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Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life

Real Politics: At the Center of Everyday Life

by Jean Bethke Elshtain

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One of America's foremost public intellectuals, Jean Bethke Elshtain has been on the frontlines in the most hotly contested and deeply divisive issues of our time. Now in Real Politics, Elshtain gives further proof of her willingness to speak her mind, courting disagreement and even censure from those who prefer their ideologies neat.

At the center of


One of America's foremost public intellectuals, Jean Bethke Elshtain has been on the frontlines in the most hotly contested and deeply divisive issues of our time. Now in Real Politics, Elshtain gives further proof of her willingness to speak her mind, courting disagreement and even censure from those who prefer their ideologies neat.

At the center of Elshtain's work is a passionate concern with the relationship between political rhetoric and political action. For Elshtain, politics is a sphere of concrete responsibility. Political speech should, therefore, approach the richness of actual lives and commitments rather than present impossible utopias. In her essays, Elshtain finds in the writings of Václav Havel, Hannah Arendt, and Albert Camus a language appropriate to the complexity of everyday life and politics, and she critiques philosophers and writers who distance us from a concrete, embodied world. She argues against those repressive strains within contemporary feminism which insist that families and even sexual differentiation are inherently oppressive. Along the way, she challenges an ideology of victimization that too often loses sight of individual victims in its pursuit of abstract goals. Elshtain reaffirms the quirky and by no means simple pleasures of small-town life as a microcosm of the human condition and considers the current crisis in American education and its consequences for democracy.

Beyond exploring the details of political life over the past two decades, Real Politics advocates a via media politics that avoids unacceptable extremes and serves as a model for responsible political discourse. Throughout her diverse and insightful writings, Elshtain champions a civic philosophy that tends to the dignity of everyday life as a democratic imperative of the first order.

"Jean Bethke Elshtain is a person of rare intellect. The moral wisdom that pervades these essays reminds us that when all is said and done politics is about the life and death of real people who are anything but abstractions. Her erudition is remarkable, but equally stunning is her eye for the significant. What she is so good at is helping us see the moral and political significance of the everyday." — Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University

" Real Politics serves as a forceful reminder that Jean Elshtain has been dealing with the real world in twenty-five years of powerful essaying. Transcending ideological categories, she writes out of hope that human beings can enjoy those capacities of reason and faith which make them human. It is a pleasure to be reintroduced to her sustained intelligence." — Alan Wolfe, Boston University

Editorial Reviews

Elshtain (social and political ethics, U. of Chicago Divinity School) addresses the many challenges that democracy faces from divisive identity politics to our faltering system of public education, skewering certain strains of thought (radical feminism) and behavior (muddled rhetoric) on the way. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Patrick Deneen
Elshtain casts her net widely in the fields of politics, philosophy, and literature, in social commentary and feminist critique, and comes up with a rich and compelling catch.
Kirkus Reviews
Collections of articles often lack a unifying theme and consequently make unsatisfying books, but this thought-provoking volume is an exception.

Reading a series of loosely connected essays is actually a good way to encounter Elshtain's (Social and Political Ethics/Univ. of Chicago; Democracy on Trial, 1995, etc.) fundamentally idiosyncratic scholarly and personal convictions. The selections are presented in five parts, ostensibly addressing five topics: embracing reality as a whole in political discussions; relating language and political content; reining in feminist extremes on the family and the realities of female existence; rejecting victimization as a basis for feminist politics; and searching for a politics that embraces the middle ground of actual human life. In fact, the groupings are so amorphous and the articles so pointed, however, that the volume is best understood as a selection of individual essays that together convey a sense of Elshtain's soul. At her core she opposes scholarship that substitutes sophistication for content and political activism that places stridency over common sense. She is a politically aware intellectual, sensitive to the dangers of alienating ideas and discourse from the substantive if occasionally banal realities of daily life. This leads her to suggest that families must be preserved despite identifying with a feminist community more concerned with throwing off traditional social institutions than looking to them for groundedness; Elshtain has even labeled those critical of the bonds linking mother and child as "repressive feminists." In another example of her independence, she rejects the typical literary depictions of small towns as emotionally and creatively stifling environments. For Elshtain the personal connections definitive of human existence are to be found in the real world of families and towns, not in political and intellectual abstractions, and she is not shy about stating her position.

