Uncommon Sense | Feature | Chicago Reader

Uncommon Sense 

Feminist or antifeminist? Lefty liberal or right-wing conservative? Intellectual street fighter Jean Bethke Elshtain knows there's no such thing as a simple solution.

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By Harold Henderson

For all I know, by the time this book is published my view...may be the generally accepted one. But what use would that be in itself? To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment."

--George Orwell, preface to Animal Farm

If there's anything Jean Bethke Elshtain can't stand it's sentimentalism. Somehow she managed to watch this summer's political party conventions anyway. "I saw Christopher Reeve's speech, and I think he's dealing very well with a terrible tragedy. Who could be so churlish as to disagree with him when he called for more funding for spinal research?"

Who indeed? "Well, I do disagree. Most spinal injuries are incurred by people engaging in risky activities. In a world where you have to make choices, where there are limited resources--a world where politics is unavoidable--I think that that money might be better spent on well-baby clinics. But if you say that, you're bad. Your heart isn't throbbing."

Elshtain's heart does throb, but she knows that making society work takes more than a gush of feeling. Just feeling sorry for people won't do it. You have to think, debate, and choose one good thing over another--and recognize that sometimes there are no good solutions. You have to act like a responsible citizen in a democracy instead of a weepy couch potato.

Elshtain is a grandmother with a ready smile and a contrarian turn of mind. A feminist, she gave up teaching a course titled "Feminist Politics and Theory" years ago because too many students wanted their convictions massaged, not analyzed. ("I was supposed to be...condemning that big booming abstraction, patriarchy, for 50 minutes three times a week. I was supposed to embrace, not criticize, feminist doctrines--all of them.")

A Lutheran, her long-standing attraction to the Catholic Church has led some friends and colleagues to think she's Catholic.

A political scientist, she disdains the Machiavellian "realism" (think Henry Kissinger) fashionable in that discipline. Since 1972 she has taught at prestigious schools--the University of Massachusetts, Yale, Oberlin, Vanderbilt, and beginning last year the University of Chicago's Divinity School. But she remains uneasy with the academy's cerebral cult of abstraction. "Having had polio as a child and given birth to my own first child at age 19, bodies loom rather large in my scheme of things."

Most important to her these days is the idea that it takes two parents and a village to raise a child. But she scorched both Hillary Rodham Clinton's book It Takes a Village and Children's Defense Fund head Marian Wright Edelman's Guide My Feet in a review in the March 4 New Republic. Having grown up in Timnath, Colorado (population 185), in the 1940s and '50s, Elshtain doesn't have to imagine life in a small, close-knit community. She knows that real neighbors are a peculiar, prying lot. In Timnath, she recalls, they shamed a wife beater into stopping--and looked askance at a woman who didn't match socks when she hung her laundry out to dry. The best parts of both books, according to Elshtain, are the authors' reminiscences of similarly checkered but nurturing small-town surroundings. The problem is that Clinton implies, and Edelman states outright, that as political players in Washington, D.C., they can do what their parents did--but on a different scale.

Nonsense, says Elshtain. Real-life neighboring doesn't translate in any easy or obvious way into a political position. "Scale makes all the difference," she writes in the New Republic. "You cannot mother a country the way you mother your own children. To convince herself of the romantic continuity of her own life, Edelman must downgrade the special, ongoing responsibility that parents have to their concrete, particular children. Indeed, she decries our unfortunate tendency to 'distinguish between our own and other people's children.' But how can any human being not do precisely that?"

A well-baby clinic or child-labor law can't substitute for a good neighbor or a good parent, Elshtain says. This isn't to say that neighbors and parents are good and government services bad--they're just different. To confuse the two is, well, sentimental. But that's just what Clinton does in her book. According to Elshtain, she "extends the metaphor of the village to the breaking point--no, beyond it. Clinton's village...has become a juggernaut of parents, or whatever is left of parents, neighbors, or whatever is left of neighbors, judges, lawyers, the police, all educators everywhere, politicians (the 'non-regressive' ones), the media (good and very bad), doctors, psychiatrists, child welfare bureaus, 'civil society,' the food industry, the clothing industry. This is a boundary-less village. How, then, does it pitch in to raise a child?"

A prolific writer, Elshtain enjoys the widest print audience in the United States--in ideological bandwidth, not numbers. Who else in the last year has been published or interviewed in (reading from left to right) In These Times, the Utne Reader, the New Republic, Commentary, and First Things? "I can't think of anyone else," she says.

