Martha Nussbaum’s thought provoking essay helps persons like me to think more critically and clearly about multiculturalism and, more generally, about the representation and politics of difference. She asks whether our efforts to come to grips with multiculturalism use the language of cosmopolitanism — the “citizen of the world” language of Stoic ethics and of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World, — or Richard Rorty’s language of American patriotism — the language of Jefferson, Emerson, Lincoln, Dewey, and Martin Luther King.
Nussbaum and Rorty seem to differ over the truth claims and practical consequences of universalism and particularism. Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism is a matter of being a world citizen, of identifying and empathizing with the other as a fellow human, and considering first and foremost the good of the global community. Rorty’s particularism operates at the level of nation-states; it affirms an American identity, and it asks those who support multiculturalism to consider whether a conversation about what they share and how they can get along is a condition for the cultivation and pursuit of difference.
Are the differences between universalism and particularism, between being a citizen of the world and being an American citizen, as great as Nussbaum claims? Do Jefferson’s American language of universal equality and rights and a decent respect for the opinions of mankind; or Lincoln’s concern to reconcile order and justice; or King’s efforts (inspired in part by Gandhi) to forge a non-violent model of inclusive citizenship really hinder Americans from becoming citizens of the world?
Most people, most of the time, have more particular allegiances. How, then, have successive generations since the Stoics — America’s founders or Bengal’s bhadralok, located as they are in time, place and circumstance — acquired ideas and practices enabling some of them some of the time to know, appreciate, and practice universal values? The world is indebted to Eleanor Roosevelt, whose conscience was rooted in her American experience, for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in considerable measure to US law and policy for the increasing global presence of human rights. How and why did this happen?
Perhaps national citizenship itself created the mentality, commitments, and constituencies for imagining the requisites of world citizenship. In Democracy in America, Toqueville tells us about the importance for liberty of pluralistic rather than mass participation. He does so through an account of associational life — of the civic, political, cultural, and opinion communities that constitute a civil society. Pluralistic participation, he held, was particular, directly experienced, empowering; mass participation was general, abstractly experienced, isolating. Following Tocqueville’s suggestion, we may need a transnational civil society to get from national citizenship to world citizenship. Creating the space and mentality to tackle global issues and participate in world politics may require the kind of transnational pluralistic participation that human rights, environmental, health and a host of other such transnational associations now provide.
Martha Nussbaum invokes certain Stoics and Rabindranath Tagore to make her moral case for the naturalness of the possibility for world citizenship. I want to raise some questions about the naturalness of the Stoics’ and Tagore’s intentions by probing their provenances.
I very much appreciate this passage: “[the Stoics] suggest that we think of ourselves… as surrounded by a series of concentric circles” starting with the self and including immediate family, extended family, neighbors, local groups, “one’s fellow city dwellers, one’s fellow countrymen” — and “we can easily add to this listing groupings based on ethnic, linguistic, historical, professional, gender, and sexual identities.” But Nussbaum seems to take back this conception of layered, multiple communities, each with its own identity, moral life, and interests. “Outside all these circles,” she continues, “is the largest one, that of humanity as a whole. Our task as citizens of the world will be to ‘draw the circles somehow toward the center’ making all human beings more like our fellow city dwellers [my emphasis]. . . .” I read this sentence as a Pygmalion like invitation to those who are different — the other — to become like us; “why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Col. Higgins asks Eliza; why can’t all human beings be more like us? the civilized “city dwellers” ask all (other) human beings.
A student in the United States must, Martha Nussbaum advises, “learn . . . to recognize humanity wherever she encounters it, undeterred by traits that are strange to her. . . . [and] learn enough about the different to recognize common aims . . . to see how variously they are instantiated in . . . many cultures and histories.” Nussbaum seems to insist on looking for the universal in the particular rather than crediting different forms of life with their own truths, their own good. Somehow out there among all the diversity there is a natural truth, a natural good. Down deep, ultimately, they are like us — the “city dwellers” — if only we and they work hard to make it so. Aren’t the “city dwellers” of the Western world, us, being asked to civilize them, the other? Are heathen idolaters once again being asked to give up their barbaric ways so that they can realize their true and best selves? Nussbaum treats foreignness as superficial; knowing and appreciating difference becomes a way of going beyond it; ultimately difference impedes rather than facilitates becoming and being a cosmopolitan, “the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world.”
