Symposium: Martha Nussbaum

What relationship American intellectuals should have toward mass culture—television, films, mass-market books, popular music, and the Internet—will vary as much as the people themselves.

I think that it’s good if there are some intellectuals who get deeply involved with these media, because this will help intellectuals keep contact with a wider public. It’s much harder to do that now than it was formerly, given the decline of print journalism. But I hope not too many will become starry-eyed about these media and forget about the habit of slow reading, which is such a large part of good thinking. Sometimes the new media can help reading: for example, I now listen to novels on my iPod while I am running, and I “read” a lot more Trollope and Eliot than I used to. Often, though, the new media discourage people from reading books. I see this in many of my students, and it distresses me. We need to remind them that thinking is slow and rigorous, and that it does not always go well with the fast pace and the flash of popular culture.

On balance, the academy is a great help in furthering the engagement of intellectuals with American society When we think of the political philosophers of the fairly recent European past, most of them had to struggle to make ends meet, because their radical ideas made it impossible for them to hold tenured academic positions or to be protected by the deficient standards of academic freedom that then prevailed. Rousseau’s books were banned, and he was not employable in a university. Kant held a university appointment, but he always had to fear, and sometimes encounter, the suppression of his writings. Bentham and Mill published, but they were not employable in universities because of their atheism. Think of how much more Mill could have written had he not had a day job. Even the highly respectable Sidgwick had to resign his fellowship because he found that he could not support all the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. (The rule was changed, and he resumed his fellowship, but he still had to conceal his sexual orientation, as Bart Schultz’s biography now shows us.) Closer to our own time, both Bertrand Russell and John Dewey encountered significant problems of academic freedom, though they kept their positions. The U.S. university system is not perfect, and we must always be extremely vigilant about potential denials of academic freedom. During the Vietnam War era, in particular, there were abuses. It is, however, better than most systems have been in most times and places.

Of course, these protections may lull intellectuals into ignoring issues of their time, and that is bad when it happens; but it is still better that the protections be there, in the strongest possible form.

Academic freedom is especially important because, I believe, the best way for intellectuals to engage with American society is for us to think, write, and teach. Sometimes some of us may take up actual political positions, but beware: the person who does so loses a lot of freedom. As I contemplate friends of mine who are serving in the Obama administration, I feel so lucky to have the ability to say whatever I like and to work things out the way I like to work them out I think of what Cicero said about some of his contemporaries who refused to get involved in politics: they “claim for themselves the same privilege as kings—to obey nobody and to enjoy liberty, saying and doing whatever they please.” That is what I am doing, staying here in Chicago, and my friends are doing what Cicero thought one ought to do, serving the republic at a serious cost of freedom. He would consider my choice self-indulgent. However, I think that most of us serve the republic better by our writings than we would by going to Washington and giving up writing. Look at Cicero: his direct political action had little effect on history, but the books he wrote during his periods of exile changed the world.

I DO CONSIDER myself a world citizen, but I have also come to believe that Mazzini was correct: patriotism of the right sort is an essential source of political stability and, ultimately, of global concern. Mazzini saw that people are usually preoccupied with their own narrow affairs. So it is very unlikely that they will be motivated to serve all humanity. The idea of the nation, however, can be transmitted in a powerfully motivating symbolic form, calling the heart to the service of noble ends, and these ends, rightly formulated, can lead on to the service of all humanity. Of course, most patriotism is not like that, but it can be: look at Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech for a beautiful example of what I have in mind. One may also find this in the oratory of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.: all used a resonant and moving idea of the nation to attach people’s hearts to abstract moral values that ultimately acquire a cosmopolitan significance.


Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in Law, Philosophy, and Divinity. Her latest book is From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.