Do you feel real?

19 08 2016

I am not a successful academic.

I’m a pretty good teacher, but I’ve neither attended a conference nor submitted any papers for publication in over a decade. And yes, while I’m working on this ideologies project (which means I may end up submitting paper proposals to a conference or two), I’d have to say that I have not done the work of a good scholar.

I don’t like admitting it, but there it is.

Which is my way of wandering into this New Yorker profile of Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum is, of course, a successful—a very successful—academic. She has, per that profile,

published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers and received fifty-seven honorary degrees. In 2014, she became the second woman to give the John Locke Lectures, at Oxford, the most eminent lecture series in philosophy. Last year, she received the Inamori Ethics Prize, an award for ethical leaders who improve the condition of mankind. A few weeks ago, she won five hundred thousand dollars as the recipient of the Kyoto Prize, the most prestigious award offered in fields not eligible for a Nobel, joining a small group of philosophers that includes Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas.

Very, very successful.

Now, it’s true that I don’t like all of her books, but I have a number of them on my bookshelf and have used her work in my classroom. I’d guess that not only does she work harder than me, but that she’s also smarter than me and that if I ever got into an argument with her I’d almost certainly lose.

So, I’m not competing with her because I can’t compete with her: she’s way out of my league.

That said (you knew there’d be a “that said”, or maybe a “but still”), reading that profile made me uneasy: Is she for real?


“To be a good human being,” she has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.”

This makes a great deal of sense, and Nussbaum certainly does seem open to the world.

Her work includes lovely descriptions of the physical realities of being a person, of having a body “soft and porous, receptive of fluid and sticky, womanlike in its oozy sliminess.” She believes that dread of these phenomena creates a threat to civic life. “What I am calling for,” she writes, is “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.”

But, as Rachel Aviv observes,

In Nussbaum’s case, I wondered if she approaches her theme of vulnerability with such success because she peers at it from afar, as if it were unfamiliar and exotic. [. . .]

. . . when I first proposed the idea of a Profile . .  [s]he responded skeptically, writing in an e-mail that she’d had a long, varied career, adding, “I’d really like to feel that you had considered various aspects of it and that we had a plan that had a focus.” She typically responded within an hour of my sending an e-mail. “Do you feel that you have such a plan?” she asked me. “I’d like to hear the pros and cons in your view of different emphases.” She wasn’t sure how I could encompass her œuvre, since it covered so many subjects: . . . “The challenge for you would be to give readers a road map through the work that would be illuminating rather than confusing,” she wrote, adding, “It will all fall to bits without a plan.”

I understand that one may seek to control as much as possible about one’s own life in recognition that there’s so much that can’t be controlled, but there’s appears to be little that Nussbaum accepts as out of one’s control.

That philosophers write one prescription and follow another is so common as to be axiomatic. But I find it jarring that a scholar of humanity who, remarking on operatic role she’s rehearsing, says “I feel that this character is basically saying, ‘Life is treating me badly, so I’m going to give up,’ ” she told me. “And I find that totally unintelligible.”

Oh my Hera, Martha, so many of us give up so often, how can you talk of a “society of citizens who admit” being shattered, needy, and vulnerable when you can’t see that humans who are shattered sometimes give up?

As Aviv notes, Nussbaum does give emotions pride of place in her philosophy, as a kind of ur-cognition. And there’s something to that, to the breakdown of the affect-vs-intellect duality. But in assigning emotions a cognitive role, she overlooks that emotions have their own role, as emotions.

This is tough for me, not least because I once aspired to the kind of Stoicism that Nussbaum seems to have achieved (and which may be yet another reason I respond so strongly to her). Yet I’ve spent too many years twisting and then untwisting myself not to see that feelings are more than just thoughts untamed, always to be subordinated to reason. I have difficulty with this still, but I can at least acknowledge that sometimes, sometimes, it is not the worst thing to feel, first.

Nussbaum allows the feeling, but only properly tamed. She feels through her thoughts, which is an accomplishment. And a loss.


There’s a great deal more in the profile—the discussion of her colonoscopy, her willingness to strip in front of others, her use of Botox and plastic surgery, and more—which, as someone who’d rather not appear in my skivvies in front of colleagues, older or younger (and would prefer they keep their clothes on, as well), only heightened my unease.

