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nussbaum & the wisdom of solomon

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 14, 2009

You have to hand it to Deborah Solomon, the NYT Magazine's ace slow-pitch southpaw: her cheerful groveling has the invariable (if unintended) effect of letting lions turn themselves into asses. Ass of the Week is professional thinkeress Martha Nussbaum. Some highlights from the interview:

DS: You’re an eminent philosopher at the University of Chicago. What can you tell us about the state of ideas in America?

MN: There’s just something about our public culture that’s not that friendly to philosophy. I think religion is thought to be where you go with your big questions.

I didn't know there was a chair of eminent philosophy at Chicago, but Nussbaum certainly deserves it. It's not everyone who can report on the state of ideas in, say, Omaha or Moline, what with the winter corrosion and all.

DS: Your inquiries have lately revolved around the politics of physical revulsion, which you see as the subtext for opposition to same-sex marriage.

MN: What is it that makes people think that a same-sex couple living next door would defile or taint their own marriage when they don’t think that, let’s say, some flaky heterosexual living next door would taint their marriage? At some level, disgust is still operating.

Good point, Martha. Every dental dam a wanted dental dam.

DS: In your book “From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law,” which will be out in February, you draw a distinction between primary disgust and projective disgust.

MN: What becomes really bad is the projective kind, meaning projecting smelliness, sliminess and stickiness onto a group of people who are then stigmatized and regarded as inferior.

Lost me here. According to Martha's analysis of causality, 1) first comes the mud-slinging (projecting sliminess, etc.) at the target; 2) next comes the stigmatizing; and 3) only then, finally, are the targets "regarded as inferior." I'm surprised she didn’t add, "and they never return my phone calls!"

DS: On the other hand, might one argue that disgust has been a positive force in evolution, keeping people away from dirt and germs?

MN: We are disgusted by lots of things that are not really dangerous, such as a sterilized cockroach, as studies have found.

Not true. My feelings towards sterilized cockroaches have always been of the tenderest.

DS: It is fair to call you a member of the religious left?

MN: Yes, the religious-rationalist left. I grew up in an Episcopal church, and I bonded with it mainly through music. I was in choirs all the time, and I still sing a lot. I converted to Judaism when I got married. I had kind of gotten to the end of my rope with Christian otherworldliness. I wanted a religion in which justice was done in this world.

There’s something about our public culture that’s not that friendly to philosophy. And with philosophers like this, no less.

DS: How are you observing Hanukkah this week?

MN: I will be in my hotel in India with my travel menorah. My friend Josef Stern gave it to me for my bat mitzvah last year. It’s about four inches long when it’s folded, and then you unfold it and it even has the ordinary-size candles.

“Hello Room Service? For the last time of asking, would you please send up that little Anjib fellow with some decently chilled Chardonnay? I am an eminent philosopher and I want some justice done in this world, after all. Also I think I saw an unsterilized silverfish in the sauna!”

DS: Do you think you will marry again?

MN: If I thought of getting married, I would worry that I was taking advantage of a privilege that I have that a same-sex couple wouldn’t have.

Just curious: does your outrage at justice denied extend to necrophily?

DS: Is that a leather top you’re wearing in this photograph?

MN: Yes. I wore it when I went to speak at the first meeting of our University of Chicago lesbian and gay alumni association, and I thought it was so sweet for them to invite somebody who wasn’t gay to be their keynote speaker. But I wore this outfit, and they said, “We want to thank you for wearing leather.”

“We want to thank you for wearing leather” -- and can you believe there are still people out there who can't bring themselves to treat gay rights seriously?

Professor Nussbaum, you may remember, self-detonated her scholarly reputation while shilling as an expert witness in Colorado's Evans v. Romer case in 1993. In plugging the pro-gay cause, Nussbaum misrepresented the writing of Plato and Aristotle on homosexuality, falsified the positions of several modern commentators -- including her own published work on the subject -- and in a back-firing bluff that made even her own supporters cringe, put forward an obsolete edition of the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon as the authoritative scholarly source, in order to suppress a damaging citation included in the updated version. All this under oath.

Some folks, as the saying has it, are veneer all the way through. It's gratifying that Deborah Solomon should use her talent for penetrating follow-up questions to get beneath the glitzy exterior of such a famous academic to the glitzy emptiness inside. I'll never read Nussbaum again without thinking fondly of her leather top glowing in the soft radiance of her travel menorah. A most rationalist Hanukkah to you all!

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