Martha Nussbaum discusses her book, “The Monarchy of Fear” at Politics and Prose on 7/9/18.
One of the country’s leading moral philosophers, Nussbaum cuts through the acrimony of today’s political landscape to analyze the Trump era through one simple truth: that the political is always emotional. Starting there, she shows how globalization has produced feelings of powerlessness that have in turn fed resentment and blame. These have erupted into hostility against immigrants, women, Muslims, people of color, and cultural elites. Drawing on examples from ancient Greece to Hamilton, Nussbaum shows how anger and fear inflame people on both the left and right; by illuminating the powerful role these passions play in public life, she points to ways we can avoid getting caught up in the vitriol that sustains and perpetuates divisive politics.
Bringing the energy and hope to stare down Trump and his movement.
Nations, like people, may change somewhat, but not in their essential characteristics. The United States is defined by space and hope. It is an optimistic country of can-do strivers. They took the risk of coming to a new land. They are suspicious of government, inclined to self-reliance. Europeans ask where you came from. Americans ask what you can do.
The Declaration of Independence posited a universal idea, that human beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans, then, embraced an idea, however flawed in execution, when they became a nation. Their government, whatever else it does, exists to safeguard and further that idea, in the United States and beyond.
President Trump, in the name of making American great again, has trampled on America’s essence. He is angry, a stranger to happiness, angrier still for not knowing the source of his rage. He is less interested in liberty than the cash of his autocratic cronies. As for life, he views it as a selective right, to which the white Christian male has priority access, with women, people of color and the rest of humanity trailing along behind for scraps.
Adherents to an agenda of “national conservatism” held a conference last month in Washington dedicated, as my colleague Jennifer Schuessler put it, “to wresting a coherent ideology out of the chaos of the Trumpist moment.”
Good luck with that. One of the meeting’s leading lights was Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. Lowry’s forthcoming book is called “The Case for Nationalism.” Enough said. The endpoint of that “case” is on display at military cemeteries across Europe.
Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Trump is a self-styled nationalist. The “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants at his rallies have chilling echoes.
Lowry holds that “America is not an idea” and to call it so is a “lazy cliché.” This argument denies the essence of the country — an essence palpable at every naturalization ceremony across the United States. Becoming American is a process that involves the inner absorption of the nation’s founding idea.
The gravest thing Trump has done is to empty this idea of meaning. His has been an assault on honesty, decency, dignity, tolerance and civility. On this president’s wish list, every right is alienable. He leads a movement more than he does a nation, and so depends on fear to mobilize people. Any victorious Democratic Party candidate in 2020 has to counter that negative energy with a positive energy that lifts Americans from Trump’s web.
I watched the Democratic Party debates among presidential contenders through a single prism: Who can beat Trump? In the end, nothing else matters because another five and a half years of this will drag Americans into an abyss of moral collapse.
Yes, how far left, how moderate that candidate may be is of some significance, but can he or she bring the heat and the hope to stare Trump down and topple him is all I care about. That’s the bouncing ball all eyes should be on, with no illusions as to how vicious and devious Trump will be between now and November 2020.
With reluctance, because he is a good and honorable man of great personal courage, I do not believe that Joe Biden has the needed energy, mental agility and nimbleness. Nor do I believe that the nation of can-do strivers I described above is ready for Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism.” Forms of socialism work in Europe, and the word is widely misunderstood in America, but socialism and America’s essence are incompatible.
Elizabeth Warren’s couching of a campaign for radical change as “economic patriotism” is a much smarter way to go, and her energetic advocacy of ideas to redress the growing injustices in American life has been powerful. Still, I am not convinced that enough Americans are ready to move as far left as she proposes or that she passes the critical commander in chief test.
Kamala Harris does that for me. The California senator is a work in progress, with
- uneven debate performances, and policies, notably health care, that she has zigzagged toward defining. But she’s
- tough, broadly of the center,
- has a great American story, is passionate on issues including immigrants, African-Americans and women, and has
- proved she is not averse to risk. She
- has a former prosecutor’s toughness and the ability to slice through Trump’s self-important bluster.
Last month Harris said Trump was a “predator.” She continued: “The thing about predators you should know, is that they prey on the vulnerable. They prey on those who they do not believe are strong. And the thing you must importantly know, predators are cowards.”
Those were important words. It’s early days, but Trump’s biggest electoral vulnerability is to women. They have seen through his misogyny at last, and they know just where the testosterone of nationalism leads.
MS. TIPPETT:You know, I start in this place with everyone I interview, whoever they are. If they’re a quantum physicist or a theologian. And I just wanted to hear something about the particular spiritual background of your childhood. Did you have a devout Jewish upbringing?