But then, on submitting that feeling to reason, I admit that it doesn’t make sense to feel embarrassed on behalf of someone who is matter-of-fact in dealing with her facts of life. And it allowed me to see Nussbaum, in all her determined discipline, as, well, a bit odd.

And thus, all the more real for her oddness.

Ain’t no love

2 09 2008

Finally, a frame of mind in which to respond to a comment from Lucretia (about my last bit on Nussbaum).

BUT FIRST: I gotta say something about the whole Sarah/Bristol Palin thing. Damn! I feel bad for the girl. She’s seventeen, knocked up, and a week ago she was probably freaking out about what her classmates were going to say or were already saying about her pregnancy. Now, for reasons that have little to do with her, she’s worldwide news. That’s tough. I hope the people around her (and her boyfriend) are as supportive as they say they are.

As for her mom? I don’t like her politics. No need to say much beyond that.

Okay, on to the question of nonbeliever respect for the religious, especially when the religious show so little respect for the nonbeliever. On August 26, Lucretia asked

‘It’s such a common notion in our culture, probably in Western culture as a whole – maybe all human cultures? – that we have to respect people’s religious beliefs. I find I’ve absorbed this idea without quite knowing where it came from.

Why do we have to tiptoe around other people’s quirky, bizarre, or moronic ideas? Particularly when, if a religious nut knows you’re an atheist, he feels perfectly free to declare open season on us?’

I’ve been batting this question around for awhile, and I think I’ve got the beginnings of a response to it. And, ironically, Nussbaum, in Women and Human Development, helped shape part of my response.

The first part, that which to which Nussbaum’s discussion of political liberalism contributes, is the notion of respect for persons. One can reject or accept this notion, but it’s a pretty standard precept of modern philosophical-liberal thought. We are free and equal beings, individuals with distinct desires and personalities, and endowed with sufficient reason to pursue our own, individual ends. (This is a bit of a mash-up of liberal thought, but, again, not an unreasonable one; similar kinds of notions anchor many human rights declarations & charters, for example.)

Anyway, as free, equal, and distinct beings, the ends we choose for our lives ought to be left up to each of us. That is, whatever meaning we assign to our lives, including whether that assignment includes a supernatural element or not, is up to each of us.  Unsurprisingly, this means we are likely to choose different meanings, different ends. Some are so discomfitted by this plurality of outcomes that they seek to favor some meanings and outcomes over others, to say, in effect, that no rational person would choose these lesser ends.

Nussbaum argues, rightly, I think, that one can’t have it both ways: either you allow for respect for persons to choose their own lives, or you don’t. (There are issues about the conditions for choice, and choosing for others, especially children, but that’s a separate topic.) She distinguishes political liberalism from comprehensive liberalism, such that under conditions of political liberalism one creates the conditions for choice of ends, whereas under a regime of comprehensive liberalism, one seeks to shape those ends, to favor some over others.

Another, shorter, way to put this is to state that I will respect your ability to choose your own way, and you will respect my ability to choose my own way. Reciprocity.

This works, I think, as a formal model of respect, especially as regards respect among strangers, and as creating a kind of space against an overlord (government, religion) which seeks to choose our ends for us.

But while such formal or process-respect can help remind one not to trample on another’s ability to choose, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t get at that deep frustration over lack of respect for the choice of ends. In other words, while Nussbaum would like to bracket off discussions of ends (and which, in the context of her larger argument about constitutions and states, makes a great deal of sense), the issue of ends-respect remains.

And it is much harder to deal with, because we connect the ends a person has chosen with that person herself. In other words, it’s personal. So Lucretia’s question looms: why respect shitty ideas? why respect shitty beliefs which belittle the nonbeliever?


That, finally, after many years of trying to square my principled belief in respect for persons with the batshit things we believe in, is my answer. I will maintain my respect for you as a human being, but not so much for you, personally. If you believe menstruating women are polluting and to be avoided, if you think black people are inferior to white people, that Jews run the world, if you think anyone who doesn’t believe exactly as you do isn’t worth as much as you, then expect the ridicule you so richly deserve.

This sounds, hm, if not contradictory, at least, not right: Aren’t I, after all, expecting others to believe exactly as I do? Aren’t I saying dissenters to my view aren’t worth as much? No, and yes. No, insofar as I distinguish between the formal- or process-respect and personal- or ends-respect. I’m not saying you don’t get to believe what you do, or that you deserve less protection of the law than anyone else. You should never lose the respect owed to you as a human being, or, to put it more politically, as a citizen.