"I didn't set out to cover the waterfront. I started out [in the early 1970s] publishing in the left-wing journals of opinion." But now, "I'd have to say that being widely published is a strategy. I feel I have to model what I'm calling for--the restoration of robust civic discourse. This way I can engage audiences who might not be talking to each other as a kind of ambassador."

Elshtain got to do just that during an August interview on WBEZ, when she was asked about the pope's "conservatism"--a piece of media shorthand that drives her crazy, since he has criticized free-market excesses as strongly as he has abortion and contraception. "He just doesn't fit our impoverished political categories," she laments. Neither does she. "I don't like to be predictable. Not that I try to be unpredictable--but it is shockingly easy."

Elshtain never quite fit the left-wing mold, even though it was the Nation that published her breakthrough into big-time unpredictability, on the cover of its November 17, 1979, issue. Under the heading "Feminists Against the Family," she ignited a bitter controversy that still echoes in her work.

"I wrote that the left should not simply embrace individualism," she says now. "Feminists should not attack the family as such. After all, we criticize the consumer society because it undermines deeper human yearnings. Why should we seek to undermine relations that are noncontractual?" If leftists distrust the free market because it breaks communities into isolated individuals who fulfill themselves by shopping, then why spend so much energy attacking almost the only remaining institution not based on cash transactions? "In my typically sweet and gentle way I showed that Marxist, liberal, and radical feminists all shared this attack. Of course there are legitimate issues about the family, but the idea that it is an oppressive institution by definition was ridiculous."

These days any young academic who published such a piece in the Nation would expect to be denounced as a matter of course. But Elshtain was "stunned" when a storm of criticism broke. "I was a kid from Colorado, and I had just stumbled into New York sectarian politics, where they were still fighting the battles of the 1930s."

Contributors to the Nation all run that risk. Elshtain's offense went deeper. She had seen what was obvious and said it: that by extolling individual freedom above all else--and especially above the ties of family and religion--leftists were doing the work of their avowed enemy, capitalism. Elshtain wasn't making a new discovery exactly; she was just looking closely at what we were already doing without quite realizing it. Much of her writing follows a similar pattern.

The controversy over Elshtain's article occupied five full pages of the magazine the following spring--more space than her original piece took up--but none of the nine respondents laid a glove on its main point, and some of their attacks were personal. (One wrote, "Does Elshtain realize that by attacking feminism she attacks the only social movement left in America that is still working toward meaningful change?") Seriously challenging her argument evidently wasn't the point. She had described the contours of the emperor's naked body, and for that she had to be blasted.

Ever since that uproar the guardians of political correctness have dogged Elshtain, sometimes with unsubtle labels ("New Conservative Feminist," "New Family Values Crusader"), sometimes with subtle inquiries to colleagues ("Are her books considered suitable for women's studies classrooms?"). She has dogged them right back, earning from Valparaiso University theology professor Gilbert Meilaender the affectionate description "intellectual street fighter."

Recently an Utne Reader interviewer pressed her to describe today's right-wing antigovernment sensibility as fascist. Elshtain refused. "I think we titillate ourselves with words like fascist, imagining that things are really, really scary. Then, by definition, we become heroic merely by standing apart from it.

"We don't need to up the rhetorical ante. We need nuance, not grandiosity. We need to be able to articulate the distinctions between the vast array of groups, movements, and ideas that are getting lumped together as 'fascist.' Just as I think we made a huge mistake in the 1950s by rushing to label certain ideas or movements as communist, we are making a mistake when we rush to label the contemporary political climate in the U.S. as fascist....Newt may have strong ideas, but I don't think they cohere. But to his credit, he does try to engage people in debate. People committed to violence don't debate: They silence and bully.

"The fact of the matter is that I'm not big on labeling. I try to stay away from labels and to engage as much as I can on the level of ideas." Her review of Clinton's book stings, but it never gets personal.

Elshtain's own books don't always make easy reading; sometimes her prose crackles with pointed epigrams, sometimes it reads like she's thinking out loud--because she is. "Five years ago, before I began this book, I had a much clearer notion of what constituted folly and what wisdom," she writes in the preface to Women and War. "I considered military women, for example, a misguided lot for placing their bodies at the behest of the state. But then I remembered my own childhood hankering for wartime testing....Similarly, I found briefly compelling the formulation that military men are little more than a gang of grown-up boys with deadly toys....Women and War is the result of overlapping recognitions of the complexity hiding behind many of our simple, rigid ideas." Says Harvard's Jane Mansbridge, author of Why We Lost the ERA, "The book has terrific strength in its refusal to take either of the classic positions. She leaves it open-ended and contested. That's Jean. She doesn't just preach deliberation, she practices it."

