Sunday, December 13, 2009


Deborah Solomon's mini-interview in today's New York Times Magazine is with Martha Nussbaum. Here's an excerpt:

Your inquiries have lately revolved around the politics of physical revulsion, which you see as the subtext for opposition to same-sex marriage.
What is it that makes people think that a same-sex couple living next door would defile or taint their own marriage when they don't think that, let's say, some flaky heterosexual living next door would taint their marriage? At some level, disgust is still operating.

In your book "From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law," which will be out in February, you draw a distinction between primary disgust and projective disgust.
What becomes really bad is the projective kind, meaning projecting smelliness, sliminess and stickiness onto a group of people who are then stigmatized and regarded as inferior.

I'm not really familiar with Nussbaum's work, but I agree that disgust is a big factor in the gay rights debate -- but I don't think it's just a matter of (as she says elsewhere) "a shrinking from contamination that is associated with a human desire to be non-animal."

I think that disgust is culturally stirred up -- people are repeatedly urged to think about the allegedly disgusting nature of gay people (or, says, Jews or women, to take of two of Nussbaum's other examples). But I don't think it ends there.

I think people are often urged to be repulsed and to fear -- they're told that certain people aren't just disgusting but powerful. Icky gay people spread horrible diseases and prey on children. Icky Jews rule the world. The icky sexuality of women (or, say, blacks), if allowed free rein -- well, the consequences are too horrible to contemplate. Nussbaum may say all this -- I don't know. But I'm saying it: disgust, in the minds of the disgusted people she's talking about, is paired with the fear of powerful evil.

I see a form of this in right-wing caricatures of Democrats and liberals. Dems/libs are portrayed as both freaks (think Al Gore as uber-nerd or Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi as monstrous witch) and sinister people with superpowers (they kill people and get away with it! their mad socialist/fascist schemes can destroy America!). The dirty-hippie caricature taps into Nussbaumian disgust -- but there's a thin line between the sandal-wearing pacifist who doesn't bathe (a stereotype that just won't die, decades after it became passe) and the mad social engineer who'll allow Islamofascists to destroy America or push cap-and-trade as a means of wiping out capitalism. In this view, the disgusting are powerful in an unspeakably evil way.


But sometimes evil (as cultural conservatives define it) is just ... evil. Consider this story:

In North Carolina, Lawsuit Is Threatened Over Councilman's Lack of Belief in God

City Councilman Cecil Bothwell of Ashville believes in ending the death penalty, conserving water and reforming government, but he does not believe in God. His political opponents say that is a sin that makes him unworthy of office, and they have the North Carolina Constitution on their side.

Detractors of Mr. Bothwell, who was elected in November, are threatening to take the city to court for swearing him in last week, even though the state's antiquated requirement that officeholders believe in God is unenforceable because it violates the United States Constitution.

... conservative advocates ... cite a little-noticed quirk in North Carolina's Constitution that disqualifies officeholders "who shall deny the being of Almighty God." The provision was included when the document was drafted in 1868 and was not revised when North Carolina amended its Constitution in 1971.

One opponent, H. K. Edgerton, is threatening to file suit against the city to challenge Mr. Bothwell's swearing in. "My father was a Baptist minister," Mr. Edgerton said. "I'm a Christian man. I have problems with people who don't believe in God." Mr. Edgerton is a local civil rights leader and founder of Southern Heritage 411, an organization that promotes the interests of black Southerners....

Is this disgust? I don't think so. I think it's just a belief that some people are definitionally evil. Edgerton can't just live and let live -- he's determined to prevent evil from gaining purchase.

And what about this?

... federal protections do not necessarily spare atheist public officials from spending years defending themselves in court. An avowed atheist, Herb Silverman, won an eight-year court battle in 1997 when South Carolina's highest court granted him the right to be appointed a notary despite the state's law.

Eight years? To be a freaking notary? What the hell is wrong with the people who pursued this case that long? To them that seemed like a good use of time? Don't these people have any real problems?

Ah, but atheism is evil, right? At least in some parts of the Carolinas it is. So, no surprise, I guess.

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