But we are not simply citizens, not simply occupants of the formal-human-being role. We are also individual personalities, with our own desires and flaws and beliefs, and to state that we can have whatever beliefs we want, but that we ought not take them so seriously that we form judgments in relation to them, is to miss something vital to our humanness.

You can go on and think I’m going to hell because I don’t pray or don’t pray to the right god or don’t pray to the right god in the right way—and you can say you condemn me out of love—but why on earth would you expect me to respect a position which denigrates me? If you judge me because of who I sleep with or how I sleep with that (consenting) person, why should I, who don’t think this matters to anyone but me and that other person, take your side against my own?

If the only way to respect your view is to belittle myself, well, I ain’t respectin’ your view.

I respect absolutely your right and ability to hold whatever views you choose, but I don’t necessarily respect those chosen views.

And this is where it gets funky, because we tie a person’s views to our own view of that person. If you hold to views I find abhorrent, I’m not going to respect you. And given that I think respect IS important, that bothers me a bit. But I also have a fairly wide range of views outside of my own which I find worthy of respect, so I’m not too worried that I’m going to whittle my interactions down to people who are just. like. me.

That could, and does, happen, of course: align with me, or be gone. And if that happens too often or infects too much of our civic life, that could be problematic. But on the personal level, well, who we want around us is going to vary from person to person. Some want family near, others, far. Some seek many friends and colleagues, and others choose to cultivate a few. Whatever. The point is, we use our judgment in determining who we want around, and, on a personal level, that’s as it should be.

Hm. I think I’m still missing a piece of a response to Lucretia. I’ve talked about a kind of constitutional or generic respect for persons, and about intimates, but what about those strangers or acquaintances with whom we interact in the social sphere? More acutely, what about those demands from citizens for respect for their views? Not generic persons, not friends, but fellow-travellers in the polity, in the social sphere? How do we meet demands for respect for mutually-exclusive beliefs? Ah. I thought I captured this in the idea of creating space against an overlord, but I didn’t: this is how we treat one another within that space.

Getting at that is gonna have to wait. It may be a matter of reiterating respect for you, but signalling disagreement with your beliefs. But I don’t think that’s sufficient, either.

Damn. And I thought I had a handle on this. Maybe not.

Martha, Martha, Martha (part III)

25 08 2008

This will not be nearly as long as the previous post, I promise.

I mentioned in the last post that I found her discussion of gay marriage offensive. I over-spoke. It’s glib and ill-argued, and she seems to think that as long as gays and lesbians are no longer in danger of criminal indictment, there’s not really any problem. Sure, she notes parenthetically, ‘they continue to suffer many civil disabilities by comparison to heterosexual couples married by the state’ [338], but what are a few ‘civil disabilities’ among a free and equal citizenry?

No, what is offensive is her treatment of the non-religious. Yes, she duly includes us in her laundry list of A to Z minority beliefs which must be respected, but when agnostics and atheists are separated from the rest, our beliefs are apparently downgraded from ‘respectable’ to ‘tolerable.’ We are ‘smug’, ‘arrogant’, ‘condescending’, ‘outspoken’, and ‘contempt[uous]’. Oh, and we’re all ‘leftists’ or ‘liberals’. (I am a leftist, but doubt and skepticism are hardly the sole province of the pink (or blue, if you prefer) side of the political spectrum.) All of this serves to separate us from the rest of the majority of Americans to whom Nussbaum so often alludes, to make us, in some sense, less American.

Some examples:

On evolution: ‘It would also be good if opponents of evolution did not associate it with irreligiosity. Proponents of evolution have a wide range of different views, theistic, nontheistically religious, agnostic, and atheist. [. . .] On the other side, it would be great if scientific people who are themselves atheists would not speak dismissively or condescendingly about religion, suggesting that religion is only for dummies, or even suggesting that religion is basically a source of strife and bad behavior. [. . .] It would be best if all people would focus on combating bad behavior wherever it arises, rather than smugly suggesting that if we were all atheists, the world would be a more peaceful place. The history of Marxism certainly did not support that contention.’ [326-27]

Okay, it’s bad for opponents to paint science as irreligious because. . . it’s not accurate? Hm. Or because irreligion is bad?

And the suggestions the world would be better if we were all the same come only from smug atheists? No Christians or Muslims or thought or think that if we all prayed to the same God everything would be hunky-dory? At least they wouldn’t be smug, I guess.

