Monday, May 21, 2007

The predictable liberalism of Martha Nussbaum; or, Why conservatives will not like her new book

Martha Nussbaum, who has written exquisitely and in depth on maybe a dozen subjects of which I could not possibly master even one, is adding another scholarly topic to her CV: Indian politics. Her new book, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future, promises to examine the disturbing trends within India's political system, namely the threat posed by its extremist Hindu right-wing, which she claims is partly inspired by fascist ideology.

To promote the book, Nussbaum has contributed a sort of precis to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reading this summary, I was struck by its very, very liberal (to an extent predictable) qualities, and thus the reasons that it will inevitably be criticized by more conservative reviewers. Let's take a look.

First, Nussbaum recounts the terrible Godhra train incident of 2002 and the ensuing massacre. Basically, a train car full of Hindu religious pilgrims caught fire and 58 people were killed. Because the pilgrims had been arguing (perhaps harrassing) Muslims beforehand and because a group of angry Muslims was protesting nearby, it was assumed that Muslims had caused the fire. An awful massacre followed, during which time many people were slaughtered, mostly Muslims at an estimate of 2000 but also up to 250 Hindus. Since I knew absolutely nothing about the incident when it occurred and because I'm still researching it, I'll leave it up to you to check the sources linked to on Wikipedia and try to figure it out for yourselves.

At this point in the exposition, Nussbaum takes an obvious stance against the Hindus and in defense of the Muslims, noting that "the third-largest Muslim population in the world lives [in India] as peaceful democratic citizens, despite severe poverty and other inequalities." Meanwhile, she neglects to mention any of the statistics on Hindu deaths. She also apparently believes the findings of two independent inquiries into the incident who found that the fire was probably caused by personal cookstoves stored underneath trainseats. Needless to say (if you even glance at the Wikipedia page), the "official" story surrounding the Godhra incident is not uncontroversial and Nussbaum's version may attract criticism right from the start.

Nussbaum wishes to use this crisis within India, of which Godhra is symptomatic, to argue that the world is not a Huntingonite "clash of civilizations," but rather a clash "
within virtually all modern nations,"
between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single "pure" religious and ethnic tradition. At a deeper level, as Gandhi claimed, it is a clash within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality, with all the vulnerability that such a life entails.
While this may be true to an extent, one could still make the argument that both theses are true. (There's nothing in one that precludes the other.) But I will return to this shortly. Nussbaum proceeds to draw a parallel with the United States:
This argument about India suggests a way to see America, which is also torn between two different pictures of itself. One shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external "axis of evil." The other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality. At what I've called the Gandhian level, the argument about India shows Americans to themselves as individuals, each of whom is capable of both respect and aggression, both democratic mutuality and anxious domination.
Nussbaum goes on to explain that in the Hindu right-wing version of Indian history, the Hindus started as a homogeneous, indigenous group that enjoyed peace and internal agreement during a golden age. They were subsequently invaded by Muslim hordes, cultural homogeneity was broken up, etc etc. In addition, within the Hindu right, "a persistent theme is that of humiliated masculinity: Hindus have been subordinate for centuries, and their masculinity insulted, in part because they have not been aggressive and violent enough." Finally, during the 1930s, when searching for a firm foundation for their right-wing ideology, many Hindu extremists found inspiration in the "race pride" of fascist Germany. Nussbaum takes care to note that the Hindu right's final solution, so to speak, was not racial purity, "but rather with whether Muslim and Christian groups were willing to 'abandon their differences, and completely merge themselves in the National Race.' He [Golwalkar, a Hindu extremist] was firmly against the civic equality of any people who retained their religious and ethnic distinctiveness."

Fast forward a bit, and Nussbaum is explaining that the main Hindu right-wing organization, the RSS, has as its political wing the Bharatiya Janata Party, which Wikipedia claims is "one of the two major national political parties in India." The BJP is the party of "fear and hate," and the RSS continues to try to indoctrinate young Indians with its "fascist ideology." Nussbaum's conclusions is that
The "clash within" is not so much a clash between two groups in a nation that are different from birth; it is, at bottom, a clash within each person, in which the ability to live with others on terms of mutual respect and equality contends anxiously against the sense of being humiliated.
Hoo boy. Where to begin.

