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Thu, 01 Aug 2013 00:00:00 -0400 If you visit Edinburgh, you can visit the famous statue of Bobby that sits near the south entrance to Greyfriars Kirkyard at the southern end of the George IV Bridge. When his master died, the Skye Terrier continued to make their daily rounds, visiting the pub on the way, and then entering the cemetery where he spent his day lying on his master’s grave. When Bobby died in 1872, there was an immediate cry for a memorial. The famous statue of Bobby is an ongoing reminder of what it means to be faithful even after death parts us.
Wed, 01 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0400 Over three decades ago, the phone rang in my office at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where I was then teaching in the department of political science. A powerful, resonant baritone voice introduced the caller as Richard Neuhaus. He was calling, he said, to invite me to a meeting in New York City. He had read some of my work, and he thought that the general topic of the event he had organized, on an aspect of religion and public life, might interest me. He ran over the list of confirmed participants. Many well-known names leapt out. Did I really belong with this distinguished crew? I accepted the invitation and the rest, as they say, is history.
Although many years ago now, I recall the sparring between Richard and Stanley Hauerwas, the authoritative pronouncements of Peter Berger, and on and on. I was hooked. This fellow Neuhaus knew how to run a meeting”that’s for sure. What especially struck me was that Richard, by then a controversial figure who had criticized the World Council of Churches and who had denounced the abortion right created by
Roe v. Wade
, loved debate and encouraged thinkers with diverse points of view to gather together. This was so different from the orthodox conformism of meetings I had attended, organized by feminists or the left, that I was elated. I had entered the academy in part because I thought it would be a world in which reasonable people with contrary positions could debate these positions openly. Boy, was I wrong. What I frequently encountered was what one wag called the herd of independent minds. Richard was not interested in a herd mentality. He wanted people to come around to the truth as he saw it, of course. We all want that. But he knew that debate and dialogue were necessary to that end.
Richard was brilliant in engaging thinkers who would never take the time to engage him. This is an imbalance that any thinker outside the generalized consensus faces: You feel obliged to read their stuff but they consider themselves under no similar obligation. But never did I detect in Richard any resentment. He was a happy warrior.
I discovered early on Richard’s great capacity for conversation and for cocktails. I think I tried to keep up once on the cocktail end and the results were not pretty. His capacities were extraordinary and, as he smoked his cigar and drank his drinks, one and then another, he became more
: funny, incisive, sometimes a bit rough but always from love, never from petty hatred. I looked forward with great anticipation to all those Ramsey Colloquia”seminars at the Union League Club”were I met so many extraordinary people, including Leon Kass, the Augustine scholar Robert Markus, Henry Kissinger, George Weigel, Gil Meilaender, and more. I was grateful that Richard included me and that, within
, I had a place to publish essays and musings that would never have found a home elsewhere. I still get emails from people who have discovered my Newtape Letters published in
, pieces that played off C.S. Lewis’ famous
, asking me when I will write more. Where else would such work appear? Where indeed?
Richard read everything. He wrote an astonishing amount. Yet he set aside time to take a personal interest in his friends, always inquiring about my family (All those children: How many, a dozen or so? he would joke) and always chiding me about too much travel, not sifting the more from the less important engagements. He told me he worried about me. I never worried about him because he seemed so robust until, of course, that dreadful moment when he was first felled by cancer. I was lecturing at Calvin College at the time and I recall making frantic phone calls, finally reaching George Weigel, in order to get an update on Richard’s condition. Once the initial shock had passed, it seemed Richard had dodged the bullet and that he would be with us for years to come.
He was with us for a good number of years, but these were cut short much too soon. My biggest regret is that my crazy schedule, the one Richard chided me about, cut the opportunities to see him and to spend time with him over the past few years. I found myself dealing with health issues of my own, and we commiserated via email on that unhappy ground. I hope he knew how much I loved him and how grateful I was for all the doors he had opened for me.
Years ago, when our son, Eric, was a student at Oberlin College, he rang up to tell me that your friend, Neuhaus, will be speaking on campus. I told Eric he had to attend, that he would not forget the experience. He did attend, and he later described Richard’s reducing the campus hardcore lefties to sputtering impotence. As I had instructed him to do, Eric went up after Richard’s talk to introduce himself. Richard said, Your mother is one of my favorite people. I trust she’s one of yours as well. This was vintage Richard: warm, droll, memorable. Eric has never forgotten this moment.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things , is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.
]]>While Europe Slepthttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/03/003-while-europe-slept
Sun, 01 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0500 In the great cathedrals in Europe, a few people”usually elderly women”can be found at worship. Everybody else is a tourist, cameras hanging around their necks, meandering through. I was recently in Scotland, and I read a newspaper story commenting on three hundred deserted churches dotting the Scottish countryside, asking if they should be destroyed or turned into bars and cafes. Europe herself, in her proposed constitution, refuses to acknowledge the heritage of Judaism and Christianity”although Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment are acknowledged.
Europe cannot remember who she is unless she remembers that she is the child not only of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the Enlightenment but also of Judaism and Christianity”the child, therefore, of Catholicism and the Reformation. If Europe abandons her religious heritage, the idea of Europe dies. And Europe
abandoned, or forgotten, her religious heritage. Europe is now post-Christian. What does this mean? What does it portend?
If a culture forgets what it is, as I believe Europe has done, it falls first into an agnostic shrugging of the shoulders, unable to say exactly what it is and believes, and from there it will inevitably fall into nihilism. Detached from its religious foundations, Europe will not remain agnostic. The first result is manifest in those ideologies of multiculturalism that make difference a kind of sacred, absolute principle, although no principle is considered to have any such status. Difference tells us nothing in and of itself. Some ways of life and ways of being in the world are brutal, stupid, and ugly. Some a human rights-oriented culture cannot tolerate. A culture must believe in its own enculturating responsibility and mission in order to make claims of value and to institutionalize them in social and political forms. This a post-Christian Europe cannot do.
