The Man Who Preferred Muslim Rioters to Liberals

Monday, February 13, 2006 at 04:10 PM

What would you say of a man who goes public in the NY Times with an opinion that those more concerned with free speech than the content of speech--such as the Danish editors who published the cartoons that have set the Muslim world afire--exhibit:

"the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form.  It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil.  And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters, and to the discredit of the liberal editors."

Yup, he likes the Muslim protesters who are burning and threatening better than he likes the Danish editors who are....publishing.

First, a little background.  Stanley Fish, the author of the op-ed "Our Faith in Letting It All Hang Out" in Sunday's NY Times, has a Ph.D. from Yale.  He has taught at Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, and served as both a professor of law and the chair of the English Department at Duke University.  He's currently a law professor at Florida International University.

He's the author of many texts, such as:
--Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (1989).
--There's No Such Thing as Free Speech: and It's a Good Thing, Too (1994).
--Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change (1995).

He's an influential thinker and analyst of language, literature, and law.

In short: no dummy.  But boy can you be smart and, if not crazy, at least very, very, strangely, wrong.  And very, very, strangely anti-liberal.

Among the other choice quotes from his op-ed, with my response in brackets:

  1.  The Danish editor who started this whole mess. Flemming Rose, is "an adherent of the religion of letting it all hang out, the religion we call liberalism." [That's a deliberately insulting, subjective, and one-sided conclusion.  Do the religiously incensed Muslims not "let it all hang out" in a very real sense as they throw caution and consequence to the wind in order to burn buildings, beat people, and threaten death to all who offend their sensibilities?  Where the hell's the restraint in that?]

  2. "The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted but nothing is to be taken seriously." [That is an absurd and false claim which appears to equate tolerance of disagreement with frivolity]

  3. "This is, increasingly, what happens to strongly held faiths in the liberal state.  Such beliefs are equally and indifferently authorized as ideas people are perfectly free to believe, but they are equally and indifferently disallowed as ideas that might serve as a basis for action or public policy." [Flat out untrue.  They are "disallowed" only to the extent that the holders of the beliefs want to force them down the throats of people who do not share the beliefs; they are perfectly legitimate bases for personal action and personal efforts to change public policy]

Fish seems to have drifted toward religion and belief in the last several years, and has acknowledged a bias toward religion and religious concepts.  He has also said "Belief and knowledge are considered to be two different things. But they are not."

Although Fish is very careful to avoid saying so directly, a fair reading of his piece is that he thinks far more highly of "strongly held faiths" than he does of a mere "abstract principle" like free speech. He seems to admire the great moral certainty--the fervent passion--that is inherent in most religious thought (certainly in fundamentalist versions of Islam and Christianity) far more than what he considers abstractions like free speech.

He would trade his perceived weaknesses of free speech for "strong" beliefs and certainty in a heartbeat.  The problem is that the irreconcilable conflicts between competing moral certainties of different religions has already brought many a heartbeat to a bloody stop, and promises to keep performing its heart-stopping magic well into the future.

And now, here in the 21st century with religious fervor kicking up its ugly, dangerous heels all over the place, he wants to embrace the idea that it is admirable to hold your religious beliefs so strongly that killing those who violate your strictures is a duty?  Why not embrace the rap music culture of fighting to the death with anyone who looks at you cross-eyed, or who bumps into you at a party?  How odd that the same NY Times had a news piece on the increase of deaths over such petty slights in Milwaukee  and several other cities.

I think Mr. Fish has tightly embraced the devil, having mistaken him for a guidepost.  If we have a hope, it is the liberal concept that allows for differing moralities while insisting that one person's morality not be forcibly imposed on another.  If there is to be less bloodshed in the future, there need to be a lot fewer "reasons" for shedding blood. I think a strong belief in free speech would provide a lot fewer reasons for us to hack each other to death.