Commentary Magazine

Personal & Political

To the Editor:

I suppose that, sooner or later, I was bound to get a review of Democracy on Trial written by a critic who remains smitten with the 1960’s. Imagine my surprise that the reviewer, Adam Wolfson, is a conservative and that the review appeared in COMMENTARY [Books in Review, April], a journal to which I have subscribed for a number of years. Mr. Wolfson is rather like the U.S. State Department: the Soviet Union has fallen, oh dear, what are we to do? Thus, Mr. Wolfson: the 60’s are over, oh dear, what am I to do? And the answer, of course, is that Mr. Wolfson keeps the 60’s—or his version of them—alive and well by cataloguing with great care all their many “grotesqueries.” That unmistakable frisson at the mention of the word “Dylan.” That delicious adrenalin rush at the sound “Beatles.” Ah, what dangerous folks they were, and are, in Mr. Wolfson’s supercharged world.

The odd thing, of course, is that no Kennedy or John Lennon or Bob Dylan or any other 60’s icon, save for Martin Luther King, appears in Democracy on Trial, although I yield to none in my undying affection for Dylan and the Beatles. Reading the book through paisley-colored lenses, Mr. Wolfson seems to have missed my references—and indebtedness—to Jefferson, Lincoln, Tocqueville, Arendt, Havel, Willa Cather, Richard Rodriguez, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Reinhold Niebuhr, Thomas and Mary Edsall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John of Salisbury (that 12th-century hippie), and John Paul II (perhaps, unbeknownst to me, John Paul spent part of the 60’s in a commune).

But, all in all, Mr. Wolfson is really a bit of a tease. Lest anyone rush out to buy the book panting for a megadose of 60’s counterculturalism, I should offer a few bits of truth in advertising. Frank Rich of the New York Times appears in the preface, where I use his rueful comments on the passing of Richard Nixon as an opening to bid farewell to one of my own hangovers, called “hating Nixon.” I decided it was time to bid adieu to a hate that came too easily—reserving room, of course, for a robust critique, but that is something else. How strange, therefore, that this should be taken by Mr. Wolfson as an act of nostalgia. Christopher Hitchens is drawn in by me in order to show there is disagreement on the Left about speech codes; Cornel West to remind us that we must not throw out the early democratic baby with the slavery bathwater; etc.

But enough. Given that the entire focus of my work—from beginning to end—has been an argument against self-absorption; given that the use of journal material Mr. Wolfson finds offensive appears in another book entirely (Women and War) as part of a narrative play on first-person accounts by soldiers; given that the mention of “consciousness raising” appears in yet another book’s acknowledgments (Public Man, Private Woman, first published in 1981) and is accompanied by an account of the attack by some feminists on what other feminists had to say as part of the process—as if there were only one way to “raise consciousness”—and, moreover, that a single mention or two of consciousness-raising in a book of over 300 pages seems scarcely “ostentatious,” I am left with a real puzzler: who is this “Elshtain” about whom Mr. Wolfson writes?

Whatever Mr. Wolfson may have been doing in the 1960’s, I was primarily engaged in raising babies and going to school. Self-absorption was never an option. I missed out on that one. And, since Mr. Wolfson suggests a passing familiarity with my oeuvre, he surely recollects my lament in Women and War that there was all too much war-likeness in the antiwar movement. But, above all, it is an act of massive bad faith (or egregious misreading) for him to saddle me with a position I have spent my entire adult life criticizing, whether propounded by giants in the canon of Western political thought or contemporary feminists, namely, the view that family relations are “purely instrumental” and are to be made “subservient to the ends of the polis”—or to a movement of any kind. This goes entirely against the grain of my published work—which runs to thousands of pages by now—and, I should add, my life and the way I live it. I would refer the interested reader to the discussion of the chastening of patriotism in Women and War and the sketch of an “ethical polity” in Public Man, Private Woman or, for that matter, the argument against pitiless revolutionaries in Democracy on Trial.

