Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 1995

November 1995

Democracy on Trial

By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Publisher: Basic Books

Pages: 153

Price: $20

Review Author: Celia Wolf-Devine

In this timely book, Jean Bethke Elshtain reflects on the breakdown of civil society in the U.S., bringing both her keen powers of observation and her impressive knowledge of history and political theory to bear on our current malaise. Her style is, as usual, rather diffuse; individual sentences are carefully crafted and eloquent, but the overall line of thought is often hard to follow. Nonetheless, the book is well worth the effort.

Elshtain is nervous about the future of American democracy, for democracy rests not merely on institutional structures but on the democratic attitudes of citizens, and the widespread erosion of these is cause for grave concern. She sees a “deepening emptiness, a kind of evacuation of civic spaces” in the background of our discontents. Families and middle-range associations such as churches, neighborhood groups, and trade unions have been disintegrating, leaving the individual isolated and powerless. The strident assertion of rights has eclipsed the language of civic responsibility. Cynicism is on the rise, especially among the young, and fewer and fewer people are willing to engage in dialogue with each other. Elshtain echoes John Paul II’s call for solidarity, advocating a new social covenant resting on the presumption that the other is not an instrument, but a person of good will who will work with us for the common good — a sharer in the banquet of life.

She takes up themes from her book Public Man, Private Woman, and argues that the collapse of the distinction between public and private that is occurring in America is deeply dangerous for democracy. Everything private, from one’s sexual practices to one’s lack of self-esteem, becomes grist for the public mill, and public things (such as gun-control policies) are privatized and played out as psychodramas. She illustrates what occurs when the two realms are not kept separate, using as examples the ideology of women’s victimization and the sort of identity politics characteristic of “gay lib.” More needs to be said, however, about precisely how to draw the boundary between private and public; it proves remarkably porous when one actually tries to draw it.

Her chapter on the politics of difference is particularly valuable. The denial of any shared human nature is, she argues, disastrous for democracy. Groups insist on their difference and deny that anything can bridge that difference. Only a black person can understand a black person, only a Chicano can understand a Chicano, etc., and groups get more and more strident, isolated, and entrenched in their narrowly defined identities. Until recently, liberals insisted on the basic sameness of all human beings underneath their differences of race, religion, sex, culture, intelligence, etc. This was essential for grounding their belief in inalienable human rights, political equality, and liberty, which in the absence of a common human nature would lead to total chaos. The denial of a common human nature thus undermines the foundations of democracy, and already many of the most belligerent proponents of the politics of difference manifest a disturbing contempt for democracy.

The book is painful (in a salutary way perhaps) in that it so accurately and poignantly describes our present malaise. Some of her evidence is anecdotal — a black student giggling at Schindler’s List because she thinks she should be in class learning about “the real deal” (her own culture), a student from the elite college afraid of being thought a “dweeb” if he allows himself any non-cynical thoughts, and a ghetto mother of three who has to barricade her window to protect her family from stray bullets. Some evidence is statistical — alarming data about family breakdown, suicide, violence, etc.

Our problems are deep and complex. But, for the most part, they cannot be resolved without stepping on the toes of groups who will squawk loudly. Simply having good democratic attitudes is not enough, and Elshtain badly needs to think more concretely about what practical steps we can take to remedy the problems.

Moreover, Elshtain writes of her childhood in a small, cohesive community, and this background of hers may blind her to the worthier motivations of those who, having come from atomistic backgrounds, now desperately seek community via ethnic and other identities. Such readers are likely to feel that Elshtain, in failing to supply specific remedies, has marooned them with a painful present and an equally painful nostalgia for a past they never experienced.

50 Questions on the Natural Law: What It Is & Why We Need It

By Charles Rice

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 322

Price: $14.95

Review Author: William G. Rice

I first happened upon an article by Notre Dame Law Professor Charles Rice in a magazine when I was in high school. I read it on the slimmest motivation: He shared my surname. It was a chance acquaintance I have never regretted.

It was no accident, then, that I purchased his newest book 50 Questions on the Natural Law. Reading this perspicacious volume is mandatory for anyone concerned about the current state of our society. Commencing with an exposition on the importance of natural law, he takes his reader on a joy ride through a succession of questions, each building on the one before it — like a sorites through the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas. Stops along the way, always fitting and practical, address common misconceptions about, and political distortions of, natural law. Rice is masterful and concise in making his points. I frequently found myself chuckling at his ability to dispatch with economy what have come to be regarded in certain circles as intractable problems.

Rice also addresses a conceptual void that needs serious attention. No one needs a lecture on the deplorable state of our society, and its “culture wars.” What is needed is responsible work on rebuilding society. The ideologies largely responsible for the carnage seem to talk past each other — one hell-bent on the unending creation of often incompatible “rights,” the other insisting on what appears to be a theocratic police-state.

