Tag Archives: Jean Bethke Elshtain

The History of Fear, Part 5

17 Oct

I’m back today with part 5 of my intellectual history of fear. After my posts on Hobbes (rational fear), Montesquieu (despotic terror), Tocqueville (democratic anxiety), and Arendt (total terror), we’re ready to turn to more recent theories of fear, which arose in the 1980s and 1990s, in the wake of the conservative backlash against the 1960s and the collapse of communism.

In my book on fear, I divide these recent theories into two broad camps: the liberalism of anxiety and the liberalism of terror. The first camp tracks communitarian liberalism (or liberal communitarianism) as well as some influential arguments about identity and civil society; the second camp tracks what is often called political liberalism or negative liberalism, and it includes treatments of ethnic conflict and violence. The first camp takes it cues from Tocqueville, the second from Montesquieu.

The primary theoreticians of the first camp include Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Will Kymlicka, Amitai Etzioni, David Miller, and to a much lesser degree Seyla Benhabib. The primary theoretician of the second camp is Judith Shklar, but her arguments are echoed by theorists like Avishai Margalit and Richard Rorty and popular writers like Philip Gourevitch and Michael Ignatieff. The work of Samuel Huntington hovers above both camps.

Both camps, I argue, are responses to the failures of the radicalism of the 1960s and to the conservative retreat since then. To that extent, their political and intellectual context mirrors that of Tocqueville writing in the 1830s and Arendt (and other Cold War intellectuals) writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All were grappling with questions of fear in the wake of ruined insurgencies.

Today, I’ll only focus on the liberalism of anxiety; in my next installment, I’ll talk about the liberalism of terror.

• • • • •

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
—Emily Dickinson

Though the liberalism of anxiety borrows from the reaction against the French Revolution, though it takes aim at philosophers like Kant and Descartes, the immediate occasion of its misgiving is the 1960s. Anxious liberals make frequent, unhappy references to gains won and goods lost throughout that decade and its aftermath—entitlements to welfare without corresponding duties, expansive rights “to ‘do our own thing,’” and other smaller liberations. According to Amitai Etzioni, individual freedom and communal life are “out of balance after decades in which self-interest and expressive individualism have prevailed.” That imbalance, adds Jean Bethke Elshtain, is a product of the “new attitude toward rights that has taken hold in the United States during the past several decades.”

The sixties, in this view, is not simply a historical moment, but an ongoing project of individual emancipation, which has not been beaten back in any significant way. At a time when Democrats and Republicans have stripped suspected criminals of procedural protections, when a presidential candidate’s membership in the ACLU suggests membership in the Communist Party, and when there are fewer counties in the United States with abortion providers than there were in 1973, the liberalism of anxiety worries about a “rights-absolutist climate of opinion” that has not dissipated.

While its discontent is plainly addressed to the 1960s, the liberalism of anxiety is no simple antagonist of that decade. In the same way that Tocqueville was ambivalent about the French Revolution so are the liberals of anxiety conflicted about the rights revolutions of forty years ago. Contrary to the claims of their critics, these writers are not entirely hostile to liberalism or its recent achievements. They express no desire to return to a segregated or sexist America. Some, like Michael Walzer, were among the most eloquent voices of the 1960s, and still argue for the elaboration and extension of its achievements. Others, like Etzioni, claim that communities should be fostered and nurtured, but not at the expense of individual rights. Majorities can be tyrannical, Etzioni warns, which is why the Constitution has wisely deemed “some choices” to be “out of bounds for the majority.”

Nor should we return public argument, write Etzioni and Michael Sandel, to premodern canons of natural law or religious authority; instead, we should embrace the irreducible pluralism—and contentious debates—that liberalism at its best insistently honors. Walzer argues that communitarianism, the most prominent version of the liberalism of anxiety, is an “intermittent feature of liberal politics,” which, “like the pleating of trousers,” seeks not to overthrow liberalism but to texture it with sociological and moral depth. And in their effort to incorporate communitarian criticisms into liberal arguments, philosophers like William Galston and Will Kymlicka have proven Walzer correct.

The ambivalence of the liberals of anxiety toward the sixties runs even deeper. Though they often argue for a revival of community and civic virtue by reference to Aristotle or Machiavelli, their vocabulary is often drawn from the very individualist ethos they question.

The anxious liberals care much for the fate of the self, which they believe rights-based liberalism has deprived of full agency and force. They do not praise community and civic culture as goods unto themselves: community is worthy in their eyes because it lends a necessary theater to the self’s appearance.

According to Etzioni, “Individuals who are bonded into comprehensive and stable relationships and into cohesive groups and communities are much more able to make reasoned choices, to render moral judgments, and to be free.” Kymlicka claims, “Cultures are valuable, not in and of themselves, but because it is only through having access to a societal culture that people have access to a range of meaningful options.” Membership in a common culture, particularly a culture of diverse subcultures, helps us make “intelligent judgments about how to lead our lives.” Without close-knit communities, writes Walzer, the individual suffers a radical “decline in ‘the sense of efficacy.’”