Multiculturalism is then, in practice, a series of monoculturalisms that do not engage one another at all; rather, the cultural particulate most enamored of gaining and holding power has an enormous advantage: One day, it proclaims, we will bury you. A sign carried by radical Islamist protestors in London during the fracas over the Dutch cartoons proclaimed, Europe is a cancer / Islam is the answer. A perverted idea of Islam confronts a Europe that has lost a sense of who she is and what she represents.
For that Europe, the window to transcendence is slammed shut. Human values alone pertain. But these human values are shriveled by a prior loss of the conviction that there is much to defend about the human person, and they are seen as so many subjectivist construals without any defensible, objective content. Unsurprisingly, what comes to prevail is a form of reduced utilitarianism that rationalizes nihilism.
The territory as one’s own property is the self itself, or an understanding of the self shorn of any encumbrances of the past, any shackles of old defunct moralities. The self blows hither, thither; it matters not, if it blows
way. The question of what the self is, and whether it has any transcendent meaning, is answered with a shrug.
The late John Paul II saw the result of the belief that we are sovereigns of ourselves, wholly self-possessing. In
he writes: If the promotion of the self is understood in terms of absolute autonomy, people inevitably reach the point of rejecting one another. Everyone else is considered an enemy from whom one has to defend oneself. Society becomes a mass of individuals placed side by side, but without any mutual bonds.
Someone may attach a value to us”we may have a market price, so to speak”a price, but not a dignity. Should no one attach value to us and we be too bereft or wounded to attach it to ourselves, we become dispensable. The final triumph of this notion will be a world in which the powerful have their way simply because they can and because the ethical and moral barriers to taking what they want have all been lost. The final fate of the disabled in a liberal society will not be a happy one. We champion access even as we redraw the boundaries of humanity to exclude wide swaths of human persons from this access.
Over time human rights, now almost universally accepted among Europeans, will themselves come to be seen as so many arbitrary constructions that may, on utilitarian grounds, be revoked”because there is nothing intrinsic about human beings such that they are not to be ill-treated or violated or even killed. Even now, many do not want to be bothered with the infirm elderly or damaged infants, so we devise so-called humane ways to kill them and pretend that somehow they chose (or would have chosen) to die. Elderly patients are being killed in the Netherlands without their consent. A new protocol for euthanizing newborns with disabilities is institutionalized in the Netherlands, and the doctor who authored the protocols, Eduard Verhagen, tells us how beautiful it is when the newborns are killed, for, at last, they are at peace.
The Australian utilitarian Peter Singer predicts confidently that the superstition that human life is sacred will be definitively put to rest by 2040. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that by that moment life unworthy of life will routinely be destroyed”in the name of liberal humanitarianism and compassion, and even cost-effectiveness, rather than the triumph of a master race. It is a softer nihilism than the past’s, but it is nihilism all the same.
In an interview for a British magazine during the summer of 2005, Singer said that if he faced the quandary of saving from a raging fire either a mentally disabled child, an orphan child nobody wanted, or normal animals, he would save the animals. If the child had a mother who would be devastated by the child’s death, he would save the child, but unwanted orphans have no such value.
This is the entirely consistent result of the view that human life no longer possesses an innate dignity, that we are only meat walking around, and we can be turned easily into means to the ends of others, just as we may turn others into means to our ends. It is the old master-slave scenario come to life, even as we congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment.
Ironically, while Catholicism has become a champion of human rights and democracy as the political form that supports human dignity most fully and bids to be the political form within which human flourishing is most likely to take place, much secular reason has increasingly manifested itself as secularism. And secularism”a rigid cultural ideology that mocks religion as superstition and celebrates technological rationalism as the only proper and intelligent way to think and to be in the world”has developed into nihilism, into a world in which we can no longer make judgments of value and truth in defense of human dignity and flourishing.
No good has ever”
”come from narrowing and constricting our understanding of humanity in this way. The Jerusalem side of the European heritage tells us that all are equally children of God”the disabled, the ugly, the bad-smelling, the boring, the lonely”all require our care and concern. As the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, even the most wretched life is worth living before God.
Without God, without some transcendent principle, the wretched life is not worth living at all. And others have the power to decide whose life is wretched based on utilitarian criteria. The utilitarian ethic would annihilate the Christian ethic in the name of progress and decency and the ending of suffering.
For three centuries, Europe was defined in and through a complex dialectic and dialogue between belief and unbelief. This unbelief was not reducible to secularism. In his life and work, Albert Camus illustrates this dialectic at work, with the brilliant sort of self that may emerge from it and the other kinds of self that will emerge when the dialectic is rejected.
In his famous Letters to a German Friend, Camus tells a friend who has taken up with National Socialism that the Nazis think of Europe as a property to possess, while he thinks of Europe as the place within which he finds his being. This Europe is a capacious place and a beautiful one. It is a magnificent land molded by suffering and history, Camus writes. I relive those pilgrimages I once made with all the men of the West: the roses in the cloisters of Florence, the gilded bulbous domes of Krakow, the Hradschin and its dead palaces, the contorted statues of the Charles Bridge over the Ultava, the delicate gardens of Salzburg.
