Democracy on Trial.

Author:Rahe, Paul A.

Some years ago, when a friend reached his 40th birthday, I sent him a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "Aging McGovern Voters for Reagan." Were I closely acquainted with the author of this slender volume, I would be inclined to draw her attention to the fact that a woman who once prided herself on her hatred for Nixon is now sounding some themes reminiscent of Newt Gingrich. I wonder, however, whether she would be amused.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Ethics at the University of Chicago, is an academic left-liberal with impeccable feminist credentials. The five lectures that make up her latest publication were delivered at Massey College in 1993, broadcast on CBC Radio in Canada, and revised for publication during an extended sojourn at Harvard University. Although her book is written in a conversational tone and is accessible to anyone willing to plunk down $20, it is in fact directed at a particular audience - at academic left-liberals and their fellow travelers, especially at those inclined to think righteous thoughts when they hear the chant, "Race, Class, and Gender."

Elshtain is not a convert preaching to the converted. Nor does she make strenuous efforts to establish her bona fides with those to whom her remarks are addressed. Her lectures are, in fact, noteworthy for the near absence of cheap shots at those on the right. For the most part, she reserves her criticism for members of her own tribe. But Elshtain isn't a turncoat - a liberal turned neoconservative - at least not yet. She associates herself with Amitai Etzioni, Michael Walzer, William Galston, and others on the "communitarian" left, and them is every reason to suppose that she cheered William Jefferson Clinton's latest State of the Union address.

But like neoconservatives of a slightly older generation, she is a liberal who has clearly been mugged by reality. In her preface, she tells us that she has "joined the ranks of the nervous," and her book, graced with a title that, as one senior cob league observed, has "a very 1940s ring to it," is an attempt to explain why.

To begin with, Elshtain is a firm friend to the family. Her study is dedicated to the memory of her father; in its preface, she draws attention to the fact that she is herself now a grandmother. She worries that "the America" which her granddaughter "will discover a mere fifteen or twenty years from now" will not possess a political "culture worthy of endorsement and engagement." Above all else, she fears what I will call the postmodern mentality, which is marked by what she calls "the pernicious corrosion of resentment."

As she puts it, "The language of opposition now appears as a cascading series of manifestos that tell us we cannot live together; we cannot work together; we are not in this together; we are not Americans who have something in common, but racial, ethnic, gender, or sexually identified clans who demand to be 'recognized' only or exclusively as 'different.' Think about how odd this is on the face of it: I require that you recognize that we have nothing in common with one another. This demand is rapidly becoming a shared civic zaniness that threatens to implode our culture. We are in danger of losing democratic civil society. It is that simple and that dangerous, springing, as it does, not from a generous openness to sharp disagreement - democratic feistiness - but from a cynical and resentful closing off of others."

Pluralism she embraces: The "aim" of her book is, as she puts it, "to reach disagreement," and she is perfectly prepared to honor and even celebrate "our distinctions, as peoples of a particular heritage and individuals of particular gifts." What worries her is multiculturalism, which she defines as "the current construction of 'difference' as a form of group homogeneity that brooks no disagreement or distinction within and can maintain itself only as a redoubt against threatening 'enemies' from without."

One consequence of multiculturalism's hegemony is that the world of the university is now balkanized, and scholars "whose tacit Hippocratic oath commits them to thoroughness and fairness in inquiry" no longer "bother to hide" the fact that they think in quasi-inquisitorial terms of "apostasy" and heresy while searching "for guidance on the interdiction of a text."

If elshtain had followed up on her eloquent introductory remarks by providing her readers with a sustained analysis of our postmodern predicament, this would have been an important book. Unfortunately, however, her lectures are disjointed and episodic, and her book is slender in more than one way. Where one looks...

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