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.


At 1:00 PM, Blogger RJ said...

I think he's operating with a less...thoughtful...environment than we are, though. Since he's discussing politics and political figures, he's assuming that they're "religious convictions" can't be practical things like bringing terrorists to justice, improving the economy, etc. He's assuming that the dictates of faith are limited to things like abortion - anything where candidates have, in the past, tried to say, "God says X!" and close the debate.

I think this is most of what you're trying to say, but it seems to me that if we sat down with this guy, he'd probably completely agree with you and simply clarify some of his terms and explain that he used them in this manner to make sense to his audience. Hitchens, on the other hand, would persist in saying dumb things, not understand what we were saying to him, and then write an article in vanity fair about how much cooler he is than us.

That being said, it'd be more helpful if he'd encourage people to start blurring the religious lines. Stop acting like religion and politics are these separate sphers and start talking about them together. Say something like, "Let me tell you about my faith. My faith says that everyone in America has a right to be part of the system, and that everyone deserves a chance to exercise their freedom in pursuit of happiness!" and then get the crowd all excited and chanting your name, and maybe you wink at some elderly lady in the front row and she feints, or something like that.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

The old lady feints? Like, you think she's going to give you a massive, wobbly arm old lady hug on your left, but it's just a fake and she really hugs you on the right side of your body? Awesome. What an agile old lady!


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