More important, Camus’ Europe is not the Europe of nihilism within which everything reduces to the same shade of gray and no truth is to be found. The German friend believed that everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one’s wishes, and from this he drew the inevitable conclusion that the only pursuit for the individual was the adventure of power and his own morality. Camus, who did not believe the world had ultimate meaning, nevertheless held that the world was meaningful and that one could make judgments about right and wrong. Not all opinions are created equal. Not all views deserve respect.
What happens when, unlike Camus, Europe loses”abandons or forgets”one side of the dialectic? She winds up with a monologue, and the unbelief side becomes exaggerated and distorted into an ideology of secularism fueled by subjectivism, with the results we have seen. She comes to believe as did Camus’ German friend.
Thinking of human beings as consumer subjects”as does the European Union, an econometric, highly bureaucratized, and legalistic construction”is not a sufficiently robust conception to commit people civically over time. One of the glories of Western pluralist democracies has been their capacity to forge unity out of diverse mixes of peoples”diverse in nearly every way in which people can differ. The United States has done this remarkably well, allowing immigrant communities to hold on to cultural aspects of their identities as long as these could be expressed in ways consistent with the constitutive norms, rules, and practices of democratic civil society itself.
What happens when, having lost the belief side of its historical dialectic, Europe loses a sense of self-confidence about her enculturating and civic mission? The first thing that happens is that it ceases to engage in the determined making of citizens.
becomes a dirty word. Ethnic communities are excluded from the broader streams of life under the rubric of an allegedly benign multiculturalism, where they fester in resentment and isolation. Guest workers live for generations in a twilight zone of semi-citizenship. Little is done to absorb and enculturate the newer waves of immigrants who have no experience of democracy and bring with them an officially sanctioned hatred of Western culture.
In Great Britain before the attacks of July 7, 2005, radical imams used the cover of religious liberty to recruit death-dealing militants who openly preached virulent anti-Semitism, scorn of democracy, the replacement of the civic law by Shari’a law, and contempt for anything Western. A deadly deal was struck, apparently, that Britain would leave them alone if they left Britain alone and did their bad stuff elsewhere. Clearly, relations with unassimilated minorities do not work like that. Britain shrugged its shoulders, but the hatred spilled into the streets, the subways, the buses.
France’s Muslim majority lives in an angry subculture scornful of France and Europe, high in criminality and intolerance, often engaged in some circles in practices that openly defy constitutive principles of human liberty and freedom, such as arranged marriages for girls as young as eleven and honor killings and assaults. An antidemocratic, illiberal zone exists within the wider democratic body. Then the French government decides it must do something, and it takes a determined stand”against the head scarf! Resentment grows. In the Netherlands, the notion of pillorization got perverted to mean cultural isolation for the immigrant Muslim population.
Unsurprisingly, it was in Europe that the killers of September 11 became radicalized, picking up on, perhaps, the ideology of anti-Americanism preached enthusiastically by French elites and the anti-Semitic strain on the left.
Democracies often have a difficult task in figuring out how to deal with internal threats, with those within the body politic who would destroy it if they could: Witness Weimar dealing, or not dealing, with Adolf Hitler. Perhaps Europeans today are altogether too complacent, too convinced that economic rights and expressivist self-sovereignty can carry us through. But no one can miss the signs of cultural slackness and exhaustion all around in today’s Europe. Demographic collapse is one sign of an existential loss of hope and a turning of the self inward on the self, refusing to extend the self to a child and thus abandoning the task of civic formation on this most fundamental and private level.
Europe suffers from many self-inflicted wounds”the wounds of indifference, the wounds of self-absorption. Will Europe be able to deal with all the daunting challenges she faces, including destabilization, economic stagnation, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and all the rest? Only if she remembers who she is, with something precious and valuable to offer, which means accepting her religious heritage and its normative constraints on what people are permitted to do and how they may do it. Only if Europe can sustain principles and commitments that are historically derived from presuppositions of divinely sanctioned human dignity. I speak here not of faith but of sustaining cultural memory, including that which resolutely rejected the view that we are all forced to choose between faith and reason, which would rule Europe’s historical dialectic irrelevant.
Absent such remembering, Europe will continue down the path of what Vaclav Havel calls arrogant anthropocentrism, in which we see the face of European nihilism. In a recent essay, Benedict XVI (a European intellectual, after all) writes that, in Europe today, those who abuse Judaism and Islam are shamed or fined. But when Christianity is abused, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good.
Tue, 01 Feb 2005 00:00:00 -0500 American Providence: A Nation with a Mission
by Stephen H. Webb
Continuum. 173 pp. $22.95
]]>Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ethics (1949)https://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/03/dietrich-bonhoefferethics
Wed, 01 Mar 2000 00:00:00 -0500 Dietrich Bonhoeffers life and death are powerful witness to what it means to “put first things first.” Although it was never his overriding theological concern to work out the connections between the City of Man and the Kingdom of God, he never confused the two, as became clear when the issue was forced upon him during the dark night of National Socialism in Germany and Marxism“Leninism in the Soviet Union. The menace Bonhoeffer confronted directly was, of course, Nazism. As the vast majority of his countrymen and, shamefully, his coreligionists either made their peace with Nazism or actively promoted its advance, Bonhoeffer first demurred, then resisted, and finally moved into the active opposition that cost him his life.
Were Bonhoeffer among us today, he would insist that his opposition was much easier to understand than was the German obedience and enthrallment with Nazism or the active courting of the Nazi regime by the so“called “German Christians.” Many have seen the behavior of the state“worshiping “German Christians” as the ultimate outcome of Luthers doctrine of the “two kingdoms.” Luther saw the need for rules and rulers as Gods punishment for human wickedness, and insisted as a consequence that believers ought to obey the rules unless ordered to explicitly deny the faith. Some alleged that this view gave nearly unchecked earthly or “profane” power to rulers. Their domain grew as the Churchs domain shrank. Unsurprising, then, that when the crunch came it was all too easy to capitulate and to see in Hitlerism an avatar of a specifically German brand of Christian particularism.