This conflict is treated by Rice at its philosophical roots. Hans Kelsen, probably the most important legal positivist of our century, laid the foundation for what Rice calls an “orthodoxy of openness.” Kelsen maintained that things in themselves are beyond the pale of human experience, and that reality is only relative to the knowing subject. As such, there can be no awareness of absolute reality, no absolute norms. Kelsen believed that where you admitted absolutes, you were inexorably led to what he called “political absolutism,” to autocracy. The true foundation for democracy, accordingly, was the humble admission that all that can be known are relative values. This, Kelsen believed, would enable us to avoid the tyranny which he thought the ideas of Aquinas and other natural law thinkers would bring us to.

However, as Rice demonstrates, Kelsen misread Aquinas. St. Thomas was firm in his rejection of absolutist government, and insisted that human law “leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine Providence.” While Kelsen is forced to admit that the laws of a totalitarian regime are valid because duly enacted, Aquinas insists that unjust laws are void. Aquinas is not prone to the errors of absolutist government that Kelsen abhorred, or to the totalitarianism that, ironically, Kelsen’s views accommodate.

Fr. John Courtney Murray maintained that the American constitutional order was an outgrowth and implementation of the Catholic natural law tradition. To the extent that this is true, a renewal of the social order can take place by re-examining where we have failed the natural law. And this is Rice’s forte. Persuasive and trenchant, he renews the case for many forgotten ideas: that God must be recognized, or else the state becomes god; that the common good is more than merely the sum total of individual goods; and that democracy demands a virtuous citizenry. We will never reclaim this heritage until we return to a keener understanding of certain prominent ideas that have shaped and guided our Republic, and of those ideas most likely to restore it. I can think of no book more commendable for starting this project than Rice’s.

America's Struggle Against Poverty: 1900-1994

By James T. Patterson

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 309

Price: No price given

Review Author: Rebecca Ginsburg

A large bureaucratic welfare system is the primary means by which the U.S. fights poverty. This is the case in spite of our feelings toward welfare. As Patterson makes clear, animosity toward the “undeserving” poor, belief in the work ethic, and a conviction that welfare creates more problems than it solves are widespread. How we came to have our current system is a provocative question, then, one which is addressed in Patterson’s book, first published in 1981, but now updated and reissued.

The most important characteristic of the American welfare state is its patchwork nature. It is partly because of this, Patterson argues, that comprehensive welfare reform has been so difficult to achieve.

A major strength of this book, distinguishing it from most others on the subject, is the attention it pays to attitudes about the poor and welfare. Patterson has collected enough evidence to point convincingly to long-term resentment among middle-class Americans toward particular sections of the poor. Sometimes this assumes a racial cast. In recent years, debates have focused on the “underclass,” primarily understood to be African-Americans in ghettos. The image of the “welfare mother” is a young, black, unwed woman. Patterson only reports on these developments; he neither diagnoses the problem of our urban ghettos nor prescribes remedies.

But what Patterson does do is put welfare in its historical context, and in so doing he both encourages and discourages hopes for positive change. Encourages, because one learns that government assistance is not an unmitigated failure, as some would have us believe. Discourages, because, as Patterson stresses throughout, poverty is not disappearing.

How the Irish Saved Civilization

By Thomas Cahill

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 246

Price: $22.50

Review Author: Eric M. Johnson

For roughly 200 years after the Roman emperors were cast down from their thrones, lowly Ireland rose to be the cultural center of Europe. Safe from the barbarian marauders who smashed and burned their way across Europe, the Irish provided the only secure place for Christian scholars fleeing the violence of their homelands. This migration, coupled with the seeds of learning planted by St. Patrick, prompted a burst of creativity in the service of Jesus Christ. If the island’s largest monasteries had perished, we might have lost much Christian literature, as well as the bulk of our Greco-Roman heritage. That God entrusted the future of the Gospel to a marginal land stands as one of history’s most ironic turns.

Cahill’s story begins on the farthest borders of the ancient Empire, where the barbarians are poised to move into the interior. Cahill’s narrative is most effective here. When he moves to Ireland, though, Cahill gets lost in a hundred meandering detours. He plunges into ancient myths for a while, then jolts the reader up to the present with bizarre references to the Batmobile and Jeffrey Dahmer. Eventually we see the book the author wanted to write: an apologia for Irishness.

The Irish don’t actually get around to saving civilization until the penultimate chapter, and we never really find out why it was worth saving. If anything, we learn that pre-literate and pre-Christian Ireland was better than anything that could have supplanted it, especially Roman Catholic Ireland. Everyone knows the Church has played the central role in Ireland’s development. But Cahill’s dominant theme is that the world can be “divided into Romans and Catholics — or, better, catholics. The Romans are the rich and powerful who run things their way,” and the Catholics believe in human dignity, the family of humanity, and divine providence (I thought the Pope approved of those principles, but perhaps I was hallucinating).

This dichotomy leads Cahill to some bizarre stances. St. Augustine’s approval of the just use of force is horrible and led straight to the Inquisitor’s rack, but Irish celebrations of bloodletting are rather charming, or “enjoyable,” to be precise. The Irish are innocent of any hint of sexism, racism, and homophobia, while the “Romans” are guilty of them all. Not least, Cahill has the gall to upbraid the British for their political anti-Catholicism while enthusiastically participating in today’s academic anti-Catholicism.

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