RABBI SACKS: I was the oldest of four boys. My father, who had come to Britain as a refugee from Poland at the age of six, had to leave school at the age of 14, so he never had an education — not Jewish or secular. My mother had to leave school at the age of 16. So my parents didn’t know that much. What they did have was a great love for Judaism. And, you know, I tend to think that’s the greatest gift you can give a child. Wordsworth said it beautifully. “What we love, others will love, and we will show them how.”
RABBI SACKS:No, actually. In 1990, the BBC asked me to give the Reith Lectures. They’re given once a year. There are six lectures on radio, first given by Bertrand Russell in 1948. I was only the second religious leader to give them, and I called them “The Persistence of Faith.” It was probably the first response to Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history. You know, the Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet Union had collapsed, end of Cold War. Everyone was seeing what he foresaw as the, you know, seamless spread of liberal democracy over the world.
And I said no, actually. I think you’re going to see faith return and return in a way that will cause some problems because the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world. So that was in 1990, the year before I became Chief Rabbi. Nothing that’s happened since has surprised me, though it has saddened me. Religion is a great power, and anything that powerful can be a force for good or, God forbid, for evil. But it’s certainly fraught and dangerous and needs great wisdom and great — if I can use this word — gentleness.
MS. TIPPETT:And so I’d like to draw you out on how Jewish experience and Jewish tradition — you know, what resources and vocabulary that might bring to this global moment, which is not merely uncertain, but certainly marked by change, which is stressful for human beings. One of the ways you’ve talked about that, not uncontroversially, is about the approach you see deep within Jewish tradition to difference.
RABBI SACKS:Yeah. It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves. Today — certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America — walk down the average main street and you will encounter in ten minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime.
So you really have this huge problem of diversity. And you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is, we’re very familiar with the two great commands of love: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might; love your neighbor as yourself. But the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box — 36 times, said the rabbis — is love the stranger. For you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Or, to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you’re a stranger. This sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us — we are not threatened by them — that needs cultivating, can be cultivated, and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear.
Oh, sure. I mean, you take — you know, I’m really not very good at sort of operating machines, so I fall back on that old aphorism, “When all else fails, read the instructions.”
MS. TIPPETT:Right. [laughs]
RABBI SACKS:And here we are reading those instructions afresh through the eyes of quantitative and experimental science and discovering what the great traditions of wisdom were saying three or 4,000 years ago. We now know that it is
- doing good to others,
- a network of strong and supportive relationships, and
- a sense that one’s life is worthwhile, are the three greatest determinants of happiness.
And, you know, somehow or other, against our will sometimes, we are being thrust back to these ancient and very noble and beautiful truths. And that we can now do so in a fellowship — awkward, perhaps, and embarrassed — between religious leaders and scientists and social scientists.
RABBI SACKS:Yeah. Well, let’s not try to describe this as 21st-century radical theology. It always helps if we can locate it in sacred texts. So for me, here is a moment where the hero of the Book of Exodus is a young man called Moses and the villain of the Book of Exodus is somebody called Pharaoh. But it’s Pharaoh’s daughter who, at great risk to herself, saves the life of this young baby who she knows immediately is a Hebrew baby, that she says so, and she knows her father has decreed that every male Hebrew child shall be killed. So at great risk to herself, she takes this child into her home and brings it up. So now we have the daughter of the biggest villain of the book who is responsible for the saving of the life of the hero. Now if that doesn’t challenge our paradigms, I don’t know what does.
You can find God in the other side, and that is something the Bible is doing quite a lot. After all, there’s only one perfect individual — well, perhaps two, if you like — in the whole Bible and neither of them is Jewish. One is called Noah and one is called Job and neither is Jewish. Noah comes before Judaism. Job is what I call every man. Then you look at all the prophets of ancient Israel, and they spent a lifetime preaching to the Israelites, and nobody listened. God sends one prophet, Jonah, to non-Jews, the people in Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s traditional enemy, the Assyrians. Here, all he does is say five Hebrew words, one English sentence: “In 40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed.” And they all repent. So it turns out that non-Jews are better at listening to Jewish prophets than Jews are.
MS. TIPPETT:[laughs] Right. So there is this paradox, this very interesting recurring threat of otherness and …
RABBI SACKS: The Bible is saying to us the whole time, don’t think that God is as simple as you are. He’s in places you would never expect him to be. And, you know, we lose a bit of that in English translation. Because, when Moses, at the burning bush, says to God, “Who are you?” God says to him three words: “Hayah asher hayah.” And those words are mistranslated in English as “I am that which I am.” But in Hebrew, it means “I will be who or how or where I will be,” meaning, don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. And one of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.
The cultural roots of our political problems.
It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.