Scent of a herring

Stanley Fish weighs in on all the chatter about "political indoctrination" at American Universities.

Once again, the question is how many of them are there? Anne Neal, president of the conservative watchdog group the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, asks that question on camera, and answers it by reporting that in a survey of students a “significant percentage…complained that politics was being introduced in the classroom” and 42 percent “said their book lists were one sided.”

Here again there’s the part we should take seriously and the red-herring or fake-issue part. Book lists take their shape from the instructor’s judgment that a particular text is important to the area of inquiry. There is no reason – at least no pedagogical reason – to demand that a book list contain representatives of every approach out there. The judgment that a list is “one sided” is a political not an academic judgment (and the fact that students are making it makes it even more suspect), and enforcing it, as some state legislatures now want to do, would be a blatantly political act.

But then there’s the part we should take seriously: professors who use the classroom as a stage for their political views. Maloney speculates that perhaps one out of seven perform in this way. I would put the number much lower, perhaps one out of twenty-five. But one out of 10,000 would be one too many.

This kind of crap makes academics bristle. We’re paid, believe it or not, to have well-grounded views on things within the purview of our expertise. For some of us, that expertise includes knowing what makes a view well grounded. It is inevitable, therefore, that professors (even those in the humanities) will pronounce on "political" questions.

The more important thing to remember, however, is what one letter writer to the New York Times said (in reference to some David Brooks’ griping about leftist academics): If I could only indoctrinate my students to do the reading, proofread their papers, and show up to class on time, I’d consider myself a success.


George Will loves to use the word “traduce.” It’s one of those words that sounds real smart, but in the end just conceals the absence of actual reasoning:

>In 1943, the Supreme Court, affirming the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses children to refuse to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag in schools, declared: “No official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” Today that principle is routinely traduced, coast to coast, by officials who are petty in several senses.

>They are teachers at public universities, in schools of social work. A study prepared by the National Association of Scholars, a group that combats political correctness on campuses, reviews social work education programs at 10 major public universities and comes to this conclusion: Such programs mandate an ideological orthodoxy to which students must subscribe concerning “social justice” and “oppression.”

Teachers at public universities are not “officials” in the same sense as those enforcing the saying of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” At best, they are officials enforcing “orthodoxy” in a very extended and analogous sense.

The real presumption of this piece, however, consists in Will’s sneering (always sneering he is) and ironic dismissal of social work. He doesn’t think, so it appears, that social work rises above the level of shallow opinion-mongering–the kind that gets protected by the First Amendment. He writes:

>In 1997, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) adopted a surreptitious political agenda in the form of a new code of ethics, enjoining social workers to advocate for social justice “from local to global levels.” A widely used textbook — “Direct Social Work Practice: Theory and Skill” — declares that promoting “social and economic justice” is especially imperative as a response to “the conservative trends of the past three decades.” Clearly, in the social work profession’s catechism, whatever social and economic justice are, they are the opposite of conservatism.

If it’s so clear, then he wouldn’t need to say clearly. It isn’t clear. And it’s only a textbook. A textbook, as a professor who employs them can attest, isn’t some kind of set of beliefs to which one must subscribe and whose contents one must slavishly and mindlessly repeat. The study of any discipline, as Will seems to think, doesn’t consist in the inculcation of doctrinal maxims–anecdotal evidence (as Will goes on to offer) doesn’t establish that fact.

Besides, social work, on account of its “social” work, stands in marked contrast in its orientation and objective from every single one of George Will’s conservative ideological principles. But that fact alone does not, as Will seems to think, mean its equally unjustified and ideological.

Ad puerum

Every now and then E.J.Dionne puts up his dukes. This time it concerns the slime campaign against the 12-year old Graeme Frost, a boy who had the misfortune to qualify for Maryland’s SCHIP program (an expanded version of which Bush vetoed). The young Mr. Frost, who benefited from the SCHIP program after a serious car accident (and brain stem injury) delivered the Democratic response to Bush’s veto. In response to this, many mainstream–and this is an important classification–conservative personalities attacked young Mr.Frost and his parents, claiming they were undeserving of such federal benefits (among much else).

>So rather than just condemn the right-wingers as meanies, let’s take their claims seriously. Doing so makes clear that they are engaged in a perverse and incoherent form of class warfare.

>The left is accused of all manner of sins related to covetousness and envy whenever it raises questions about who benefits from Bush’s tax cuts and mentions the yachts such folks might buy or the mansions they might own. But here is a family with modest possessions doing everything conservatives tell people they should do, and the right trashes them for getting help to buy health insurance for their children.

>Most conservatives favor government-supported vouchers that would help Graeme attend his private school, but here they turn around and criticize him for . . . attending a private school. Federal money for private schools but not for health insurance? What’s the logic here?

There isn’t any.

Absolute conviction

Michael Gerson, confused moralist, writes:

>The unavoidable problem is this: Without moral absolutes, there is no way to determine which traditions are worth preserving and which should be overturned. Conservatism assumes and depends on an objective measure of right and wrong that skepticism cannot provide. Without a firm moral conviction that independence is superior to servitude, that freedom is superior to slavery, that the weak deserve special care and protection, the habit of conservatism is radically incomplete. In the absence of elevating ideals, it can become pessimistic and unambitious — a morally indifferent preference for the status quo.

