Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003
Reviews --Continued -- 3
The gist of these papal misgivings is becoming clear to an increasing portion of the educated public. This perhaps accounts for why JWAT has overall fared poorly in the reviews, and here it is worth noting some of this reaction.
One striking review came from the right, by David Gordon of the "classical liberal/Austrian school" Mises Review. He was merciless in pointing up numerous historical and logical errors, deftly exposing JWAT’s manipulation of just-war theorizing, and concluding archly that "Students cramming for a history final will be ill advised to use her works as a substitute for a diligent perusal of Cliffs Notes . . . Evidently she needs a remedial course in logic as well as several in history."
From another perspective (the "left"?), theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas joined with Paul Griffiths to let JWAT have it with both barrels on the author’s own turf, the neocon journal First Things, blasting it . . . "as nothing more than an uncritical justification of the ideology of America as empire. It is itself a deeply ideological work rather than one of careful and critical thought."
Then they told us how they really felt:
#Put more bluntly: when America sees states organized on principles it doesn’t like (this is what Elshtain means by "failed states") it should remake them by force (if necessary) into states organized on principles it does like. These principles will be those of rights-based democracies with free economies–that is, countries like the United States. This new imperialism means that the more a state diverges from American principles, the more pressing will be America’s duty to remake it in its own image. This is a heavy burden to bear, for a moment’s thought shows that a high proportion of the world’s states diverge deeply and systematically from American principles. If Elshtain’s program were followed, perhaps thirty or so invasions and nation-buildings on the Iraqi model would be immediately required.
#So much for Elshtain’s position. Kipling thought the white man’s burden heavy; on Elshtain’s view America’s similar burden is immeasurably heavier . . . . In the end, the use of Christian language and ideas in this book is nothing more than window-dressing for a passion to impose America upon the world. It is not a book whose argument should convince Christians; it is not a book whose argument should convince anyone thoughtful; it is a book–and here, out of respect for its author, we do not mince words–informed by jingoistic dreams of empire. (Hauerwas)
Both essays drew outraged replies from the stung reviewee: a long letter to Gordon at the Mises Review denounced its "snide and caustic tone," and insisted that the suggestion about a remedial course in logic "could only have been written by a crude positivist, a sexist, or both." (Which, one wonders, is the worse epithet?)
And she complained to First Things that, "When confronted by a review so tendentious and unfair, it is hard to know where to begin a response." Perhaps not, but she nonetheless knew how to end one, by falling back on the basic neo-conservative ad hominem reflex, clothed, as is typical here, in the words of some reputedly eminent authority. In this case it was Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, who reportedly once said "in reference to America’s radical critics that you ‘cannot effectively criticize what you loathe.’ Perhaps," Elshtain writes, "this loathing explains the sour tone of the Hauerwas and Griffiths collaboration." (Hauerwas)
Perhaps; but I doubt it. More likely it is is reaping what has been sown: Can a writer whose own book poured gall in the well of discourse not expect to find wormwood in her cup? My guess is that they were simply as able to spot a "pile of garbage" as the next person.
Elshtain leans heavily at points on Reinhold Niebuhr’s critique of sentimental idealism (106-111), and it still carries much force. Yet there’s little sign here of his balancing insistence on the "irony of American history," which can turn our political culture’s many virtues into vices for us and risks to the world. Niebuhr supported World War II, but he opposed Vietnam; one wonders where he would come down today.
Elshtain may not be able to bear it, but the idea that America could become, may be becoming, as much a threat to the world’s "minimal civic peace" as its fanatical Muslim enemies is one that deserves to be, nay must be on the table of our personal and public deliberations. Could it be that in efforts to ward off one kind of "unspeakable horror," we may tragically be preparing the way for another? Niebuhr might not have said yes, but I doubt if he would have refused to let the question be raised; such paradox and irony fits only too well with the best of his mature thought.
Neo-conservatives can demonize the question and the questioners all they want, but from here at the foot of the war machine, that appalling prospect looms larger with each passing month. With it comes the growing imperative to find another, better way to overcome terror and promote the "minimal civic peace" she seeks.
What is saddest to me about JWAT is that I am sure that if Jean Bethke Elshtain applied her skills and scholarship to the work of finding ways to prevent such an outcome, her contribution could be exceptional.
But Just War Against Terror is not it.
Arkin, William, "Checking on Civilian Casualties," Washington
Post, dot.mil April 9, 2002
Arkin, William, "Not Good Enough, Mr. Rumsfeld," Washington
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Arison, H. Lindsey III, "THE COVER-UP OF GULF WAR SYNDROME –
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*Sightings* 10/03/01 – Date: Wed, 03 Oct 2001 09:50:34 -0500
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(The Perle quotes are from the C-SPAN video, which was posted briefly on the C-SPAN website.)
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