Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941–2013) / Idealism Without Illusion

Dear Alan, a very quick notice—longer message to follow—to alert you to the fact that I will be in the UK in October “if the good Lord is willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” as they used to say in rural parts where I grew up. It would be wonderful if I could connect with you … I am giving a lecture at the LSE.

So began a September 2007 e-mail to me from Jean Bethke Elshtain, the political theorist, ethicist, and Lutheran who died last month aged 72. It was typical in its combination of fidelity to her home, her friendships, her God, and to the life of the mind she lived with such verve and distinction. She never lost touch with her “very hard working, down to earth, religious, Lutheran family background” but rather allowed that formation to inflect her mode of political thinking in the most fruitful of ways, making her—for me, at least—an indispensable guide. To be honest, hers was one of the most penetrating political minds I have ever encountered.

A professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, among her books are Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (2003), Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (2001), Women and War (1987), and Democracy on Trial (1995). The last Dissent co-editor Michael Walzer called “the work of a truly independent, deeply serious, politically engaged, and wonderfully provocative political theorist.”

We met for the first, and as it turned out only, time in 2007, in London. My memory tells me we talked for about five hours in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Trafalgar Square, not venturing further so that we could accommodate what Jean breezily called “my various physical things.” We talked about our mothers and our children, her triune God and my singular doubts, and our respective feelings of being politically homeless. She wanted to know all about Democratiya, the online quarterly journal I had created to shore up the ruins, and of which Jean was hugely supportive. (I had interviewed Jean in 2005 for the inaugural issue and we corresponded thereafter. Interested readers can find “Just War, Humanitarian Intervention, and Equal Regard: An Interview with Jean Bethke Elshtain” here [pdf].)

But—not surprisingly, given that the Iraq War, which she had supported and I had opposed, was raging—we returned again and again that day in 2007 to question of “the burden of American power in a violent world,” as she subtitled one of her books.

Now, when the question of American power came up Jean was minded to talk about Spiderman. This was often misunderstood; people thought she wanted America to behave like a superhero. She didn’t, of course, but Jean was far too loyal to Spidey to just drop the analogy. Instead she explained it. She said to me:

Let me tell you a story. Someone argued that I had embraced the “Spiderman ethic,” meaning that I have cast the US as a superhero and that this is to take away all moral ambiguity. I wrote back that, with all due respect, he doesn’t know anything about Spiderman! Spidey, in fact, is a morally conflicted hero. Does his loyalty to his family and his girlfriend take precedence over his duty to protect the innocent from harm? How can he handle his multiple responsibilities? Spidey is always in danger of stretching himself too thin. He is always a little exhausted. He is always worried about whether he is doing the right thing. I chose Spiderman rather than Superman precisely because I wanted to get at that aspect of difficulty and torment attached to power and responsibility.

The US plays a certain role by default at this point in time. It’s not a question of whether we are a superpower or not. It’s a question of what kind of superpower we are. And that’s just a matter of fact. I am not assuming this will be the shape of the world forever, but it is right now. The issue is what are the responsibilities of the United States in light of our power, and in light of the fact that we can play a role that others, at this point in time, cannot? What are the criteria that might be brought to bear to guide the use of that power? Do we say, “Well, we stand for one thing domestically but internationally its hard core realpolitik all the way”? Or do we fall into a messianic mode, a strong Wilsonianism, and try to remake the world and create perpetual peace? Or do we try to struggle with some posture that is neither overreach nor withdrawal?

This speaks to the US dilemma in Syria today (whatever view one takes of the US-Russian deal hashed out this week). It is her openness to complexity, her intellectual effort to avoid the easy extremes, and her determination to hold onto both the prudential and the ethical in deliberating about interventions that can be a guide today.

Jean Bethke Elshtain lived 72 years and wrote 21 books and more than 600 articles and essays (though it was as clear as day that what mattered most to her were “my men,” as she called her son Bobby and her husband Errol). Readers can catch glimpses of why she matters in her YouTube appearances here (“In Defence of Ordinary People”), here (“Why We Need the Word Evil”), and here (“Dangerous Politics”). In a healthy intellectual culture, it would have been Jean, not others less deserving, who would have been the culture hero and the campus rock star. She leaves a hole that is gaping.

by Alan Johnson


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