For Elshtain the world got even more "smudgy," as she says, when Richard Nixon died. She was surprised to find that she couldn't gloat, even though "back in the good old bad days of the 1970s I was second to none as a Nixon loather, and I stayed glued to the radio and television, lapping up the investigation of Watergate as a starving cat does milk." Now she sees his finished saga as a sign of social strength in America, in a culture "strong enough to censure presidents and kind enough to permit them to recover their dignity through civil accomplishment."

She hasn't changed her mind about Nixon's politics. "I wouldn't go back and say I should have been for the [Vietnam] war. I would oppose it all over again. I'm not big on these huge recantations. 'I was an idiot and now I'm smart. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.' We're always stumbling around in the fog."

Elshtain has come a long way from Timnath economically (she got her first store-bought dress at age ten) and intellectually (she was allowed to continue reading Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms only by offering her mother a heavily expurgated account of its subject matter). But that village and that life still shape her view of the bigger world.

"I have a faded photo of two bowed adults, heavily clad to shield them from [the] hot midday Colorado sun, and three little overdressed girls, crawling up the sugar beet rows behind them, thinning beets by hand," she writes in her review of Hillary Clinton's book. "One of those faded children was my mother....Parents who enlisted their children in such work today would be called child abusers. Without that work, however, my grandparents would have lost their chance to go from sharecroppers to farm owners, a chance that my mother helped to secure by quitting school after the eighth grade to help save the bit of land they then owned.

"Don't get me wrong. As a general rule, children shouldn't have to labor all day in the Colorado sun. And no group of children should be stuck in such a situation as a permanent condition. But life is hard, and its necessities bear down on people. In the light of such recognitions, it is best at times to restrain ourselves and not rush to intervene and fix everything."

This stolid common sense is vintage Elshtain, but it doesn't quite satisfy. Isn't there some universal rule we can apply to tell when to restrain ourselves and when to intervene? Left-wingers seem to think we should intervene all the time--no one should ever have to work for less than $8 an hour, because it's an "injustice." Right-wingers seem capable of restraining themselves forever, shrugging off people working for less than 80 cents a day, saying it's "their choice." Is there a middle ground?

Sure there is, Elshtain says, but it's a mess of compromises and best guesses, not a bright-line rational path. "We don't have a handle on the stuff of everyday life. As lived, it eludes our categories. What my mother went through was rough, but it was the only way for them to create a life for themselves. Dropping out was a wound for her. No one looked down on her, but she always feared they would. How do you systematize that? I don't think you can.

"I think the mistake is looking for a system. Augustine"--the subject of her most recent book, Augustine and the Limits of Politics--"is good on this. He says the thing is to do the least possible harm and help your neighbor when you can. That is no small thing. Just that would make the world more decent. One reason it's indecent is that people get absorbed in these logical deliriums--Stalin, Pol Pot."

Elshtain is so determined to avoid following principles to their logical extremes that she can sound confused about specifics. "No one in his or her right mind countenances repeated acts of violence visited on the bodies of children," she wrote in her review of Clinton's book. "People who do that are criminals. But what about the frustrated parent who has exhausted other avenues of discipline and decides that a spanking is necessary? Do we call in the cops or the child service people?...I am not a family-above-all person. Some families are rotten and the children in those families should be spirited to safety as quickly as possible. But truly rotten families are, thank God, few and far between. More commonly we have good enough families or almost good enough ones. How high do we place the threshold in assessing good and bad parenting? Whose business is it, anyway?" Obviously she's not advising DCFS, but trying to set a tone of caution and respect for the limits of our expertise in human affairs.

"To resist the seduction of a system is not easy, but it's very important. Democratic politics should not be real interesting. Most of the time people should be going to work, cooking out, helping their neighbors. There shouldn't always be a catastrophe looming."

Unfortunately Elshtain does think a catastrophe is looming: American society is losing its glue. Most disturbing for the long term, she says, is that "on every index of well-being the quality of life for America's children is declining." In her view this is not because government is spending too little. She says children are doing worse because our values are wrong, because most Americans take single parenting and divorce too lightly. The tax code penalizes marriage; no-fault divorce laws make it too easy to give up on a marriage; law and culture offer little support to couples trying to get through bad times.

