Posted by: L | June 4, 2007

Lucifer versus Martha Nussbaum

I got out my piece on Martha Nussbaum’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education this morning. She slams Hindu fundamentalism for its assault on democracy in a way that I think obscures the excellent points she makes.

I had to cut more than a page and still didn’t get to half my problems with the article.

That’s even though I’ve heard Nussbaum speak and think she’s impressive. I am, of course, naturally prejudiced in favor of striking former opera students turned political philosophers who are interested enough in practical politics to actually get to know something about it. Add to that an interesting Amartya Sen connection, and you’ll see why I thought for a long while that I’d try to write my dissertation under her.

But if there’s anything nastier than politics in the big world, it’s politics in the ivory tower. Scholarly, well- put, soft-spoken (well, at least most of the time)…but nasty nevertheless. Martha was spared knowing me and I was spared further poli-sighing (sic)….And so I dropped out — and back into the great world. No regrets.

The Nussbaum book is going to set off a lot of reverberations, she being who she is. And I wanted to get my perverse two cents in. I was going to be meaner, but Nussbaum gets brownie points for her interest in the condition of Indian women. So I’m critical, but in a soft-spoken sort of way. Check it out (thanks to Joey Kurtzman for allowing me to post the whole piece on my blog):

“In an earlier Shvitz post, Rohit Gupta criticized Martha Nussbaum’s latest piece in The Chronicle for Higher Education, in which Nussbaum positions herself as liberal by taking on Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis of clashing civilizations.

Rohit listed some of Nussbaum’s specific mistakes, but I’d like to dissect her theoretical position, which I think is what lets her make them.

Huntington’s work was taken by a lot of people to justify a clash between the Western and the Islamic worlds. She relocates the clash. It isn’t between Western, Latin American, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese, and the possible ninth, African – (a very loaded ordering, of course) as Huntington claims. Instead, she says, it’s inside each culture — between those who are willing to “live on terms of equal respect with others who are different,” and those who “seek the protection of homogeneity,” who are also (leap of logic here) the ones who want to dominate others. All fundamentalists, purists, exceptionalists and even just the orthodox belong in the Luciferian category, while liberal religions and secular universalists (who see citizenship as based on political entitlements) are cast in the role of St. Michael.

Here I take the part of Lucifer. “Terms of equal respect” begs the question. What equal respect consists of is what’s at the heart of the squabble. Luciferians feel that their many-colored beliefs – are, in fact, not equally respected by an evangelical monotheism of “universalism” and “secularism” that wants to dominate them through the state.
And I don’t believe this throws them suicidally onto the path of the onrushing engine of science either. Nussbaum herself admits that when she anxiously describes a Hindu devotee, who on one hand, claims his guru’s voice comes directly from god, but, on the other, still knows how to get fiber optic cable into his temple.

Nonetheless, this “combination of technological sophistication with utter docility” so terrifies her she thinks it can only be remedied by – (drum roll here) — education in the arts and humanities. Bada-bing!

Still, I take her point. Not knowing history is what frees up a revolutionary to break with the past most totally. Turgenev said the same thing in Fathers and Sons. But, set her theory on the ground today and see how it works. Do four years of women’s studies and French psychoanalysis, maybe with a minor in “conflict resolution,” really make non-technical folk “imagine the pain of another human being” better? If so, why did so many people use feminist language and universal human rights to justify invading Iraq? And how balanced are humanistic studies today, anyway? Are we really better off replacing an unbalanced emphasis on profitable skills, as she calls it, with an unbalanced emphasis on unprofitable skills?

How much more balanced are the perspectives that dominate major Western and Indian universities than, say, the Catholic perspective that dominates a Jesuit university? Marxist (or other) approaches to history are just that – approaches. Useful, enriching, plausible, but not written in stone. That’s what makes Nussbaum’s argument self-contradictory….

The bait she tempts us with is that technical studies need to be supplemented by the “humanities” (defined as interpretative). But, what she actually gives us is a bit of a sham — history as pure fact, not interpretation. Nussbaum wants us to believe that facts presented by religious historians are guilty until proven innocent, but facts presented by Marxists historians are prima facie facts. She would have us believe that, since this immaculately conceived history is free of the original sin of hierarchy, it must lead us to a paradise of justice and mercy on earth.


