By Jairo Mejia
New York, Apr 14 (efe-epa).- American philosopher, scholar and author Martha Nussbaum says in her 2018 book “Monarchy of Fear” that people are preconditioned to avoid and fear mortality and that unscrupulous leaders can manipulate these existential concerns to tighten their grip on power and destroy democracy.
In that sense, crises like the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic could trigger a turn toward authoritarianism and heightened suspicion of the other, although the 72-year-old professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago said she sees more cause for optimism than for dismay.
According to the recipient of Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences in 2012, the crisis is highlighting the need to promote true equality, causing people to reconsider the contempt they once felt toward the US federal government and re-acknowledge its role as a great facilitator of solidarity among the states and creating renewed appreciation for everyday things we had been taking for granted.
Q: As you put it in your book “Monarchy of Fear,” crises and uncertainty can become an amplifier of fear, anger or envy and pose a great risk to our democracy. Can this pandemic serve as an amplifier that could risk the destruction of democracies around the world, especially taking into account how much praise the Chinese government is receiving for its response?
A: This crisis provokes heightened fear and that, in turn, can provoke a desire to turn for comfort to an all-powerful leader, in that way risking democracy. Actually, though, I don’t see that happening. What I see in my country is a healthy desire for coordination that is a useful corrective to the myth that we do not need a federal government. People see that it is absurd for states to compete with one another for needed supplies and this re-awakens a desire for the social democracy of the New Deal, where essential human needs are the job of a strong federal government. I do see some autocratic leaders elsewhere using this crisis as an excuse to try to seize extraordinary powers: (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu in Israel, (Prime Minister Viktor) Orban in Hungary, (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi in India. But all these are unprincipled people who will get away with whatever the people and the courts allow them to get away with, and we’ll see whether a strong democratic resistance emerges. But I don’t see a tendency to reject democracy in other European countries. And you say people admire China: actually the newspapers are full of criticism of the misrepresentations of the crisis by China, which was possible because of the absence of a free press.
Q: In your book, you quote (18th-century Scottish economist and philosopher) Adam Smith as having said that “it is difficult for people to sustain concern for people at a distance.” Even though this has been a truly global crisis, is there a risk of us losing empathy for and connection with others in distant places that suffer from war, poverty, etc.?
A: It is very much the situation Smith was talking about: in a global crisis we have great sympathy – until the crisis reaches our own homes. It’s important to counteract that tendency of the mind by building strong habits of reading about other countries, and communicating with people there. I have friends in so many places, and I try hard to stay in touch and ask how things are. And the first thing I do every morning is to look at Covid data from Europe, since that is both a useful barometer of how the disease is going in general and a place to which I have many strong ties. After that I check out India, Latin America and Asia.
Q: Some politicians, such as President (Donald) Trump, have chosen to call this the “Chinese virus,” while the Chinese government itself has been disseminating rumors that the virus was manufactured by the US military. Do you think people will fall for these misleading strategies to stir fear and defuse their own responsibilities?
A: People who are afraid believe all sorts of garbage. I’m afraid that this expression “Chinese virus” has led to ugly discrimination against Asians in my country. There is a long history of that anyway: the expression “yellow peril” was used to classify Asian people as themselves a disease … Unfortunately people like to blame catastrophes on someone else, and refuse to help because of blame. So good politics has to counteract that tendency.
Q: How do you think societies can turn this crisis into an opportunity?
A: Well I think it is a wake-up call for us in the US to fix the inequalities in our health-care system, as well as inequalities in housing and nutrition. Seventy percent of Covid deaths in Chicago are from African-American and Latino communities, so we see how illness is linked to inadequate lifelong health care, inadequate access to nutritious food, and so forth. People have a lot of time to think, so I hope we will all think well. EFE-EPA