“On the one hand, I am helpless, and the universe doesn’t care about me,” Nussbaum writes. “On the other hand, I am a monarch, and everyone must care about me.” Sound familiar? Can you think of anyone who pleads powerlessness one moment and demands fealty the next?
Trump occasionally comes up by name in this book, but Nussbaum seems to consider him a degrading presence, preferring to sequester his coarsest comments about women in a tidy itemized list. One gets the sense that the more upsetting something is for Nussbaum, the more exacting she becomes; her meticulous methods and crystalline logic are constructed like armor.
Nussbaum has long had a propensity for orderly routines. She recalls being “transfixed and traumatized” by Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the age of 6; to manage her feelings she re-enacted the death scene over and over again at home by putting her doll in a sack. Her cool approach to incendiary topics is part of what makes her work so brilliant and so frustrating. To counter the “toxic brew” of fearful anger, envy and misogyny, she proposes … “strategies.” She’s not necessarily wrong, but does she have to sound so bloodless and Apollonian about it?
She’s such a stickler for civility that she can make some baffling both-sides comparisons. Trump supporters might be fearful of liberal college students, she says, but her students are fearful of Trump supporters too. Against the envy that some white men feel toward women and people of color making gains in the workplace, she repeatedly brings up the envy of those who think that “elite bankers” and “big business” have too much. Judging from her calls for critics of capitalism to purge themselves of “negative desire,” you wouldn’t guess that responding to real exploitation had anything to do with it.
When it comes to seeing the small, scared child in everyone, though, Nussbaum can be illuminating. Drawing from the work of the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who observed that children could only grow out of their infantile fearfulness if the parent provided the right kind of “facilitating environment,” she asks: “What should we be striving for as a nation, if we want children to become capable of concern, reciprocity and also happiness?”
She must have written those words long before Americans learned last month that the government was separating migrant parents from their children at the border, but the idea of the nation valuing “concern, reciprocity and also happiness” for children, even as an ideal that it doesn’t live up to, sounds positively, distressingly quaint. When the vulnerability of children becomes less a reason for protection than an opportunity to do harm, perhaps some fear really is in order.