Anxious liberals thus do not spurn the individualism of the 1960s: they question its political sociology. For them, social order—which can range from the nation, a common culture, or subculture, to an institution, a voluntary association, or a local community—is the seedbed of the self. It provides the deep grammar of individualism, the nurturing ground upon which the self learns who she is and what she believes. From preestablished moral prescriptions and social ties—that which is given, as opposed to that which she chooses—the individual learns to express herself and her needs in a publicly intelligible language. Once she has internalized these prescriptions and ties, she can think and act for herself. She no longer requires an authoritative structure to direct her every step; she can take her own steps, even steps that contradict or challenge those assigned to her, for a properly pluralist social order offers the individual a variety of scripts—doctor, lawyer, Christian, Muslim, Democrat, Republican, and so on—to perform. It even tolerates her efforts to revise or write new scripts. Like parents and teachers, the agents of social order use their power to guide rather than repress, with the goal of turning the student or child into a rational, autonomous adult.

But the liberalism of anxiety also stows a darker, more subversive account of social order. Recalling an argument made by everyone from Tocqueville to the Frankfurt School to Christopher Lasch, anxious liberals quietly cherish social order as a necessary antagonist of the self. Social order makes demands upon the self, they claim, exacting obedience, asking the individual to abide by its rules. Such constraints often provoke the appearance of a more fractious, defiant self, who knows what she believes and is willing to risk all to pursue it. A Martin Luther or Anna Karenina—those great refusals of history and literature who declare, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” In the revolt against constraint, the self defines her own beliefs, articulates her own principles—far more vigorously than she would under the soporific gaze of an excessively tolerant parent.

The prerequisite of such a deeply felt intransigence is a social structure that weighs heavily upon her. Without that structure, rebellions will be shallow and trivial, freedom an empty gesture. “Radical freedom,” Walzer insists, “is thin stuff unless it exists within a world that offers it significant resistance.” He adds, “the easier the easiness” of breaking loose, the less strong the individual will be. Or, as Galston writes, “Rational deliberation among ways of life is far more meaningful (I am tempted to say that it can only be meaningful) if the stakes are meaningful—that is, if the deliberator has strong convictions against which competing claims can be weighed.”

The radical pursuit of freedom, these critics argue, and corresponding decline of social order, breed anxiety, crippling the self. The “vaunting of ‘free individuality,’” writes Kymlicka, “will result not in the confident affirmation and pursuit of worthy courses of action but rather in existential uncertainty and anomie, in doubt about the very value of one’s life and its purposes.” “Self-determination,” he adds, “has generated more doubt about the value of our projects than before.” It destroys the personal intimacy and social proximity we need to become full individuals. The result, writes Walzer, are identities “mostly unearned, without depth.” This observation does not prompt conservative nostalgia. Instead, it asks us to make good on the promise of comprehensive individuality and robust agency that the sixties were supposed to deliver. If we were once again “participants in a common life,” we would witness a true flourishing of human capacities, for men and women “are stronger, more confident, more savvy” when they “are responsible to and for other people.”

In the 1950s, at a comparable moment of political retreat, American intellectuals responded in like fashion to the end of the New Deal and a rampant McCarthyism. Like our contemporary liberalism of anxiety, the Cold War version took its cues from Tocqueville. Intellectuals argued that the average American felt isolated and alienated, that the greatest threat to individual agency was the anxiety of anomie. “A fluid social structure,” wrote David Riesman, “creates anxiety and bewilderment.” The solution was not to return to the past, but to create what Talcott Parsons called an “institutionalized individualism,” to situate the individual within institutions. A “strong emphasis on freedom and responsibility,” Parsons insisted, required “a framework of both normative order and collective organizations.”

The Cold War intellectuals did not see the quiescence of the 1950s or McCarthyism as the product of a resurgent Republican Party in Congress, the overthrow of a dynamic labor movement, or the capitulations of liberal Democrats to red baiting. Instead, they assumed that it was the continuing momentum of liberalism that generated anxiety and crippled individual agency. For liberalism, in the words of Lionel Trilling, was “at this time . . . not only dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States.

Like other reactions to failed emancipations past—one also thinks of Tocqueville’s diagnosis of democracy after the French Revolution, Arendt’s meditations on spent modernity after World War II—the liberalism of anxiety is the voice of a ruined insurgency. It conveys the promise of liberated human capacity, and the disappointment of seeing that promise betrayed.

But what makes the liberalism of anxiety a reaction against the insurgencies of the 1960s—as opposed to a symptom of their decline—is its peculiar understanding of the threats to the self’s agency, an understanding drawn from Tocqueville’s analysis of anxiety. Where Hobbes understood the fearful self as a being of fixed contour, frightened and threatened by forms of external power that thwarted it, the liberalism of anxiety imagines a weak self of almost vaporous indeterminateness. This weak self, rather than external coercion or repression, is the Trojan Horse of unfreedom.

What makes the self so weak and anxious, in this view, is the absence of external structure and order, the absence of coercion and repression. What would make the self strong? A revival and strengthening of integrative institutions like churches and families, which could once again press upon the individual and propel her to be a full self.

The insurgents of the 1960s presumed that the self was an agent who knew, and was passionately committed to, her interests and beliefs. Indeed, it was this knowledge and commitment that hurled her against the barriers of constraint—Jim Crow, the family, the Pentagon—for she believed those barriers prevented her from achieving her aims. If the self did not act, it was because these barriers—or her fear of them—stopped her from doing so. Challenging barriers meant taking risks and making sacrifices, resulting perhaps in the loss of career and opportunity, or, in some cases, life itself. Knowing that danger made men and women afraid, sometimes to the point of not acting. Fear thus required two actors of real presence—a determinate self and the agents of social order.

