When It Comes to Politics, Be Afraid. But Not Too Afraid.

Posted July 4, 2018 6:24 p.m. EDT

The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum wants Americans to get in touch with their feelings; not in a fit of self-indulgence but as a righteous act of civic duty. In “The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis,” she writes against a (mostly male) tradition of philosophical and political thinking that minimizes emotions as merely a source of irrationality and embarrassment.

With more than two dozen books to her name, Nussbaum has been here before. Her ample body of work casts feelings as not just worthy of study but essential for understanding our political selves.

But the 2016 presidential election made her realize she “hadn’t gone deep enough.” A self-described “liberal social democrat,” she was so shaken by Donald J. Trump’s victory — having been “reasonably confident that appeals to fear and anger would be repudiated” — that she felt an overwhelming sensation of alarm. She believed fear was what had gotten Trump elected, and here she was, so scared that she was momentarily incapable of being “balanced or fair-minded”: “I was part of the problem that I worried about.”

An elegant and precise stylist, Nussbaum has always seemed a peculiar spokeswoman for bringing unruly emotions into the fold. She writes about gut feelings like envy and disgust with an air of serene lucidity. In “The Monarchy of Fear,” she insinuates that her postelection alarm felt not just uncomfortable but alien to her. She has spent decades parsing the role of negative emotions while resisting their seductive pull. Even her brush with political anxiety in 2016 lasted less than 24 hours. Once she realized she might be able to wring some insight from upheaval, she “went back to sleep with a calming sense of hope.”

Since we’re talking about feelings, I’ll confess to experiencing pinpricks of irritation when I came across that self-satisfied line, which appears on the second page of Nussbaum’s preface, before she has even started to make her argument. But one of the virtues of this slender volume is how gradually and scrupulously it moves, as Nussbaum pushes you to slow down, think harder and revisit your knee-jerk assumptions.

She’s transparent about her beliefs and her background, describing her cosseted upbringing in Philadelphia as “fairly affluent” (and her father, whom she loved and eventually rebelled against, as racist, sexist and anti-Semitic). She admits that her “highly privileged life” as a celebrated academic affords her the luxury of contemplating at leisure what plenty of people are experiencing as a national emergency. Nussbaum might live differently than most Americans do, but she wants to put that remove to good use. Where other members of the elite might flee or close ranks, she insists on engagement, accepting the “responsibility of dissecting our own moment and our own pathologies.”

Which isn’t to say “The Monarchy of Fear” is an entirely successful deployment of her privileged perspective. The book starts out strong, as she breaks fear down into first principles in order to show how feelings of insecurity and powerlessness can render an otherwise useful emotion like anger, or a desire for fairness, into something more vengeful and poisonous. She’s a skillful rhetorician, gracefully navigating her way around partisan land mines by talking about babies and ancient Greece. She wants to show how the feeling of fear is primal and therefore universal, reminding us that we were all helpless infants once, dependent on the kindness and mercy of others.

This shared experience of “animal vulnerability,” she says, holds the biggest promise and peril for a democracy. It’s something everyone has in common, an incentive to cooperate and trust in one another rather than go it alone. In “Hiding From Humanity” (2004), she explicitly called for “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.” But this neediness is so elemental and terrifying that we can also insist on repudiating it, especially when we feel ignored or, worse, let down. Fear of our own vulnerability can make us mistrustful of the world, turning us into self-absorbed narcissists.

“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 constructedlike 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.


Publication Notes:

‘The Monarchy of Fear:

A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis’

By Martha C. Nussbaum

249 pages. Simon & Schuster. $25.99.