We are told that Rabindranath Tagore was such a person. According to Nussbaum, his novel, The Home and World, shows that he understood and was able to convey Stoic truths about the politics of difference. “Nationalism and ethnocentrism” defeat “reasonable and principled cosmopolitanism” in Tagore’s novel and in Satyajit Ray’s film of the same name. “Only the cosmopolitan stance of the landlord Nikhil . . . has the promise of transcending these divisions [being an Indian, an upper caste landlord, a Hindu, etc], because only this stance asks us to give our first allegiance to what is morally good — and that which, being good, I can commend as such to all human beings.”
E.P. Thompson’s posthumous book about his father, Alien Homage: Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore, was reviewed recently1 by the Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri. What can we learn about Tagore’s relationship to particularism and universalism from Chaudhuri’s account?
The senior Thompson was a clergyman who spent 13 years (1910 1923) as vice-principal of a college in an “obscure Bengali village” (Bankura) and as a teacher of English literature at the high school. He first met Tagore at Shantiniketan. In 1913, he was 27 and the only English person present when the 52 year old Tagore learned that he had been awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Thompson for a time admired Tagore, and translated some of his stories from Bengali into English.
Thompson reports that at news of the prize “‘a frenzy of worship seized them [boys, servants, teachers] and they, one after another, threw themselves down and touched his [Tagore’s] feet. . . . I could have done it myself almost; but I am an Englishman, and have a stern contempt for the fools who pretend they are easterners.'” Chaudhuri says that Thompson’s “stern contempt” “is his way of acknowledging the ‘difference’ that both limits and enriches cultural relationships; it also undercuts ‘universalist’ ideas of ‘human nature’ which both Englishmen and Indians, Tagore included, were at that time so keen to believe in.”
Thompson’s and Tagore’s friendship didn’t flourish. Tagore never visited Bankura as he said he would. Thompson’s translations “were never properly acknowledged . . .” “Thompson is interesting to us today,” Chaudhuri writes, “by being the first Englishman to realize that Tagore was now orientalizing and exoticising his translations from his own work ‘to suit Western taste.'” A week after Tagore’s death, on 16 August 1941, Thompson wrote: “‘More and more he toned down or omitted whatever seemed to him characteristically Indian, which very often was what was gripping and powerful. He despaired too much of ever persuading our people to be interested in what was strange to them.'”
The literary estimate of Tagore in the West was based on his “pseudo-Biblical and, frankly, bad translations of a tiny, unrepresentative sample of his work,” a book of lyrical and devotional poems akin to the songs of the Vaishnavas called Gitanjali. Yeats wrote an introduction for it; it was probably the only text the Nobel prize committee read. After the great war, when Yeats, like most western writers lost interest in Gitanjali’s “universal” message, no attempt was made to discover the provincial Tagore, the Bengali Tagore, whose poetry, Chaudhuri says, “contains some of the most striking records of the details of Bengali life ever written.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thompson did not value the “universal” in Tagore, but what was individual and Bengali and “different.” The idea of Tagore as a “world poet” — an idea propagated by his Indian and western admirers — was a “harmful falsification, symptomatic of a time when western humanism presumed the translatability of all cultures into one another’s terms, and the existence of a generalized ‘human’ sensibility; in short, it required the Tagore it invented.” Nussbaum has brought this Tagore, the invented “world poet,” back to life by naturalizing him as an apostle of world citizenship.
To conclude, I want to bring my concerns about understanding difference to patriotism itself. Patriotism is not always and everywhere the same. It lives in different histories and different narratives. Martha Nussbaum seems to neglect these differences: she detests patriotism and admires cosmopolitanism. Richard Rorty and Sheldon Hackney, she says, affirm patriotism. Patriotism for her is aggressive, exclusive, intolerant nationalism; it can lead to the kind of hatred and violence toward the other practiced by Hitler in his time and Slobodan Milosevic in ours.
This is not how I read the Rorty and Hackney effort to recover a common American language, a language that can transcend and inform recognition of and respect for difference in America. Martin Luther King articulated and affirmed American patriotism in his inclusivist, non-violent pursuit of civil rights for African Americans. Today, his legacy helps gays and lesbians, single mothers, and new immigrants to claim civil rights and contributes to the discourse and practice of human rights in world arenas.
Instead of going after Rorty and Hackney, who share many of her concerns, Martha Nussbaum might do better to go after the scoundrel patriots of our time, the Oliver Norths, Pat Buchanans, Pat Robertsons, and Jerry Falwells. Their patriotism excludes difference and speaks the language of hate and violence.