But the liberalism of anxiety has turned the self’s knowledge of her beliefs and interests into a problem, the agents of social order into an indeterminate ether, and, with that, fear into anxiety. Because anxious liberals believe contemporary America lacks integrative institutions, they imagine the self to be a thin figure of disintegration. Conversely, because the self has grown thin, she cannot participate in integrative institutions. Where there was presence, now there is absence; where there was fear, now there is anxiety.

One of the most telling symptoms of this shift from fear to anxiety is the discussions over the last two decades about the problem of identity. The occasions of these discussions have been various: pitched battles over political correctness, scholarly debates about nationalism and ethnicity, meditations on the politics of recognition versus the politics of distribution. But the underlying vocabulary and assumptions of these arguments have been consistent. The most pressing questions of politics, according to many participants in these debates, concern not the distribution of power and resources or the aggressive contest for equality and expropriation. Politics instead involves those agitated questions of membership and exclusion—of who belongs and who does not, who I am, who you are, and the unrelenting anxiety over borders (of self and society, group and nation) that such questions entail.

In the words of David Miller: “It matters less, it seems, whether the state embraces the free market, or the planned economy, or something in between. It matters more where the boundaries of the state are drawn, who gets included and who gets excluded, what language is used, what religion endorsed, what culture promoted.” “The negotiation of identity/difference,” writes Seyla Benhabib, “is the political problem facing democracies on a global scale.” Unlike “the struggles over wealth, political position, and access that characterized bourgeois and working-class politics throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century,” she claims, today’s struggles are about what Jürgen Habermas calls “the grammar of forms of life.” Or, as Samuel Huntington puts it, “In the post–Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.”

Though oppositional intellectuals during the 1960s were not uninterested in identity, they spoke of it as an instrument of rule. Dominant groups, these earlier thinkers believed, organized differences—of race, class, and gender—vertically, placing one group on top of another, distributing more resources, status, and power to those at the top. As late as 1982, feminist theorist Catharine MacKinnon gave voice to this dispensation in a debate with Phyllis Schlafly. Feminists, according to MacKinnon, had little interest in socially generated differences as desirable or undesirable in themselves. They worried about differences that “enforced subordination, limited options,” and generated “social powerlessness.”

This political understanding of difference prompted an interest in fear, rather than anxiety, for fear arose from and reinforced society’s vertical cleavages. Fear was a tool of the powerful against the powerless, and a reaction of the powerful to the possibility that the powerless would one day dispossess them of their privileges.

But contemporary theorists of identity conceive of society horizontally, which is why anxiety is their preferred emotion. We are divided into groups not at the bottom and the top, they argue, but at the centers and the margins. Whether the group is a race, ethnicity, religion, nation, or culture, it is never sure of the coherence or durability of its borders. It worries that its perimeter is too permeable, that foreigners will slip through its porous frontiers and jeopardize its existential character and basic unity. Because men and women are not sure where they begin and end, there is a pressing need to “differentiat[e] oneself from what one is not.”

The struggle for identity, in other words, results from the anxiety over borders, which produces a redoubled effort to guard those borders. Reviving unwittingly an argument from an earlier moment of political retreat, theorists of identity ascribe a nagging political salience, trumping all other conflicts, to anxieties about self and other, in group and out group, nation and enemy.

To be sure, intellectuals did not initiate these arguments over identity in a vacuum: with post–Cold War debates over inclusion and exclusion threatening to dissolve entire societies into chaos, theorists felt legitimately called upon to offer some guiding intelligence. But these theorists have gone further, interpreting identity claims as the political return of the deepest, most elemental disquiet of the human condition.

Huntington writes that “peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic questions humans can face: Who are we?” Identity, argues Taylor, “designates something like an understanding of who we are.” Those who struggle on its behalf are roused by the sense that “there is a certain way of being human that is my way.” When we refuse to recognize that way of being, we harm the person, imprisoning her “in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being.” Politics should accommodate men and women who seek to identify themselves with a nation or some other culturing grouping, explains Miller, because “identifying with a nation, feeling yourself inextricably part of it, is a legitimate way of understanding your place in the world.” Or, put more strongly, politics is the effort to define oneself with the nation or some other cultural grouping.

Because the liberalism of anxiety values the expressive self of the 1960s—but worries about its disruptiveness—it seeks a politics that allows for individual expressiveness without its disintegrative consequences. For that reason, anxious liberals prize institutions of civil society that are nonpolitical or antipolitical, and cares and concerns that are social and cultural, but not ideological or partisan. It is these institutions and concerns that combine the virtues of expression and connection, allowing the individual to disclose who she is without provoking disorder and disintegration.

Civil society is valuable, according to Etzioni, because it encourages us to “attend to nonpolitical institutions.” Local communities should be supported, Elsthain suggests, because they are not ideologically maximalist: their “ethos is preserving, not acquiring,” their goal is “to defend and sustain what remains of a way of life.”