Bonhoeffer resisted this reading of Luther with all his strength in his unfinished
. He argued that in condemning the state idolatry represented by Nazism, he was acting out of
to his tradition rather than in opposition to it. He rejected the sort of vulgarization of Luthers doctrine of the two kingdoms that holds that there are two spheres, “the one divine, holy, supernatural, and Christian, and the other worldly, profane, natural, and un“Christian.” This reading of Luthers doctrine, shaped (or deformed) by the Enlightenments apotheosis of reason in opposition to faith, finalized the severing of that which was “Christian” from that which was “profane.” The upshot over time was that human beings came to see the worldly domain as one in which they reigned as masters. The roots of totalitarianism lay in uninhibited human striving and willing, in which man begins to adore himself, denies the Cross, denies the Mediator and Reconciler, and has fallen out with the created world.
Bonhoeffer insists that deifying mans sovereignty promotes Western godlessness. Faithfulness to Luther, rightly understood, requires that we accept our status as creatures whose actions are always partial and limited. We must distinguish the legitimate order of government from perversions which lead that order to overstep its appropriate boundaries. Legitimate government involves responsibility for limited tasks; within its limits and under normal circumstances, we do owe it obedience. But we do not owe government our very selves. The individuals “duty of obedience is binding . . . until government directly compels him to offend against divine commandment, that is to say, until government openly denies its divine commission and thereby forfeits its claims . . . . If government violates or exceeds its commission at any point . . . then at this point, indeed, obedience is to be refused, for consciences sake, for the Lords sake.”
Government, then, is neither to be “diabolized” nor idolized. Religious belief always relativizes the claims of public life even as it calls us into stewardship and communal life. To sustain and support this balance, a strong and robust theology is necessary. Such a theology is conservative in the sense of claiming and clinging to what Bonhoeffer, in his prison letters, called the “full content” of the New Testament, for “the New Testament is not a mythological clothing of a universal truth; this mythology (resurrection, etc.) is the thing itself.”
Because Bonhoeffer never penned a full“fledged justification of his refusal to obey the Nazi state and his determination to resist even unto death, he has been turned by too many into a kind of all“purpose resister or radical. This he was not. He was a courageous man and serious theologian who saw such resistance as a tragic exception”a dire necessity”but only when it was clear that
time had, indeed, become diabolical. But each state at any time must be viewed with a skepticism burnished by faith, a skepticism that helps to sustain a certain distance from any center of human power but especially that power lodged in an entity that is, as Max Weber had it, the legitimate repository of the means of violence. The state always bears watching.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.
]]>The Politics of the Possiblehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/11/004-the-politics-of-the-possible
Sun, 01 Nov 1998 00:00:00 -0500 Raymond Aron: The Recovery of The Political
By Brian C. Anderson
Rowman & Littlefield. 215 pages, $58 cloth, $19.95
]]> Bonhoeffer and the Sovereign Statehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1996/08/bonhoeffer-and-the-sovereign-state
Thu, 01 Aug 1996 00:00:00 -0400The decision to attempt the assassination of Hitler, to “cut off the head of the snake,” was difficult for many of the conspirators involved in the 1945 “July 20th Plot.” But it was particularly tormenting for the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had long felt the attraction of pacifism and who had planned a sojourn in India with Gandhi. Some of Bonhoeffer’s later readers have looked to his writings for a general rationale for opposing tyrannical power even to the point of violence. But they have been disappointed, for Bonhoeffer never penned a full-fledged justification of his determination to resist.
]]>Essays in Understandinghttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1994/11/essays-in-understanding
Tue, 01 Nov 1994 00:00:00 -0500 Books about Hannah Arendt have been proliferating at a brisk pace. Now there is a new book by Arendt herself, a collection of pieces that span the tumultuous twenty-five year period from 1930 to the mid-fifties. It does boggle the mind. Nazism, fascism, Stalinism, the beginning of the Cold War, the atom bomb, crises of belief and unbelief among Christians and Communists and liberal democrats alike. Arendt had an opinion about nearly everything of political importance, and she formed a judgment-for her the most important of all political faculties is that of judging-on all the issues and figures and philosophic problems that engaged and vexed her. And her judgments were unfailingly issued in a decisive manner; indeed, for some she was altogether too Olympian. My hunch is that one reason her stock has risen in the years since her death in 1974 is precisely because she offers such a sharp contrast to the sheer mushiness that often passes for political thinking at present.
Arendt, politics is not about feeling your pain. It is about understanding what of the pain people feel has to do with politics and about what politics can do to resolve our common dilemmas. This means tending to the limits of what politics can do as well. Feelings rapidly become subjectivist and limitless. Understanding, by contrast, is concrete and limited, framed by the perils and possibilities of a specific moment in time and space. Understanding can be challenged and is compelled to respond to an alternative argument or interpretation. Feelings are not open to critical challenge in the same way. To base politics on feelings or empathy is, for Arendt, a disaster, drawing politics in on projects that politics, by definition, is ill-equipped to handle. In making her judgments she sometimes bruised the feelings of others. I am not particularly agreeable, Arendt says of herself in an interview included in this collection, nor am I very polite; I say what I think.
