More on Stanley Fish’s column “To Boycott or Not … ” (the Shakespearean tag is utterly banal: I cannot bring myself to type it in full):
But the effort to detach Israel from South Africa by claiming that the sins of the latter were much greater than the sins of the former has not been successful, in part because those who make it are trying too hard. (You can almost see the sweat on their foreheads.) The American Association of University Professors ties itself up in knots explaining that while its own history includes ‘support for divestiture during the anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa,’ it nevertheless opposes this boycott. The rationale seems to be that South Africa was a special, one time case — ‘South Africa is the only instance in which the organization endorsed some form of boycott’ — but that is hardly going to satisfy those who are prosecuting the ‘if-you-protested-injustice-then–you-should-protest-it-now’ argument.
The better course would be for the AAUP and other boycott opponents to accept the equivalence of the two situations, and repudiate what they did in the past. Not ‘what we did then is different from what we decline to do now,’ but ‘we won’t boycott now and we were wrong to boycott then.’
This is because Stanley can’t rid himself of the view that Truth is Timeless and Unchangeable. The AAUP can’t learn, from the effectiveness of South African activists, nor from East German intellectuals who on Nov 9 1989 called for an end to “business as usual” to save their country, because this would mean that Truth changed. It must not repeat its divesture stunt above all, and must (consistently) disclaim any interest, as the American Association of University Professors, hup-ho, in getting involved in politics. It must in fact retroactively support Colonel Lindbergh’s desire that America stay out of Europe, despite Hitler.
The view that Truth changes is thought to lead to a slippery slope, wherein Truth becomes the whim of Rebel Angels such as the monstrum horrendum Denis Rancourt.
Give them an inch, in other words, and they will surely take a mile, boys: the song of the Regents.
However, it’s true that true is always true (this is a tautology) no matter what.
What’s false is that the specific content of truth never changes. A system with a memory that can learn can take note of the effectiveness of anti-apartheid Aktions on university campuses, such as the demonstration against the ambassador of the apartheid government that I attended, on my lunch hour as a Princeton employee, in 1988, and change its systemic behavior.
Unless it is a frozen addictive system without a memory or a capacity for change, members of which have learned sclerosis in graduate skewl.
Social theorist Anne Wilson Schaef has stated, “the addictive system has no memory”. Mirroring the truly foul behavior of students on the campuses, where for example the formerly prelapsarian Princeton nude olympics had to be canceled because of drunken rapine, we find the administration using a learned Platonism more and more to stop Time itself.
Stanley Fish’s concluding paragraph in the same essay bears requoting:
Whether or not divestiture and other actions taken by academics were decisive in, or even strongly contributory to, ending the apartheid regime is in dispute. What should not be in dispute is that those actions, however salutary and productive of good results, were and are antithetical to the academic enterprise, which while it may provide the tools (of argument, fact and historical research) that enable good and righteous deeds, should never presume to perform them.
This is nonsense. In the 19th century, academics as the clerisy were expected to stay, in the negative register, within a very narrow band of righteousness. Women teachers in what corresponded to K..12 were expected to leave the profession on marriage and all were to be sober and industrious. Professors were at least in public expected to comport themselves well. In the positive register, professors were encouraged to be active in the right sort of eleemosynary activities, and in the classroom to advance a muscular Christianity.
Post-Darwin and in the 20th century, this became tricky, whence Daniel Bell’s post-ideology hope that there could remain a large band of “things we do around here” and an equally well-defined set of “things we don’t do around here”: well-defined not apriori (that would be too French), but on a case by case basis: Fish’s references to law are appropriate to his views.
But the postwar boundaries of those sets were never well-defined. Their name was “liberalism”, where the word comes from the Spanish, and originally referred to reformist tendencies in post-Napoleonic Spain that were brutally and quite silently (even in the historical record outside specialist records) suppressed by Britain and a restored Bourbon monarchy in France in the 1820s, in favor of a new stability…and a general European peace which, it must be pointed out (because true objectivity generates complexity, Mister Fish) had not been experienced since the outbreak of the Seven Years War about fifty years prior.
In 20th century America, liberalism turned out to include the overthrow of democratically elected leaders with “Communist” tendencies in Iran, Guatamela, Chile and elsewhere, and the continuation of the general Asian war, which had started in 1933, until 1975.
