Intoonfada: Fish Rots From the Head Down

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Can the West still win the race to produce the most insane reaction to the Danish cartoon flap? With Florida International University law professor Stanley Fish as our standard-bearer, all indications are positive. Some samples from his New York Times column yesterday:

[Jyllands-Post culture editor Flemming] Rose may think of himself…as being neutral with respect to religion—he is not speaking as a Jew or a Christian or an atheist—but in fact he is an adherent of the religion of letting it all hang out, the religion we call liberalism…

Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism's museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give—ask for deference rather than mere respect—it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country.

One of those arguments goes this way: It is hypocritical for Muslims to protest cartoons caricaturing Muhammad when cartoons vilifying the symbols of Christianity and Judaism are found everywhere in the media of many Arab countries. After all, what's the difference? The difference is that those who draw and publish such cartoons in Arab countries believe in their content; they believe that Jews and Christians follow false religions and are proper objects of hatred and obloquy.

But I would bet that the editors who have run the cartoons do not believe that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished. They do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision; they do it gratuitously, almost accidentally….

This is itself a morality—the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form…

This is why calls for "dialogue," issued so frequently of late by the pundits with an unbearable smugness—you can just see them thinking, "What's wrong with these people?"—are unlikely to fall on receptive ears. The belief in the therapeutic and redemptive force of dialogue depends on the assumption (central to liberalism's theology) that, after all, no idea is worth fighting over to the death and that we can always reach a position of accommodation if only we will sit down and talk it out.

But a firm adherent of a comprehensive religion doesn't want dialogue about his beliefs; he wants those beliefs to prevail. Dialogue is not a tenet in his creed, and invoking it is unlikely to do anything but further persuade him that you have missed the point—as, indeed, you are pledged to do, so long as liberalism is the name of your faith.

Whole article here.

I can't speak for liberalism, and I don't know what the standards of argument are at FIU these days, but the very tired gambit of yelling "Hey man, your belief in free speech/natural selection/free market economics/the big bang is just a religion too!" isn't worth the paper a verbal argument is printed on. What Fish calls "letting it all hang out" I call the principle that all topics are subject to discussion, that there are no taboos around what you can say, and that you shouldn't be afraid of any answers or any questions. This is not a religious belief; it's something that has been tested and proven to produce tangible results in many different situations over many hundreds of years. It is in fact the opposite of a religious belief, which is by definition based on faith, not apprehended through the senses, and not susceptible to confirmation or refutation through reason. Does Fish really believe it's just faith-based presumption to say that freedom of speech is better than its opposite? Does he really think the histories of science, politics, and medicine since the Enlightenment have not demonstrated—in actual, non-superstitious ways—the preferability of letting it all hang out?

If the article were just built on a dumb conceit, it might not be a big deal. But Fish's claim that the editors "do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision" demonstrates that he also hasn't paid any attention to the ongoing discussion of Jyllands-Posten's politics, particularly to the debate over the paper's attitudes toward immigration. If Fish really thinks this is the result of wiseacre editors operating in a values-neutral environment, he should try reading The New York Times.

But the cartoon dustup was also informed by a principle of free expression, which gives a particular smell to Fish's claim that his "liberals" believe there is "no idea worth fighting over to the death." Right now, most of the cartoonists who drew the offending pictures are in hiding from mobs and assassins who want to "behead those who insult Islam." They are risking their lives over the principle that they can say what they want in a newspaper. Given the demonstrated history of Salman Rushdie and the Ayatollah Khomeini, we can assume that these illustrators should have known what they were getting into when they took on the taboos of radical Islam, and that they were either very courageous or very stupid to do so. It's characteristic of this ridiculous opinion piece that Fish gives the less charitable interpretation of the actions of the cartoonists, while barely containing his admiration for homicidal maniacs who want to destroy the very principle on which a free society, uncensored newspapers, and the tenure protections of Florida law professors are all founded.

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  1. The point he was trying to make, one with which I agree, is that any philosophical system is based upon axioms. One tenet of ‘liberalism’, (by which I think he really means ‘reletavism’) is that all axioms are intellectually equivalent.

