When I was young

23 10 2013

I should be grading.

I did some, not enough, and the papers aren’t due back until tomorrow, but I wanted to cut down on the number I’ll have to do tomorrow night.

Whatever. I found a link to this Reddit thread, “What is the most philosophical thing you have ever heard a child under the age of 5 say?”  in a post by Tyler Cowen; herein are some winners:

pinkpickuptruck 2255 points 2 days ago

My little sister handed me a juice box as I was packing to move out and said “No one is really a grown up. They just act old because they have to”

whosthedoginthisscen 312 points 2 days ago

“This darn penis.” – my 4 year old nephew reacting to a tiny boner getting in the way of him practicing swimming during bathtime.

pehvbot 415 points 2 days ago

I was rock climbing and a kid and his dad walked by (it was in a publicly accessible park). The kid asked what we were doing and the dad said “Rock climbing”. The kid, his voice dripping with contempt, “Why? The father replies “For fun, you know like when you play video games”. And without missing a beat the kid says “Sometimes I lose at video games”.

JoshuaZ1 300 points 2 days ago

My little brother asked “how do we know that there aren’t any more numbers to count between 2 and 3.”

[–]EgonIsGod 256 points 2 days ago

“What am I alive for?” Existential distress is not the sort of thing you expect from a 4 year old at bath time.

KellyLoyGilbert 95 points 2 days ago

“You don’t know what I’m feeling inside.” A five-year-old boy to his mother as they were walking around Golden Gate Park.

stormborn_ 202 points 2 days ago

I said, E, what’s wrong? She responded “anything.” Perfectly describes that feeling.

tubabrox 155 points 2 days ago

I’ve been babysitting for a family since their oldest who is now 9 was a baby. When the littlest one was about 4 he dropped this one on me and I haven’t been able to forget it since:

“This is how the world works: people bein’ weird, then they die.”

PockyClips 19 points 2 days ago

I had a friend die in a motorcycle accident… He left behind a wife, a daughter, 4, and a son, 1. The day after a bunch of us his went to see them. We get there and his widow is a wreck, of course… She’s cleaning the house, rearranging cabinets, washing all of his clothes… Anything to keep busy. So the girls get her to relax for a bit and I took it upon myself to keep an eye on the kids. As I’m sitting on the couch, the four year old comes over to me and climbs into my lap. She’s says, “You guys are here because my Daddy died, huh?” I say, “Yes, sweetie, we are.” So we sit there a beat… I’m not a religious guy, but their family was. I didn’t know what they told her, what they wanted her to think about the whole sorry mess, so I decided just to keep my mouth shut. Then this sweet little girl looks up at me and says…

“Well, better him than me.”

And she gets up and goes back to playing. It was the most unsettling thing I had ever heard from a child… Yet she was absolutely right. Brrrrrrr…

Ericthemighty 26 points 2 days ago

I was teaching 2 years ago. I went over to the kindergarten where a friend was a teacher to get ready for lunch. I witnessed a little girl ask a boy about a bandage covering where he got stitches, doesn’t that hurt.. “Yeah, but I just don’t think about it.”

So many more.

And really, are you surprised that I picked out the snarky and the ontological?


Brave companion of the road

28 05 2011

Is it better to be consistent than inconsistent? What about contradiction and hypocrisy: what is the merit or demerit of such concepts?

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been carrying on a long conversation with himself and the rest of us regarding the interpretation and understanding of the American Civil War; to that end, he tries to leave judgment behind and move into the experience—as much as is possible—of those living at the time. He reads historical accounts and letters and novels and requests that we “Talk to me like I’m stupid” regarding weaponry, battle tactics, wardrobe, John Locke, and hermeneutics.

He wants to understand.

I follow his wonderings in part because he often writes beautifully about these topics, in part because I learn something the Civil War, and in part because his attempt to shed enough of himself to enter into the mind of, say, a Confederate soldier, seems simultaneously brave, foolish, and in vain.