On the pledge: ‘From the vantage point of these practical concerns, it was extremely unfortunate that the case that went to the Supreme Court was brought by an outspoken atheist who openly scoffs at religious belief.’ She goes on to note that it’s good that Hindus and Buddhists are beginning to push back against the Pledge, and wishes Confucianists, Taoists, Christians and Jews would get more involved in the fight. [314-15]

Again, outspoken atheists are apparently not good enough on their own; they must be hidden behind other believers.

On nonbelievers generally: ‘Many if not most Americans think that religion is enormously important and precious, and they do not like being told by intellectuals that they should not bring their religious commitments into the public square. [. . .] Many people think, then, that defenders of the continued separation of church and state are people who have contempt for religion. These people are right about something: religion is enormously important and precious. Not every American believes this personally, but all ought to be prepared to see, and respect, the importance of religion for many, if not most of their fellow citizens. [. . .] It is supremely annoying when intellectuals talk down to religious people, speaking as if all smart people are atheists.’ [9-10] She then goes on to discuss Daniel Dennett and his advocacy of the term ‘brights’ for nonbelievers, noting that his book Breaking the Spell ‘drips with contempt’ for believers. Newdow (of the Pledge) comes in for it as well, ‘a proud atheist who has evident contempt for religious beliefs and religious people. Many Americans of goodwill associate the very idea of the “separation of church and state” with this sort of smug atheism.’ [9-10]

And: ‘Seen in its right relation to the idea of fairness, the idea of separation of church and state does not express what the left sometimes uses it to express, namely, contempt for, and the desire to marginalize, religion.’ [11]

Finally (really!): ‘It seems to me that there is little point in simply adding to the swelling chorus of alarm over “the religious right.” The helpful thing is to produce a good analysis of religious fairness. But any such good analysis entails, I believe, that there are errors on the left as well, and that we should be, and remain, vigilant about them.’ [11] This, after the comment on p. 4 of ‘An organized, highly funded, and widespread political movement [which] wants the values of a particular brand of conservative evangelical Christianity to define the United States.’

Yeah, I’m beating this into the ground, but I wanted to demonstrate what set me off, namely, the inability to find an individual atheist who is not smug or arrogant or left-wing or (horrors) an intellectual. I’m not much for the polemics of Hitchens, Dawkins, or Dennett, not least because I think they’re wrong: I tend to think that intelligence (and idiocy) are randomly distributed across the population, hitting the religious and not, and all variations of ideology. But then again, I’m not much for the polemics of religious believers who smugly and arrogantly insist I’m going to hell, who condescendingly speak of their love for the sinner even as they hate the sin, who proudly state that all who don’t sign on to their beliefs are fools, and who drip contempt for and desire to marginalize all those who think they can lead a good life outside of religious belief.

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive: ‘The presence of agnostics, atheists, and people who are seeking truth for themselves in their own nontraditional way is now acknowledged as a big fact of our political life, and these people too are recognized as equal citizens, nominally at least.’ [358-59] These people. Nominally at least. Thanks for that ringing endorsement of our existence.

At least in the above quote she mentions politics. Most of the book is a mixture of Constitutional and American history, with the exposition of Williams’s ideas anchoring the beginning of the book. Had she stopped there, she would have written an unremarkable and largely unproblemmatic book. It’s when she veers into contemporary political controversies in chapter 8 that she goes off the rails, and it is perhaps her refusal to engage the political dimension of these controversies which so distorts her narrative. As she herself notes in the opening pages of the book, there are organized efforts to impose a particular brand of Christianity on the body politic—efforts which are hardly marginal.  No, I don’t think we’re in danger of a theocratic takeover, but the effects of some politicized religious folk to keep comprehensive sex education out of the schools, to prohibit funds for international contraception programs, to downplay the use of condoms in AIDS prevention, to impose language in international anti-AIDS programs which discourage outreach to sex workers, to continue the ban on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research,  to make it easier for health care practitioners to deny contraception and Plan B to their patients, and, lest we forget, to pass anti-same-sex marriage amendments and fight against domestic partnerships and the extension of civil rights to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered.