Civic associations, writes Taylor, are important because they are “often dedicated to ends which we generally consider nonpolitical.” The ideal form of civil society is a conversation between two people: “A conversation is not the coordination of actions of different individuals, but a common action in this strong, irreducible sense; it is our action. It is of a kind with—to take a more obvious example—the dance of a group or a couple, or the action of two men sawing a log.” Conversations can range from Mozart to the weather, for “in human terms, we stand on a different footing when we start talking about the weather.” In conversation, we don’t just impart information to a separate self. Instead, we create a shared universe of intimate meaning between ourselves. Conversations model the ideal form of politics, which should be expressive and embedded, collective but not divisive. “What has all this [talk of conversation] to do with republics?” Taylor asks. “It is essential to them,” for “they are animated by a sense of a shared immediate common good.”

This bias against political action and debate is by no means uniform among proponents of the liberalism of anxiety. Some, like Walzer, praise the rough and tumble of democratic politics. But even when Walzer embraces disruptive and redistributive organizations—labor unions, for instance—it is partially their integrative function, their support for “cooperative coping,” that he praises. And when the state supports unions, he adds, it helps men and women overcome their isolation. For Walzer, the 1935 Wagner Act, which gave workers the right to organize and join unions without fear of employer retribution, does more than protect workers from intimidation by their employers: it also “counter[s] the dissociative tendencies of liberal society,” protecting “communities of feeling and belief” from the centripetal force of individual mobility.

It is these quietist tendencies within the liberalism of anxiety—the love of intimate conversation, the praise of non-ideological associations, the embrace of integration over conflict—that ultimately render it an inadequate philosophy of politics. The liberalism of anxiety was aroused by remorse over the disappearance of the passionate conviction and crusading movements of the 1960s, and still longs for the individual and political vitality of an earlier age. It seeks a stronger self, a more defiant individual.

But little of that is to be found in the PTAs and Rotary Clubs it so fulsomely praises. Whatever their value as modes of social integration, these organizations are not weapons of social conflict or training grounds of strenuous selfhood. They may be partial to conversation and cocktails, perhaps some cooperative coping, but they eschew antagonism, conflict, and political confrontation. Civil society must thus remain an object of permanent disappointment for its defenders. Because it disappoints, its advocates are driven to embrace an alternative ethos, the liberalism of terror. Formulated by a different group of writers in response to a different set of concerns, the liberalism of terror provides the bracing resolve and militant politics liberals of anxiety seek but cannot find in private associations, civil society, and conversations about the weather.

Jean Bethke Elshtain Was No Realist

15 Aug

The political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain has died. Many people were fans of her work; I was not.

In her early scholarship, Elshtain established herself as a distinctive voice: feminist, Laschian, Arendtian. By the mid to late 1990s, however, she had descended into cliche.  As she dipped deeper into the well of communitarian anxiety, she would come up with stuff like “the center simply will not hold.” When she worried about the loss of historical memory, she would say “we are always boats moving against the current, ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past.'”

Every sentence felt like a windup to an inevitable, unsurprising conclusion. Any author or topic she mentioned, you knew the exact quote she was going to pull.

But it was her posture as a realist that irritated me most. Elshtain styled herself a sober, unflinching witness to the horrors of our world. This write-up at The Atlantic partakes of the same frame.

As befits a political theorist, Elshtain’s ideas eclipsed her accolades. “She wanted to be absolutely realistic about structures of power and political power that operate in our world that we should not be naïve about,” said William Schweiker, a University of Chicago professor and colleague of Elshtain’s. “In the terms of political philosophy, she was called a political realist.”

But, importantly, she was a political realist of a very specific sort: Christian. An admirer of Augustine, her sense of the fallen world was an early and foundational belief, she wrote in Augustine and the Limits of Politics in 1995. “Having had polio and given birth to my first child at age nineteen, bodies loomed rather large in my scheme of things. … I was too much a democrat and too aware of the human propensity to sin to believe that humans could create a perfect world of any sort on this fragile globe.”

This led her to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a robust theoretical argument about just war.

Yet what was most striking about Elshtain’s realism was how removed from reality it actually was.  Channeling decades of communitarian complaint about the triumph of the rights revolutions of the 1960s, the rise of individualism and the like, she took aim in 1995 at the “new attitude toward rights that has taken hold in the United States during the past several decades.” This at a time when  Democrats and Republicans had begun to strip suspected criminals of many procedural protections, when a presidential candidate’s membership in the ACLU was equated with membership in the Communist Party, when there were fewer counties in the United States with abortion providers than they were in the 1970s—developments, as we have seen, that have mostly gotten worse in the succeeding years.

When it came to matters of war and peace, especially after 9/11, Elshtain was even more removed from reality. No more so than when she claimed to be confronting it. I wrote about Elshtain’s views on torture in the London Review of Books in 2005. Some of the specifics may be out of date, but the overall argument, I think, remains sound. (The essay, sadly, is behind a firewall, but you can read the first half of it here and the second half, where I discuss Elshtain, here.)

If Torture, Sanford Levinson’s edited collection of essays, is any indication of contemporary sensibilities, neocons in the Bush White House are not the only ones in thrall to romantic notions of danger and catastrophe. Academics are too. Every scholarly discussion of torture, and the essays collected in Torture are no exception, begins with the ticking-time-bomb scenario. The story goes something like this: a bomb is set to go off in a densely populated area in the immediate future; the government doesn’t know exactly where or when, but it knows that many people will be killed; it has in captivity the person who planted the bomb, or someone who knows where it is planted; torture will yield the needed information; indeed, it is the only way to get the information in time to avert the catastrophe. What to do?

