"America's Puritan Streak" - Nussbaum Responds
[Professor Nussbaum submitted the following post by email:]
I am grateful to all those who posted comments on my piece on Eliot Spitzer. I intend to reply. Technical difficulties have prevented me from accessing our faculty blog from India, where I currently am (running a conference on Affirmative Action in Higher Education co-sponsored by our law school). I have now received them by e-mail, and will reply in a few days. Meanwhile, however, I would like to reflect today on the fascinating comments on my op ed -- over 100 of them -- from readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where it was originally published.
The Atlanta comments are a fascinating confirmation of my claims in the Spitzer piece about American puritanism and its misogynistic violence. A central theme is denunciation of Europe as a godless anti-Christian society that has lost its moral fiber because it tolerates too much female sexual freedom, a "decadent and dying culture." For this reason, opine the Atlantans, Europe will soon fall to the Muslim invaders.
I do have one or two sympathizers, including one person who observes (defending Spitzer), "Hitler was faithful to his wife -- that did not make him a hero." (To which a very sensible reader replies, noting the date of Hitler's marriage and the date of his death: "I think even Spitzer could be faithful for 24 hours, don't you?") For the most part, however, the tone is apocalyptic. One marked ingredient is anti-Semitism: "Another Liberal Jew trying to mollify and cover for a liberal Jew loser who could not control his animal urges to denigrate a gentile woman." We see here the time-honored association of Jews with animal desire and defilement of "pure" Christian women. (I discuss this in my 2004 book HIDING FROM HUMANITY.) German sex theorist Otto Weininger argued in SEX AND CHARACTER, one of the most influential books of the late-nineteenth century, that Jews, in fact, were really all women, because all Jews, like women, were focused on bodily functions and bodily desire, utterly unable to achieve the transcendence expected of a proper German male. Women, Weininger argues, can achieve citizenship and respect only if they utterly renounce sex. Weininger's ideas were loved by many high-minded Germans and Austrians, including Ludwig WIttgenstein. The Atlantans would appear to agree. In HIDING FROM HUMANITY I argue that we see in this type of anti-Semitism and misogyny a classic case of "projective disgust": that is, an emotion in which one takes the discomfort one feels with one's own animal nature and projects it outward onto some other group, saying "You, not I, are the animals. I am above all that." Projective disgust is a dangerous social emotion. It has been a central motive behind misogynistic violence, and it is a central motive behind contemporary homophobia. Lord Devlin could not have been more wrong (I argue in the book) in holding that the disgust of an average member of society is a reliable sign of what the law ought to forbid.
The obsessively repeated point in the Atlanta blog, however, is that anyone who thinks prostitution should not be criminal must be a sick "yellow commie" who, with other liberal professors, is selling America out to the Muslims. And it is here that we can study most clearly the violent misogyny that lies behind a lot of American moralism. Consider this fine example of Puritan rhetoric, which shows as much about today's America as anything I've seen recently:
"Once your vision of America comes to fruition, a godless, man-centered, self-indulgent society like Europe, the Muslim hordes will rule this land, because we will have lost our will to fight. Then after you are forced to wear your head-to-toe burka you will be given a public slashing for walking with a man who is not your husband. I would guess then you will be on your knees for the first time to ask the Lord for forgiveness for your sins in bringing down this once great country."
This writer purports to be anti-Muslim, but he is evidently taking delight in what the Muslims might do to me. Indeed, he (I am betting it's a he) is so far from condemning the violence the Muslim hordes inflict that he wants America to be more violent still, repelling them with a properly Christian "will to fight." Note, too, that the posture he imagines me being forced to assume is at one and the same time the posture of humiliation and submission (the result of that slashing) and the posture of prayer -- as if a woman has only become fully Christian when she has been duly punished for being herself. (Probably there is, as well, an allusion to fellatio, as in much pornography dealing with how we can humiliate women who don't play their proper role.) Finally, we should notice the sexual theory of the author: America will remain strong only so long as she represses sexuality within herself, and she will sicken and collapse when she allows the sexual freedom permitted by "self-indulgent" Europe.
And, since I am in India, I note that this gentleman's rhetoric is eerily similar to the rhetoric of India's Hindu right during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, during which around 2000 Muslims were killed, about half of them women. Many of these women were raped and tortured before being killed. A common device was to kill the woman by inserting large metal rods into their vaginas, in a simulated sex act. The hate literature circulated during the pogrom portrayed the Hindu male as pure and yet lethal, his rape of a woman as being not a disgustingly sensuous act of pleasure, but a lethal act of humiliation and utter annihilation. The distance between Atlanta and Ahmedabad is less great than it might at first appear.