It also included Clark Kerr’s refusal, in the University of California system of the 1960s, to recognize the students as an estate, participating at all in the governance of the university…which stonewalling produced a self-caricaturing reaction, and the election of Ronald Reagan to the governorship based on Reagan’s marshaling of anti-intellectual demagoguery against supposedly privileged students…who were attending a public university nearly for free, because they weren’t, after all, spoiled brats.
[That would be the Princeton students who made a mess out of the Nude Olympics, and this set of students is disjoint from the Israel boycotters, I'd guess completely.]
Ideas rush in to vacuums where angels, rebel or otherwise, fear to tread. Liberalism was less a plenum than a partial vacuum and by the 1960s the political air supply was changing to today’s toxic brew, because unlike 19th century Americanism, liberalism could not precisely define that inch which if we give said inch unto “them”, “they” might surely take a mile.
The students of the 1960s, and today’s radicals which Fish does his damnednest to make sure stay untenured (he would have to agree that “tenured radicals” is a faery story), and who in my direct experience work their butts off chairing departments at universities such as DeVry, where in my adjunct experience the students, like Elwood Blues, “know all about exploitation” because they been exploited all their lives, were in fact evolving a new model superego.
Feminism became its sexual morality in a few short months in 1971: feminism’s sexual morality of taking-responsibility was why I came to China with seventy-five dollars to my name in 2004, since I’d gone broke making sure my children and their mother could live in a university community.
Just as 19th century American Christian morality incorporated Abolitionism, and just as by 1890 American Christian professors were able to accept the proposition that “slavery is wrong”, the students of the 1960s were evolving super-ego mechanisms.
However, as Charles de Gaulle saw in 1968, functionaries of an information-based society might disruptively use their super-ego on the job, and ask, to what ends are their journalism, their teaching, their computer programming being put? Since De Gaulle, knowing his French people, feared that this would result in a permanent shouting match and bun-fight, DeGaulle screwed the students and paid off the workers.
Likewise, Fish’s underlying fear has always been of the Other with which we might converse, in which his interlocutor says:
(Jenny Holzer, Inflammatory Essays, 1979-1982)
The refusal is the refusal to acknowledge that there is a killing sort of rage at injustice, which might cause people to fire rockets, or (cf. Mamet’s Oleanna) get your tenure denied.
Some people, and many over-socialised men, are able to live in a world where all there is, is killing rage. Others think of Cordelia, non-banally:
O my deere Father, restauratian hang
Thy medicine on my lippes, and let this kisse
Repaire those violent harmes, that my two Sisters
Haue in thy Reuerence made.
But: conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, who I met in 1989, makes it clear through her art that for the moment, anyway, these are just words, and words of the “othered” with whom we can identify by thinking of specific moments in our own lives in which we have been discommoded…”othered”.
Looking for a job, awaiting the tenure decision, getting the old credit card declined, or left in a house with negative equity by a fleeing spouse, we have moments which are not acknowledged in the Platonist discourse, which assumes of necessity that the best life floats at all times above the sordid material basis of time and change…in which people and organizations learn from experience…in my case to pony up for the needs of my kids over twenty long years.
In the movie Good Will Hunting Matt Damon’s Will takes over from his clueless big brother, played by Ben Affleck, in a Harvard bar when a graduate student bullies his brother about “history”. The scene is on YouTube. Because “Will Hunting” has an eidetic memory, he quickly proves that the graduate student is plagiarising an author word for word. Will/Damon graciously concedes that despite his knowledge, obtained “at da public libraahry foah a few dollahs in late chahges”, he won’t get the meal ticket of the Harvard MA or PHD, but nonetheless reveals that the grad student, like so many, defrauds the university (in a far deeper way than a boycott) by essentially parroting received ideas…learning only how to rephrase them so as to avoid the charge (chahge) of plagiarism.
Which gets the girl, in this case Minnie Driver, but that’s not the point.
The point is that Truth, like wisdom in Proverbs 8, and Falstaff’s Lord Chief Justice, crieth out in the market place but no man gives her any mind. Fish’s irresponsible defense of a Platonic truth reduces truth to banal ideas which can’t change.
