If I had to choose between Martha Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism and Richard Rorty’s quest for national identity, Nussbaum would win hands down. Our schools, churches, media, and sports events already function as identity maintaining machines which idealize America and define its identity by forging a complex of races, faiths, states, peoples, and sexualities that contradict it, or threaten it, or need its tutelage, or provoke its disgust. Unfortunately, this depiction of difference as inherently foreign, dangerous, needy, or destitute has haunted America from its inception. Alexis de Tocqueville, often idolized as an early chronicler of American diversity, conveys this mentality in his portrait of the Indian. He treats the Angloid conquest of America as crucial to the advance of civilization itself. Before that conquest,
North America was only inhabited by wandering tribes who had not thought of exploiting the natural wealth of the soil. One could still properly call North America an empty continent, a deserted land waiting for inhabitants. . . . In this condition, it offers itself not to the isolated, the ignorant, and barbarous man of the first ages, but to man who has already mastered the most important secrets of nature, united to his fellows, and taught by the experience of fifty centuries.
Neither Rorty nor Nussbaum concurs with Tocqueville. Rorty pursues a generous identity grounded in our highest national impulses. But he also disparages of the “politics of difference.” And that shows how oblivious he is to the intimate connection between the construction of identity and the production of difference. Tocqueville, who precedes him in his quest, explored Christianity, democracy, reason, agriculture, and localism as sources of national identity. But this very combination pushed Indians, atheists and others beyond the pale. Where will Rorty look? How will he relate to the differences he manufactures?
Nussbaum appeals to justice, universal reason and the love of humanity to stretch our identifications beyond America. This combination is promising — as long as she also focuses on how the protean love of humanity repeatedly finds itself at odds with operational practices of justice and reason. For the history of justice and reason suggests that their every consolidation “as such,” while indispensable to the moral life, embodies presumptions and precepts that push innocent constituencies into obscurity or misery.
You can’t leave identity, reason, or justice behind, of course. I invoke them even as I suspect closure and provincialism in them. But it might be possible to develop a cosmopolitan ideal by acknowledging the deep ambiguity of all three. You might come to see how every identity you participate in — say, as American, white, atheistic, heterosexual, male, and professional — depends significantly upon the difference it produces to sustain itself. And you might develop ethical strategies to ward off the temptation to elevate your own identities by automatically defining the differences that enable them as inferior, needy, evil, or abnormal. As you proceed you might learn how your previous practices of identity unconsciously manufactured Indians. Take homosexuality. In the 1950s conservatives defined it as a sin to punish and liberals as a sickness to cure. Because both naturalized heterosexuality neither construed alternative sexualities as positive identities to be treated justly. Surely there are similar absences within justice today that still remain obscure to most of us.
We need an ethic of cultivation grounded on recognition of identities as complex artifices constructed out of numerous differences. It would pursue agonistic respect for the differences in which we are implicated, stretch our current cultural imaginations, and foster care for diverse possibilities of life even now coming into being. Such an ethic sustains a layered cosmopolitanism. You might be loyal to the state in which you participate, but make that loyalty contingent on how the state relates to the differences through which it is organized. The differences you would resist most actively are those fundamentalisms of nation, state, race, church, reason, gender, and sexuality that define themselves as real and important by debasing everything else. Such a layered cosmopolitanism embraces much in Nussbaum’s fine essay, even if it follows a slightly different route.