And yet all Nussbaum can see fit to discuss is the religious aspect of gay marriage—and declare it not an issue. Perhaps in a world confined solely to the religious, constitutional, and philosophical dimensions, she could get away with such an approach. But we Americans, whether smug or of goodwill, live in the political world as well, one in which power is wielded on behalf of and against others. Religion may be the space in which one’s search for meaning is constituted; it is also a political weapon, and one wielded not just against minority believers, but unbelievers. Thus, it is not unsurprising that some of us would fight back against its use in politics. Had Nussbaum been willing to engage the political uses and abuses of religious belief, perhaps she would have had more sympathy for those of us who live in doubt.

The book is titled Liberty of Conscience. Yet for all her words about preferring ‘respect’ to ‘toleration’ as truly recognizing the integrity of other views and other people, she does not extend this recognition to the consciences of the atheist or agnostic. We remain ‘these people’, tolerated, not respected.

Oh, Martha (part II)

22 08 2008

Martha Nussbaum, Liberty of Conscience, cont.

The beer has been poured. Okay, back to the two main lines of critique: her treatment of issues in chapter 8, and her silence on politics.

I’ll start with chapter 8: Contemporary Controversies. As mentioned in the previous post, Nussbaum picks out the Pledge of Allegiance, evolution, imagination, gay marriage, and fear of Muslims. It’s not clear to me that the Pledge deserves its place on this list (abortion? contraception? sexuality generally?), and in the section on fear of Muslims, she focuses on Europe, but the problem is less with the list itself than in how she approaches these issues.

First, the Pledge. Yes, it has its place in the annals of American jurisprudence, which may be why she includes it here, but this seems an historical rather than contemporary matter. The recent case brought by Michael Newdow, against the recitation of [‘under God’ in] the Pledge, excited a lot of commentators, but as he was denied standing by the Supreme Court, nothing happened. Nussbaum makes a plausible case that it may, at some point, ripen, but not now. As she herself notes, ‘Given public feeling on the issue, it would cause a national crisis were the Supreme Court to say that the words “under God” are unconstitutional. [. . .] If there is uncertainty about the correct way of proceeding in such a momentous case, it is probably wise for the Court to avoid the issue as long as possible—hoping that, in the meanwhile, greater public understanding of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other related religions, as well as a greater appreciation for conscientious moral atheism and agnosticism, will undermine the perception that the opponents of the pledge are all dangerous subversives.’ [314] I won’t be holding my breath for this greater appreciation, but I take her larger practical point.

The teaching evolution in the public schools, on the other hand, clearly is an ongoing controversy. She slips into hermeneutical mode at the outset of the section, pointing out that the Christian fundamentalist understanding of Genesis is unique to a subset of Bible-believers. ‘Practices of allegorical reading of scripture are nothing new, not in the least connected with skepticism or agnosticism.’ [316] Nussbaum takes the reader through Jewish traditions and into mainstream Protestant interpretations of Genesis, noting that ‘Teaching Darwin’s theory does not deny the biblical story (although it does suggest that one would need to read it nonliterally), . . .’ From this she concludes, citing approvingly Judge Jones’s decision in the Dover case, that teaching so-called creation science or intelligent design in the science classroom impermissably imposes a sectarian doctrine in the public schools.

This is all fine, but she’s doing something in the evolution section which evolves (sorry) even further in the section on imagination and difference in the classroom. This is the most intriguing case in this section, and I’m glad Nussbaum brings it up; I’m just not sure that she realizes the profundity of the issues she raises. ‘I have said that the public schools can and must teach values that lie at the heart of our political principles. [. . .] The classroom strongly encourages the use of imagination to come to grips with the variety of people who live together in our country.’ [327] (Leaving aside the fanciful notion that imagination is encouraged in the classroom, it is nonetheless a lovely sentiment.) Unfortunately, ‘For some believing Christians in our nation, this exercise of imagination is sinful. It is a kind of magical thinking, and magic is bad. What is good is strict obedience to the literal word of the Bible.’ [329] She takes up the 1987 case Mozert v Hawkins, in which parents Bob Mozert and Vicky Frost objected to various books on the schools reading lists. They didn’t like how gender roles were portrayed, or the use of the word ‘comrade’, alleged hidden messages promoting satanism, and the purported Hindu influence of the texts. Mainly, however, they objected to ‘exposing ther children “to other forms of religion and to the feelings, attitudes and values of other students that contradict the plaintiffs’ religious views without a statement that the other views are incorrect and that the plaintiffs’ views are the correct ones”.’ [330] Attempts at accommodation failed. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Court ruled against Mozert and Frost; the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Why is this such a fascinating case? After all, it seems a no-brainer: As Chief Justice Lively points out (and Nussbaum quotes): ‘The “tolerance of divergent. . . religious views” referred to by the Supreme Court is a civil tolerance, not a religious one.’ [332] The parents and children aren’t required to believe anything about these other religions, and their allergy to mere exposure to them does not rise to the level of religious oppression. They may continue to believe and practice as they see fit.

