and the urge to redress past wrongs motivates her in no small degree. "Part of it is wanting to give people their due. You want to do justice," she says. "I would never underestimate the urge to do justice as part of scholarship."
Perhaps it is this urge "to do justice" that has placed Elshtain at the forefront of communitarianism-a movement that has emerged in the last decade as a response to the limits of liberal theory and practice. Communitarianism stresses that individual rights need to be balanced with social responsibilities and that families and communities ought to be supported in the deeply important task of moral education. For several years, Elshtain has headed the board of the Institute on American Values and served as co-chair of the Council on Families in America, both of which support a communitarian agenda.
Elshtain is also a board member of the Women's Freedom Network, founded in 1993 by American University law professor Rita Simon, PhD'57, to serve as an alternative voice to orthodox feminist positions. "We do not feel that American women today are victims," Simon says, "nor that men are enemies." The Network opposes affirmative action, she adds, believes in the free market, and seeks to celebrate the enormous gains made by women in the last three decades.
Elshtain's associations with the Women's Freedom Network, as well as her determination to focus on families and values, has led to frequent charges that she is playing into the hands of the conservative right. "Every time I start talking about not ceding the issue of family values to the right, some feminists tell me that I'm oppressing women," Elshtain recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Especially in the academy, it's hard not to get hooted out of the room."
Indeed, Elshtain has angered feminists from the very start of her academic career. At the University of Massachusetts, where she taught from 1973 to 1987, Elshtain drew fire for including male authors on her reading list, for allowing men in her "feminism" classes, and for teaching an array of different feminist positions. "Most teachers of women's studies presume that if you don't see yourself as a victim, you're in a state of false consciousness, you're 'male-identified,'" Elshtain said at the time. She left for Vanderbilt, where she said the professors "recognize that feminism is in part an argument."
Elshtain's views gained national attention in 1979 when her cover story for The Nation criticized feminists for their antipathy to child rearing, heterosexuality, and the family in general. "The family, however shakily and imperfectly, helps to keep alive an alternative to the values which dominate in the marketplace," she wrote, sparking a wave of angry letters.
Fifteen years later, The Nation ran a cover story by Judith Stacey, a professor at the University of California, Davis, that slammed Elshtain and other scholars in the Council on Families in America for ignoring the damage caused to families by economic trends like corporate downsizing in favor of an agenda of prejudicial values, such as heterosexual-partner-headed households. Responding in The Nation, Elshtain said that the council had in fact set aside the matter of gay parenting to focus on the more pressing problem of the large percentage of children growing up without two parents. She also accused Stacey of "ideological stalking."
Fellow council co-chair David Popenoe, an associate dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Rutgers, observes that "Jean is really a believer in, and is willing to talk about, the importance of morality and virtue, and yet I've never met anyone who's harder to pin down politically. I don't know anyone who consistently and simultaneously writes for both left-wing and right-wing journals and gets away with it, but Jean does."
That Elshtain refuses to endorse a particular brand of political ideology should be no surprise to anyone who has read Democracy on Trial or has heard her warn about the dangers of what she calls "the politics of resentment," in which people are driven not by a desire for authentic transformation but, rather, by a yearning to get what other people have. In the politics of resentment, we see ourselves as victims in relation to others and merely want to change places, to turn the tables, and climb on the top of the heap.
"What about the notion of an inclusive community," Elshtain asks, "not one in which the slave becomes the master? Or where we're always asking, 'Who's got the power?'-what's it called on the street?- 'Who's got the juice?'"
To bring back this notion of an inclusive community, "we can't rely on the market alone," Elshtain stresses. "We've got to rebuild our basic institutions. How can we restore sufficient social trust so that we can work with one another and talk with one another and even disagree, which you can't do unless you have a conversation?"
It's not dissent itself that tears at the fabric of democracy, Elshtain argues, but rather the current lack of shared and public spaces --community halls, libraries, places of worship, the family den--where arguments become solutions, where the "I" becomes "we."
Yet no matter what values America decides to embrace, Elshtain acknowledges that many aspects of its essential character have irrevocably changed: a realization evoked in her recent New Republic review of Hillary Rodham Clinton's book It Takes a Village. Recalling a visit to her grandmother's house some 20 years earlier, Elshtain wrote, "She was by then utterly bowed over-the years of stoop labor had taken their toll-but she came out to the car for a last goodbye, thrusting into my arms more homemade noodles, another loaf of rye bread, freshly gathered eggs, a new apron, another remarkable quilt."
In that moment, Elshtain wondered what she might one day place in the hands of her own grandchildren. "Will I give them offprints of articles? Copies of my latest books? I suppose I will. But I will not comfort myself with the notion that this is the same as rye bread and quilts. It isn't. I made a choice. That is sometimes called growing up."
And does Elshtain have any words of solace for a nation that is smarting from its own growing pains? "Remember," Elshtain tells her listener, "the American story is a story of deepening complexity. Be not afraid. One of the things we have learned is that democracy is an unpredictable enterprise.
"The freer you are, the more responsible you must become. That is the task of democratic citizenship."
It's a message that could win applause at some 4-H contest from a distant past. And whether one agrees with them or not, Jean Elshtain's words hold the undeniable power of a familiar voice, calling us home.
Return to the opening of "The trials of a public intellectual"