John Wilson is Still Not Convinced by the Fear Thesis

Fear Nussbaum

Some of you may recall John Wilson’s review of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump in the Hedgehog Review.  I wrote about it here.  Wilson does not seem to think that “fear” explains the evangelical support for Donald Trump.  He makes a similar critique of fear in his recent review of Martha Nussbaum’s latest, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks At Our Political Crisis.  Here is a taste of his review of Nussbaum in The Weekly Standard:

Are we living in an “Age of Fear”? Are Americans today more fearful than they were in the 1960s, say? The 1950s? The 1940s? The 1930s? How would we know? (By the way, how long is an “age” nowadays? Ten years? Five years? Two years? Ages aren’t what they used to be.)

One thing we do know for certain: A lot of people are talking about fear. In July in these pages, I reviewed Matthew Kaemingk’s important book Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. Around the same time, Eerdmans published Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, in which the excellent historian John Fea offered a “short history of evangelical fear” as an explanation for the mess we find ourselves in. In July, Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson (who is on my always-must-read list) posted a piece on the fictional Gileads of Margaret Atwood and Marilynne Robinson. “You’d have to be extraordinarily blind,” Wilkinson wrote, “to not know that fear is a dominant, if not the dominant, feeling in 2018.” (Oh, no. On top of all my other problems, I’m extraordinarily blind!) And then there’s Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House.

Many instances of what we might call the discourse of fear depend on a rhetorical sleight of hand: To describe those you are arguing against as being driven by fear is thought to be effective, even as you are appealing to fear of the outcome should these fearful types get what they want. In his recent remarks on the Trump administration, a critique in many respects persuasive, former president Barack Obama denounced “the politics of fear,” as he had while he himself occupied the White House. Never mind that President Trump’s critics have themselves routinely waxed apocalyptic. Lisa Sharon Harper, a widely respected African-American evangelical speaker, writer, and organizer, tells us that “majority conservative rulings have already whittled back civil rights protections, leaving this generation’s children as vulnerable to a new Jim Crow as my great-grandparents, who fled for their lives from the terror of the Jim Crow South,” a warning clearly intended to inspire fear and dread.

Does such argumentation by fear prove that fear really is pervasive, bone-deep, or does it rather suggest the perceived advantage of employing a particular rhetorical strategy?

Read the entire piece here.

I’m Not the Only One Talking About Fear These Days

FearOver at the website of the Marty Center at the University of Chicago, Martin Marty writes about Martha Nussbaum’s new book The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis.  I have not read Nussbaum’s book, but I relied on some of her previous work on fear in my own book,  Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste of Marty’s piece:

“Our summer of fear” was a headline that greeted us one day this week. It captioned Christopher Borrelli’s published “conversation with Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum” (Chicago Tribune, July 9). The other three dailies which arrived the same morning offered other headlines above other subjects covered, but one could have appropriately filed many of them under the Nussbaum topic, “fear.” Perhaps autumn events and moods will soon elicit the name of some different emotion, but for now the Nussbaum interview addresses our fears expansively and credibly. The emphasis derives from the title and subject of her new book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2018), which draws notice among philosophers and pundits, and, as in newspapers and online magazines, the public. One cannot not deal with this author, so commanding is her presence, especially once her expressions reach publics.

Perhaps we have hurried past Nussbaum too briskly. Not everyone hears about or deals with every philosopher, including even the most public ones. To slow a bit: since 1995 this one has taught on “the law, philosophy, classics, divinity, South Asian studies and political science” faculties at the University of Chicago. Those interested in researching her can check out her Wikipedia entry or other sources which list bibliographies too long to get more space in this column. “Look her up!” we advise, and use the recent Tribuneinterview for launching. It is common practice to connect events and themes with temporal terms, such as the “Age” or “Era” or “Year” or “Epoch” of “Belief” (Dickens), “Enlightenment,” “Progress,” etc. Now we are down to the moment in the “summer of fear.”

Professor Nussbaum has famously written about the cultural and societal effects of various emotions. Asked what her current choice means, she draws on Aristotle, and paraphrases: “Fear is the sense that there are things that are bad for you and your well being, looming over you, and you are not fully in control of warding them off … We learn early on” that “we will die … and fear never goes away, we are all powerless over it. So fear can be easily hijacked and grow out of control—arguably more so than other emotions.” The interviewee observes that fear can lead “to anger, and anger can make you feel in control of your fear … Other emotions like disgust and envy get revved up when we feel afraid.”