A fascinating study that pulls no punches in support of an original yet moderate political vision.

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Johns Hopkins University Press
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6.28(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.18(d)

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Politics without Cliche

This will be a brief civic sermon. I take as my text moments from essays by Vaclav Havel. The first is drawn from a speech Havel delivered in 1965 at a Union of Czechoslovak Writers meeting, "On Evasive Thinking." Havel attacks "pseudoideological thinking," thinking of the sort that separates the words we use from the realities they purport to describe; as a consequence, evasive thinking has, "without our noticing it, separated thought from its immediate contact with reality and crippled its capacity to intervene in that reality effectively." Words lose their meaning. They become the occasion for drawing attention to an ideological nostrum rather than to a genuine human dilemma, fear, or hope. Language, rather than signifying something real and "enabling us to come to an understanding of it," becomes, instead, "an end in itself."

The second Havelian moment to which I want to draw attention appears in a speech delivered in his stead (he was not permitted to travel) on the occasion of his receipt of the Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association in 1989. Words are mysterious and ambiguous, yes, and all too often humble words get translated into arrogant ones, Havel notes. The upshot can be fatal to our understanding of our human place in a wider scheme of things human beings did not create and over which we assume control at our peril. For, "arrogantly, he [mankind] began to think that as the possessor of reason, he could completely understand his own history and could therefore plan a life of happiness for all, and that this even gave him the right, in the name of an ostensibly better future for all--to which he had found the one and only key--to sweep from his path all those who did not fall for his plan." Once again, words lose their meaning as they become arrogant. Havel urges his listeners to "keep a weather eye out for any insidious germs of arrogance in words that are seemingly humble," noting that "this is not just a linguistic task. Responsibility for and toward words is a task which is intrinsically ethical."

Platitudes Deflect

Now I know, of course, that these brief texts for the day will have aroused many readers and prompted a flurry of linguistic and epistemological consternation. Words cannot be taken neat! Surely Havel overshoots the mark here in his eagerness to unmask the abusers of words! How can Havel possibly endorse such a simple notion of reference! Does he not realize that language and the world enjoy no transparent relation to one another! And so on. Once this sputtering has died down--at least for those who can get past these preoccupations in order to consider Havel's meaning--perhaps the import of what he here warns us against can be revealed. For what Havel insists upon is that whether something is "right" or "left" is the last thing that should interest any alert and concerned citizen. Rather, what we should be about is eschewing political labels that fail to capture the complexity of social life, fail to come close to the content of our actual beliefs and actions. The old categories of ideological contestation have become hopelessly cliched: they refer only to themselves in tendentious circles of self-referentiality.

Havel offers up a wonderful example of this tendency, indeed this rush toward the tendentious, in "On Evasive Thinking." A stone window ledge has come loose, fallen from a building, and killed a woman. The response of the communist regime is, first, to assure everyone that window ledges "ought not to fall" but look, after all, at what wonderful progress we have made in so many areas and, what is more, we must always think about mankind itself and "our prospects for the future." A second window ledge falls and kills someone else. There is another flurry of reports about the overall prospects for mankind--rosy, as it turns out, as socialism spreads and workers' states proliferate! In the meantime, ledges fall and particular people in real local places are killed. The prospects of mankind are, Havel warns, "nothing but an empty platitude if they distract us from our particular worry about who might be killed by a third window ledge, and what will happen should it fall on a group of nursery-school children out for a walk." Language and not only language is degraded if hollow platitudes deflect our attention from concrete worries and dangers.