I don't mean to attack this article as some sort of devil's advocate, because I find many of its arguments convincing and necessary. For one, I do believe that the "clash of civilizations" thesis is largely a myth, propagated to justify increasing hostility towards countries we disagree with and to nullify criticism of "our own" culture, however pluralistic and heterogeneous it might actually be. That said, there are forces in the world, even if they aren't as powerful and threatening as our government and media drastically exaggerate them to be, which are fundamentally opposed to peaceful co-existence. This is not exactly Nussbaum's point here, but she does seem to dispose of any sort of "external enemy" altogether and to focus her energy on the "inner struggle," as it were.

The inner struggle is problematic for two reasons, precisely because it itself is a double concept. I will start with the more precise version of the concept, the individual one. This is what Nussbaum is talking about when she says "a clash within each person." It is a profoundly liberal notion of self-examination, of making sure "your own house is in order." It's the sort of sentiment liberal Christians call upon when they quote scripture as saying "remove the plank from your own eye before removing the mote from your neighbor's" and "let he who has not sinned cast the first stone." In politics it is encompassed by political philosophies as different as Andrew Sullivan's "conservatism of doubt," Cornel West's "Socratic questioning," and Nussbaum's own "other picture, the fruit of internal self-criticism, [which] shows America as complex and flawed, torn between forces bent on control and hierarchy and forces that promote democratic equality."

Put simply, I don't believe Nussbaum on this point. I frankly do not believe that she thinks she has a lot of "internal self-criticism" to go before she has reached a point of suitable inner balance. Rather, I think that her appeal to an ethic of internal questioning is a screen for what she really believes, which comes through loud and clear from her description of Hindu "fascism" and from her comparison between India and America, and which constitutes the second form of the concept of "inner struggle."

This is the social form. The liberal view of the social form is actually quite firm in its beliefs, although it's hesitant to name its enemy. Its enemy is the right-wing
class of society, which in India is the Hindu party and which in America is obviously the Republican Party. Nussbaum all but explicitly says this when she says things like "One [image of America] shows the country as good and pure, its enemies as an external 'axis of evil.'" The other, of course, is the internal self-criticism side, led by good liberals like Nussbaum. Like the BJP, the GOP is the party of "fear of hate." It paints a rosy picture of (white, middle class, Christian) American society while scapegoating the possibly "insidious" classes within it (liberals, Muslims). It decries the loss of "masculinity" in America and the "emasculating" effects its acceptance of gays and women has had on American foreign and domestic policy. (For some examples of this, see this post from the liberal "Sadly, No" blog and especially the article contained within written by Norman Podhoretz, which the blogger labels as an example of the "faggotry of appeasement" meme.)

The rhetoric of "internal self-criticism," especially at the individual level, is a ploy. As I said, I simply don't believe that Nussbaum thinks we all have a lot of self-exploration to do. That is a task for conservatives, in order that they might catch up with all the enlightened self-critique Nussbaum et al. have already engaged in and so arrive at a state of "joyful cosmopolitanism," which Nussbaum applauds in the Indian statesman Sir Rabindranath Tagore. The argument, in other words, is that the
real danger to democracy is from the right-wing, and that to solve this problem the right wing needs to become more like Martha Nussbaum.

And she's right, to an extent. But it's also why conservatives will not like this book, especially since it depicts them, in what I think is a slightly underhanded way, as "fascists." When conservatives started using the term "Islamofascism," leftists primarily but also others (rightly) attacked this term as a particularly nasty form of propaganda and bigotry, used to blur differences between Middle Eastern countries, governments, and movements and so create a pretense for indiscriminate aggression against all of them. The question was not whether
these groups were actually fascists (and I think they can only be described thus in the loosest sense of the term possible, roughly synonymous with "totalitarian ideologies we don't like"--and note that this pretty much only applies to al Qaeda and not to Hezbollah or Hamas) but whether describing them in this way was productive of any form of progress. It's not. But neither is "Hindu fascism," nor is the rather backhanded "aggressive European nationalism" and "the roots of domination" (which pretty much just means "fascism").