Brave: You do have to shed your armor, your clothes, sometimes even your skin to make yourself open to another.

Foolish: You have to shed your armor, your clothes, and sometimes even your skin to make yourself open to another.

In vain: As long as you can choose to come and go into another’s experience, you reinforce the separation between yourself and the other.

I am ambivalent about the limits and risks and possibilities and purposes of understanding, an ambivalence which tips sometimes more toward openness, sometimes more toward skepticism, but I am fascinated by the quest.This is not just philosophy; this is art.

And that’s where I return to the questions regarding consistency and contradiction. In  a recent post of George Fitzhugh’s Cannibals All!, TNC noted that he appreciated not only Fitzhugh’s straightforward defense of slavery, but his willingness to extend it as far as it could logically take him—in Fitzhugh’s case, into the enslavement of the majority of humankind:

There’s something attractive about his willingness to game out all of his maniacal theories. He has moral courage that his double-talking, bullshitting, slaveholding friends lack. It’s the opposite of that Jeffersonian view of slavery which cowers from the awful implications of one’s beliefs.

It’s Howell Cobb’s, “If slaves make soldiers, then our whole theory of slavery is wrong,” versus Jefferson Davis’s legalistic bullshit about black Confederates. There’s something about the sheer clarity of these guys, even though they speak evil, that’s a breath of fresh air. Half the problem is cutting through the deliberate lying about one’s own theories.

At which point I (metaphorically) raised my hand and said, Um, wait a minute: why is straight talk better, here? Is this really courageous as opposed to, say, crackers?  I drilled down further to argue that there is no necessary moral content either to consistency or to contradiction.

Consider, as well, “double-talking”, “bullshitting”, “deliberate lying”: these are all moral judgments on those who, unlike Fitzhugh, do not make their arguments one logical smooth piece, but who cramp and crinkle and perhaps tear at the fabric of their own arguments regarding the justness of slavery or the conditions of those enslaved.

These moral judgments, in other words, are, if not at root, then at least also, aesthetic judgments: better to make the argument straight than kinked, better to untie all knots and iron the whole cloth of the argument, better there be no seams.

But why is this so? Why let the aesthetic stand in for the moral? Can the aesthetic stand in for the moral? (This is a very old argument, by the way.)

No, no, I’m really not demanding a thesis from TNC; he’s doing quite enough already. But his musings in this particular piece have thrown into sharp relief how tenacious are our unexamined judgments, how much of one’s own world—one’s own ontology, as it were—one brings to that quest for understanding.

There’s no easy way out of this: judgments are our bearings, and to leave them behind in an attempt to make sense of another risks losing them altogether, to the point where we can’t make sense to ourselves.

I don’t know where I’m going with this; perhaps I’m losing my own bearings. But this whole understanding gig, tch, it’s a real kick in the head.

Writing prose, anything goes (pt I)

21 06 2010

I’m very hard-working for one so lazy.

And analytical, for one so emotional. Ditto excitable and nonplussed, enthusiastic and apathetic, ambitious and resigned, arrogant and doubtful, ignorant and well-read, watchful and impatient, attentive and brusque, orderly and chaotic, disciplined and scattered, impetuous and thoughtful, collegial and contrary, motivated and inertial.

It’s not that I’m unique in my dichotomies, but I am certainly of the type that veers toward one end or another. Some of us are naturally moderate; some of us are. . . not.

Temperament has popped up fairly regularly on this blog, and against all expectation: I don’t know how much I thought about it before I began blogging (or before I passed the midpoint of my life).  And I’m not sure what to make of it.

I think it’s a real phenomenon, but I’m uncomfortable giving the concept (completely) over to psychology. I’m not anti-psychology, especially in the psychotherapeutic realm, but my eyes thin at some of the grander, i.e., more reductionist, claims of the field. To the extent that psychology has modeled itself on the physical sciences, it has, like all non-physical sciences, lost sight of its subject.

(I think this is even a problem with the biological sciences, although much less; that’s another post.)

