TCS Daily

Fishing for Liberalism

By Robert McHenry - February 15, 2006 12:00 AM

It has long been my opinion that Professor Dr. Stanley Fish, sometime of Duke University and the University of Illinois at Chicago and now, I see, of Florida International University, is best understood as the north end of a southbound horse. I have written in this vein before. But he has now surprised even me with this, ahem, essay. (We have the New York Times to thank for bringing it to us.) No more will I insult horses.

Fish's aim in this piece is to denigrate "liberalism," which he claims is a kind of bland, contentless religion dedicated only to "letting it all hang out," as he so voguishly puts it.

He quotes the now vacationing-in-an-undisclosed-location Danish editor Flemming Rose as saying that his intention in commissioning and publishing those cartoons of Muhammad was "to put the issue of self-censorship on the agenda and have a debate about it." Then he explains to us:

"This is what it means today to put self-censorship 'on the agenda': the particular object of that censorship -- be it opinions about a religion, a movie, the furniture in a friend's house, your wife's new dress -- is a matter of indifference. What is important is not the content of what is expressed but that it be expressed. What is important is that you let it all hang out."

I don't think so. What is important, surely, is that liberty be defended, which it can be only by being exercised. When the issue is self-censorship induced by threat, the matter is, indeed, irrelevant. But what we say in the debate is all-important and, as we are seeing, all-revealing about the state of our culture.

Fish moves right on to declare that "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." I don't find this tenet written down anywhere else -- not in Locke, not in Lippmann, or any other philosopher or pundit of liberalism. But Fish wants to make an invidious distinction between this wishy-washy thing he labels "liberalism" and "strongly held faiths" with their "morality in...strong, insistent form."

What are we seeing here? Can it be once again the seduction of the intellectual by the strong man?

On the one hand, says Fish, there is Western liberalism, concerned only -- only! -- to "stand up for an abstract principle -- free speech". And on the other hand there is the morality of "those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrous evil."

And the winner is? "And the difference is, I think, to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors." Principle: 0; primitivism: 1.

Under liberalism, he says, "one's religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection," and they "should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable." How refreshingly forthright, then, are those who urge their views on others by means of riot, fire, and murder. How the heart thrills to the sight of mobs and menacing mullahs.

It is "central to liberalism's theology," he says, that "no idea is worth fighting over to the death." Move over, Voltaire, not to mention millions of others who have since died in defense of liberty. But doubtless the good Dr. would dismiss this as mythopoeic nonsense.

Fish concludes by observing that, because the rioters and their leaders so strongly believe in what they believe, the liberal call for "dialogue" is in vain. They don't want to talk; they want us to do as they say, and if we don't they will throw some more tantrums. He's probably right on this point. So this is a good thing?

There have, of course, been milksoppish reactions from various quarters in the West, including many of Editor Rose's professional colleagues. But, just as some parents are less indulgent than others, there have also been (forgive me) stronger responses. And, like responsible parents, while we take things like this quite seriously, we haven't paddled anybody's bottom, yet.

Meanwhile, isn't it a comfort to know that the good Dr. looks down on us from that incomprehensibly higher plane of his and reads us like so many texts?

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).



Pat Buchanan
Pat said essentially the same thing.
The west should have known that this would make them mad(der).
It is unfortunate someone asscoiated with conservatives is oppossed to freedom of the press.
But, then, Pat's form of conservatism must be as different as modern liberalism is to its classic version.

Pat's much more of a populist/isolationist than he is a conservative.

tolerant liberals
I sure wish I could find some.

Michael Kinsley would probably qualify. There might be two or three others.

Most liberals declare that since they are right, then the discussion is over. Even if it takes violence to conclude it.

The condescension of the self declared self righteous is pathetic & dangerous!

C'mon. **** Cheney's got redeeming qualities.
So what if he's self-declared self-righteous and condescending, and is dangerous to his fellow hunters. He'll probably say he's sorry sooner or later if he happens to shoot a friend in the head.

Liberal Contortions
Deftly urbane, but not germane.

Hey, if we're talking self-declared self-righteous and condescending...
... Mr. V.P. seems to fill the bill and then some.

How about respect for those rights that give us the right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happi
These self proclaimed feelings protectors are missing the big point that Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press and all those other rights are absolute. That is the people have these rights although in the exercise of these rights they might make other people mad.

The sad part is that the other concept missing for these feelings protectors is the old saying:
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me."

Fish's vs. McHenry's Liberalism
I tell my students over and over that you have to make sure that you define your terms.

Fish and McHenry are using two different definitions of the word "liberal," as I learned from reading Fish's article. McHenry is using the term in its originary definition, based on the Enlightenment. Fish, on the other hand, is using the term as it has become used in the present day -- a corrupted form, I would agree, but the form most people would recognize.