What, then, on the basis of this collection did she think? Wide-ranging and somewhat uneven, as any decent anthology is bound to be, there is much food for thought-from appetizers to dessert-here gathered. First and foremost, of course, is Arendts defense of politics itself against its detractors. These detractors run the gamut from totalitarians to systematic philosophers to social science methodologists. The totalitarian must destroy politics and in its place substitute terror. Totalitarians traffic in ideology, and ideology lends an absolute authority to a social situation: the ideologist believes himself to be in the grip of a compulsion-an iron hand of necessity-of such force that he is himself helpless against it. He is but a tool in the hands of destiny. It has been characteristic of our history-conscious century that its worst crimes have been committed in the name of some kind of necessity or in the name-and this amounts to the same thing-of the wave of the future, Arendt writes. Those who give themselves over to an ideology go on automatic pilot as the corpses mount. Tyranny, she says, is the hubristic attempt to be like God, invested with power individually, in complete solitude. Others then become merely grist for ones mill. It is against these makers of history that a free society has to defend itself, regardless of the vision they harbor, she insists, and this goes for idealistic Communists as well as cynical fascists.
Arendt is very clear that terror is not simply a tool of the totalitarian but is the very essence of his system. Thus, the concentration camps are the laboratories in the experiment of total domination, for human nature being what it is, this goal can be achieved only under extreme circumstances of a human-made hell. Total domination is achieved only when that dreadful point is reached at which the human person-who is always a specific mixture of spontaneity and being conditioned-has been transformed into an altogether conditioned entity. What the totalitarian strives to achieve is a reduced human being, one who is a bundle of reliable reactions.
That, oddly enough, is what social science of a certain sort yearns for too. Arendt does not, to be sure, collapse terror and social science into one another, but surely practitioners of social science as a
enterprise must squirm at her insistence that the drive to eliminate every trace of spontaneity is shared by all control freaks of the twentieth century. It is not surprising, therefore, that when American political scientists hit upon the notion that the study of politics, in order to be a science, had to predict what people would do, they called their project the behaviorist revolution. What they would measure, quantify, and model was human behavior. Human action falls outside the reach of such methodology. If one redefines what humans do as
, one has trimmed the human person down to the appropriate size for the scientific study of politics. Arendt saw this as the diminished and diminishing enterprise that it was.
What, then, of philosophy? One problem with philosophys relation to politics is that the philosopher is often driven to conclusions by his own internally consistent system. Here again, Arendt presses one of those analogies that distressed so many. Hitler, she claims, was a man of logic if one defines logic as the capability to press on to conclusions with a total disregard for all reality and all experience . . . . Philosophy is similarly suspect to the political thinker, in part because of its drive to systematize, to reach inevitable and exhaustive conclusions. This helps one to understand why Arendt avoided calling herself a political philosopher. There is, for her, a vital tension between philosophy and politics. In fact, most political philosophies have their origin in the philosophers negative and sometimes even hostile attitude toward the
and the whole realm of human affairs.
When philosophers engage the political realm they tend to demand of it what it cannot offer-not, at least, without violent wrenchings-and even then the solution to the uncertainty and instability of politics- namely, permanence, an unflappable calm, a smoothly managed, mechanically humming affair-is bound to be short-lived. But the concept of freedom, a concept that is not for Arendt primarily an individual, but rather a political, good, is inconceivable outside of plurality, and this plurality includes not only different ways but different principles of life and thought. A universal society can only signify a threat to freedom. The philosophers quest for the universal overshoots the mark and, in lesser hands, breeds only the quietude of tyrannical suppression of human plurality, a peace of the sort St. Augustine rebuked in his mocking riposte that, in the matter of the Pax Romana, Peace and war had a contest in cruelty and peace won the prize.
What does Arendt offer in place of the horrible realities of twentieth century politics, the hubris of philosophy, and the witlessness of social science pretense? Her insistence that one cannot leap-frog over the concrete existence of the individual. In a wonderful discussion of Kierkegaard, she gives his polemic against Hegel high marks, for in Kierkegaards view, philosophy is so caught up in its own systematics that it forgets and loses sight of the actual self of the philosophizing subject: it never touches the individual in his concrete existence. Kierkegaards ironic rebuff of Hegel (in his very funny
) is a rejoinder to any and every philosophical system that interprets history as a logically comprehensible sequence of events and a process that follows an inevitable course. For Arendt, the beginning of political wisdom lies in an unwavering commitment to the individual and to a community of individuals-a plurality, not a mass.
From that commitment, Arendt draws another: a determination to resist notions of collective guilt or exoneration in favor of the far greater task of assessing responsibility. The context in which she writes about this is the terrible one of coming to grips with what happened in Nazi Germany. Arendts fear was that the victorious Allies would make no distinction as to responsibility and that German anti-fascists will suffer from defeat equally with German fascists . . . . Although that particular moment has passed, the issue is one that will not soon go away. Arendt repudiates any notion of racial taint or historic guilt. Were she alive she would warn us sternly about the temptations and dangers of current appeals to racial or ethnic identity-to black rage or white guilt and the like. These antipolitical quests must come to grief of one sort or another.
Arendt cautions as well against the seductive dangers inherent in all
appeals to global ends. There are perverse forms of internationalism-those that find loyalty to finite and limited political bodies contemptible. She never engages in the idolatry of the particular political identity of the citizen of one state by contrast to some other. By the same token, however, she refuses to take refuge in the notion that perpetual peace will be possible only when all particular loyalties are vanquished and we have become citizens of a world society. This ersatz universal citizenship is as dubious as are notions of collective guilt or innocence, operating as it does at a level far removed from the concrete tasks of daily life and political responsibility respectful of our individuality and our plurality.