I used to joke with my grad school therapist that she spoke psychology to me and I, philosophy to her, and most of the time we managed to make ourselves understood to one another. So I guess that as much as I recognize the psychological aspect of temperament, I’d like to preserve, perhaps even privilege,  its practical-philosophical dimension.

What is it to be one way rather than another? How adaptable are we? What is temperament’s relationship to character?

How I am now is not how I always was—no surprise, given that I’ve aged—but I’ve also wondered how durable is my who-ness. Circumstances matter—it’s highly doubtful a woman from the lower-middle classes could have earned a PhD even a hundred years ago—but would I have been as driven by ideas? Would an 18th or 19th century version of me be recognizable to me, or would I have gotten married and had kids and been more like my contemporaries than is the 20-21st century version?

Or what if I hadn’t fallen off a cliff in my early teens? I had been a happy, hopeful, outgoing, and optimistic child; those traits shriveled in darkness of my depression. I broke, and broke with who I had been.

What emerged was not unknown to me—I think those characteristics had been running through me, submerged, before—but did they cause that break? Did they only emerge afterward?

Could it all—could I—have been different?

Of course—so much is dependent upon circumstances.

And of course not, because I can recognize in the memory of that sunny child traits which I see today: the dichotomies, the conflicts and contradictions, the poles to which I was always drawn.

I’m an adult now, past the sunshine and no longer living so obstinately in the dim, living in that middle space which was never my natural home.

I am unmoored; I need new poles.

It’s getting better all the time

4 04 2010

I blame Rod Dreher.

No, he didn’t start it—well, maybe he did—but he certainly propelled my thinking back a thousand years or so.

Mr. Dreher, you see, is an American old-school conservative: He’s skeptical of modernity even as he admittedly eats of its fruits; skeptical of government (that’s the American part) even as he decries a culture which, in his view, corrodes human dignity; and a believer in community and roots even as he’s repeatedly moved his family around the country.

I say this not to damn him, not least because he is honest about his contradictions, but to locate, if not the then at least a, source of my current trajectory.

You see, I became interested in one of his contradictions, and took off from there.

Dreher has written (not terribly thoughtfully, for the most part) on Islam and the violence currently associated with it. He then contrasts this to contemporary Christianity, and to the relative lack of similar violence. There are all kinds of commentary one could offer on his views and contrasts, but what squiggled into my brain was his unquestioning acceptance of a main tenet of modernity—why would this professed anti-modern base his critique on a pillar of modern thought?

Time: The notion that there is a forward and a back-ward, and that forward is better than back.

This notion of the forward movement of time, the accretion of knowledge, the betterment of the status of the world, has explicitly informed progressive thought within modernity, but it runs underneath almost all of modern Anglo-American and European thought.

(Disclaimer: I’m not talking about the whole world in my discussion of modernity, or of all forms of modernity—there are forms of modern art and architecture, for example, which are distinct from that of  political theory—but of the set of ideas which emerged out of Europe and which greatly informed European philosophy and political institutions. These ideas have of course also found a home across the globe (not least in the United States), but in attempting to trace the ideas back to there source, I’m confining myself to the United Kingdom and the continent. Finally, I make no claim that these ideas in and of themselves are unique to Europe, but that there particular shape and constellation is historically specific. That is all.)

Okay. So, what got to me about Dreher’s contentions regarding Islam was that Christianity today was ‘better’ in some objective (or at least, intersubjective) way than Islam, that is, that even those who are not Christian would see that Christianity is better for the world than Islam.

I’m neither Christian nor Muslim, so theoretically I could simply dismiss such claims about the relative merits of these religions as a kind of fan jockeying of a sport I don’t follow—except that, contrary to Franklin Foer, religion has been a far greater force in the world than soccer.

In any case, even if it is the case that currently there is less violence associated with Christianity than with Islam, it wasn’t always so: The history of Christian Europe was until very recently a history of warring Europe.

I’ll leave that for another day. What is key is the general formula:  that at time t x was strongly associated with y, and that if at time t+1 x is no longer strongly associated with y it is not to say that x will never again associate with y.