But has it not always been the case with ideological thinking? Is not the whole purpose of such thinking one sustained act of systematic deflection- away from the local (how petty!), the particular (how insignificant!), the concrete (how uninspiring!) in favor of a glorious surge toward the universal, the abstract, the marvels of a future perfect or nearly so world. Havel is right: if we can't see "individual, specific things, we can't see anything at all," and ideological thinking has functioned to stop us seeing individual, specific things. Politics as a realm of concrete responsibility gives way to politics as a sphere of magical dialectical maneuvers aimed at curing the universe of all its woes. And does it not look great on paper! Where the ideologist mystifies and tries to unify, the thinker and actor devoted to politics without cliche tries to demystify and diversify, to look at the messy, complex realities of this situation, here and now, rather than some simulacrum constructed as the artifact of an overarching system or schema.

Utopianism, the search for a Weltanschauung (among the fondest wishes of humankind, Freud notes), yields inevitably to an impersonal "juggernaut of power," in Havel's view. The vision of a radiant tomorrow masks a sordid present. To move beyond cliched left-right categories is to disown utopianism, once and for all. Havel scores utopianism as a "typically intellectual phenomenon.... It is an arrogant attempt by human reason to plan life. But it is not possible to force life to conform to some abstract blueprint. Life is something unfathomable, ever-changing, mysterious, and every attempt to confine it within an artificial, abstract structure inevitably ends up homogenizing, regimenting, standardizing and destroying life, as well as curtailing everything that projects beyond, overflows or falls outside the abstract project. What is a concentration camp, after all, but an attempt by utopians to dispose of those elements which do not fit in?"

In response to those who parry by suggesting that a life without utopias would be horrible and unthinkable, would reduce life to hopelessness and resignation, Havel replies by contrasting "openness towards mysteriously changing and always rather elusive and never quite attainable ideals such as truth and morality" by contrast to an unequivocal identification with "a detailed plan for implementing those ideals which in the end becomes self-justifying." To be sure, the theme of trahison des clercs is nothing new. What adds freshness and piquancy to Havel's project is that he has personally paid the price for his resistance to the seduction of ideology and that he does so, not in the name of a restorationist ideal, but in the name of an elemental, forward-pressing, yet limited ideal of free responsibility. Havel's "higher horizon" opens up rather than forecloses genuine political possibility.

In Havel's world, individual responsibility deepens and expands to the extent that utopianism--giving oneself over to a Weltanschauung--is eschewed. Politics beyond cliche means one must always look to the human dimension of things, a dimension that cannot be derived from a flatness of being, a world cut and dried to our own measure. Havel here brings to mind a lecture by Flannery O'Connor about the vocation of the novelist. She told her audience of eager young students, who would be writers, that unless they were interested in dirt and dust and bones and musty things, they had better find another vocation: writing was far too humble a trade for them. Similarly, Havel suggests that the aggrandizing, arrogant world-changer aims not to fulfill but to destroy politics, for politics is obviously far too humble a trade for him.

Concrete Responsibility

For politics is a sphere of concrete responsibility. Its antithesis--its cliched opposite--is a blurred, all-purpose, grandiose, and limitless leap into universal dogma that promotes a vapid because unbounded pseudoresponsibility for everything elsewhere. How odd it is, then, that so many of our contemporary antifoundationalists in the academy remain wedded to a teleology of progress, a nearly unbounded faith in the possibility of enlightenment in that glorious epiphany once the debris and clutter of metaphysical thought is swept away once and for all. Havel is utterly resistant to this sort of thing: the here and now, a concrete moment carved out against a wider horizon not given or defined by man, is shimmering in vitality and importance.

One way to imagine all of this is to think of a children's coloring book, with scenes outlined but not "colored in"--that is the child's job. One page outlines a cluttered room, perhaps; a second, a bustling city street. There is, in each instance, a wealth of detail awaiting its coloration in order that many moments might stand out. These moments are complex--in the first scene, the mother appears to be angry at the mess in the child's room, the child may be trying to hide something behind his back, clothes spill out of a dresser drawer. In the street scene, the fellow on the corner may represent a menace to a passer-by, a cluster of folks appear to be having a debate or discussion of some sort in front of a newsstand, some shoppers look harried, a child tugs on her mother's skirt, pointing to something in a window. Now imagine a third page in the coloring book. The scene outlined is of a pristine, uncluttered room, or city, or countryside: everything is in its proper place, there is no untidiness anywhere, and each human being represented has a big satisfied look on his or her face. There are no messy details.