I tend to think that, Jonah Goldberg unpublished books notwithstanding, if one party in America has fascist tendencies, it is the Republicans. These are not
patent fascist realities, but only latent but significant dangers which gain power whenever the right-wing in America appeals to its lowest elements. A short perusal of right-wing blogs' message boards will open one's eyes rather quickly. But to repeat, there is no real danger in America of slipping into fascism. (Everything short of this is pretty much on the table, however.) To publicly accuse the right of fascist leanings as Nussbaum does is not a workable strategy for reform.

So, to sum up, conservatives will not like this book. They will point to just the sorts of things Nussbaum says we ought to neglect, such as external enemies and the danger of internal dissent and wavering in the face of "evil." They will accuse her of "blaming America first" and placing her priorities in soft-headed avenues of weakness which will ultimately invite attack. Indian conservatives will likely lambast her portrayal of the BJP and her narrative of the Godhra massacre.

But the more thoughtful will probably also point, as I think I have,to some of the underlying assumptions of her writing, and the way she covers up what can only be her own convictions and beliefs with the language of "individual self-criticism." Martha Nussbaum is saying -- implicitly, perhaps, but still saying it -- that the American GOP needs to become more like her own liberal pluralistic cosmopolitanism. Why she doesn't just say this is a consequence of her faux-tolerant brand of enlightened liberalism of which we are all intimately familiar.

4 Comments:

Blogger Scantron said...

So, I realize that I am actually pointing out two different things in Nussbaum's argument:

First, I am criticizing her for her rather passive-aggressive way of insinuating that conservatives are like fascists. If people figure out that this is what she's doing, it's not going to be a very effective book. This then is my critique of her rhetorical strategy.

Second, I am pointing out, though not necessarily criticizing, her liberalism, which arises in the form of the "individual self-criticism" meme when she really means a very identifiable right-wing movement in America, and her inability to say that what is wrong with this movement is that it's not enough like her and her fellow liberals. From a rhetorical standpoint, this is clever but not entirely honest.

1:44 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

Very nice post, Scantron. I remember listening to her give a talk on this book last month - Carnegie Council via. internet via. Madrid -- and being struck by this Gandhian/psychoanalytic bit. Ultimately, I think her argument here about the right follows in a nice pattern of right-wing criticism of the last few years. The Beinarts, Sullivans, and now Nussbaums of the world (not to mention the Wests, as you point out) all want us to remember our Niebuhrs, our Oakeshotts, and now, apparently, our Gandhi's in the name of ... not engaging in violent political projects. Obviously, the road to a better future involves a bit more than being rational -- isn't this, after all, what they're really talking about -- but rationality is certainly a much needed place to start.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Thanks for the response, Robot. I agree that the sort of rationality proposed by these various people is good, but only under certain circumstances; or, to be clear, in certain circumstances it may not be enough.

I think we can always rely on rationality, in the way that Nussbaum defines it here as "self-criticism", as a deterrent to extreme right-wing thinking. Presumably, though, when that right-wing thinking does manage to gain traction and poses a *danger*, as Nussbaum suggests, to liberal society, not rationality alone but action is called for. That's why her account seems so lacking to me. She is saying that fascism is *imminent* in India and perhaps growing in the US--but shouldn't some serious call-to-arms ensue, and not just a call for self-criticism? That's why I said that Nussbaum obviously already thinks of herself and other liberals as sufficiently self-critical; the solution here is then not more self-critique but a certain active stance against extreme conservatism. What might that entail? Nussbaum doesn't seem to tell us, except to say that the rule of law is good, a free press is good, and education is good. The US seems to possess all 3 (certainly well below the standards we might set for ourselves but comparatively, pretty good), so what is the next step?

1:27 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

That last comment helped clarify your position even further, Scantron, and was a great help.

I was able to go see a movie tonight (one which Scantron had recommended to me earlier, and I recommend to all else now), "Half-Nelson," which reminded me of this discussion. The dialectics of the movie -- following the main character's own Hegelian interpretations of history -- work on both the level of history and sociology (blacks vs. whites, "the system" vs. the minority/proletariat -- or Muslims vs. Hindus, fascists vs. liberals) as well as the individual (the do-good impulse vs. the drug-addict impulse). Mr. Gosling's character simply doesn't have his "house in order," and it's quite right to think that his effectiveness as an agent of good and change can only come about when it is.

5:46 PM  

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