"The experiment in loosening up the ties that bind has been tried and...it has failed," she told the Minneapolis-based Center of the American Experiment in February 1995. "It has failed our children, it has failed our parents, and it has failed our society." Poverty is a problem, but it is not the problem, she says, and she points to a recent edition of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count Data Book to show why.

"Two groups were compared. In one group the couple--a young man and woman--completed high school, got married, and waited until age 20 to have a child. In the second group none of those things happened. The biological mother and father did not marry, neither one completed high school, and a child was born before the mother was 20 years old. In the first group...only 8 percent of the children are in poverty. In the second group...fully 79 percent of these children are in poverty. What these figures suggest is that the best antipoverty program for children is a stable, intact, two-parent family.

"Only the most rigid of individualistic orthodoxies can celebrate single-motherhood as good for either women or children....The problem of values lies at the heart of the matter--not poverty, not crime, not the lack of day care, but values. That fuels all the other issues and all the other problems."

Which values precisely? "A defense of the two-parent family and the need for children to be reared in a situation of trust, intimacy, fidelity, and security."

Conservative pundits argue this way in almost every issue of the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review. Has Elshtain become predictable at last? Not quite. She says that orthodox right-wingers simultaneously pledge allegiance to the free market and to the values she endorses--and in doing so they "commit themselves to an oxymoron. They make arguments that sound similar to mine, but the differences are striking. Often they don't think women should work outside the home, something I've never said. And they never criticize the operations of the market. Well, if you want a strict social script you have to realize that the market acts as a kind of acid that dissolves other human ties. Marx was right about that."

Elshtain is a political theorist, so she isn't always very specific about how the values she prefers are to be put into practice. Yet as a theorist--not one of the "quants," the numbers-crunching political scientists and sociologists--she had a kind of secular license to preach even before she wound up on a divinity-school faculty. (She recalls that as a youngster she wanted to follow in the footsteps of columnist Walter Lippmann.)

Her sermon on behalf of the two-parent family overstates both the problem and the certainty of the diagnosis, but she's not just imagining either one. First, the problem. How bad off are American kids? She acknowledges that when she said every aspect of their quality of life is getting worse, "I was thinking of social pathology indicators. I may have overstepped there." If we take as our standard the 1996 Kids Count Data Book of the Casey Foundation--a more recent edition of the same source she cites--she did overstep. The foundation tracks ten measurements of children's welfare in this country. From 1985 to 1993, four measurements improved (infant mortality rate, child death rate, teen dropout rate, percent of teens not working or in school), five got worse (low birth weights, teen violent death rate, teen birth rate, juvenile violent-crime arrest rate, and percentage of families with children headed by a single parent), and one stayed the same (percent of children in poverty). Things aren't wonderful for America's kids, but they're not as bad as Elshtain sometimes implies.

Second, the diagnosis. Is a lack of two-parent families at the root of the problems that do exist? Maybe so, but the numbers Elshtain cites don't prove it. Even a strong correlation between single parenthood and troubled kids doesn't prove causation. (Elshtain's adversaries make this point, but they can't prove poverty is the cause merely by showing that kids in both one- and two-parent families do better when they're not poor.)

One of the leading "quants," Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, made this point last year when she summarized the research on single motherhood for the Department of Health and Human Services: "One cannot directly compare an unmarried mother to a married mother and attribute the entire difference to consequences of nonmarital childbirth." Translation: Married high school graduates who wait until their 20s to have kids probably were different from unmarried dropout teen parents years before in other important ways. Unmarried dropout couples won't necessarily become well-off by staying in school if, for instance, they can't read or are being shot at on the way there.

McLanahan's research summary takes the edge off Elshtain's sermon but doesn't refute it: "The statistics show that living with a single parent increases [for instance] the risk of dropping out of school by a factor of two--a nontrivial effect. However, they also show that dropping out of high school would still be a problem in the U.S. even if all children were living with both parents. At best, the dropout rate would go from 18 percent to 13 percent.

"About half of the disadvantage [to] children's well-being associated with single motherhood is due to low income. Most of the rest is due to lower parental involvement and supervision and higher residential mobility."

Wouldn't the kids be better off then if single mothers got an income supplement from the government? Elshtain doesn't think so, because she doesn't believe money is likely to help when the problem is the breakdown of family and community. "I'm not opposed to giving people money," she says. "But in deteriorated social circumstances I'm not sure it will go to the welfare of children. You'd go farther by restoring decent unskilled laboring jobs that pay a living wage, reviving burnt-out communities and local institutions."

