Representative of the “progressive”/post-modernist propensity to create an alternate reality, the one that I have expended quite a few words writing about, may I present Stanley Fish, writing in the New York Times. Hardly a surprise after all the evidence put before us but Dr. Fish exposes the very smug and self-righteous construct of the “progressive” world to sunlight, one in which said “progressives” are superior, of course. Jeff Goldstein takes on the estimable Dr. Fish at his blog, Protein Wisdom, here.
I think it instructive that sometimes the truth arrives from the most unexpected sources and this “truth” is no different. In an attempt to defend the indefensible, that being the crass and vulgar misogyny of Ed Schultz of MSNBC and “comedian” and recent $1,000,000 donor to Obama’s superPAC, Bill Maher of HBO, Dr. Fish drops the veil:
If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?
There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance. Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently. Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they’re basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair. “Fair” is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.
The idea is that in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere in which you can have and vent your prejudices) you should not privilege your own views to the extent that they justify treating those with opposing views unequally and unfairly. (Fairness is the great liberal virtue.) This idea is concisely captured by the philosopher Thomas Nagel when he says that in political life we should regard our most cherished beliefs, “whether moral or religious … simply as someone’s beliefs rather than as truths.” In short, back away from or relax your strongest convictions about what is right and wrong and act in a manner that grants legitimacy, at least of a formal kind, to the convictions of others, even of others you despise.
It would seem on the surface that this is the same argument that classic liberalism makes, condemn or praise based on a solid moral foundation and that being “fair” is not the objective because in order to mount a position in the affirmative or negative requires discrimination, a choice between right and wrong, taking a stand based on principle…but Dr. Fish doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a solid moral foundation.
In Slate magazine’s review of Fish’s 1999 book, The Trouble With Principle, Fish is quoted explaining why he believes that there no such moral anchors in life:
“The trouble with principle,” he writes, “is, first, it does not exist, and second, that nowadays many bad things are done in its name.” None of the ideals a liberal society is supposed to be based on, Fish argues–fairness, impartiality, reasonableness–is ever truly neutral or principled. They all mask a political agenda. If all disputes over abstract ideals are, as Fish says, attempts to exploit an elevated moral language for partisan advantage, then to hell with his critics and their faith in chimera such as free speech and scientific objectivity! To hell with conservatives and their absolute values! To hell with liberals and their cherished notion of tolerance, since the people who benefit from it (such as fundamentalists and supremacists) would punch a liberal silly if they found one in a dark alley. The only beliefs that matter, says Fish, are the ones that matter directly to you. In the case of Stanley Fish, those are “my convictions and commitments.”
Apply this to the Schultz/Maher vs. Limbaugh situations where Fish claims that the former using words like “twat”, “cunt” and “right wing slut” to describe conservative women is just fine, yet Limbaugh using the words “slut” and “prostitute” to describe a Democratic activist and shill is not. In no way are these situations equal, Shultz and Maher issued their comments toward Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham clearly in anger, disgust and contempt (the video proves that point) while Limbaugh’s comments were in a satirical context, yet Fish champions Maher and Shultz and writes “Two Cheers for Double Standards”. Based on Fish’s own logic the only reason that he can arrive at this conclusion is that the “progressive” beliefs of the former are simply far superior to the conservative beliefs of the latter if you believe they are – there is no standard.
Slate’s review indicates the foundation of Fish’s belief as his reliance on “inspired ad hoccery”, something that I would argue is simple relativism:
If there are no rules for living peacefully in an ethnically mixed society, what do we do now? Why, says Fish, we do what we have always done, since we have never really practiced multiculturalism. We improvise. We engage in something Fish calls, borrowing the phrase from a philosopher named Charles Taylor, “inspired adhoccery.” We decide what to do on a case-by-case basis. When it makes sense to offer a major in Hindi studies, we offer a major in Hindi studies. When animal sacrifices become sufficiently offensive, we outlaw them. This, he adds, is not a recommendation. It is how we do things already, and the sooner we admit that, the better we’ll get at it.
Fish closes with this:
I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of contested points of view. It substitutes for the rule “don’t do it to them if you don’t want it done to you” the rule “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.
I happen to disagree with many who are taking Fish to task on this issue. I do not believe that Fish is a liberal or a “progressive” at all, his 1999 book was savaged by the Terry Eagleton of the London Review of Books for being insufficiently “progressive”:
It is one of the minor symptoms of the mental decline of the United States that Stanley Fish is thought to be on the Left. By some of his compatriots, anyway, and no doubt by himself. In a nation so politically addled that ‘liberal’ can mean ‘state interventionist’ and ‘libertarianism’ letting the poor die on the streets, this is perhaps not wholly unpredictable.
Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump. Indeed, he is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervour with which others peddle second-hand Hoovers. Unlike today’s corporate executive, however, who has scrupulously acquired the rhetoric of consensus and multiculturalism, Fish is an old-style, free-booting captain of industry who has no intention of clasping both of your hands earnestly in his and asking whether you feel comfortable with being fired. He fancies himself as an intellectual boot-boy, the scourge of wimpish pluralists and Nancy-boy liberals, and that ominous bulge in his jacket is not to be mistaken for a volume of Milton.
However he is seen by the LRB, I believe that he is something quite different. He shares the Hobbesian belief that:
[B]ecause the equality of right and ability breeds “equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends,” and because each man’s ends are naturally to be preferred to his rival’s, the two will inevitably “become enemies,” and in the absence of a neutral arbiter “they will endeavor to destroy or subdue one another.”
Fish describes himself as an “anti-foundationalist” but I actually agree with Slate that:
In other words, Fish isn’t the unprincipled relativist he’s accused of being. He’s something worse. He’s a fatalist…Fish never claimed to be right. In fact, he once quipped that, now that objectivity is dead, it is no longer necessary to be right.
Fish’s position dovetails perfectly into a Godless, post-modern belief that there is no truth except what I believe there is, all things are relative and that universal truths and natural laws are to be ignored because they simply don’t exist in a post-modern construct. Fish may not be a “progressive” by definition but he certainly shares the same vision that we all are to create a virtual world where nothing matters except what we want and that there are no rules accept those that we make for ourselves.
Fish and the post-modernists are maddening to me because they never address the legitimacy of creating this Utopian virtual world where being right doesn’t matter. They never successfully address how the universal truths and natural laws of the world are wrong, they simply argue that we must ignore them. As I have written in the past, this is akin to an intellectual Ponzi scheme, building a tower upon a crumbling foundation of illegitimate ideas and relativist “truths”.
Therein lies the problem with contemporary society in a nutshell.
Modern man has convinced himself of his self-righteousness and superiority to God’s Nature, yet in every civilization there comes a time of collapse where mankind is taught once again that natural law is real and we must painfully re-learn that lesson. The greatest civilization known to man, the Roman Empire, learned that in 476 BC. I hope that through examination of the foolishness of men like Stanley Fish and the whole post-modernist/”progressive” movement, America can avoid that fate.