It’s an interesting question. But given that it is so often posed in the name of realism, we might consider a few facts before we rush to answer it. First, as far as we know, no one at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or any of the other prisons in America’s international archipelago has been tortured in order to defuse a ticking time bomb. Second, at the height of the war in Iraq, anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of American-held prisoners there either were in jail by mistake or posed no threat at all to society. Third, many U.S. intelligence officials opted out of torture sessions precisely because they believed torture did not produce accurate information.

These are the facts, and yet they seldom, if ever, make an appearance in these academic exercises in moral realism. The essays in Torture pose one other difficulty for those interested in reality: none of the writers who endorse the use of torture by the United States ever discusses the specific kinds of torture actually used by the United States. The closest we get is an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain, in which she writes:

Is a shouted insult a form of torture? A slap in the face? Sleep deprivation? A beating to within an inch of one’s life? Electric prods on the male genitals, inside a woman’s vagina, or in a person’s anus? Pulling out fingernails? Cutting off an ear or a breast? All of us, surely, would place every violation on this list beginning with the beating and ending with severing a body part as forms of torture and thus forbidden. No argument there. But let’s turn to sleep deprivation and a slap in the face. Do these belong in the same torture category as bodily amputations and sexual assaults? There are even those who would add the shouted insult to the category of torture. But, surely, this makes mincemeat of the category.

Distinguishing the awful from the acceptable, Elshtain never mentions the details of Abu Ghraib or the Taguba Report, making her list of do’s and don’ts as unreal as the ticking time bomb itself. Even her list of taboos is stylized, omitting actually committed crimes for the sake of repudiating hypothetical ones. Elshtain rejects stuffing electric cattle prods up someone’s ass. What about a banana [pdf]? She rejects cutting off ears and breasts. What about “breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees”? She condemns sexual assault. What about forcing men to masturbate or wear women’s underwear on their heads? She endorses “solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.” What about the “bitch in the box,” where prisoners are stuffed in a car trunk and driven around Baghdad in 120° heat? She supports “psychological pressure,” quoting from an article that “the threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself.” What about threatening prisoners with rape? When it comes to the Islamists, Elshtain cites the beheading of Daniel Pearl. When it comes to the Americans, she muses on Laurence Olivier’s dentistry in Marathon Man. Small wonder there’s “no argument there”: there is no there there.

If the unreality of these discussions sounds familiar, it is because they are watered by the same streams of conservative romanticism that coursed in and out of the White House during the Bush years. Notwithstanding Dershowitz’s warrants and Levinson’s addenda, the essays endorsing torture are filled with hostility to what Elshtain variously calls “moralistic code fetishism” and “rule-mania” and what we might simply call “the rule of law.” But where the Bush White House sought to be entirely free of rules and laws—and here the theoreticians depart from the practitioners—the contemplators of torture seek to make the torturers true believers in the rules.

There are two reasons. One reason, which Michael Walzer presents at great length in a famous essay from 1973, reprinted in Torture, is that the absolute ban on torture makes possible—or forces us to acknowledge the problem of “dirty hands.” Like the supreme emergency, the ticking time bomb forces a leader to choose between two evils, to wrestle with the devil of torture and the devil of innocents dying. Where other moralists would affirm the ban on torture and allow innocents to die, or adopt a utilitarian calculus and order torture to proceed, Walzer believes the absolutist and the utilitarian wash their hands too quickly; their consciences come too clean. He wishes instead “to refuse ‘absolutism’ without denying the reality of the moral dilemma,” to admit the simultaneous necessity for—and evil of torture.

Why? To make space for a moral leader, as Walzer puts it in Arguing about War, “who knows that he can’t do what he has to do—and finally does” it. It is the familiar tragedy of two evils, or two competing goods, that is at stake here, a reminder that we must “get our hands dirty by doing what we ought to do,” that “the dilemma of dirty hands is a central feature of political life.” The dilemma, rather than the solution, is what Walzer wishes to draw attention to. Should torturers be free of all rules save utility, or constrained by rights-based absolutism, there would be no dilemma, no dirty hands, no moral agon. Torturers must be denied their Kant and Bentham—and leave us to contend with the brooding spirit of the counter-Enlightenment, which insists that there could never be one moral code, one set of “eternal principles,” as Isaiah Berlin put it, “by following which alone men could become wise, happy, virtuous and free.”

But there is another reason some writers insist on a ban on torture they believe must also be violated. How else to maintain the frisson of transgression, the thrill of Promethean criminality? As Elshtain writes in her critique of Dershowitz’s proposal for torture warrants, leaders “should not seek to legalize” torture. “They should not aim to normalize it. And they should not write elaborate justifications of it . . . . The tabooed and forbidden, the extreme nature of this mode of physical coercion must be preserved so that it never becomes routinized as just the way we do things around here.” What Elshtain objects to in Dershowitz’s proposal is not the routinizing of torture; it is the routinizing of torture, the possibility of reverting to the “same moralistic-legalism” she hoped violations of the torture taboo would shatter. This argument too is redolent of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which always suspected, again quoting Berlin, that “freedom involves breaking rules, perhaps even committing crimes.”