Now those drawn to the pristine scene, if given a box of crayons, will highlight all in roseate hues, and they will disdain the scenes of clutter and bustle precisely because that is what they want to flee, to eliminate, to "cure." If forced to color things in on the messy pages, they will try to blur all the edges, to deflect from all the moments of tension and to disguise the clutter. It is those lovers of the pristine Havel challenges, for they are the ideologists who disdain the messiness of the human condition and want to clean things up, the sooner the better. In doing so, however, they must falsify what they see, color it out, blur it over, somehow do it in: everyday life in all its ambiguity is not grand enough for them. The humanly possible work is tawdry and unworthy by contrast to creating some earthly paradise--if only we can get the clutter cleaned up.

Don't get me wrong: Havel is not in love with messiness; rather, he recognizes that society is a "very mysterious animal with many hidden faces and potentialities." For this very reason one must turn away from "abstract political visions of the future and toward concrete human beings and ways of defending them effectively in the here and now." Responsibility to and for the here and now--easing the suffering of "a single insignificant citizen"--is far more important to the antiutopian than "some abstract `fundamental solution' in an uncertain future." For "without keeping one's eyes open to the real dimensions of life's beauty and misery, and without a moral relationship to life, this struggle will sooner or later come to grief on the rocks of some self-justifying system of scholastics."

A politics beyond cliche is one in which the political actor refuses what Havel calls a "messianic role," an avant-garde arrogance that knows better and must run around ceaselessly with furrowed brow "raising the consciousness" of all those "unconscious" bumpkins out there--one's fellow citizens. Authentic political hope, by contrast, laughs at the notion that somehow glorious heroes or vanguard parties or grasping "the totality" will save the day and, instead, endorses Havel's hope that human beings, in taking responsibility for a concrete state of affairs, might "see it as their own project and their own home, as something they need not fear, as something they can--without shame--love, because they have built it for themselves." My hunch is that some folks, when they read such words, are a bit embarrassed and tempted to see Havel as a nice guy but, surely, a bit naive! As if projecting a classless society or perpetual peace were not naive--and dangerously so at that. For promoters of these latter projects grow impatient fast with the human beings who appear to stand in the way of attaining one's fondest ends. There is a further temptation to eliminate opponents who rather quickly turn into "enemies." But that is not the way of democratic politics, of a politics stripped of cliche where everything has a neat label on it telling us whether it is "left" or "right" and hence whether we are enjoined to cheer or to hiss.

The Purely Moral Act

Havel's response to those who claim his own thought is murky and unrealistic and cannot survive practical politics is complex. Suffice it to say that Havel insists that society is a very "mysterious animal with many hidden faces and potentialities." No one knows the full potentiality of any given moment, for good or for ill. Here lies the importance of "the purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect," for such acts can "gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance." One must be patient and neither so excessively result-oriented nor grandiose that the humanly possible work begins to look tawdry and unworthy. Havel tells one interlocutor that he tries to "live in the spirit of Christian morality," not as a doctrinalist but as a practitioner of hope who attempts to see things "from below" in a tough-minded, not a sentimental, way. His unabashed embrace of life is precisely an embrace of a post-Babelian world in which there are wondrous varieties of human homes, identities, languages, particular possibilities, but there is as well a transparticular world framing our fragile globe, united perhaps only in its travail.

Havel's own work is deeply indebted, in a rough and ready way, both to the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Heidegger as "translated" by the great Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, who died under police interrogation, and to Masarykian humanism. Shaped by the overlapping of many movements and traditions, Havel places himself under no obligation to systematize or, for that matter, to synthesize. He is not only temperamentally unsuited to the logic-chopper's or Hegelian "over-comer's" task, he is opposed on principle to both sorts of efforts--the former because it issues into a penury and niggardliness of thought; the latter because it promotes ideology whose dead hand soon closes over "life itself." Havel notes the "intellectual and spiritual" dimensions of his own cultural identity as a complex but very specific amalgam of many currents, many forces.