OK, then why worry about proving causation to six decimal points? Why not just work to improve kids' chances by combating economic injustice and preaching against unmarried parenthood at the same time? Even though she often hints at it, such a project leaves Elshtain surprisingly unenthusiastic. "In a perfect world with unlimited resources, maybe so. But in this world people have to make choices."

Elshtain's critics on the left are equally unenthusiastic about simultaneously fighting poverty and preaching in favor of marriage--but for different reasons. They object to sermons, period. Political scientist James Morone wrote in a recent issue of American Prospect magazine that preaching the "corrosive politics of virtue" divides Americans into good people and bad people, turns the bad people into scapegoats, and ultimately makes it impossible to build community or enact universal social programs. "The real threat is not moral decline. It is what Americans do to their own society in the name of arresting moral decline....The real answers involve sustained commitment to improving education, health care, housing, and child care; training and decent wages for parents; jobs and institutional infrastructure for communities." In other words, don't blame, just send money.

Elshtain acknowledges that the "politics of virtue" is often divisive, but she says it doesn't have to be. "People seem to find it impossible these days to put together in the same frame that we are called to judgment, but we are also called to mercy. We have to combine the recognition of weakness--we've all sinned--with the recognition that to make life less brutal we have to call people to certain standards. It seems to me that these are baby steps, but they are very hard for people to take."

Judith Stacey, a sociologist at the University of California-Davis who's clashed with Elshtain in the past, has even less use for Elshtain's sermon on behalf of two-parent families. "Harping on the superiority of married biological parents and the evils of fatherlessness injures children and parents in a wide array of contemporary families," Stacey writes in the Utne Reader. "Each type of family has strengths, vulnerabilities, and challenges, and each needs support and deserves respect. We can't coerce or preach people into successful marital or parenting relationships, but we can help them to succeed in the ones they form."

This just makes Elshtain hoot. "Just how far do you take this? Should we help the Aryan Nation succeed in being the best bigots they can be?" Of course not. Morone and Stacey would call people to certain standards too, insisting, for instance, that people not be racist. But in that case, Elshtain says, they're being inconsistent. Why is it harmful to promote two-parent families and good to sermonize against racism? She says they simply haven't thought through why they hold people to some standards and not to others. Moreover, she says, "People tend to think that making judgments means not being compassionate"--a perfect definition of sentimentalism. "But undiscriminating compassion downgrades those people who, in tough situations, don't take drugs or engage in extramarital sex. If you render no judgments at all, you're in effect telling those people they were fools for not giving in!"

Even if Elshtain's diagnosis proves right, her sermon raises one more question. Isn't she, an avowed feminist, in effect urging women back into the kitchen? That was the opinion of University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz in 1991, when she criticized a pro-two-parent-family position much like Elshtain's.

"The sacrifices necessary to stay married weigh more heavily on one sex than on the other," wrote Schwartz. "Is the newly enforced two-person family going to create better children because the mother will be at home, forgoing work or doing whatever else it takes to keep the family together? Will she be asked, yet again, to compromise her identity so that her children will have more support to work out their own? In general, most people who ask for a revivification of the family are asking for a hostage trade: wives for children."

Elshtain would like to think otherwise. "We've become so impoverished in our ethical and political imagination that we can't imagine men and women as helpmeets. And if that's not happening we should look at the structure of work life--because even when husband and wife agree, they can't always share, given the nature of work."

Here Elshtain clearly parts company with right-wingers, because she thinks government can and should make poverty less soul destroying. "Government itself has little power over the global economy [which may force both parents to work or drive down their wages]. But government can mitigate its worst effects. It could fund group homes for teen mothers that were safe, drug free, with well-baby care and parenting classes. And it could spend more on public goods--libraries, parks, places all people can go that don't cost a lot."

And then she parts company with the left as well. "Didn't feminists take a wrong turn in just cloning the male model? When the 'corporate couples' go off and make money, who takes care of the kids? Well, Nannygate answered that--some poor woman who is not paid well. That's not egalitarian, and it's not good for children.

"So you might just have to bite the bullet. [What Schwartz says] might be true. Some burdens will be disproportionately borne [by women]. That's not right, but given the structures we're dealing with, it's how things will often work out. And I think it's a neglected part of the feminist project--or a decent feminist project--to value these so-called domestic tasks more highly. The pity is not that women cooked and cleaned and cared for children, but that these tasks weren't recognized as vital civic human work."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Lloyd DeGrane.

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