To put it more colloquially, just because it ain’t now doesn’t mean it won’t ever be. That Christianity is no longer warring doesn’t mean it won’t ever war.

To believe otherwise is to believe that the past, being the past, has been overcome, never to return; the future is all—a thoroughly modern notion.

Again, as I’m not a fan of either team, I’m not about to engage in Christian-Muslim chest-bumping. More to the point, shit’s too complex for that.

Besides, that’s not what I’m interested in. In thinking about time, I got to thinking about what else characterizes modernity, and thus what might be post-modern, and oh, are we really post-modern? no I don’t think so even though I once took it for granted (which goes to show the risks of taking things for granted) and maybe where we are is at the edges of modernity and who knows if there’s more modernity beyond this or whether these are the fraying edges and hm how would one know maybe it would make sense to look at that last transition into modernity and what came before that?  the Renaissance but was that the beginning of modernity or the end of what came before that? hmm oh yeah the medieval period and Aquinas and . . .  uh. . .  shit: I don’t know anything about the medieval period.

So that’s why I’m mucking about the past, trying to make sense of those currents within the old regime which led, eventually (although certainly not ineluctably) to the new.

It’s a tricky business, not least because I’m looking at the old through the lens of the new; even talking about ‘looking back’ is a modern sensibility.

So be it: Here is where I stand; I can do no other.

Well, okay, I can crouch, and turn around, and try not to take my stance for granted or to think that my peering into the past will in fact bring me into the past.

But I can still look.


My starter reading list, on either side and in the midst of.

  • A Splendid Exchange, William J. Bernstein
  • God’s Crucible, David Levering Lewis
  • Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, Uta Ranke-Heinemann
  • Aristotle’s Children, Richard E. Rubenstein,
  • A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester
  • Sea of Faith, Stephen O’Shea
  • The Science of Liberty, Timothy Ferris
  • Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
  • The Scientific Revolution, Stephen Shapin
  • Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer
  • Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris

Suggestions welcome.


8 09 2008

C. is FINALLY finishing a big job, so I hope this means she’ll be able to create her blog sooner rather than later. Yeah, lady, I’m a-waitin’!

I’m reading John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, in part because it’s at least somewhat related to a course I’m teaching, and partly to get at the issue Lucretia raised some time ago: how to deal with those who demand respect for claims you, in fact, don’t respect.

And I will talk about this, but first, I have to say how much I dislike reading philosophers on politics. Contemporary philosophers, I mean: those who have to nail down every last damned point before they can even begin their argument. (Nevermind that in the process of the nailing they are, in fact, shaping the argument. Some acknowledge this, some don’t.) It’s not that I don’t appreciate the work, or that I don’t think it’s not, on some levels, necessary. But it sure ain’t sufficient, and to a non-philosopher like me, it’s tiresome.

I know, I know: as a political theorist I should bow my head in before the clearly superior philosophy, and I should be ashamed—ashamed!—to admit my boredom with the perspecuity of the philosophical presentation. But I don’t and I’m not.

This isn’t a slam on philosophy generally. I took up John Caputo’s Radical Hermeneutics awhile ago (along with some other stuff), as well as the work of Gianni Vattimo, and I’d really like more time to get back to their stuff. Their work on the theology of the event and weak theology, in particular, is fascinating. And I’d like to read more Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel and more names than I can conjure on this Sunday evening.

But not about politics. It’s not that philosophers or economists or psychologists can’t or shouldn’t discuss politics—I’m a big believer in cross-contamination—but however acute they are in their analyses, I’m unwilling to yield the field to them. Yeah, there’s a bit of boundary patrolling going on, but there’s also something to be said about studying politics as a subject unto itself, and not merely as an adjunct to another subject. In short, I think boundary crossing works best when there are, in fact, boundaries.

Politics is largely a mess. Philosophy, arguably, is about cleaning up messes. Good for them, but I prefer the mess.

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.