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.

Update (August 16, 9:30 am)

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell has a terrific post on historical forgetting and the Vietnam War. He’s been reading Nick Turse’s latest book on Vietnam, which uncovers extensive evidence of far greater war crimes committed by the US than was previously known, and writes: “My Lai was closer to being the rule than the exception. Casual murder by US troops of women, children and old people as well as young men, torture, rape and collective reprisals were endemic, even before one gets into the more impersonal forms of slaughter.” Henry wonders why this book hasn’t occasioned more discussion and reflects on the forgetting of that war in the US.

This is all by a way of an introduction to why I found Elshtain’s prose so grating, her posturing so empty. I know some people thought I was being unduly harsh in my post about her. But when I talked about the vacuousness of her prose, the unreality of her realism, this is what I had in mind. Elshtain could write passages like this

One of my persistent worries about our own time is that we may be squandering a good bit of rich heritage through processes of organized ‘forgetting,’ a climate of opinion that encourages presentism rather than a historical perspective that reminds us that we are always boats moving against the current, ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past,’ in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memorable words from The Great Gatsby.

—without ever meditating on, even mentioning, the kinds of historical facts that Henry discusses in his post. She would talk about historical forgetting, and chastise others for their forgetting, at the very moment she was enacting it on the page.

Also at Crooked Timber, commenter Geo writes:

Glad you began by pointing out what a tedious, thoroughly pedestrian stylist she was — colorless, rhythmless, and self-important. Beyond that, a vintage example of the professional contrarian, exalted to eminence for renouncing radicalism and continually scolding her former leftist and feminist comrades.

This is an important point. The relation between style and substance is tricky. Not every great thinker is a great stylist: Rawls immediately comes to mind. But one of the reasons Rawls was such a terrible stylist (not the only reason, of course, there were plenty others) was that he was such a painstaking thinker. Reading Rawls, you can see the sweat, the labor, almost excruciatingly so, that’s going into the sentences. Too much sweat, if you ask me. But that’s because he refused to avoid so many conceptual obstacles (not all, to be sure, but many) that his theory threw up in front of him. With Rawls, every paragraph feels like mountain climbing; there’s just so damn much that gets in the way of his theories that he refuses to overlook. Again, not always (he could ignore quite a bit, as decades of commentary have shown), but often.

With Elshtain it’s the opposite. Some people thought she was an accomplished stylist but she wasn’t. Not by a long shot. The style was flat, not smooth; she went for sheen rather than sheer. The style concealed the problems with her formulations: not by artful labor, but by blandness and banality.

Elshtain didn’t simply avoid topics. Every thinker does that, to some extent, and with the best ones, you see very clearly where and how they’re doing it. (Doesn’t Arendt have a line somewhere about how what makes a great thinker great is not what he gets right but what he gets wrong?)

With Elshtain, it was worse: it was as if the topics had simply been removed in advance of her arrival on the scene. If Rawls was climbing mountains, Elshtain was driving on highways, humming along a nicely paved road, cleared of all traffic by the state police, in an air conditioned car. Never once encountering the sand or the soil, the gritty materials, not even a pebble, upon which that road was paved.

 

Protocols of Machismo, Part 2: On the Hidden Connection Between Henry Kissinger and Liza Minnelli

22 Apr

Yesterday, I posted Part 1 of this excerpt from Chapter 9 of The Reactionary Mind. Today, I post Part 2.

• • • •

 Liza Minnelli
What is it about being a great power that renders the imagining of its own demise so potent? Why, despite all the strictures about the prudent and rational use of force, are those powers so quick to resort to it?

Perhaps it is because there is something deeply appealing about the idea of disaster, about manfully confronting and mastering catastrophe. For disaster and catastrophe can summon a nation, at least in theory, to plumb its deepest moral and political reserves, to have its mettle tested, on and off the battlefield. However much leaders and theorists may style themselves the cool adepts of realpolitik, war remains the great romance of the age, the proving ground of self and nation.

Henry Kissinger

Exactly why the strenuous life should be so attractive is anyone’s guess, but one reason may be that it counters what conservatives since the French Revolution have believed to be the corrosions of liberal democratic culture: the softened mores and weakened will, the subordination of passion to rationality, of fervor to rules. As an antidote to the deadening effects of contemporary life—reason, bureaucracy, routine, anomie, ennui—war is modernity’s great answer to itself. “War is inescapable,” Yitzhak Shamir declared, not because it ensures security but “because without this, the life of the individual has no purpose.” Though this sensibility seeps across the political spectrum, it is essentially an ideal of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which found its greatest fulfillment during the years of Fascist triumph (“war is to men,” Mussolini said, “as maternity is to women”)—and is once again, it seems, prospering in our own time as well.

