Thursday, September 06, 2007

Stanley Fish, eminent writer of opinions, gets liberalism wrong

Stanley Fish, a prominent literary theorist who has spent his career thinking about stuff and who now writes about stuff for the New York Times, gives an unconvincing and I think incorrect assessment of liberalism and secularism in his latest post. It's behind the firewall, but that’s okay because there is only one part I want to focus on. In regard to when today’s politicians are asked about their faith, he writes the following:

"[Today's] candidate must say something like, “My faith generally informs my moral values, but my judgments and actions as president will follow from the constitutional obligations of the office, not from my religion.” In other words, I too believe in the public-private distinction and I will uphold it. I won’t insist that you adopt my values and I will respect yours.”

I think he’s wrong here in asserting that “the public-private distinction” and constitutional obligations are coterminous. Some candidates may derive all of their judgments and actions as president from their faith, and they just happen to line up with liberal goals. I also think he’s wrong in saying that liberalism is a non-imposition of values. I think liberalism is, just like Islamic fundamentalism, a serious imposition of a set of values; it just happens to be a different, and better, set. Liberalism is also very intolerant; Islamic fundamentalism tolerates all sorts of things that liberalism does not, like the repression of women. I digress. Fish continues:

“A candidate who didn’t say something like that but instead announced a determination to reshape public institutions in accordance with the dictates of his or her faith would be seen as too closely resembling the Islamic fundamentalists who, we are told again and again, are our sworn enemies.”

I disagree. It would completely depend on what the "dictates of faith" were. A candidate whose dictates of faith were bringing terrorists to justice, improving the economy and bringing sweet American dreams to everyone would be acceptable no matter what language they used.

John Kerry was able to say that he recognizes that while Catholicism prohibits abortion, he was not going to impose that requirement on the country. I’m not able to put things like that, but that discounts neither of us from running for office.

Fish is doing some of the same things that
redhurt criticized Christopher Hitchens for--he comes along all postmodern, fuzzies everything up, denies absolutes, muddles with all of our clear thinking, and then when he’s done, issues categorical statements about religion and liberalism. Sorry, gentlemen: you’ve removed your own support.