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Lucifer vs. Martha Nussbaum

Lila Rajiva is the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media, and the co-author with Bill Bonner of the forthcoming Mobs, Messiahs and Markets. She blogs at This is her first contribution to the Daily Shvitz.

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 enumerated some of Nussbaum's specific errors, but I would like to dissect her theoretical position, which I think is what enables her to make those errors.

Huntington’s work was widely taken to justify a clash between the Western and the Islamic worlds. Nussbaum 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 in its own right, of course) as Huntington claims. Instead, she says, it’s internal to 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 (with a leap of logic here) the ones who want to dominate others. All fundamentalists, purists, exceptionalists and even the merely orthodox apparently belong in the Luciferian category, while liberal religions and secular universalists (who see citizenship as premised 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 dispute. Luciferians feel that their variegated beliefs – are in fact, not equally respected by an evangelical monotheism of “universalism” and “secularism” that seeks 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 concedes 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 the revolutionary to break with the past most completely. 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 much served by replacing an unbalanced emphasis on profitable skills, as she calls it, with an unbalanced emphasis on unprofitable skills?

How much more balanced are the theoretical 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 inscribed in stone. That is what makes Nussbaum’s argument internally 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.

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