Fear challenges democracies: “democracy means you have to work with people you may not like but you must still believe are your equals.” She considers what fear can do to a child. As for grown-ups? “[F]earful people never trust the other side … right now this country is like an abused child.” The interviewer goes on to ask what philosophers have to contribute in such a situation. Nussbaum has some fairly cheery things to say about the potential of philosophy and what we can learn from the classics, like Socrates, Lucretius, and Cicero, beginning with their stress on the “examined life.” Critics might charge that she would say that; after all, that’s what many tenured philosophers at her university have long taught.

Read the entire piece here.

Hofstadter: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”

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With Freedom Rider Rip Patton in Nashville

Over at The New Republic, Jeet Heer reminds us that “America Has Always Been Angry and Violent.”  He offers this history lesson in the wake of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others in Alexandria, Virginia last week.

Here is a taste:

The notion that Americans are particularly angry today has become a rote talking point in the political press, repeated year after year. In 2011, after Representative Gabby Giffords was shot by a mentally ill man, NBC’s Mark Murray wrote, “If one word summed up the past two years in American politics, it was this: anger.” In 2007, George Will wrote in The Washington Post, “Americans are infatuated with anger.” In 1996, in her book The Angry American, George Washington University political scientist Susan Tolchin described an epidemic of “voter rage.”

But long before any of these writers, amid Barry Goldwater’s demogogic presidential campaign, the great historian Richard Hofstadter began his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” thus: “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers… But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

Hofstadter was exactly right—not only about the anger in the mid-’60s, but also that it was “far from new.” We are not, as Podhoretz and Pelosi suggest, living in a especially or uniquely dangerous moment. Incendiary political speech and political violence have been pervasive in U.S. history.

“What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast without our pretensions to singular national virtue,” Hofstadter wrote in the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, the 1972 collection he co-edited with Michael Wallace. It shouldn’t surprise us that a colonial settler society that wiped out the Native American population, imported slave labor, and relied on vigilante violence to police newly incorporated territories should be prone to political violence. Reading through Hofstadter and Wallace’s book, one is reminded anew that American history has consisted of slave revolts and their violent crushing, race riots, labor clashes, and assassinations.

Read the entire piece here.

I first read Heet’s piece while traveling throughout the South on a Civil Rights bus tour where we learned a great deal about Martin Luther King’s theory of non-violence from several veterans of the movement who tried to order their lives around this principle. During a conversation with Freedom Rider Rip Patton in the Nashville Public Library, one of the participants on our tour asked Patton how to introduce the principles of non-violence to the students she teaches.  This participant, obviously moved by what she had heard and seen all week, prefaced her remarks by saying that she was convinced that King’s philosophy of non-violence best represented the teachings of Jesus Christ.

I am not a pacifist, but I was also struck by the non-violent philosophy of the leaders and activists of the Civil Rights Movement. I often wrote about it in my daily posts.  As Rip Patton spoke that day he referenced several passages from the Bible.  One of those passages was Romans 12:2:  “And do not be conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  Rip said that this verse was one of several Bible passages that motivated him to join the movement as a college student.

Romans 12:2 is one of the most counter-cultural verses in the New Testament.  I got the sense that the verse had layered meanings for Rip.  First, the “world” was no doubt the world of white supremacy that he had lived through in segregated Nashville.  He would no longer allow himself to be “conformed” to this unjust world.  This required action on his part.

But I also think Rip would say that the “world” of Romans 12:2 was defined by violence and anger.  As a Christian he could not “conform” to this world.  He would pursue a course of counter-cultural transformation–a path that was good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.  This course was defined by non-violence.

Heet and Hofstadter are correct.  American history has always been characterized by violence.  But it seems that the God of the early Civil Rights movement was calling its participants to something higher.

As I wrote this post I also thought about Martha Nussbaum’s recent National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture on the limits of anger as a political and social emotion.  Here are some of my tweets from that lecture:

Nussbaum: The ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem. Just like modern democracies. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: Ancients raged a “cultural struggle” against anger, seeing it as destructive to democratic institutions. #jefflec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: We should resist anger in our political culture. This is not easy. Many feel anger is needed for justice. #JeffLec17 #humanities

Nussbaum: “Killing the killer does not restore the dead to life. Pain for pain is an easy idea, but it is a false lure. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: We go wrong when we permit retributive thoughts to convince us that inflicting pain in the present corrects the past. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: Hard to get our head around complicated truths. Easier to incinerate the witch. #JeffLec17 #humanities #anger

