Jean Bethke Elshtain Was No Realist

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.



  1. zinjabeela August 15, 2013 at 3:57 pm | #

    Bizarrely, I remember an interview with her in Harpers, or maybe the New Yorker, in which she gushed over Brad Pitt.

    Love your posts and commentary!


    Laurie King

  2. Roquentin August 15, 2013 at 5:08 pm | #

    The claim to “realism” is quite often a canard. Zizek talks about this sort of thing all the time, but the basic paradox is that the claim that someone is eschewing moral codes and ideology in the name of realism is one of the most obvious ideological gestures. They rely so heavily on elaborately crafted fantasies so heavily precisely because this is pure ideology rather than an encounter with the “real (in the Lacanian sense).”

    It’s also important to keep in mind that athe split between utility and a moral code/laws is a false dichotomy. The idea that utility, long before you start to dive into what “utility” even means, trumps all other ethical principles is itself an ethical principle, an ethical hierarchy which places utility on the throne. Few things are more dubious than the claims to “utility.” Much like the argument that someone makes “the economy work,” everyone should be asking “work for who? and work in what sense?”

    Also, laudatory obituaries are standard operating procedure. Few people want to criticize the recently deceased, so a lot of pretending and whitewashing goes on in that phase.

  3. Howard Berman August 15, 2013 at 5:44 pm | #

    Is realism a prerequisite for a serious moral theory, one that deals with the world as it is and the consequences of our actions?

  4. Ilya August 15, 2013 at 7:37 pm | #

    I agree that people ought to examine what Elshtain wrote more carefully before celebrating her as a “realist” or anything else. What Elshtain said of St. Augustine in her paper “Passions and Politics: An Augustinian Perspective” (google the title to find it online) applies equally to herself: “one must rescue Augustine from those who would appropriate him to a version of political ‘realism’ that downplays his insistence on the great virtue of hope and the call to enact projects of caritas.” Elshtain expressed her own essentially Augustinian approach to politics, and chastens herself for perhaps being too hopeful about the prospects for democracy, in her late essay “Against the New Utopianism,” Studies in Christian Ethics 20:1 (2007), pp. 44-54. Whatever one thinks about the depth and profundity of her political writings over the years, Elshtain, unlike many political theorists and intellectual historians, actually confronted the political issues of her time and the political questions surrounding American power.

  5. Jonny Butter August 15, 2013 at 8:09 pm | #

    It’s also important to keep in mind that the split between utility and a moral code/laws is a false dichotomy.

    Yes. Not only is it a false dichotomy in the sense you mean it, but also in this one: in the (pardon me) real world, utility and moral code are almost always congruent; that is, the morally right thing is also the thing with greater utility. You could even argue that utility is essentially what moral code or law is about. Luckily, you don’t have to prove this latter thing. Since the morally right thing is usually the more practical thing most of the time, focusing on the possibility of imaginary exceptions (e.g. ticking bomb) is fatuous, and smells funny.

  6. Jonny Butter August 15, 2013 at 8:12 pm | #

    sorry for the screwed up tag.

  7. Rachael Sotos August 15, 2013 at 9:02 pm | #

    Supporting your case on Elshtain and detachment from reality: she spoke publically (new school) in 90s about not understanding why Arendt had any use for Heidegger…why not just stick with Jaspers, she said. Arendt, who viewed many forms of speech as propaganda but always put speech over violence, never would have fallen into neocon trap…note her critique of founding state israel.

  8. partisan August 16, 2013 at 2:30 am | #

    I suppose it makes some sense that Elshtain would die the same week that The New Repbulic published Paul Berman’s admiring essay on Camus and Algeria: Any comments?

  9. etseq97 August 22, 2013 at 12:00 pm | #

    She was also very hostile to gay rights. She was a board member of David Blankenhorn and Maggie Gallagher’s Institute for American Values that was formed originally to battle the “scourge of single parenthood” but morphed into an anti-gay marriage astroturf group in the lkate 1990s. She also wrote a strange article deploring “gay liberation” in the early 80s called Homosexual politics: the paradox of gay liberation There is a response by a Richard Rosenfeld at but I don’t have free access to jstor so I can’t read it.

    Needless to say, this fits right in with her communitarian/neocon view of the world and the family…

  10. Kevin Murray August 25, 2013 at 8:13 am | #

    I had Jean Elshtain for a Feminist Political Theory class in the early 1970s at UMass/Amherst, The young professor of that class is unrecognizable in most of the commentary that has emerged in the wake of her passing. I’m probably barely recognizable, myself. At that time, Elshtain fit in quite comfortably with the radical academic milieu at UMass, and would have been unrelenting in her criticism of the conservative Christian that achieved prominence in the Bush era. Maybe that accommodation to chic was first-generation realism. It was certainly only skin deep.

    I honestly remember no mention of any kind of faith perspective as we went through the feminist pantheon of the day, from Betty Friedan to Shulamith Firestone and Mary Daly. She did have a critique of radical feminist theory, which I saw sharpen in the few years I knew her. But the critique came from critical social theory, with no hint of the about-face that was to come. Realism would have tried the patience of the young Jean Elshtain. A list of my “radical” professors of that period would confirm that Jean was certainly not alone in her drift toward the conservative and the “real.” More interesting to me are those who have somehow resisted the current. .

  11. Michael Pullmann August 26, 2013 at 12:29 pm | #

    In Elshtain’s spirit, I will quote Grant Morrison and say “Only a petulant adolescent would mistake cynicism for realism.”

  12. TheFeight August 29, 2013 at 7:50 am | #

    Dear Corey – thank you so much for your article. I’ve been studying Elshtain’s work for several years now and largely agree with you. I do think, however, that the realism-idealism debate (which the Niebuhr-besotted cannot seem to go beyond) does not quite grab her. In terms of her conservatism, appropriation of Carl Schmitt, moral exceptionalism, mythologizing of the U.S. she is more of a Catholic conservative like Carl Schmitt or Charles Maurras

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