The civil/religious tolerance (Nussbaum prefers ‘respect’ to tolerance) distinction is a useful one, and does real social and political work: You are a citizen in a plural society, and such citizenship requires a practical recognition of that plurality. You may not like it, you may even try to change it, but as long as such plurality exists, you may not claim legal exemption from it. This seems a straightforwardly democratically-republican understanding of the obligations of citizenship: Democratic insofar as it recognizes difference, and republican in the insistence on a similar public treatment of one’s fellow citizens.

But what if one’s religious views truly do not allow for a recognition of difference? What if it truly is onerous to one’s religious practices and beliefs to act respectfully (or tolerantly) toward the Other? Nussbaum argues in favor of a generous interpretation of polygamy as it related to 19th century Mormons, namely because it was central to their beliefs. What if the shunning of the Other is central to belief? Nussbaum could make the ‘compelling state interest’ argument, but she sticks to the civil tolerance theme. It’s a reasonable tactic, but in doing so she ducks an unavoidable consequence of the judgment: that tolerance of the intolerable can itself be oppressive. Had she used the state interest argument, she would have had to confront head-on the coercive nature of the state’s action. Coercion may be inevitable in these cases; the least we (I concur with the court’s decision) can do is grant the Mozerts and Frosts (as well as those opposed to the teaching of evolution) the recognition of that coercion.

This also raises the question of how to deal with the children in such cases. Nussbaum writes movingly of the role of imagination in Women and Human Development, and I’m inclined to agree that a life is not fully human without such imagination. But we Americans also grant wide latitude to parents to raise their children as they see fit, seeing these children (especially when young) as members of a family more than as fully rights-bearing individuals. (It’s been a long time since I’ve read Amy Guttmann’s Democratic Education, but I think she makes the argument that we might want to consider a bit less deference toward parental control.) What if parents raise their children in such a way that they are unable, when adults, to make their own way in the world? Nussbaum is surprisingly assertive of children’s rights as individuals in Women and Human Development; here, she sidesteps the issue.

I suspect the problem is her desire to accommodate all sides of the debate (as evidenced by her careful repetition of the list of not only monotheists but also Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, pagans, atheists, and agnostics in her list of interested parties to the various debates). Consensus, when honestly reached, is terrific, but it is not always possible. In some matters, there are winners and losers, and that hard truth ought not be hidden.

Nussbaum at least puts together coherent arguments for the first three issues; not so for the fourth issue and fifth issues, gay marriage and fear of a Muslim planet. To take the latter issue first, she notes that while there have been isolated instances of anti-Muslim violence in the US, Muslims are, for the most part, free to practice their religion. (I think she downplays the significance of expressed anti-Islamic animus, and she ignores the post-September 11 roundups of Muslim males by FBI & immigration officials, but she’s right: there haven’t been any pogroms.) Thus, after a brief mention of the veils and drivers licenses (and some self-congratulatory words on Americans’ deep and entrenched respect for religious difference), she heads to Europe.

Europe is a problem for Nussbaum. Europeans value diversity less, have done a lousy job integrating immigrant populations into their societies, and in some cases (France!) are intolerant of public displays of religion. Nussbaum is not the first person to point out the difficulties some European nations are having with ethnic and religious minorities, but she does a terrible job—actually, no job—of putting such difficulties into context. She makes mention of the treatment of Jews in the eighteenth century, and that’s about it. Really: all of European history is dealt with in less than two paragraphs on p. 348. She thus concludes, from her voluminous historical research, that ‘The reasons for this difference between the European and the American traditions are many and complex. One reason was surely that the Americans had experienced the European way and didn’t like it.’ Uh huh. The other two reasons are lack of majority religion in the US (given the varieties of majority-Protestantism), and that ‘European nationalism has typically relied on ideas of blood, soil, and belonging to define nationhood, whereas America’s self-conception as a nation has, like India’s, been political: a set of democratic commitments, not a single ethnic style, is what holds us all together.’ [348]

Even I, who is embarrassingly ignorant of much European history, knows this is wrong. Blood and soil may matter to some versions of fascist thought across various countries, as well as to non-fascist sensibilities within some countries, but it was hardly across the continent. How would she explain republican France, with its emphasis on language and republican ideals? Or to British imperial history? Even if I agree with her that Jack Straw’s statements about niqab-covered women are appalling, I’m so damned bothered by her shallow understanding of these other cultures that I’m inclined to dismiss everything she has to say on this particular issue.