Her discussion of these matters is driven in part by her concern with anti-Semitism. The anti-Semite finds in the historic irreducibility of the Jewish people an obstacle to the achievement of a homogeneous national identity or, for the especially ambitious, a transnational world order. The Jew for the anti-Semite embodies the scandal of particularity. Arendt certainly does not mean to object to political or religious values that transcend national boundaries (democracy, Christianity) but she takes strong exception to any and all attempts to implement a project of globalization as a political end or ideological quest.
Finally, Arendt tellingly warns against complacent endorsements of the democratic enterprise that may not prove robust enough to sustain it over time. Her target here is the American pragmatist John Dewey. In a prescient piece written in 1946, Arendt goes to the heart of the problem with Deweys pragmatism: What makes it so difficult to review this philosophy is that it is equally hard to agree or to disagree with it. She finds Dewey out of touch with reality, smug in his endorsement of a teleology of progress, certain that the past with its slaves and serfs was evil by contrast to the sunny prospects of the present. Dewey frustrates her-she finds that his arguments vaporize as soon as she begins to press them. Arendt would be even less pleased with the thinner version of Dewey compressed into the work of Richard Rorty. Rorty, too, is a happy apostle of progress and it is the seduction of progress-its tendency to lull our judging faculty to sleep-that most worries Arendt about the American democratic experiment. She cites approvingly-and it is worth concluding here-Walter Benjamins dark vision: The angel of history . . . turns his face to the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which unremittingly piles ruins on ruins and hurls them at his feet. He wishes he could stay-to awaken the dead and to join together the fragments. But a wind blows from Paradise, gets caught in his wings and is so strong that the angel cannot close them. This wind drives him irresistibly into the future to which he turns his back, while the pile of ruins before him towers to the skies. What we call progress is this wind.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is author of
Democracy on Trial
, her 1993 Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, forthcoming from Basic Books.
Sat, 01 Oct 1994 00:00:00 -0400 We are a society awash in exculpatory strategies. We’ve devised lots of fascinating ways to let ourselves or others off the hook: all one need do is think of recent, well-publicized trials to appreciate the truth of this. We Americans are at present being bombarded with sensationalistic tales of victimization and equally sensationalistic proclamations of immunity from responsibility. Alternately bemused and troubled by the Oprah Winfreyization of American life, I sometimes think of my grandmother.
Dear Grandma (may she rest in peace) knew how to judge. She was tough as nails on people she found despicable or merely wanting. She chewed them out in her low German dialect (being a Volga German,
was not her tongue), and we grandchildren could figure out a thing or two. We knew when she was describing someone as “swinish” or “dirty,” these being ways to characterize those who stole from others, beat their wives or their livestock, or abused their children. (Women, of course, could be abusers, too.) We missed a good bit of her assessments, though, as it was the policy of my grandmother, my mother, and Aunts Mary and Martha not to teach us
. When Grandma was really on a roll and wanted nothing less than to condemn someone to perdition, her favorite judging word was “Russki.” Hearing it sent a frisson through our tender flesh and bones. The last time I heard her say this I was forty-three or forty-four years old and it still frightened me, not quite out of my wits, but I remained convinced, as I had been since the age of five or six when I had acquired some inkling of what was at stake, that that person was doomed, no two ways about it.
“Russki” was her shorthand judgment on the garden-variety cheat, the ordinary bum, the farmer who shortchanged his hired hands, or the mother who kept her kids in dirty clothes, let their noses run, and never washed their hair. Why “Russki” as a term of judgment? That was historic overdetermination. It was the Russians who had begun to undermine the historic immunities of the Volga German communities. Under Tsar Nicholas, on the throne when my grandparents’ families emigrated to the New Country from what my grandmother always called the Old Country, their sons were being drafted into the Russian Army; and they were so fearful that they hid their Bibles (Luther’s German translation) in secret places.
I suppose my grandmother would be a good candidate for sensitivity training. She is beyond the reach of the enthusiasts of pop psychology with its quivering “non-judgmentalism,” having died at the age of ninety-four two years ago, but it gives me a shiver of another sort (one of delight) to imagine a confrontation between Grandma and a “facilitator,” eyes agleam with programmed goodness, saying things like, “Now, Mrs. Lind,
do you feel that way?” Or: “Don’t you think that’s a little harsh? Have you considered how hurtful such words can be?” Probably the facilitator would want to take a good look at my mother, and, in addition to Aunts Mary and Martha, Uncle Bill and Uncle Ted, too, no doubt damaged beyond repair, having been reared by such a no-nonsense judger. Good luck! I doubt they would have the slightest inkling of what she was going on about. There was no room in the family idiom for evasions of responsibility and you would find yourself the subject of an assessment of a rather decisive sort if you tried one.
No doubt from time to time my grandmother and her children rushed to judgment. I know my sisters and brothers and I sometimes wished Mom wouldn’t embarrass us in public by being so, well, decisive in her assessment of things—more than once delivered up in front of those being assessed, too. I recall wanting to seek the nearest exit on more than once occasion. But then I thought, even at the time, better this than someone agreeable and eternally smiling, like my nemesis, the mother of Judy Belcher (not her real name), who was a “pal” to her daughter. They “talked about everything,” especially “boyfriends” and “fashion,” and they liked to “have fun together.” I found this pretty disgusting. I still do. Judging seems to run in the family.
But to say this is not to say much. For what is at stake is the capacity to make judgments as an ethical issue of the gravest sort, and along with it, the discernment of what it means to judge well. In other words, we need a clear sense of why judging is important and what is involved in the activity of judging, and we need a way to distinguish between rash judging—not judging well—and the kind of judging that lies at the heart of what it means to be a self-respecting human subject in a community of other equally self-respecting subjects.