Mr. Wolfson accuses me of “inadvertently” holding hands with writers in the “politics-of-difference” school. This is ludicrous and carried out through sleight-of-hand. On Mr. Wolfson’s view, if one disagrees—as do I—that Thomas Hobbes should be located as one of the “founders of modern liberal democracy,” one by definition joins hands with all who disdain “negative liberty” and individual rights. This is scarcely fair play or decent logic, to say the least, and it serves only one purpose: to perpetuate the dismal state of our political discourse by driving wedges where no insurmountable barriers to a culture of democratic argument need exist. Thus Mr. Wolfson’s suggestion that “Elshtain,” as youth and adult, remains “too alienated from the sources of American democracy to be a helpful guide to their rehabilitation” is a coup de grâce that follows from his own flawed logic rather than from my argument.

Perhaps there is not much I, or anyone else, can do by way of rehabilitating our democracy. But “Elshtain” as a fifteen-year-old youth named Jean Bethke wrote an essay for a 4-H Club speech contest on “What America Means to Me.” Lincoln was in there, I recall, but mostly my speech was a paean of love and appreciation to a country to which I quite readily pledged civic allegiance as a faithful if, at times, critical citizen.

Jean Bethke Elshtain
Nashville, Tennessee



Adam Wolfson Writes:

In her book, Democracy on Trial, Jean Bethke Elshtain warns against a form of political discourse prevalent on the Left that would reduce the political to the personal. Further, she urges that we “reach out once more to our fellow citizens from a stance of good will and work to defuse our discontents.” I guess that does not include me. Her response to my review is nothing more than a hysterical attack, accusing me of being a “tease” and of loathing hippies and rock music, and demanding to know where I was in the 1960’s. (Incidentally, I never said that all the 60’s “icons” I named appeared in Democracy on Trial, only that they were sprinkled throughout Mrs. Elshtain’s work.)

I will not respond to her accusations in kind, for, as I made clear in my review, I happen to agree with her that the politics of “rage” (as she has labeled it) is hardly conducive to a healthy exchange of ideas, or even bare civility. Were she to revisit my review, she would also notice that I commend her for “the many sharp and true things she has to say about our current troubles,” namely, her proper concern over the disintegration of America’s civil society and the antidemocratic nature of the politics of many feminists and multiculturalists. However, as I argue in my review, and as her letter amply illustrates, she remains deeply misguided on these important issues.

Since she does not respond to the points I raised in my review, allow me to repeat why her book is so disappointing. The basic problem is that Mrs. Elshtain remains entranced by the left-wing ideological assault on liberal democracies. Thus, for example, her welcome critique of identity politics is crippled by her belief that the feminist move to politicize the private was “exciting and transformative,” as well as by her belief that liberal tolerance needs to be supplanted by a substantive recognition of difference.

Mrs. Elshtain complains that I have saddled her with the view that family relations are to be made subservient to the ends of the polis, a view she claims she has spent her entire life criticizing. I wrote nothing of the kind. In fact, I praised her for “unrelentingly” criticizing the radical wing of the feminist movement, which tends to hold views hostile to the traditional family. What I did observe was that, in her search for solutions to the breakdown of civil society, she turns for the most part not to sources within the liberal tradition (of which, in many of her works, she is quite critical) but, oddly, to Pericles (no great defender of the bourgeois family). Further, she calls for a “new social covenant” and asks that “government . . . find a way to respond to people’s deepest concerns.” She does not seem to realize that this sort of mindset, which became prevalent in the 1960’s, is itself partly responsible for the decline of liberal-democratic civil society.

Mrs. Elshtain concludes her diatribe by expressing pessimism as to the prospects of rehabilitating our democracy. This is, of course, the important question. Yet for her the salient political questions characteristically get tangled up with her life story, providing another example of how for her the personal is political after all. Thus, we learn that in the 1960’s she was busy “raising babies and going to school,” and that “a fifteen-year-old youth named Jean Bethke” wrote a speech that was a “paean of love and appreciation” to America. I commend her for these sentiments, but wish that she would heed the advice she so glibly offers in her book to others: “If there are no distinctions between public and private, personal and political, . . . genuine politics ceases to exist,” leaving only “pervasive force, coercion, and manipulation.” Words to live up to.

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