Departing from Masaryk's "positivist belief in progress," Havel found a philosophical home inside the general themes offered up by Patocka, a philosopher nearly unknown outside Czechoslovakia who, with Havel, was one of the original signatories of Charter 77. For Patocka, philosophy begins once life is no longer something that can be taken for granted. The alternative to a world of sure and certain meaning is not subjectivism but another sort of engagement with the world, specifically with the life-world rooted in a distinctly premodern sensibility which the modern sensibility must knowingly affirm and grant as "that which is"--something objective and tangible--in order to get out of a perverse preoccupation with self-absorbed wishes, preferences, and feelings: the Oprah Winfreyization of culture, one might call it.

A central preoccupation in a world which ceases to respect any so-called higher metaphysical values--the Absolute, something higher than themselves, something mysterious--necessarily becomes the self--human identity--and, with it, a concentration on human burdens and responsibilities appropriate to this self. But the self is tempted to become godlike and to forget the quotidian. There are philosophers who hold the everyday in contempt as womanish stuff, a potion that dilutes the bracing tonic quaffed by real thinkers. Patocka and Havel do not. Both begin with philosophy "from the bottom," and from a "humbly respected boundary of the natural world." Both view the self as one who, while passing away, has an identity and his or her own unique and independent purposes. We become acquainted with others through acts of responsible surrender to that which is required of us rather than acts of supererogation or arrogation. One begins by taking the natural world as the horizon of doing and knowing--a horizon that is always there and against which we define our own being.

Freedom in this scheme of things is not the working out of a foreordained teleology of self-realization; rather, freedom comes from embracing that which it is given one to do. The "secret of man," writes Havel, "is the secret of his responsibility." This responsibility consists, in part, in knowing rejection of God-likeness and mastery. For when man takes on this hubristic role he becomes the sole source of meaning in a world rendered dead and meaningless. Man exceeds his strength and he becomes a destructive Titan ruining himself and others. We are not perched on top of the earth as sovereigns; rather, we are invited into companionship with the earth as the torn and paradoxical creatures that we are.

Tracking the question of responsibility in Havel's most famous political essays as well as his Letters to Olga, the casual or careless reader might be tempted to jettison the philosophical frame within which Havel nests his own understanding of responsibility as unnecessarily cumbersome, a clumsy and even redundant accessory to an otherwise very straightforward insistence upon accountability. But this would be a mistake. On this score Havel is quite insistent. Humans confront nothing less than a general crisis that manifests itself in many ways, and this crisis is, at base, spiritual. Something is "profoundly wrong," for the horizon of thought itself is increasingly beclouded, even despoiled; the order of nature is ruptured and the result is demoralization and indifference. We face a crisis of human identity, and this crisis must be understood--can only be understood--when projected against a shrinking screen emblematic of declining human awareness of both "the absolute" and the tragic. Human reason has wrenched itself free from this awareness, and the results often are both tawdry and harsh.

Post-totalitarian Politics

When I was in graduate school in the late 1960s, it was in vogue to mock the warnings of Sir Isaiah Berlin about the dangers inherent in many visions of "positive liberty," turning as they did on naive views of a perfectible human nature and sentimental views on the perfectibility of politics. Berlin was accused of being a liberal sellout, a faint-hearted compromiser. But compromise, not as a mediocre way to do politics but as the only way to do democratic politics, is itself an adventure. It lacks the panache of revolutionary violence. It might not stir the blood in the way a "nonnegotiable demand" does, but it presages a livable future. In any democratic politics there are choices to he made that involve troth gains and losses. Conflicts about moral claims are part of what it means to be human, and a political ideal stripped of sentimentality and the utopian temptation is one committed to the notion that political life is a permanent agon between clashing, even incompatible goods. As the political philosopher John Gray recently observed:

