The body politic is undoubtedly sick. Countless analyses of American public life have attempted to diagnose its causes, but thus far there has been little agreement as to why or how this has come to pass beyond the intuitive explanation—the election of Trump. As the eighth of November came and went, a resounding gasp cascaded across the country as pundits and commentators alike attempted to explain Trump’s victory over a seemingly more qualified candidate. Since Trump was elected, a veritable avalanche of long form think pieces, blog posts, newspaper op-eds, and scholarly monographs have been published in hopes of shedding light on what was otherwise understood as the impossible. Almost two years later, the commentary continues unabated in both long and monograph forms. While much of this work has focused on the “white working class” or “rural America,” the most recent scholarly contribution, authored by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, examines a broader subject that could be understood as both cause and effect, agent and condition of this sickness—fear.
In short, Nussbaum’s work examines fear’s corrosive impact on American politics since Trump’s election as part of a broader “philosophical analysis of hope” (15). Despite the fact that Nussbaum’s commentary utilizes a rich array of source material dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, her primary focus is on “the emotions of political unity and division” that currently characterize the nation and its populace (xi). Five of the seven chapters each take up a different emotion that is closely associated with fear and its manifestations in public life. Nussbaum explores the interconnected relationships between emotions such as anger, disgust, hatred, envy, sexism, and misogyny in order to elucidate how fear has taken hold of many an American citizen in these less than certain times. “Fear erodes the sort of equal give and take, the reciprocity that is needed if democracies are to survive,” Nussbaum argues, “and it leads to retributive anger, which divides when what is most needed is a constructive and cooperative approach to an uncertain future” (8). For Nussbaum, such work has far less to do with policy or economic analyses and far more to do with understanding and introspection. Unlike other Trump-related works, Nussbaum deploys the discipline of philosophy itself as an antidote to what ails the nation and its people. Offering a variety of constructive suggestions, Nussbaum grounds her argument upon a familiar if not expected nonviolent philosophical foundation—Martin Luther King Jr. Like King, Nussbaum calls for a “rational faith” that seeks a common cause with its opponents through “self-examination, personal risk, and searching critical arguments” (94). Emotions such as anger can indeed serve a common purpose in this regard, yet its retributive dimension must be purged before it begins to turn in on itself to the detriment of American democracy.
In addition to the “this-worldly” faith of King, Nussbaum also draws on the rich tradition of American liberalism to counteract the destructive tendencies of fear and anger as part of a pragmatic “politics of hope.” One such antidote includes the utilization of facts, informed public debate, and a vigorous spirit of dissent and independence that helps produce “mental freedom from fear” (50). Nussbaum foregrounds what she calls “practices of hope” that utilize the arts and Socratic debate in order to help citizens understand one another “as real and potentially lovable” (219). An additional approach draws from popular culture as a source of common ground. Nussbaum argues that television programs such as Modern Family and stage plays like Hamilton cultivate valuable experiences of life ways typically rendered foreign or “other” in the public square through a form of “virtual friendship.” These are essential practices for Nussbaum because they challenge fear’s monarchical tendency to control everything around it. “From a vision of a person as real and potentially lovable,” Nussbaum contends, “we can get to the hope for a real dialogue” (219). In addition to virtual contact, daily interactions across race, class, and gender lines possess their own innate ability to help heal an otherwise divided citizenry. Using the coming-out of gays and lesbians as an example, Nussbaum argues that seeing diversity regardless of form possesses an uncanny ability to challenge the power of stigma. It also helps cultivate a shared conception of the “common good” in American public life because people “have a hard time thinking outside their economic or racial group” (241). In light of the sports match that characterizes much of today’s politics, one can only hope that such interactions possess the efficacy Nussbaum ascribes to them as families continue to be torn apart at the nation’s border.
The civic value of Nussbaum’s commentary in a Trumpian age can be found in its practical yet hopeful suggestions for healing and understanding in the public square. For Nussbaum, foregrounding public works of art in addition to reasoned argumentation will help remake our current democratic polity along the lines of the “examined life” instead of the politics of blame and resentment. What remains to be seen, however, is whether American citizens are currently capable of trusting one another enough to partake in such practices in the first place. This becomes especially difficult when political factions skillfully deploy fear and hatred through online and social media simply for electoral and political gain. In fact, the continuing national anthem debate across sports radio and the mainstream media elegantly illustrates one man’s ability to wield fear in the interest of manipulative aspirations, political polarization, and cultural warfare largely without consequence or repercussion. While King’s hopeful vision as executed through protests and marches is a valuable one in such times, it arguably works against largely liberal notions of civil discourse and reasoned debate as the best remedies to our present political estrangement. Thanks to Nussbaum, however, we can begin to rethink this frayed relationship between reason and emotions such as fear and envy anew with fresh eyes, ears, and hearts on behalf of a brighter and more hopeful democratic future.
L. Benjamin Rolsky is a Research Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at Lehigh University.
L. Benji Rolsky
Date Of Review:
August 16, 2018
Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Philosophy Department and the Law School of the University of Chicago. She gave the 2016 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities and won the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, which is regarded as the most prestigious award available in fields not eligible for a Nobel. She has written more than twenty-two books, including Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions; Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice; Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities; and The Monarchy of Fear.
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