“If you reduce her to the Iraq War, you’ll miss her.”
–Martin Marty on Jean Bethke Elshtain
Last week saw the passing of two highly accomplished scholars and public intellectuals, the American historian Pauline Maier and the Christian ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain. Reflections on both scholars rightly heralded their contributions and influence within and beyond their disciplines. It was also interesting to observe whether, or how long, the politicizing impulses of the academy and media were kept at bay. Particularly in the case of Elshtain, it didn’t take long before obituaries or remembrances brought up her articulation of just war principles in support of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider the first sentence of The New York Times obituary:
Jean Bethke Elshtain, a philosopher of politics and religion whose erudite writings on good and evil, war and peace, and the moral imperative of American global military engagement made her an intellectual beacon for neoconservative policy makers in the post-9/11 era, died on Sunday in Nashville.
In fairness, the obituary does acknowledge that Elshtain could not be “easily pigeonholed ideologically” and “staked out positions across the political spectrum,” but the framing was set by that first sentence and returned to in the conclusion. The Times was not alone in quickly making Elshtain’s provision for “the moral justification for the war on terror” the centerpiece of an obituary. I wouldn’t want to suggest that we should ignore or resist evaluating important components of a scholar’s body of work–particularly those elements that might contain public significance beyond the walls of academia. But it still bugs me. Why is that?
I’ll begin with the confession that I have what amounts to a phobia for being pigeonholed and for having my entire existence or identity judged on the basis of a single action, opinion, decision. Nobody likes that, of course, but for me it can become paralyzing. So sure, “it’s not you, it’s me.” That said, I don’t think this is simply a matter of my neurosis. Politicized pigeonholing leads to the diminishment of people whose very identity and existence possess a complexity that far outreaches a particular political argument.
When one is heavily invested in politics like Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin, it makes it difficult to see beyond the political when considering Elshtain. For example, Robin’s challenge to the notion of Elshtain as a realist contains one representative passage where he describes her discussion on torture as “watered by the same streams of conservative romanticism that coursed in and out of the White House during the Bush years.” Robin even edited his post and added more, as unequivocally announced on Twitter:
I've updated my post on Jean Bethke Elshtain to talk more about her awful style and lack of substance. http://t.co/BVu5DLAMf0
— corey robin (@CoreyRobin) August 16, 2013
Cards on the table, then. Ironically, Robin does acknowledge at the end of his piece that there may be more to the story: “I’ve seen many encomiums and generous words for Elshtain on Facebook and elsewhere. That is understandable: she was clearly a voice who inspired many, and she seems to have been a warm and generous person. I hope, however, that in the coming days people will wrestle with her words more fully and more carefully.” I wonder, though, what difference it might have made to Robin’s post (and tweets) had he begun with an exploration of why Elshtain was considered warm, generous, and worthy of such encomiums. A fuller appreciation of her humanity might even be the starting point for a more compelling critique, one free from the suspicion of political positioning.
By contrast, consider Charles Mathewes’ moving remembrance of Elshtain. Mathewes fondly recalls Elshtain the teacher, the mentor who made time for all, and the intellectual with a wide range of interests during his graduate school days at the University of Chicago. He doesn’t skirt the topic of Elshtain’s controversial opinions, but offers a fuller and more empathetic context:
She was a thinker, and a citizen—of several communities, actually—and she knew she had gifts and training that could make those roles come alive. Whatever the nation, whatever the world would do, she wouldn’t squander those gifts, that training.
Sometimes that got her into trouble. Sometimes she spoke out—on the war on terror, on torture, on other things. She certainly wasn’t afraid of articulating her opinion, however unpopular it might be in the academy. She wasn’t afraid to, as she put it in Democracy on Trial, “reach disagreement.” (And she was right that reaching disagreement—clear, articulate disagreement—is an important and all too rare achievement.) She wasn’t afraid to revise arguments, either, when she was convinced she was wrong; but you had to convince her of that, not just suggest you demurred, or found her views abhorrent.
In 2002, Alfonso Soriano the Dominican who played baseball for the New York Yankees, became the first Yankee in history to hit 30 home runs and make 30 stolen bases in a single season. That year he also was the first Yankee to strike out more than 150 times in a season (157, almost one per game). When pressed on the strikeouts, he defended himself by saying, “You don’t get out of the Dominica by taking pitches.” Jean would agree. You don’t get out of Tinmath, Colorado by taking pitches. I don’t think she ever took a pitch in her life.
Mostly, the rest of us act as if we’re afraid to get our uniforms dirty, but not her. She’d line up and swing hard. Sometimes she’d whiff it, but when she connected, and that was more than most, you could kiss that ball goodbye.
One could say that empathy is an easier task for Mathewes because he knew Elshtain personally. But empathy isn’t restricted to personal interaction. We can draw, for example, on our starting assumptions about human nature and our shared experience of humanity. We can read about people like Elshtain and learn other quite interesting facts about her life. Life is too short–and people are too interesting–to allow politicization to diminish our subjects and ourselves.
Photo: marshillonline, “Jean Elshtain with symposium organizers Dr. Paul Rowe (L) and Dr. John Dyck.” (Attribution: CC BY-SA 2.0).