Berlin uttered a truth, much against the current of the age, that remains thoroughly unfashionable and fundamentally important--[he] cuts the ground from under those doctrinal or fundamentalist liberalisms--the liberalism of Nozick or Hayek no less than of Rawls or Ackerman--which suppose that the incommensurabilities of moral and political life, and of liberty itself, can be smoothed away by the application of some theory, or tamed by some talismanic formula.... It is in taking its stand on incommensurability and radical choice as constitutive features of the human condition that Berlin's liberalism most differs from the Panglossian liberalisms that have in recent times enjoyed an anachronistic revival. Unlike these, Berlin's is an agnostic liberalism, a stoic liberalism of loss and tragedy. For that reason alone, if there is any liberalism that is now defensible, it is Berlin's.

These words might have been written about Havel. For we live in an era in which we are not well served by the old political categories as we witness, to our astonishment, the political realities of a half-century crumple and give way. The drama of democracy, of conflict and compromise, turns on our capacity for making distinctions and offering judgments not clotted and besotted with cliched categorizations. Havel insists that between the aims of what he calls the "post-totalitarian system" and life in all its "plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution and self-organization" there lies a "yawning abyss." The post-totalitarian system, whatever its political self-definition, pushes to "bind everything in a single order." Havel calls this "social auto-totality," a system that depends on demoralization and cannot survive without it, a system that ignores falling ledges in favor of glorious proclamations concerning progress. By contrast, politics beyond cliche is ironic and skeptical but no less committed--simply insistent that one's own commitments, too, are not exempt from skeptical evaluation. A politics beyond cliche is a politics that refuses to deploy cynically base methods in order to complete an agenda. The political agent always asks, "What is to come?"--not, "Is this a left- or a right-wing argument?" One recognizes that one is never playing chess alone; the board always includes other agents as independent loci of thought and action. Recognition of the stubborn reality of the "other before me" makes contact with a political vision that acknowledges the vulnerability of, and the need to nurture, all new beginnings, including those of a political sort. This may seem a weak and problematic reed, hut it is, I believe, the point from which we should begin, from which alone we enter the world of politics without cliche, hence of political conflict and debate without end.

Originally published in Social Research, vol. 60, no. 3 (fall 1993). Reprinted by permission.

What People are Saying About This

E. J. Dionne

Jean Elshtain never ducks an issue and is brilliantly provocative -- not for the sake of provocation, but because she values moral clarity and intellectual honesty. Disagreeing with her is at least as satisfying as assent because she stretches your imagination and forces you to reexamine assumptions that you have let sit there, undisturbed, for years. Her passion for a genuinely democratic community, shared with the late Christopher Lasch, is a powerful antidote to veiled elitism, phony populism, and political passivity.

E. J. Dionne, Jr., author of Why Americans Hate Politics and They Only Look Dead

Michael Walzer

It is sometimes said of politicians, but rarely of political theorists, that we know them best by the enemies they are prepared to make. Jean Elshtain has always been prepared to make enemies of the defenders of political repression and ideological absolutism. She writes with a strong hand. But she is also sympathetically engaged with a wide range of writers, across the democratic spectrum. And her own politics is so clearly marked by humanity, common sense, and theoretical wit that intelligent readers will recognize her as a friend.

Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Patrick J. Deneen
Elshtain casts her net widely in the fields of politics, philosophy, and literature, in social commentary and feminist critique, and comes up with a rich and compelling catch.
Jim Sleeper

Whether she is examining the perils of feminist political rhetoric, skewering the philosopher Richard Rorty's terminal sense of irony, or half-admiring Ronald Reagan's eulogy for the space shuttle Challenger crew, Jean Bethke Elshtain shows vividly that America's civic health depends on a tragic sense of life. And she does it all in an engaging American idiom -- a warm, clear voice from the center of our national life.

Jim Sleeper, author of Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers

Meet the Author

Jean Bethke Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The most recent of her many books are Democracy on Trial, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1995, and Augustine and the Limits of Politics.

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