Finally, given her discussion in Women and Human Development of the distortions of adaptive preferences (i.e., one makes the only choices one can, however lousy, and may come to value them as good choices), how can she not even consider that some forms of religious dress might actually be oppressive? To continue that line of questioning would take me outside of the realm of this book review (and I go back and forth on this issue), but, shees, to state that the burqa is as unproblematic as ‘normal Chicago winter gear and surgical masks’ [350] is. . . idiotic. I don’t like using such a term for a thinker I (generally) respect, but the thoughtlessness of her narrative on this point is dismaying.

Which leaves me with the gay marriage section. If the Muslim section is a trifle, the piece on gay marriage is an offensive and incoherent mess. For much of the book she takes the side of the minority believer against majoritarian practices. This is a legitimate approach, but it breaks down when the issue is less of the freedom of religious expression than freedom from religion. Thus, she considers gay marriage from the perspective of belief, and questions whether any religious tradition requires gay marriage. Some prohibit, some allow, but none require. Given that Nussbaum wrote sympathetically of the centrality of polygamy to 19th century Mormon beliefs, one might suspect a concurrent sympathy for alternate forms of marriage, but the lack of centrality of gay marriage to religious belief means, for Nussbaum, that the First Amendment has little to say on this issue. ‘It seems difficult to imagine any Free Exercise claim in this area.’ [338] However,

The Establishment Clause might seem more promising, for many people see the current restrictions on same-sex marriage as a de facto establishment of a Christian or Judeo-Christian norm. But a case that claimed a right to marriage for gays and lesbians on Establishment Clause grounds would be extremely weak. As I’ve argued, these limitations on marriage are not particularly characteristic of Judaism and Christianity, at least in their present form; they are things with regard to which Judaism and Christianity are deeply divided, and non religious America is also deeply divided. Nor is there any religion that strongly promotes same-sex marriage, though many permit it.

Moreover, the state has always chosen definitions of marriage and family that favor some traditions and disfavor others, without any apparent constitutional problem under the religion clauses. . . .

But if the issue of sexual orientation is not really a religious issue, or, at any rate, not an issue to be handled under the religion clauses, is there some other way in which these clauses can help us think through our divisions over these issues? [339-40]

Oh. My. First, she offers NO EVIDENCE for the assertion (the second in this section; see also 338, top) that atheists and agnostics are divided on the issue of gay marriage. Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t, but given that it seems so terribly convenient for Nussbaum to make this assertion (so as to say this isn’t really a religious issue), I’m not taking her word on this.

In fact, it seems terrifically important that secularists are divided, precisely so she can avoid dealing with the religious component of the anti-gay-marriage argument. Because she is so focused on believers, she can’t come around to the other side to see that at times what is required, from the perspective of liberty, is a claim against religion. Dammit, it’s getting late and my thoughts are fraying, but let me try to hash out this last point before going to bed (I guess I’ll have to finish in a part III.) Nussbaum tosses out that states have always regulated marriage—so what? Nevermind that she considered prohibition of Mormon polygamy as inimical to freedom; as long as gay marriage isn’t anywhere required by religion, no problem. (Of course, there’s also the matter that some religious proponents of gay marriage are advocates precisely because they see the sanctification same-sex relationships as intrinsically involving core precepts of their beliefs. Nussbaum, however, rides right past these arguments.)

But, of course, there is a problem, akin to that facing Catholics in Protestant-influenced public schools: the state has taken on the prejudices of sect and, in imposing the requirements of that sect on all, violates its own neutrality and thus, the rights of those outside of that sect. For Nussbaum to state that because Reform Jews and some Christian denominations welcome gay marriage means there is no sectarian influence in the definition of marriage is to ignore large swaths of the political debate surrounding this issue, as well as common sense.

Shit, I’m breaking up, and I want to be very clear in the rest of my critique. I’ll pick this up later. Now: to bed.

