies, if you must know) that took a lot of hours and with ROTC and a penchant for not asking around for help or advice, I just missed that she was there. When I finally came to political theory in my first year of graduate school (I started as someone who was interested in post-communist politics), I happened on her work in the course of a class in contemporary political thought.
I seem to recall that we read her as an example of communitarian critics of liberalism, but in truth, Elshtain was impossible to nail down easily. She wrote on feminism, public/private life, just war, education, religion in public life, family, Jane Addams, the history of political thought, and probably a bunch more to boot. More importantly, she refused to be pigeonholed according to any particular lineament of thought: you couldn’t make her out as a liberal, or progressive, or communitarian, or whatever. To this day, I give my intro students an essay she wrote for The Nation entitled “Feminists Against the Family” as a way of illustrating the rise of what we might call “conservative feminism.” But she’s writing in The Nation! I mean, these folks still think Alger Hiss is innocent, right? I long appreciated the diversity of her interests and as a scholar who doesn’t really feel at home in any of my discipline’s “tribes” her success has always given me hope. (Plus, she told me once how she hadn’t really read any political theory until she had gotten to grad school, either, which I found greatly encouraging, since that was true for me as well).
More importantly, though, was Elshtain’s moral seriousness. Her latter years were spent thinking and writing about how democratic societies might fight (or if they should) fight what is euphemistically called the “War on Terror.” (It’s probably better named something like “Struggle Against Radical Islam” but for quite proper reasons, it’s not). She refused to capitulate either to the “realists” who strut around claiming that power is everything (power is always a part of politics but we are not the creatures Hobbes described us as), but also refused the sentimental comfort of believing that war (or its simulacrum) could be entirely captured by law or even ordinary politics. I last saw her last year at a conference at U Chicago dedicated to her. My friend Eric Gregory (of Princeton) was delivering a lecture that amounted to a serious, though seriously respectful, critique of Elshtain willingness to entertain interrogation measures beyond, say, those allowed by the Geneva Convention. At one point in the Q&A, Eric, looking down at Elshtain who was frailly sitting in the first row, pressed her to answer whether torture would ever be justified. She said no, if that meant cutting fingers off or gouging eyes out. But she refused to be drawn into abstractions on the issue, pressing back against Eric that public officials have real responsibilities to protect those they serve and that those responsibilities often draw us to terrible choices–and that for all the ways in which moral philosophy and theology and ethics can help out, at some point they run out. And we are left with an ineliminable dilemma. No cheap points, no crazy hypotheticals, just the hard stuff of politics.
Though I never took a class with her, Jean Bethke Elshtain was one of my most important teachers. RIP.