South Africa was not what Israel is today. In Israel, politicians whose goal is to hold on to power have decided, unlike Woodrow Wilson as regards Pancho Villa in 1916, to generalize police matters (low tech rockets) to a military matter.
This usually doesn’t work from a strategy viewpoint, as witness Woodrow Wilson’s success in eliminating Villa’s threat, and the failure of the Iraq war. But from this generalization it is like Hamlet’s flute to proceed, for “it is as easy as lying” to generalize the military matter to an existential threat by means of which the Israeli people can be held hostage in a failed state.
[Yeah, Mister Fish, we read Shakespeare too, and we ain't banal, neither. And today, based on my reading the corpus for shits and giggles in 1962 (I was sick of TV already), I can pull quotes out of the Internet: "'Tis as easie as lying: gouerne these Ventiges with your finger and thumbe, giue it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most excellent Musicke."]
In the film, even after being discovered to be a math genius and given a John Nash-like post, Will insists on the university’s material basis. He reminds the grad student in the bar that they are, in addition to students, men, and can always “step outside”: most academics try most of their lives to forget being bullied as children, often by bullying underlings when it’s utterly safe. Will had, as he admitted, lost on the point of the distinction between “an education” and “a diploma” and was willing to “step outside” to settle the original matter, which was that the graduate student was being rude.
Later on, Will (who has his own set of serious personal problems as pointed out by a community college professor played by Robin Williams) asks an interviewer to what use his mathematics might be put, breaking the Platonic block.
Platonism, almost as soon as it appeared, was found wanting because it generated paradox to Parmenides and to Zeno. Nonetheless, it is what’s operating when an adjunct is told to save the world on his own time.
American Platonism, although that sounds like an oxymoron, is the belief that “while we are not able to legislate for all cases the boundaries of what is right, we can legislate in all cases, and whatever we legislate is good for all times and places when we legislate, because Truth is timeless, or something”.
This doesn’t quite make sense: that’s my point: there is a philosophical pathology, both in the sense that bullshit walks the earth on stilts, and it’s the philosopher’s task to point that out as a pathologist. Fish, over-enamored of stare decisis (“let the [older] decision stand, and let it control”), wants the AAUP to be above all consistent: to not only refuse to boycott Israel but to say it was wrong in its support for South African divestiture. And, by implication, that it was right not to speak out as a professional body against Hitler, which I don’t believe it did.
We must be consistent, my darlings, for we are little minds and we like our hobgoblins.
This decay of liberalism of which Fish is a symptom is an isomorph of the map of Israel, not for any mystical nor any anti-Semitic reason, but because the thinking of Israel’s politicians necessarily tracks American thinking. They are averse to Constitution writing: Americans revise their Constitution only with difficulty, and, the American Constitution is the oldest written constitution in the world.
My original, and pre-Vatican II, Catholicism was clear on boundaries, which allowed believers to save the world on their own time. But the thing liberalism has become, like the thing Israel has become, is a sort of Jabba the Hut unable itself to set boundaries but which is all too ready to define others’ boundaries (“this is what I think of your stinking election, Hamas”) as it sits in the bar of the world, expanding its waistline. It can judge, but must not be judged.
Stare decisis, like Fortune to Fluellen, is an excellent moral. It drives the law and our sense of fairness, and Fish learned much more than the usual English prof about the world from his legal studies.
But when Ancient Pistol asks Fluellen in Henry V for mercy for Bardolph, Pistol is not so much appealing for a universal license as for a specific act of intercession. That’s because Shakespeare, like the ordinary slob, knew that the good is a nested concept, where to enforce a good (in the old play, no looting) we, from Pistol up through Fluellen to the King, make choices one at a time.
The truth of South Africa, it is now conceded except perhaps by a few stalwarts in a pub somewhere, is that it was an unjust state and that activism worked even as dissidence worked in East Germany and Russia. It was not expected that activism would work but it did. While retaining a commitment to an abstract conception of truth, goodness, true goodness, and good truth, we can, indeed we must, make hard choices based not on ego mechanisms (which is what we do when we act as employees) but on a superego that is ready, as part of being a super duper ego, to learn, and to admit error.