Today people think that the freedom of speech means you have the right to say anything you want without any fear of being criticized. Well, so long as what you say is politically correct, that is. It surprises me to see McHenry supporting political correctness, while Fish is clearly against it in his article. Of course, perhaps Fish's essay was too subtle for McHenry.

What Fish says is that we should not be surprised when, after we attack something that is sacred to someone, that the people who find that thing to be sacred get upset. He blames, and rightly so, I believe, the current liberal world view for this attitude. We don't, in the West, find anything sacred anymore. We do have the Buddy Jesus of "Dogma." ANd Buddy Jesus himself doesn't really take too much seriously either. In the West, we find nothing sacred any more.

There was a time when CHristians would have reacted the same way as Moslems -- during the Inquisition. It is no coincidence that the Islamic calendar says that it is the 15th century. They are about 610 years behind Christianity. They still find things to be morally offensive to the degree we see on TV as CHristians did in the CHristian 15th century. Galileo was imprisoned for daring to prove that Copernicus was, more or less, correct. ANd those were just planets and moons moving in the sky.

THe point of Fish's article is to remind us that people around the world do continue to think the way CHristians did 600 years ago. There are many out there who do find things to be highly morally offensive, even if we in the West don't find much to be offensive that way any more. At least in religion. If we have to know the enemy as we know ourselves, then Fish's essay is vital -- he is telling us about the enemy, and we are in terrible denial about the nature of Islam as a whole -- both our enemies within it as well as our allies. If we do not understand what is really going on (not economics or even politics per se, the way we understand these, as separated from religion -- it really is all about religion), then we will continue to blunder.

He is also right that liberalism has gotten ridiculous about its idea of freedom of speech. More and more it seems that people treat freedom of speech as the freedom to say whatever you want, without fear of any sort of negative response or even criticism. It was framed as trying to address "self-censorship," as if that were a bad thing. WHy should we self-censor? Isn't that part of the very fabric of civilized behavior, part of what it means to be an adult? Just because you have the right to say anything, does that mean that you always should say everything? SInce when did self-control become a vice? Especially here on TCS?

Pat's long been read out of the mainstream conservative movement
The guy last ran for president on a platform that is positively alien to most conservatives and sounded much more to the left than he started out being.

two liberalisms?
Thanks for the thoughtful and pointed remarks.

At first I tried to read the Fish essay as you do, as a critique of that parody of liberalism that has been created jointly by postmodern illiterates and gleeful social conservatives. But that reading just doesn't work. Fish uses that parody to disguise his attack on classical liberalism as just one more among the many ways of organizing belief, and not the most admirable at that.

Taste, reticence, and self-control are, of course, sterling virtues -- except when imposed by threat. It is under threat that their opposites become legitimate weapons with which to reassert the liberty by which they are possible in the first place. This point is not negated by the separate fact that our social and cultural lives have become playgrounds for those who practice the arts of outrageousness. The adolescentification of society is lamentable and as such is itself a danger to our liberties.

as usual
liberals redefine terms in order to make themselves feel better.

but then that's par for the course for poor eric

Two Liberalisms
Well, FIsh is right in recognizing that liberalism is "just one more among the many ways of organizing belief," and that it does have its flaws. Would it have been nice to hear something nice said about liberalism? Yes -- but the apologists for liberalism in its many forms are out there in force. Sometimes you have to take a strong contrary view in order to jolt people into seeing the weaknesses of our favorite world view. It seemed to me that that was what Fish was up to. Of course, I'm very used to the way Nietzsche does things -- he uses the same tactics, and does so precisely to strengthen the views he attacks. I think Fish correctly points out precisely where liberal thinking is flawed, and the way it has become flawed. If we want a stronger liberalism, we should pay heed to what FIsh has said in this essay.

Right & Wrong
I think that this essay misses an important point. As was put by someobody in an article I read, I may "have a right to do something" but one still has to ask, "is it RIGHT to do it?"

The rioting is ridiculous, and shows us the true colors of the Islamic world. But if the intent of the Danish paper was merely to print the cartoons just because they can, that was wrong. It is one thing to print a cartoon to comment on some news item, but it is quite another to push against the beliefs of others just because you legally CAN do so. For example, the "**** christ" was no commentary. It was pure insult. And thus wrong, and rightly condemned.

However, given the childish response by the Islamic world, especially the fatwa against the cartoonists, we now need to show solidarity with those cartoonists and newspapers. The cartoons, and new ones, MUST be published by every newspaper in the free world, and new cartoons ridiculing the Muslim response must now be generated (unfortunately, I have no drawing skills). We are now at the point where the issue is no longer whether the original publication was "right"; we may not agree with what was originally said, but we must now defend their right to say it to the death.


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