Nussbaum: Fear feeds payback. Obliterating wrong-doers makes us feel better. Even just wars decline into payback & bloodthirst. #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: King gets busy turning retributive anger into work and and hope. #jefflec17 #humanities #mlk #anger

Nussbaum: Democracy must give up empty & destructive thought of payback. Move toward a future of regal justice & human well-being #JeffLec17

Nussbaum: Malcolm X was wrong to criticize King’s rejection of retribution. #Mlk #JeffLec17 #humanities #MLK

Nussbaum: Retributive desires are like the wild beasts in writings of Lucretiius. Anger is powerful, but always gets out of hand. #jefflec17

Nussbaum: History teaches that we always destroy ourselves when we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger. #JeffLec17#humanities

 

“Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame”

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A couple of weeks ago I posted my tweets from Martha Nussbaum‘s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.  I am happy to report that the transcript of the lecture is now available on the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Here is a taste of “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame:”

It might seem strange to compare King to Aeschylus, though it’s really not strange at all, given King’s vast learning in literature and philosophy. He’s basically saying the same thing: democracy must give up the empty and destructive thought of payback and move toward a future of legal justice and human well-being. King’s opponents portrayed his stance as weak. Malcolm X said sardonically that it was like coffee that has had so much milk poured into it that it has turned white and cold, and doesn’t even taste like coffee. But that was wrong. King’s stance is strong, not weak. He resists one of the most powerful of human impulses, the retributive impulse, for the sake of the future. One of the trickiest problems in politics is to persist in a determined search for solutions, without letting fear deflect us onto the track of anger’s errors. The idea that Aeschylus and King share is that democratic citizens should face with courage the problems and, yes, the outrageous injustices that we encounter in political and social life. Lashing out in anger and fear does not solve the problem; instead, it leads, as it did in both Athens and Rome, to a spiral of retributive violence.

Read the entire speech here.

 

Tweeting the 2017 NEH Jefferson Lecture

This morning I wrote a post on this lecture.

Martha Nussbaum’s Jefferson Lecture offered a stinging critique to those who believe democracy can flourish, or justice can be obtained, through retributive anger.

Here are some my tweets:

Martha Nussbaum on the Humanities

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Last night in Washington D.C., University of Chicago philosopher delivered the 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture.  Several Messiah College students and faculty were in attendance.

I did some delayed tweeting of the talk last night @johnfea1.  I used the #jefflec17 hashtag.

If you don’t have time to watch the lecture or check the tweets, you may want to read Nussbaum’s interview with NEH chair Williams Adams in Humanities magazine.  Here is a taste:

WILLIAM D. ADAMS: Your book Not for Profit made the case for the importance of the humanities in American democratic life. Have things changed substantially since it was published in 2010?

MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM: Data on humanities majors is still a source of concern, but there’s been a big increase in total enrollments in humanities courses in community colleges. And in adult education, too, there’s been a huge upsurge. The preface to the new edition of my book gives data and sources on all this.

We are lucky in the United States to have our liberal arts system. In most countries, if you go to university, you have to decide for all English literature or no literature, all philosophy or no philosophy. But we have a system that is one part general education and one part specialization. If your parents say you’ve got to major in computer science, you can do that. But you can also take general education courses in the humanities, and usually you have to.

ADAMS: Yet I’ve sensed some weakening of our resolve to support the liberal arts. What should we be doing to reinforce your way of thinking about higher education?

NUSSBAUM: There are three points you can make. The one I think should be front and center is that the humanities prepare students to be good citizens and help them understand a complicated, interlocking world. The humanities teach us critical thinking, how to analyze arguments, and how to imagine life from the point of view of someone unlike yourself.

Secondly, we need to emphasize their economic value. Business leaders love the humanities because they know that to innovate you need more than rote knowledge. You need a trained imagination.

Singapore and China, which don’t want to encourage democratic citizenship, are expanding their humanities curricula. These reforms are all about developing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.

But the humanities also teach us the value, even for business, of criticism and dissent. When there’s a culture of going along to get along, where whistleblowers are discouraged, bad things happen and businesses implode.

The third point is about the search for meaning. Life is about more than earning a living, and if you’re not in the habit of thinking about it, you can end up middle-aged or even older and shocked to realize that your life seems empty.

Read the entire interview here.

And here is a shot of the Messiah College contingency in Washington, courtesy of Pete Powers’s Facebook page:

Pete