Judging has been in bad odor for quite some time in American culture. It is equated with being punitive, or with insensitivity, or with various “phobias” and “isms.” It is the mark of antiquated ways of thinking, feeling, and willing. Better, no doubt, to be something called “open-minded,” a trait thought to be characteristic of sensitive and supportive persons. A young woman well known to me reports that she and her fellow teachers at one of the elite New York public high schools were enjoined not to make students “feel bad” by being too decisive in their assessments of student work and effort. I breathed a sigh of recognition when she told me this; it is the sort of thing one hears in the higher reaches of the academy, too. In fact, this attitude is everywhere, even on bumper stickers. At least some of the readers of this essay will have sighted a bumper sticker that reads: “A Mind is Like a Parachute. It Works Best When It Is Open.” Yes, indeed, one wants to counter, the more open—meaning the more porous and thin—the better. A rather more convenient way of being in the world than being called upon to discriminate in the old—best—sense of the word. An open mind of the sort celebrated by the bumper sticker may signify an empty head, a person incapable of those acts of discernment we call “judging,” one who is, in fact, driven to see in such acts mere prejudice.
But prejudice and judgment are two very different human possibilities; indeed, the more we proliferate prejudices, free from the scrutiny of that discernment we aim to evade, the less capable we are, over time, of making judgments. An example or two, in line with Kant’s insistence that “Examples are the go-cart of judgments,” may suffice. When I first began university teaching, in 1973, I taught a course called “Feminist Politics and Theory.” I taught it for several years until I decided the tumult was too much to put up with semester after semester. One problem I encountered went like this. I had designed the course as a sustained exercise in assessing, and critically contrasting, competing feminist accounts of culture and politics. I asked my students to engage certain questions that presupposed their capacity for judgment: What sort of picture of the human condition is presented by this theorist? Could her prescription for change be implemented? How? What would the world look like if it were? And so on. But I ran into trouble straight-off for, in the eyes of many of my students, what I was supposed to be doing was condemning that big booming abstraction, Patriarchy, for fifty minutes three times a week. I was supposed to embrace, not criticize, feminist doctrines—all of them—even though the ideas of the radical separatist feminists scarcely comported with those of liberal feminists on many issues. Needless to say, the Marxist feminists and the eco-feminists didn’t see eye-to-eye on lots of things either.
Students sometimes showed up in my office bereft and troubled. One told me she had been a feminist since she was fourteen and didn’t need to hear feminism criticized. Another told me she was so “upset” by my criticism of the text of a feminist who proposed test-tube reproduction and a world run by beneficent cyber-engineers, and so “shocked” at my insistence that she respond to a series of questions asking her to sift, discriminate, and assess this text and others, that she had complained to, and sought refuge in, a support group at the women’s center. Yet another refused to write a paper contrasting Freud’s essays on female development with what the psychoanalytic feminists were doing with Freud because “Freud was a cancer-ridden, cigar-smoking misogynist.” This expression of prejudice was not an authentic moment of judging, of course, not least because the student had refused to read the assigned texts. She was repeating a prejudice, not forming a judgment.
A teacher quickly wearies of this sort of thing because it undermines the presuppositions that guide and help to constitute the pedagogical enterprise, one of the most important of these suppositions being that students are capable of weighing alternatives with a generosity of spirit and quality of discernment that makes their subsequent judgments at least plausible if not unassailable. I have always been fond of a pithy sentence in a letter Freud wrote to his fiancee, Martha: “A human being must be able to pull himself together to form a judgment, otherwise he turns into what we Viennese call a
[doormat].” Apart from being stepped on, what is the problem with persons as doormats? Precisely this: they have sloughed off that which is theirs to do—to enter a community of judging, meaning that one can see error and try to put it right, one can distinguish the more from the less important, one can appropriately name phenomena and act accordingly. As an example of the latter, think of the distinction to be marked between “misfortune” and an “injustice” and what we are enjoined to do whether we confront one or the other. Now Freud was not urging Martha to be cruel or incapable of compassion or forgiveness; rather, he was urging her to stiffen her spine a bit, to stand up for herself, and not to shrink from acts of assessment and discernment.
Judging involves calling things by their real names, embracing the difficult recognition that what Hannah Arendt called “an enormously enlarged empathy” does not in itself suffice to sustain the capacity for that critical thinking we call judging. Arendt had little use for those who treated adults as if they were children by spoon-feeding them palatable “truths” rather than the harder truths of life and politics. If we over-assimilate our situation to that of others, and pretend that we are “at one” with them, we may lose the point at which we leave off and they begin. We are then in danger of losing the faculty of judgment that, for Arendt, consists in “thinking the particular” and through this concrete act reaching for more general conclusions and truths.
Why is judging—what Arendt called the preeminent political faculty—at a nadir among us? Surely much of the explanation lies in the triumph of the ideology of victimization coupled with self-esteem mania. The two are, of course, closely linked. Examples are so numerous it is hard to pick and choose. Take one from the public schools. By now most discerning citizens are familiar with the study showing that American schoolchildren scored much lower on math accomplishment tests than did their counterparts from several other societies—even while these same Americans were the ones who “felt best” about their math ability. Here the emphasis on “feeling good” by contrast to concrete accomplishment results in students being incapable of an accurate discernment of where they really stand on their math ability. Here is a second story, this from the literary front. My son is an aspiring poet and he finds increasingly depressing the many moments, whether in class or out, when a poem that is weak in execution and flat in evocative power is embraced as something “real” and important because it speaks about the poet’s own undigested experiences, which by definition can never be assessed and criticized. In other words, the self-referential prejudices of our time swamp a cooler set of criticisms and judgments, and wind up making a triumph of something rather petty. In the process, the work of those young men and women who really struggle with form and language and getting it right is trivialized, their accomplishments discounted. In some circles, if you carefully and precisely criticize a weak poem, you may face censure because the poem and its author’s psyche or identity are at one; thus, you find yourself in the position of criticizing her (or his) life, given the utter collapse of one into the other, when what you really want to do is to explain why you think this isn’t a very good poem.