This gnosticism isn’t first obvious because it’s concealed by sloppy language. She talks – without irony – about the “rule of law and democracy” being under assault by Hindu fundamentalism. Presumably, a legal scholar would know that the rule of law is often under assault — by democracy itself. It is democratic values that allow the expression of fundamentalist ideas; it is the rule of law that restrains them. Democracy and the rule of law aren’t usually a good fit. That’s why we have constitutions. For that matter, the public here in the US hasn’t made a flap over legislation dismantling the constitution. This shouldn’t mean that we discard either the constitution, or – though some secularists might prefer it – the population. We just have to keep refining and rethinking the way the two accommodate each other.

Then, Nussbaum tips her hat to the idea of a nation “as a unity around political ideals and values, particularly the value of equal entitlement.” But this is vague too. Why couldn’t political ideals be as exclusionary and chauvinistic as religious ideals? And what does she mean by equal entitlement? Does she mean safeguards of individuals under the law (with which I tend to agree) or does she mean guaranteed outcomes? (with which I tend to disagree). It’s because she doesn’t ever clarify what she means by “state” and “law” that her argument is tenuous.

That’s how she goes off-track, blaming fundamentalism per se for what is more plausibly the result of the way the particular state of India was created and way its history has unfolded since.

To start, she conflates Gandhi’s and Nehru’s attitudes toward the state, although they were hugely apart — Gandhi being in favor of a kind of anti-politics that focused on the level of villages and Nehru going in for central planning and industrialization under the influence of the Laski-dominated socialism of the London School of Economics. She doesn’t tell us that, contrary to the Indians, Jinnah saw Pakistan as a Muslim state, provoking at least some of the anxieties about secularism in the Hindu right. She also omits the British part in hastening partition unnaturally, playing divide and conquer and in exacerbating Hindu-Muslim tensions. She mentions the right’s fascination with European fascism in the inter-war period without mentioning that a swathe of intellectuals from Chesterton to Yeats were too. What about the left’s fascination with Stalin and Mao?

Her entire article is marred by such omissions and errors. She presents her account of the origins of Hindu culture as cold fact, whereas it is quite controversial. She mentions the Muslim emperor’s Akbar’s syncretism in contrast to Shivaji’s Hindu chauvinism without mentioning Shivaji’s foe, the fanatic and murderous Aurangzeb. She fails to mention decades of Pakistan- sponsored terrorism in India that was not only downplayed by the US but abetted by it. It was a useful trade-off to support a Muslim country in one place where its claim was weak but oppose another in the Middle East where its claim was strong. Nor does she mention the ethnic cleansing of former East Pakistan’s Hindu population nor of Kashmir’s, nor Muslim Caliphate claims, nor reports of CIA involvement with some (not all) Western human rights, missionary and aid organizations in India. She dismisses the Hindu right version of history as simplistic but hers is more so. Neither secularism nor liberalism need such selectivity.

More importantly, as Rohit points out, she ignores the state’s role in the years after independence in the creation of entitlements — quotas and reservations in jobs and universities. Originally meant to rectify gross inequities under law they have now become instruments of social engineering that are widely resented in India, as they are here in the US. Quotas in multiethnic states have usually had broad adverse effects but they continue to be pursued. Why? Because they satisfy what’s been called the new trans-national progressive regime that calls for human rights, environmental and social justice laws (built around Nussbaum’s idea of “human flourishing” that bind nation states to trans-national standards (how’s that for a vague concept you can stuff with anything you want?)

I would have no problem with any of that if the trend was to eventually undermine the state in favor of more and more decentralization. But if the new human rights regimes by-pass traditional communities, sub-national states or religious groups from a bias against religious or cultural identity, what you’re left with is two things: a global bureaucracy whose agenda is set by international elites dominated by Western or Westernized intellectuals, and group-identity politics in which the individual and the local community are gradually erased. At least partly, religious fundamentalism is one way in which people counter this erasure.

From that point of view, both Huntington and Nussbaum commit two versions of the same error. He supports the cultural purification of the state to strengthen it; she supports the cultural mongrelizing of the same state, also for the same reason. Believing herself to be attacking his position (vis-a-vis Islam), she ends up reinforcing it (vis-a-vis) the state. In either account, the state ends up being strengthened.

Now, if that makes it easier for the state to intervene to protect the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat and reinforces guarantees of individual rights and liberties against violation by religious fanatics, I would firmly support her. But, I think Nussbaum has something more than equality under law in mind. As long that remains the case, the underlying source of much modern violence not only in India but in most parts of the world will continue to be ignored – the continual and terrifying expansion of state power itself. But that is the one fundamentalism that liberals don’t take on.

And read Blacklist’s lead singer (check it out) Josh Strawn’s detailed comment at Jewcy

(Thank you, Josh)

He’s calls himself a “vocal signatory” of the Euston Manifesto, which at first glance, seems to belong to the “liberventionist” category…

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