Value claims

Stanley Fish argues that advocacy is unavoidable. His argument has a kind of definitional inevitability about it. You know therefore that there’s something wrong with it. In his Times Select (sorry about the firewall for those without NYTimes accounts), he claims that it’s silly to look to eliminate spin from public discourse. Speaking of Unspun, a recent book about spin by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Fish writes:

>But some of their examples suggest that active open-mindedness (even if it could be practiced, and I don’t think it could) may not be enough. The first example in the book of the spin you should be able to see through if you are sufficiently alert is a 2006 statement by Karl Rove to the effect that “Real disposable income has risen almost 14 percent since President Bush took office.” Jackson and Jamieson regard this claim as “so divorced from reality as to seem unhinged.” Why? Because the real disposable income Rove cited “was a statistic that measures the total increase in income, not how that income is distributed.” That is to say, the 14-percent increase did not benefit everyone, but went largely “to those in the upper half of society”; the disposable income of the lower half had “fallen by 3.6 percent.”

>Does this prove spin? I don’t think so. What it proves is that in Rove’s view, the health of the economy is to be gauged by looking at how big investors and property owners are doing, while in Jackson’s and Jamieson’s view, an economy is not healthy unless the fruits of its growth are widely shared. This is a real difference, but it is a difference in beliefs about what conditions must obtain if an economy is to be pronounced healthy. It is not a difference between a clear-eyed view of the matter and a view colored by a partisan agenda. If the question of fact is “do we have a healthy economy?” there are no independent bits of evidence that can tip the scale in favor of a “yes” or “no,” because the evidence put forward by either side will only be evidence in the light of economic beliefs that are structuring the arena of assessment. Those beliefs (roughly, “trickle down” and “spread the wealth”) tell you what the relevant evidence is and what it is evidence of. But they are not judged by the evidence; they generate it.

This smacks of a fairly undergraduate relativism about value claims (which, ironically, few of my undergraduates would hold). Evaluative terminology has an obvious flexibility–but it’s hardly true to lump all such claims into the same category. Economic health is not a matter of taste–some like hotdogs and trickle down economics, others socialism and foie gras. As the authors of the book seem to argue, one ought to be point out that what Rove means by health is at variance with what the listener–or for that matter the majority of mainstream economists–might consider health. So value claims ought to be unspun in front of their likely and incorrect interpretations. If Bush calls occupying a foreign country a “freedom plan,” it ought to be pointed out that it’s an abuse of language to call it “free.” While this is not a matter of simple fact, as Fish seems to imagine the author’s claiming, it is a matter of reasonable judgment.

The depressing thing here though is Fish’s embracing the mode of perpetual advocacy. On this silly view, no one is ever free from advocating his or her point of view–not even Fish, when he talks about advocating a point of view.