    In many cases, that’s where the concept of ‘free speech’ being so important comes from.

  2. We are either willing to fight for the marketplace of ideas or we aren’t. If you respond to speech with molotov cocktails and bombs, you belong in a cage with the other baboons. Certainly, it is not in the best interest of the rest of the world to allow the noisiest parties to shut down free exchange.

  3. Yes, yes. We all have values. Some people value free expression and a marketplace of ideas, and others value clergy vetting of public discourse. At some point, and this is not a feature of liberalism, you have to stop and point out that two value systems are incompatible. Talking about them in public is a good way to handle that.

  4. That’s the crux of the situation – the value system of the the islamists is incompatible with western liberal democracy. Fish is associating liberalism with relativsm.

  5. If Fish really meant “relativism” and called it “liberalism”, then the degree of his ignorance of moral philosophy is greater than even Tim Cavanaugh indicted him.

  6. The difference is that those who draw and publish such cartoons in Arab countries believe in their content; they believe that Jews and Christians follow false religions and are proper objects of hatred and obloquy. But I would bet that the editors who have run the cartoons do not believe that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished. They do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision; they do it gratuitously, almost accidentally….

    I hope I’m reading this incorrectly, but: is this guy saying that publishing cartoons that offend Jews, when you really do hate Jews, is morally superior to publishing cartoons that offend Muslims when you don’t hate Muslims?

  7. That’s the only way I can make sense of what he’s saying. I do think there’s a connection between liberalism and relativism, however. ‘You do your thing and I’ll do mine’ is a big part of liberalism. The difference between liberals and relativists is the extent to which ‘you do your thing’ is allowed to expand.

  8. Jennifer –

    I think he is saying that publishing cartoons that offend Jews, when you really do hate Jews is not hypocritical, whereas publishing cartoons that offend Muslims when you don’t hate Muslims is hypocritical.

  9. I hope I’m reading this incorrectly, but: is this guy saying that publishing cartoons that offend Jews, when you really do hate Jews, is morally superior to publishing cartoons that offend Muslims when you don’t hate Muslims?

    That appears to be the gist of it.

  10. MarkP–

    Exactly. What the hell is this guy smoking?

  11. Fish isn’t decrying their relativism, he’s decrying their complete lack of any moral compass, even a relative one. Tim’s point is that Fish completely ignores the well-publicized and very morally significant motivation for the cartoon feature.

  12. One tenet of ‘liberalism’, (by which I think he really means ‘reletavism’) is that all axioms are intellectually equivalent.

    This is true neither of liberalism nor of even moderately sophisticated forms of relativism.

  13. I would also point out that there is a difference between publishing cartoons showing Mohammed in a negative light, versus cartoons showing Muslims in a negative light. There are things Jesus said that I don’t agree with, but there’s a difference between saying “Let’s make fun of Jesus” and “Let’s make fun of Christians.” Those morally wholesome anti-Jewish and anti-Christian cartoons Fish talks about were just that: insulting human beings, not some divine being they worship.

    But of course Fish probably can’t divine the difference.

  14. Jennifer –

    I think he’s right, in the sense that if you say ‘it is bad to criticize other religions’ and then you criticize another religion, you’re a hypocrite. That said, there are things in the world worse than hypocrisy.

    Personally, I do see it as hypocritical when people say ‘don’t criticize religion’ and then they go and criticize other religions. That’s why i don’t have a problem with people criticizing anythong.

    This fish guy wrote a crappy article, and I think on the whole he’s got a poor analysis of the situation, but on the hypocrisy thing I bleieve he is right on the money.

  15. I think he’s right, in the sense that if you say ‘it is bad to criticize other religions’ and then you criticize another religion, you’re a hypocrite. That said, there are things in the world worse than hypocrisy.

    We may have cross-posted, Mark, but this Fishy fool hasn’t made the distinction between a religious figure and the people who worship him. I’m personally offended by cartoons showing Jews as money-grubbing hook-nosed baby-killing et cetera, but I have no problems with making fun of their asshole storm god Yahweh.

