Dec. 15, 1996

To the Editor:

Harold Henderson begins his article on Jean Bethke Elshtain (“Uncommon

Sense,” Dec. 6) by telling us that if there’s anything that Prof. Elshtain

“can’t stand it’s sentimentalism.” He then quotes Prof. Elshtain in regard

to Christopher Reeve’s call for increased funding for spinal research, as

follows: “Most spinal injuries are incurred by people engaging in risky

activities. In a world where you have to make choices, where there are

limited resources…I think that that money might be better spent on well-

baby clinics.”

I cannot think of a more sentimental attitude than Prof. Elshtain’s conceit

that the welfare of babies should take precedence over the welfare of adults.

Mr. Henderson tells us that Prof. Elshtain “knows that making society work

takes more than a gush of feeling.” Actually, what Prof. Elshtain reall

y seems to know is that the best strategy for scoring political points in

this day and age is to point the “gush of feeling” in the direction of sick

and starving babies.

Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to Prof. Elshtain, but sexual intercourse is also

a “risky activity,” since it sometimes leads to unplanned pregnancies and

unwanted babies. If Prof. Elshtain were really the “contrarian” Mr.

Henderson takes her to be, she might question the dogma that society’s

“resources” are “there” for those who have children without being able to

afford to maintain their well-being. She might even go so far as to muse

over the “right-wing” claim that society’s “resources” are actually

produced not by “society,” but by _producers_ who, in justice, deserve a

first claim on the products of their own labor.

In this light, she might ask herself what exactly is the rhetorical function

of the term “resources”–as distinct from “wealth”–in the context of a

discussion of health care. The term “resources” gives the impression that the

wealth required to sustain “well-baby clinics” is somehow a natural

phenomenon, like oil or gas reserves, just waiting in the commons for

Prof. Elshtain’s non-sentimental acts of “distribution” to undernourished

and neglected babies. But where did all of those “resources” come from,

anyway? Prof. Elshtain tells us disdainfully that the free market is an

“acid” that “dissolves human ties.” It strikes me as odd that the very

“acid” that “dissolves human ties” is responsible for enabling productive

people to coordinate their efforts to create the very “resources” that

Prof. Elshtain is so eager to distribute.

Given Prof. Elshtain’s putative commitment to the “politics of virtue,”

I am curious to know which she regards as the greater virtue: the task

of _producing_ life-promoting goods in a free market, or the task of

_distributing_ those goods once someone else has produced them? Could it

really be the case that a virtue was literally parasitic on something

that had less value than that virtue?

Notwithstanding Prof. Elshtain’s caricatures of the free market (and its

advocates), her supposedly revolutionary claims about the family have

been a staple of “nuanced” political discourse on the free market “right”

for decades now. The interesting question that Mr. Henderson’s article

raises is why such claims are so often branded as “fascist” when they

come from people on “the right,” but hailed as sublime wisdom when they

come from allegedly “contrarian” thinkers of the academic left.


Irfan A. Khawaja

920 Wilber St., #204

South Bend, IN 46628

(219) 288-5480

[The writer is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of

Notre Dame.]