The culture of victimization, then, and the triumph of pop-psych notions of “self-esteem,” in contrast to a self capable of discernment and judging well, seems a pretty clear source of our discontents in this matter. Of course, any decent person is concerned about victims, and there are
victims in our less than perfect world. But that is not the issue. An ideology of victimization (of the feminist sort) casts women as victims of male oppression from the very beginning of time; indeed, female victimization has taken on foundational status. But this victim ideology diverts attention from concrete and specific instances of female victimization in favor of pushing a relentless worldview structured around such dichotomies as victim/victimizer, guilty/innocent, tainted/pure. The female victim, construed as innocent, remains somehow free from sin. Remember Arendt’s insistence, following Kant, that judging “is the faculty of thinking the particular.” An ideology of victimization—with its harsh and exaggerated polemicism— actually hurts the cause of women’s rights, for it provides grounds for callous or sexist individuals to deprecate the claims of actual victims.
Victimization ideology is little more than a politics of resentment, given the growing body of evidence demonstrating that women, though they often have been victims of injustice, have played a variety of active roles throughout history and in every culture. Of course, who didn’t know that? It is quite incredible that one must make this point against those who, in the name of feminism, promote the generic prejudice that women are victims
. Our world is filled with noisy forces urging us to refrain from judging precisely in the name of justice. This dangerous nonsense is in evidence in every issue of any daily newspaper anywhere. The jurors in the Reginald Denny beating case decided not to convict because the thugs who smashed a man’s face to an unrecognizable pulp and exulted for the cameras as if they had just made the winning touchdown at a Superbowl Game were in the grip of a “mob psychology” and could not, therefore, be judged for their specific acts of wanton, and repeated, violence. The Menendez brothers were “victims” who, although they blasted their parents numerous times with a shotgun, were not to be held accountable. We cannot judge them given what they “went through,” as one juror put it.
Take another case, one worth looking at in some detail. A woman in Nashville, Tennessee, starved her infant son to death. Turned into a robot, so it was claimed, she was unable to feed the infant even though the husband was away at work all day. Her defense was based on her having been abused by this husband even though when he got home from work, the two of them would dress up and go out on the town, frequenting sleazy bars, looking for men and women for three-way sex. Meanwhile, a baby is starving to death. Of this terrible story, victimization doctrine holds that as a victim of abuse herself, the woman, by definition, could not in turn be victimizing another. We cannot judge her actions because she is oppressed. According to her lawyers, who are now mounting an appeal, the jury that found her guilty has victimized her twice. But one who looks at victimization as a concrete and specific act would argue that, although it is terrible to be abused, for a twenty-three-year old woman with a range of options open to her (she might have given the infant to her mother to care for, as she had done with an older child) to starve an infant to death is more terrible yet. Surely, to make that assessment is not an act prompted by a harsh desire for revenge. It flows, rather, from a recognition that we are able to distinguish real victims from rhetorical ones, evil acts and crimes from less serious misdeeds.
As the lawyers for this woman said, the woman cannot be “held accountable,” and to do so is a “male deal . . . or a society deal, but some people just don’t get it.” Now, we are told, the perpetrator is a victim twice or even thrice—of that amorphous entity, society, of her husband, and of the jury that found her guilty. The woman’s mother has stepped in, proclaiming that she, too, is a “victim” for she “lost a grandson.” Notice the language: she “lost” the grandson, as if he had been misplaced, not knowingly, over a six-week period, starved to death as he lay, immobile, listless, no longer able to cry, in his own waste in a filthy crib in a locked room as his parents played out their fantasies with male and female prostitutes. This is nigh unbelievable, but there it is. Even if this awful case gets turned back on appeal, we—all of us—are in danger of being worn down by arguments of this sort; hence, the more likely it is that, at some future point, we will have forgotten what it means to hold this person accountable in
particular horrible deed.
Let’s pursue this just a bit further, depressing as it is, because the elimination of the possibility of judgment, the evacuation of the very capacity of judging, would spell the end of the human subject as a self-respecting, accountable being. Judging is a sign, a mark, of our respect for the dignity of others and ourselves. We are surrounded by various strategies of exculpation—ways to evade responsibility for a situation or an outcome should one happen to be a member of an “oppressed” or “victimized” group. In a recent book,
The Alchemy of Race and Rights
, the author, Patricia Williams, plays the victim card to achieve both ends simultaneously. Acknowledging that the Tawana Brawley accusations in the now-notorious 1988 scandal were part of a hoax, Williams suggests that that doesn’t really matter. For Brawley was a victim of “some unspeakable crime.” “No matter how she got there. No matter who did it to her—and even if she did it to herself.” That is, even if Brawley injured herself, “her condition was clearly the expression of some crime against her, some tremendous violence, some great violation that challenges comprehension.” Brawley was the victim of a “meta-rape,” and this secures both her victim status and legitimates the power plays of those who cynically manipulated the situation. These latter escape judgment; and Brawley cannot be judged either. But the “society” that somehow “did” this to her on a “meta” level becomes responsible given the prejudice that in a “racist” society all African Americans are victims of the dominant “metanarrative.” Consider the alternative view of black possibility and responsibility noted by Stephen Carter: