Thou shalt not be righteous on my time, saith Stanley Fish


From this week’s Stanley Fish blog

“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.”

Antithetical? Strong words. Is the value-neutral academic enterprise the thesis? And is Loretta Capeheart’s academic activism the antithesis?

Was there a value-neutral academic enterprise when men were men, the women were glad of it, the sheep were nervous, and all departments, even English, happily sawed away like unfall’n angels at building the palace of objective truth?

Only to meet the old Serpent at the crossroads of the 1960s?

Thus Satan, talking to his nearest mate,
With head uplift above the wave, and eyes
That sparkling blazed; his other parts besides
Prone on the flood, extended long and large,
Lay floating many a rood, in bulk as huge
As whom the fables name of monstrous size,
Titanian or Earth-born, that warred on Jove,
Briareos or Typhon, whom the den
By ancient Tarsus held, or that sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ ocean-stream.

I find this myth hard to credit, although there is indeed a myth left over from the Sixties, of the attractive, intelligent, charismatic and rebellious male who made women go weak at the knees, and led the Rebel Angels. Because feminism picked up on this myth, one never finds any attractive, intelligent, charismatic or rebellious males. Martha Nussbaum is the first three, and of necessity as a woman a rebel angel: but Richard A Posner is as far as I can see (having seen him emerge snarling from the Chicago Club: having read his stuff) a nasty piece of work. Women complain about meeting nasty or clueless blokes: the destruction of male self esteem by a misunderstood feminism is the reason.

Like so many men who, whether they like it are not, are children of the Sixties which allowed them to be Bad Boys in the first place, and to fright the ladies with at first left-wing opinions, and then when they tired of that game, with conservative views, Fish don’t seem to know much about history.

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the french I took

But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

(Sam Cooke)

This is because his strange conclusion hasn’t been tested against the time before the dreamtime.

In the 1950s, the issue wasn’t whether to boycott Israel. It was signing a loyalty oath to keep your academic job…or staying silent so that your department chair didn’t get a hair up his ass about having his faculty sign a loyalty oath.

The faculty member, importuned to sign, might well demur on the basis of “objectivity”: that his loyalty had “naught to do with Mistress Shore”, that he was a New Critic, exclusively concerned with determining the meaning of the Poet.

Would Fish defend him? Certainly, he’s designed his strange theory in part to keep the university safe from right-wing takeover in addition to a putsch by some putz of the left like Rancourt in the unlikely event that that professor is ever in a position to mount one. But Fish is strangely silent on universities in the heartland which enforce Christianity such as “Bob” Jones.

No, I’m afraid that in the 1950s, Fish would counsel the academic, bullyragged in turn to sign a loyalty oath, to sign it, zip up, and go along to get along: for objectivity in the real world is overdetermined by schlamperei. Furthermore, under Fish’s employment model of academic work, the state legislature or board of directors has the final say.

I therefore see Fish, in the 1950s, counseling Arthur Miller, like Elia Kazan, to be “sensible”, to be “objective”.

Going back further, I am seeing something else.

Horatio: Where, my lord?
Hamlet: In my mind’s eye, Horatio

I see a 1930s Fish writing even-handed columns about you guessed it…Hitler. Mike Godwin, whom I’ve encountered and bantered with electronically, most notably on a Princeton University Press forum moderated by Cass Sunstein in 2000, may feel that I “converge to Hitler” to rapidly. But if Hitler’s miserable existence is to have any meaning at all, it must be as a negative touchstone of righteousness.

Mister Fish, the university community has to presuppose enough righteousness to allow people of different views to gather, and discuss their views. The “gathering” must not be Heideggerian, one of silent Nordic men who agree on so much they need not say a word as the clutch their pitchforks and torches. The staff members in a joint like Princeton have not only to be smart enough to work with students, they also have to be righteous enough not to want to whore themselves out to Wall Street (at such a time when Wall Street returns from its current degringolade) and work for peanuts.

Try teaching a survey class for a change, Mister Fish. See how much righteousness is needed to be patient with boneheads.

I find no model in Torah or Scripture for the man who is neutral even when paid. I find only the righteous and the wicked.

This just in: Avigdor Lieberman, expected to be named Israeli Foreign Minister by Benjamin Netanyahu, “campaigned on the need for a loyalty oath in Israel so that those who do not support a Jewish democratic state would lose their citizenship” (Ethan Bronner, “After war in Gaza, Israel reaches out to fight widening isolation”, International Herald Tribune 20 March 2009).

What is this objectivity, Mister Fish? Is it so easy to bring about this parousia you seek? And might it not be a bit of distraction from tikkun?



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