  16. I’m personally offended by cartoons showing Jews as money-grubbing hook-nosed baby-killing et cetera, but I have no problems with making fun of their asshole storm god Yahweh.

    Both are funny.

  17. Jennifer,

    On the larger issues I think we’re in agreement. But do you really think that drawing Mohammed with a bomb for a turban was aimed at Mohammed only? You made the point on another thread that such a depiction was legitimate fodder for satire in light of the fact that more than a trivial number of Mohammed’s followers are using bombs in his name, and I think that was a very valid point. But I think you’re on shakier ground here to say that such a cartoon had nothing to do with Muslims at large.

  18. But I think you’re on shakier ground here to say that such a cartoon had nothing to do with Muslims at large.

    I’m not saying it has nothing to do with Muslims at large, just that there IS a differnce–which Fish did not address–between insulting a prophet or a god, and insulting the individuals who worship it.

  19. Liberalism shares certain characteristics with religion in the guise of what one of our heroes called “self-evident truths”. And adherents to religion may also claim that experience shows their way to be best, so I don’t know if liberalism is inherently distinguished that way. Still, it’s reductionist to claim that a philosophy or point of view is a religion because it shares certain attributes with religion. While the belief in self-evident truths is similar to religion, the nature of those truths is what is at odds with religion and what motivates liberalism’s adherents to seek a different, more open-ended, means of solving differences between folks. One can draw comparisons all day long, but unless is willing to take the differences equally seriously, one will entirely miss the point of liberalism.

  20. While the belief in self-evident truths is similar to religion, the nature of those truths is what is at odds with religion and what motivates liberalism’s adherents to seek a different, more open-ended, means of solving differences between folks.

    I’d say it goes beyond that. I don’t value free expression because it’s self-evident, but because its value has been proven in the field, again and again. If there were no positive value in ignoring taboos and dogmas, we’d still have a king, doctors wouldn’t be washing their hands before surgery, and chemists would still be trying to catch phlogiston in a bottle.

  21. As an FIU alumnus, I’m glad that their new law school has faculty of such esteem to make controversial (and wrong) statements. That is the sign of a strong program, apparently.

  22. I think Tim has it nailed. We don’t hold to liberal tolerance vs. their dogma just because liberal tolerance is ours and their dogma is theirs — we hold to it because it’s better. It’s a funny thing to have to say in the context liberalism, one of the precepts of which being a general unwillingness to pick favorites in a conflict between “self evident truths,” but in a meta-case like this one, that precept is more of a guideline….

  23. Hayek appeared to have some related thoughts:

    All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

  24. Nice Fisssssh!

    Oh, no! The Prophet’s face, it bites us! Better to hide in a dank cave, and guard our Precious. Nasty tricksy liberalismses…

  25. Muslims make christian fundies look like free spirits. Also, they back it up with violence, which your pussy allies are now shrinking from.

    Go back to your fetish against our troops and spies that are fighting these stinking dark-age worshipers of death.

    The psuedointellectual shuttlecocking on hit and run is nothing more than a cunning array of stunts.

  26. Fish should read Wittgenstein on beliving.

    It’s a token in the game of accounts, accounting for things. It isn’t a report of an experience that was ever present, some experience of believing.

    eg. “575. When I sat down on this chair, of course I believed it would bear me. I had no thought of its possibly collapsing.”

    Fish takes this fictitious thing as an index of sincerity. And once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.

  27. Fish should read Wittgenstein on beliving.

    Donnnn’t stop … beliiiiiiving …

    Hold onto that fi-illllllling, yay …

  28. Another forbidden cartoon? Bush with Abramoff.

  29. It’s entertaining to note that the only time I’ve come across Fish in an academic setting was in a course entitled “Sophistry and Rhetoric”. (With, of course, the caviat that my degree was in physics, so it’s not that suprising that I didn’t have too much exposure to deconstructionism and whatnot)

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