Nowhere in recent memory has this romanticism been more apparent than in the neoconservative arguments during the Bush years about prewar intelligence, how to prosecute the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether or not to use torture. Listening to the neocon complaints about U.S. intelligence during the run-up to the war, one could hear distant echoes of Carlyle’s assault on the “Mechanical Age” (“all is by rule and calculated contrivance”) and Chateaubriand’s despair that “certain eminent faculties of genius” will “be lost, and imagination, poetry and the arts perish.” Richard Perle was not alone in his impatience with what Seymour Hersh calls the intelligence community’s “susceptibility to social science notions of proof.” Before he became secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld criticized the refusal of intelligence analysts to use their imaginations, “to make estimates that extended beyond the hard evidence they had in hand.” Once in office, he mocked analysts’ desire to have “all the dots connected for us with a ribbon wrapped around it.” His staffers derided the military quest for “actionable intelligence,” for information solid enough to warrant assassinations and other preemptive acts of violence. Outside the government, David Brooks blasted the CIA’s “bloodless compilations of data by anonymous technicians” and praised those analysts who make “novelistic judgments” informed by “history, literature, philosophy and theology.”

Rumsfeld’s war on the rule-bound culture and risk aversion of the military revealed a deep antipathy to law and order—not something stereotypically associated with conservatives but familiar enough to any historian of twentieth-century Europe (and, indeed, any historian of conservative thought more generally). Issuing a secret directive that terrorists should be captured or killed, Rumsfeld went out of his way to remind his generals that the goal was “not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise.” Aides urged him to support operations by U.S. Special Forces, who could conduct lightning strikes without approval from generals. Otherwise, they warned, “the result will be decision by committee.” One of Rumsfeld’s advisers complained that the military had been “Clintonized,” which could have meant anything from becoming too legalistic to being too effeminate. (Throughout the Bush years, there was an ongoing struggle within the security establishment over the protocols of machismo.) Geoffrey Miller, the man who made “Gitmo-ize” a household word, relieved a general at Guantanamo for being too “soft—too worried about the prisoners’ well-being.”

By now it seems self-evident that the neocons were drawn into Iraq for the sake of a grand idea: not the democratization of the Middle East, though that undoubtedly had some appeal, or even the creation of an American empire, but rather an idea of themselves as a brave and undaunted army of transgression. The gaze of the neocons, like that of America’s perennially autistic ruling classes, does not look outward nearly as much as it looks inward: at their restless need to prove themselves, to demonstrate that neither their imagination nor their actions will be constrained by anyone or anything—not even by the rules and norms they believe are their country’s gift to the world.

If Torture, Sanford Levinson’s edited collection of essays, is any indication of contemporary sensibilities, neocons in the Bush White House are not the only ones in thrall to romantic notions of danger and catastrophe. Academics are too. Every scholarly discussion of torture, and the essays collected in Torture are no exception, begins with the ticking-time-bomb scenario. The story goes something like this: a bomb is set to go off in a densely populated area in the immediate future; the government doesn’t know exactly where or when, but it knows that many people will be killed; it has in captivity the person who planted the bomb, or someone who knows where it is planted; torture will yield the needed information; indeed, it is the only way to get the information in time to avert the catastrophe. What to do?

It’s an interesting question. But given that it is so often posed in the name of realism, we might consider a few facts before we rush to answer it. First, as far as we know, no one at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or any of the other prisons in America’s international archipelago has been tortured in order to defuse a ticking time bomb. Second, at the height of the war in Iraq, anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of American-held prisoners there either were in jail by mistake or posed no threat at all to society. Third, many U.S. intelligence officials opted out of torture sessions precisely because they believed torture did not produce accurate information.

These are the facts, and yet they seldom, if ever, make an appearance in these academic exercises in moral realism. The essays in Torture pose one other difficulty for those interested in reality: none of the writers who endorse the use of torture by the United States ever discusses the specific kinds of torture actually used by the United States. The closest we get is an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain, in which she writes:

Is a shouted insult a form of torture? A slap in the face? Sleep deprivation? A beating to within an inch of one’s life? Electric prods on the male genitals, inside a woman’s vagina, or in a person’s anus? Pulling out fingernails? Cutting off an ear or a breast? All of us, surely, would place every violation on this list beginning with the beating and ending with severing a body part as forms of torture and thus forbidden. No argument there. But let’s turn to sleep deprivation and a slap in the face. Do these belong in the same torture category as bodily amputations and sexual assaults? There are even those who would add the shouted insult to the category of torture. But, surely, this makes mincemeat of the category.

Distinguishing the awful from the acceptable, Elshtain never mentions the details of Abu Ghraib or the Taguba Report, making her list of do’s and don’ts as unreal as the ticking time bomb itself. Even her list of taboos is stylized, omitting actually committed crimes for the sake of repudiating hypothetical ones. Elshtain rejects stuffing electric cattle prods up someone’s ass. What about a banana [pdf]? She rejects cutting off ears and breasts. What about “breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees”? She condemns sexual assault. What about forcing men to masturbate or wear women’s underwear on their heads? She endorses “solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.” What about the “bitch in the box,” where prisoners are stuffed in a car trunk and driven around Baghdad in 120° heat? She supports “psychological pressure,” quoting from an article that “the threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself.” What about threatening prisoners with rape? When it comes to the Islamists, Elshtain cites the beheading of Daniel Pearl. When it comes to the Americans, she muses on Laurence Olivier’s dentistry in Marathon Man. Small wonder there’s “no argument there”: there is no there there.

