Martha Nussbaum’s eloquent essay has a more convoluted background than appears in her text. Richard Rorty’s attack on American intellectuals on the left for lacking patriotism responded to a piece I had written for The New York Times questioning the value of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “National Conversation.” After this exchange, and presentations on the MacNeil/Lehrer news program by NEH chairman Sheldon Hackney, myself, and others, the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago organized a meeting attended by various people who figure in this debate.

At this meeting, it was clear that the government people wanted to dissociate themselves from the red-baiting overtones of Rorty’s attack. Forty years ago, the repressive assertion of “American” values and the primacy of America among nations prevented serious debate about fissures within American society; the current NEH program, like US Information Agency (USIA) efforts to present America abroad hopes instead to acknowledge the fissures while asserting the common ground of American identity in which they occur.

What could possibly be wrong with such an open, truly liberal effort?

Martha Nussbaum says she is made “very uneasy” about this project because the nation “is a morally arbitrary boundary.” Her cosmopolitanism is global in scope, and its moral inclusiveness is practical as well, since the United States belongs to a global economy and ecology. Nussbaum’s essay is suffused with a Kantian optimism; she believes particular human interests are best served by thinking of humanity as a whole. My objections to the projects launched by the NEH and the USIA come from a darker sense of cosmopolitanism in the conduct of everyday life.

Early Christian writers thought concern for others arose from recognizing the insufficiencies of the self. Only when we have come to acknowledge the fractures, self-destructiveness, and irresolvable conflicts of desires within ourselves will we be prompted to turn outward, St. Augustine wrote — to cross boundaries, to care for others unlike ourselves. Milton’s Paradise Lost retells that Christian homily in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden: the first humans lost Paradise because of their bodily desires; but in their unhappiness they became adults rather than God’s children, interrogating an unbounded, unfamiliar world. This is cosmopolitanism in the Christian sense: openness to the needs of others comes from ceasing to dream of this world made whole.
The Christian ethos of the sinner turning toward others supposed a different understanding of the human body than that evoked by Martha Nussbaum when she speaks of the Stoic belief in “the entire world of human beings as a single body, its many people as so many limbs.” For St. Augustine, each human body is incoherent in sensation; the human limbs of the social body do not function coordinately in perception. The ethical faculties of human beings respond to such bodily disorder; malfunctioning human bodies turn toward one another in mutual need.

This traditional ethic of mutual need may seem far from current culture wars: it put a positive value on shame and guilt in human affairs, while those who today assert the dignity of their race, gender, or desire aim precisely to remove the burdens of shame and guilt from their identities. Moreover, this self-despairing openness conflicted over the course of history with the desire of believers to establish exclusively Christian nations or pure Christian communities. And yet, I think, to reflect on cosmopolitanism in relation to human insufficiency has great meaning in a secular era.

The identities asserted in the culture wars do not and cannot make for coherent and complete selves; they arise from fissures in the larger social fabric; they contain its contradictions and its injustice. If we remove the burden of guilt or shame the larger society places on these identities, they still remain necessarily incomplete versions of any individual’s particular experience. One response to this incompleteness is to attempt closure, to treat race, gender, or sexual desire as constituting something like national boundaries. Another is to accept incompleteness, treating the fragments of identity of which every life is composed as creating a mosaic, a condition which Stuart Hall calls “hybrid identity.”

Much of what passes for multiculturalism in the United States pursues the first course, and rejects the second. But this weakens the political potency of difference — as when Afrocentrism affirms the coherence of racial identity rather than challenging the prejudicial biology of race itself, or when queer theory affirms the unities of homosexual experience rather than deconstructing the boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexual desire. Power’s most seductive weapon of repression is to divide experience into authorized territories. To reject the territory allotted us, to say our lives are insufficient on any one terrain, is to insist on a more sociable, truly cosmopolitan existence.

It’s a sociological error to think that unity is the necessary result of social exchange, a liberal error to imagine that the more people interact, the more they become well disposed to one another. If there is a need for discussion about the differences which exist in our society, a full and probing discussion is unlikely to lead to the result desired by Sheldon Hackney, Arthur Schlesinger, and other celebrants of national unity and “the American character.” Indeed, the patriotic pride espoused by Rorty and the more open liberal agenda of the government strike me as exercises in nostalgia. The cosmopolitan values affirmed in Martha Nussbaum’s essay are more truly contemporary, addressing the problem of how to live in difference, not how to transcend difference. Christians turned to each other out of guilt; perhaps our sociability will take root in confrontation, and anger will modulate into mutual recognition. St. Augustine knew that human lives were necessarily, irremediably incomplete; we need to re-learn that lesson in other, secular terms. Cosmopolitanism is both a very old and a very new ethical vision.