Carl Gershman’s Tribute to Jean Bethke Elshtain

The University of Chicago
October 13, 2011

In January of this year, Jean Bethke Elshtain completed nine years of service on the Board of the National Endowment for Democracy, the maximum period of continuous service that is permitted under NED by-laws. It was a marvelous period of engagement during which Jean became an integral part of what we like to call the NED family. It’s a family – or a community, to use another word that Jean likes — that consists not just of NED staff and Board Members, but of people in this country and around the world who share a common belief in democracy and are working to defend and advance its core principles and deepest values.

One of the things we asked Jean to do as a Board Member was to be the Board specialist on South Asia, which involved presenting and explaining at each Board meeting all the grant proposals that were being recommended for approval for that region. Jean didn’t pretend to be a specialist on South Asia, but she was always able to raise the right questions with staff, and her presentations to the Board were invariably clear, persuasive and spirited. I think her favorite project was the quaintly named Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, a Karachi-based grassroots social movement with 60,000 (dues paying) members that works to protect the rights of Pakistan’s large inland and coastal fisherfolk community from abuse by government, landowners, and other powerful interests. It had all the qualities that Jean likes: real people, tied to their local communities, working together to solve real problems, such as getting the Pakistani authorities to release jailed Indian fisherfolk, or to get a paramilitary border force to vacate fishing grounds it had illegally occupied.

This group, and there were many others like it in Jean’s portfolio, jumps right out of the pages of the concluding chapter of Democracy on Trial, where she profiled three social movements – the civil rights movement in the United States, the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina, and the dissident movement in Central Europe — and wrote of how power and community in a democracy comes into being “when men and women, acting in common as citizens, get together to find a way to express their collective hopes and possibilities.” This is not just what Jean thinks and believes. This is who she is, because she has a rare ability – rare especially in the American academy – to embrace and identify with people engaged in real democratic struggles.

As the title of this conference series – “The Engaged Mind” — suggests, Jean is an engaged intellectual. She’s an activist as well as a thinker. When I first came to know Jean, she had just gathered the names of 60 American intellectuals as signatories of the statement “What We’re Fighting For,” an explanation to the world of why our country was justified in using force to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attack. I have said many times, and will say again, that this was far and away the most effective act of public diplomacy that has emanated from this country since that fateful day ten years ago. It was effective because it didn’t speak down or up to intellectuals in the Arab world or Europe, but it explained in simple but eloquent prose, very much like our Declaration of Independence, the moral reasoning behind our actions and the fundamental principles we were defending.

This took courage. And as I got to know Jean in the ensuing months and years, courage is not something she lacks. If I have one I have 100 emails from Jean describing her battles against “the enraged minds,” the assortment of academics and clergy mounting the barricades to fight American “fascism” from their citadels of comfort and wealth. It was usually about one against 400, yet Jean always seems to have emerged victorious, a little bloodied but unbowed.

Jean grew up in the small town of Timnath, Colorado, population 180. The story goes that at age 13 she edited her own newspaper, The Timnath Courier, that ran her movie and book reviews and also, in its inaugural issue, a policy piece addressing the question: Was the Yalta Agreement a good idea? Jean solicited comments from readers, and the one she got from her best friend was, “I think you’re crazy.”

Actually, though, it was a very appropriate place to begin – a small town, a small paper, but large ideas about the world. As Jean wrote about Jane Addams, a great public intellectual of an earlier era whom she very much resembles, “It is only through seeding in familiar and family soil that universal aspiration can begin its tentative, frail sprouting.” It’s her core belief as a democratic intellectual that the universal most flow from the particular, not be imposed on the particular, which is the root of totalitarianism. Like Jane Addams, Jean has no use for “abstract utopian schemes” since “one must always begin with the concrete situation in which people finds themselves, and one must always take one’s cues from them as to what they need, what they fear, and what they hope for” – whether they’re fisherfolk in Pakistan, mothers in Argentina, or families here in the United States. One of her favorite words is “grounded” – to be grounded in the particular, in reality, in concrete human experience; to keep one’s aspirations high but one’s feet on the ground and one’s head out of the clouds.

Jean has given definition to what it means to be an engaged, public, democratic intellectual. She has explained principles that are essential to democracy and a part of human nature, but that are today in danger of being lost or misunderstood: the importance of responsibility as against feeling oneself a victim; of being a citizen and not a client; of rights as immunities from state abuse and not as a vehicle for state entitlements; of inclusive community as against the separate identities of multi-culturalism; of traditional faith as against ideological dogma; of reforming society step by step, as against trying to remake it in one great leap.

“Democracy,” according to Jean “is the political form that enables human beings to work out freedom as responsibility, in service to the notion that there are things worth suffering for.” Because Jean has given service to that notion, with courage and devotion, the National Endowment for Democracy, with pride, presents her with its Democracy Service Medal.