Letters Archive
Fall 1996, Vol. 5, No. 1
  • The Question of Culture
  • Politics, Ethics, and Terror
  • "History" and its Relation to Place
  • Politics, Ethics, and Terror

    Jean Bethke Elshtain

    Jean Bethke Elshtain, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Ethics at the University of Chicago and Senior Research Associate of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, led an interdisciplinary seminar for Vanderbilt graduate students on "Politics, Ethics, and Terror"at the Warren Center this summer. In this article, she explains her interest in leading this seminar.

    Politics, Ethics, and Terror" brought together two recognitions—one salutary and hence to be applauded; the second regrettable and hence to be deplored. The salutary aspect was the scholarly one. A consideration of mid-twentieth century political terror through the writings of three extraordinary figures—political theorist, Hannah Arendt; writer and intellectual Albert Camus; and theologian and anti-Nazi martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—cannot help but be "interdisciplinary." What does this mean and why is it laudable? There are those devoted to their respective disciplines who cast a skeptical eye in the direction of the inter- or cross-disciplinary. They fear it means dilettantism, a lapse into a scholarly grey zone where boundaries are blurred and distinguishing excellent from mediocre scholarship becomes more difficult. They fret that those who are not prepared to submit themselves to the standards of judgment that prevail in their own scholarly areas will take refuge in interdisciplinary activities and cry foul if anyone dares to evaluate them from the stand point of a recognized discipline.

    This worry seems to me misplaced. All interdisciplinary activities take as their starting point a discipline: one must be trained in something. And it is from this base that one launches oneself into other arenas with dialogue, debate, and enlightenment in mind. What do historians have in common with sociologists? Have political theorists anything to say to philosophers? Do students of the novel offer insights to anthropologists? The premise, of course, is that the engaged scholar never stops learning and refuses to rest content with the view that a single method or episemology or theory can do everything for us. The world, and the words we use to describe, under stand, and explain it cannot be thus contained. Why not make the activity of scholarly engage ment across disciplines a more robust enterprise? For it is only through explicit consideration of interdisciplinary possibility over time that we become capable of doing precisely what the skeptics insist must be done, namely, offering discernments about what are worthy, and what are less worthy, instances of interdisciplinary engagement.

    But there was a perturbing dimension to the explicit theme of the interdisciplinary seminar I conducted this summer under the auspices of the Warren Center. It was there in the title—terror. In recent months, the New York Times reported that the number of people killed in the genocide instigated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s is at least two million rather than one mil lion, as previously believed. In addition, there were stories about the recovery of bones and per sonal memorabilia, useful in identifying the dead, from mass graves in Bosnia. Taking the measure of the slaughters in Rwanda continues. Terror seems an ever-present possibility. Hannah Arendt's mordant and, it seems, prescient warning in The Origins of Totalitarianism seems apt: once something new, even if horrific, appears in the world, the chance that it will reappear must be considered likely rather than unlikely. How can we, or should we, prepare for such possibilities? This is difficult. By assuming the worst about human beings might we not bring about the very thing we most fear? What repertoire of civic possibilities is available in a given political order and culture that invites, or creates barriers to, political terror, even genocide? What ethical wellsprings do we and others have to call upon to argue against those who would do harm on a massive scale?

    These were among the questions that haunted Arendt, Camus, and Bonhoeffer. How could it happen? How did Hitlerism and Stalinism triumph? How can the human mind conjure up figures so flagrant—six million Jews killed in the Shoah; perhaps twelve million kulaks and others eradicated under Stalin? Arendt insists that refusing to get caught up in the totalizing and often deadly logic of ideology means an lndividual remalns open to what she calls factual reality and the claims made on us by simple truths. She would be horrified by the presence here, and elsewhere, of "Holocaust de niers." To her, such fabricators of bogus political and scholarly claims are chariatans of the worst sort who cavil at the mountain of evidence arrayed against them and fall into the gullibility and cynicism she considers character istic of one predisposed to em brace ideology.

    Camus, writing before Arendt's great work on totalitarianism was published, warned of "logical deliriums" of the sort that led French Revolutionaries to several tens of thousands of heads from bodies during the Terror and that helped to set an historic precedent for the victory of History over the dignity of human persons. "What matters now," he wrote sadly, "is not whether or not one has helped to ease a mother's suffering, but whether one has helped a doctrine to triumph"—this in 1946 at an address at Columbia University. For Camus, presaging the later writings of Arendt and, among the living, Vaclav Havel, human beings in the last half of the twentieth century faced a crisis in human consciousness itself, a crisis that demanded our most lucid thoughts. The demands of lucidity are great for Camus, and include an unblinkered awareness of evil with a continuing affirmation of hope.

    Although Camus, as an "unbeliever," rejected a theological framework, he and Bonhoeffer have much in common. Each had engaged and worked through the challenge of Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Each repudiated arrogant anthropocentrism and the sort of theocentrism that invites quietism in the face of earthly woes and in justices. Bonhoeffer moves through a theologia cruxis a way of the cross—putting God, not triumphant but suffering, at the center. From this center, he asks his fellow Germans who had not capitulated to Nazism to admit their complicity in permitting evil to flourish. He would see "the world from below" and, in so doing, put himself in danger in order to try to stop evil from tri umphing. Bonhoeffer under stood full well that evil will have its due. But he insisted that it is the responsibility of each human being, especially the Christian, to prevent evil from having its day. His role in the anti-Hitler con spiracy led to his own death by hanging in the Flossenberg Concentration Camp just a few days before its liberation by Allied troops. Bonhoeffer was thirty three years old when, in his words, he had come to the end but also "the beginning of life."

    "Politics, Ethics, and Terror" put a magnificent political theorist, a writer and sublime intellectual, and a gifted and brave theologian into a conversation with one another. Perhaps, better put, we were invited to recognize the conversation these exemplary thinkers were in during their own lifetimes. But it did more: it required students to ask themselves questions about the nature of their own engagement with the world in and through the communities of which they are a part. After all, noted Bonhoeffer, "You can't be universal anywhere save in your own backyard."

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