 

The unreality of Elshtain’s analysis is not incidental or peculiar to her. Even writers who endorse torture but remain squeamish about it can’t escape such abstractions. The more squeamish they are, in fact, the more abstractions they indulge in. Sanford Levinson, for example, tentatively discusses Alan Dershowitz’s proposal that government officials should be forced to seek warrants from judges in order to torture terrorist suspects. Hoping to make the reality of torture, and the pain of its victims, visible and concrete, Levinson insists that “the person the state proposes to torture should be in the courtroom, so that the judge can take no refuge in abstraction.” But then Levinson asks us to consider “the possibility that anyone against whom a torture warrant is issued receives a significant payment as ‘just compensation’ for the denial of his or her right not to be tortured.” Having just counseled against abstraction, Levinson resorts to the greatest abstraction of all—money—as payback for the greatest denial of rights imaginable.

If the unreality of these discussions sounds familiar, it is because they are watered by the same streams of conservative romanticism that coursed in and out of the White House during the Bush years. Notwithstanding Dershowitz’s warrants and Levinson’s addenda, the essays endorsing torture are filled with hostility to what Elshtain variously calls “moralistic code fetishism” and “rule-mania” and what we might simply call “the rule of law.” But where the Bush White House sought to be entirely free of rules and laws—and here the theoreticians depart from the practitioners—the contemplators of torture seek to make the torturers true believers in the rules.

There are two reasons. One reason, which Michael Walzer presents at great length in a famous essay from 1973, reprinted in Torture, is that the absolute ban on torture makes possible—or forces us to acknowledge the problem of “dirty hands.” Like the supreme emergency, the ticking time bomb forces a leader to choose between two evils, to wrestle with the devil of torture and the devil of innocents dying. Where other moralists would affirm the ban on torture and allow innocents to die, or adopt a utilitarian calculus and order torture to proceed, Walzer believes the absolutist and the utilitarian wash their hands too quickly; their consciences come too clean. He wishes instead “to refuse ‘absolutism’ without denying the reality of the moral dilemma,” to admit the simultaneous necessity for—and evil of torture.

Why? To make space for a moral leader, as Walzer puts it in Arguing about War, “who knows that he can’t do what he has to do—and finally does” it. It is the familiar tragedy of two evils, or two competing goods, that is at stake here, a reminder that we must “get our hands dirty by doing what we ought to do,” that “the dilemma of dirty hands is a central feature of political life.” The dilemma, rather than the solution, is what Walzer wishes to draw attention to. Should torturers be free of all rules save utility, or constrained by rights-based absolutism, there would be no dilemma, no dirty hands, no moral agon. Torturers must be denied their Kant and Bentham—and leave us to contend with the brooding spirit of the counter-Enlightenment, which insists that there could never be one moral code, one set of “eternal principles,” as Isaiah Berlin put it, “by following which alone men could become wise, happy, virtuous and free.”

But there is another reason some writers insist on a ban on torture they believe must also be violated. How else to maintain the frisson of transgression, the thrill of Promethean criminality? As Elshtain writes in her critique of Dershowitz’s proposal for torture warrants, leaders “should not seek to legalize” torture. “They should not aim to normalize it. And they should not write elaborate justifications of it . . . . The tabooed and forbidden, the extreme nature of this mode of physical coercion must be preserved so that it never becomes routinized as just the way we do things around here.” What Elshtain objects to in Dershowitz’s proposal is not the routinizing of torture; it is the routinizing of torture, the possibility of reverting to the “same moralistic-legalism” she hoped violations of the torture taboo would shatter. This argument too is redolent of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which always suspected, again quoting Berlin, that “freedom involves breaking rules, perhaps even committing crimes.”

But if the ban on torture must be maintained, what is a nation to do with the torturers who have violated it, who have, after all, broken the law? Naturally the nation must put them on trial; “the interrogator,” in Elshtain’s words, “must, if called on, be prepared to defend what he or she has done and, depending on context, pay the penalty.” In what may be the most fantastic move of an already fantastic discussion, several of writers on torture—even Henry Shue, an otherwise steadfast voice against the practice—imagine the public trial of the torturer as similar to that of the civil disobedient, who breaks the law in the name of a higher good, and throws himself on the mercy or judgment of the court. For only through a public legal proceeding, Levinson writes, will we “reinforce the paradoxical notion that one must condemn the act even if one comes to the conclusion that it is indeed justified in a particular situation,” a notion, he acknowledges, that is little different from the comment of Admiral Mayorga, one of Argentina’s dirtiest warriors: “The day we stop condemning torture (although we tortured), the day we become insensitive to mothers who lose their guerrilla sons (although they are guerrillas) is the day we stop being human beings.”

By now it should be clear why we use the word “theater” to denote the settings of both stagecraft and statecraft. Like the theater, national security is a house of illusions. Like stage actors, political actors are prone to a diva-like obsession, gazing in the mirror, wondering what the next day’s—or century’s—reviews will bring. It might seem difficult to imagine Liza Minnelli playing Henry Kissinger, but I’m not sure the part would be such a stretch. And what of the intellectuals who advise these leaders or the philosophers who analyze their dilemmas? Are they playwrights or critics, directors or audiences? I’m not entirely sure, but the words of their greatest spiritual predecessor might give us a clue. “I love my native city more than my own soul,” cried Machiavelli, quintessential teacher of the hard ways of state. Change “native city” to “child,” replace “my own soul” with “myself,” and we have the justification of every felonious stage mother throughout history, from the Old Testament’s rule-breaking Rebecca to Gypsy’s ball-busting Rose.

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