Oh, Martha

22 08 2008

Martha Nussbaum has written a mediocre book. I am sorry to write this, insofar as she is a thoughtful writer working in the liberal tradition, but her new book, Liberty of Conscience, is not good. Worth reading—maybe—but by no means a vital contribution to the issue of religion in the public square.

Nussbaum is a philosopher and legal scholar; unsurprisingly, then, she approaches the question of religious liberty in the US less as a political matter than a Constitutional one. There is history, but of the history-of-ideas sort, emphasizing Roger Williams and James Madison rather than how indigenous people, colonists, and later, Americans, practice their religion on the ground. She covers various debates over establishment and free expression in the federal Constitutional Convention as well as some state debates. She also highlights particular 19th century events, such as the reaction to the newly-formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka Mormons) as well as to increased Catholic immigration. She then takes a tour of the usual 20th century Constitutional suspects, hitting on the role members of minority religions have played in expanding deference to non-majority (i.e., mainline Protestant) practices. Nussbaum makes clear her preference for the approach the Supreme Court used in Abington School District v. Schempp in general, and for the jurisprudence of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in particular. She ends with a discussion of five current issues (the Pledge of Allegiance, gay marriage, evolution, imagination, and the fear of Muslims), and a professed optimism that liberty will out.

That is a very short summary of the book, and those with a particular interest in debates over Constitutional interpretation may be more (or perhaps, less) impressed than I with her argument. Such debates are not, however, a concern of mine. (Yes, I have opinions on this matter, but these are not bones on which I care to gnaw.) My unease with her narrative grew over the course of the book, culminating, upon entering chapter 8, in a kind of disbelief in her approach. But before I launch into full critical mode, I would like to mention a few irritations.

First, the book feels loose. I use her book Women and Human Development in one of my courses, and she mentions repeatedly that different portions were presented in various seminars, colloquia, and conferences; so, too, with Hiding from Humanity: she’s returning to and revising familiar material. She does mention in both her notes and in the acknowledgments section of Liberty various prior presentations of the material, but the chapters are noticeably drafty.

Which brings me to the second irritant: sloppy writing. Although I haven’t read all of her work, Martha Nussbaum does not strike me as either a sloppy thinker or writer. If this were your only exposure to her thinking, however, you might conclude otherwise. She rightly valorizes Roger Williams’s early advocacy of liberty of conscience and religion, and highlights excerpts of his 1644 Bloudy Tenent of Persecution which would earn a political candidate a media shellacking were she or he to repeat them today. Still, was Williams as influential as she proclaims? Yes, she mentions Locke, Kant, Smith, and Madison (though doesn’t have much good to say about Jefferson and not much about anyone else of that time), but Williams is given the primary credit for having influenced American sensibilities on religious liberty. Maybe. Yet Nussbaum is so effusive in her praise of him that I wonder who’s been downgraded to make room for all this promotion.

More trivially, she uses the term ‘reasonable’ more often than a reasonable person reasonably should; this is especially apparent in chapter 7. Now, this is problematic not only for aesthetic, um, reasons, but also because the constant invocations of what reasonable people may reasonably do elides the fact that reason is not always the overriding factor in peoples’ thoughts, feelings, or actions (something which she discusses, at length, in Hiding from Humanity). By the end of the chapter the references to reasonableness take on a skin of desperation, as if the repeated mentions themselves will pile up to bridge that gap between the unfortunate is and the promised land-of-reason ought.

(Most trivially? ‘In 1831, in another case very like that of Jonas Philips, another Jew, confusingly named Levi Philips. . . .’ [129] What?! Why the ‘confusingly named’? Lousy sentences are not unforgivable, but I bring this one up to highlight a certain slackness in editing. There are, alas, other examples.)

Third irritant: The presentation of history from the Northeast south and westward. This is a general bias in our national narrative, but for the love of pete, can’t SOMEone try to remember that some of the earliest Europeans to hit the continent were the Spanish? Yes, anti-Catholic sentiment was heightened in tandem with increased Catholic immigration, but is it just possible that, as (Protestant) settlers moved westward and encountered already-existing Spanish and mestizo—Catholic—populations, that hostility flared between these groups? I honestly don’t know, but could we at least expand our understanding of the history of American colonization to include Spanish (and French Catholic) settlers?

So much for the minor points. On to the truly problematic: her approach to secularists, and the discussions in chapter 8. But first, I need (okay: want) a beer. Part II follows.