Whatever one’s view of conservatism, skepticism isn’t opposed to it. Skepticism is a theory which concerns the possibility of knowledge; conservatism seems (seems because I can’t figure it out from what Gerson says) is a theory about the best way to organize states. I might also point out that the existence of moral absolutes is independent of “absolute” or “firm” moral convictions. One can certainly have the latter without the former. Furthermore, the claim that between “skepticism” and “moral absolutes” is complete hogwash. This reminds me of something a wise old sage wrote:

>Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

Why does Gerson write such jibberish? It’s the moral absolutism of the “democracy agenda” (not the one with the torture and the undermining of civil liberties, of course, but the fantasy one:

>And the democracy agenda goes a step further. It argues that the most basic human rights will remain insecure as long as they are a gift or concession of the state — that natural rights must ultimately be protected by self-government. And this ideology asserts that most people in all places, even the poor and oppressed, are capable of controlling their own affairs and determining their own rulers. If this abstract argument seems familiar, it should, because it is the argument of the American founding.

There is a collision here between the ethical and the meta-ethical. The nature of the rights we have (whether they are gifts from God or not) is a separate question from what they are and how they might be guaranteed. Governments and laws are uniquely able to guarantee rights, but no one who advocates that position must at the same time claim they are “gifts or concessions” of the government. There are many morally absolute theories of rights, and not all of them are Divine command theories. Regardless of that, governments and laws are necessary for their being enforced–the security of our rights is there, unfortunately. Recognizing (even if it were the case) that all of our rights are God-given doesn’t make them any more secure than if we claim they rely on the Constitution. Their security, in other words, doesn’t have much to do with their ultimate foundation (whether it’s reason, God, God’s God, or contract).


I think newspaper editors across the globe ought to get together and ban the following kind of argument pattern, much as they would any insistence on violating the rules of subject-verb agreement:

>They’re the guys who, in the words of leftist commentator and blogger Matthew Yglesias, “believe that America should coercively dominate the world through military force” and “believe in a dogmatic form of American exceptionalism” and “favor the creation of a U.S.-dominated ‘universal empire.’ ”

>But the term, in these Walt-Mearsheimered days, often denotes more than that. Neocon, for many, has become shorthand for neocon-Zionist conspiracy, whatever that may be, although probably involving some combination of plans to exploit Iraqi oil, bomb Iran and apply U.S. power to Israel’s benefit.

What you have is the basic bait and switch typical of all fallacies of relevance. You start out with a serious issue (the undisputed shortcomings of a certain kind of foreign policy position), then you switch from that argument to the claims of people you imagine on the fringe who say mean things about other people. In the above passage, the first paragraph refers to things neo-cons actually believe. They’re silly enough as it is. Hardly anyone would need to turn them into straw men in order to criticize them.

The second paragraph, however, changes matters somewhat. First, it turns someone’s name into a smear. Walt Mearsheimer is a real person with a real argument. He deserves a little more than sneering dismissal. After this, Cohen mentions that there are critiques of neo-conservatism he finds silly, without, however, actually saying why, other than to imply they’re somehow racist. Nor does he even say who makes them; he relies on the foxly newsy “some say” device.

So here’s the pattern: You set up a straw man in order to make an ad hominem argument. The arguments against neo-cons are often silly chants invented by the socialist club (the straw man). And now the ad hominem: they’re kind of, like, racist, because they sound like Zionist conspiracy type theories.

In addition to the fact that the neocon arguments often appear themselves to be straw men (let’s bomb Iran, hell, it worked in Iraq), Cohen ought to spend his 750 words on something other than picking on straw racists.


Harold Meyerson points out what many would consider obvious:

>Just outside our nation’s capital, in affluent Montgomery and Fairfax counties, they still build public schools when the number of school-age children rises above the number that the existing schools can accommodate. Beyond question, there are parents in Fairfax and Montgomery who could easily afford to send their kids to private schools but who send them nonetheless to the excellent public schools in their neighborhoods . They thus increase government spending and withhold revenue from the private-school industry, but I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. A free public education is a right, or, if you prefer, an entitlement in America, because the nation long ago decided that an educated population is a national good.

Of course many wouldn’t consider it obvious, say, for instance, George Will:

>Unless facts are allowed to intrude, in which case it will be pointed out that what the Democrats are doing is taking a program aimed at poor children and turning it into a huge ever-expanding middle class entitlement program for, if Governor Spitzer in New York has his way, people, children up to say 25 years old from households with incomes of $82,000. Now, the guy sitting next to you at the bar at the plaza with a mustache sipping a vodka martini may be on that program for poor children.

Outside of knee jerk conservatism (“I don’t trust nothing new”), what principle could one invoke for offering school equally and to all (in principle–no bad school complaints please) but not health, the more basic and necessary condition for vigorous democratic and economic participation? But rather than thinking of reasons not to offer that particular (to my mind) obvious and rational “entitlement” (which is a silly word), can anyone think of another “entitlement” Meyerson’s principle could be understood to justify?

Hard work

I wonder what Eugene Robinson could mean by this:

>There are, as he ought to know, plenty of black conservatives. There are plenty of African American parents teaching their children the same lessons of hard work and self-reliance that Thomas’s grandfather taught him. The black church, I would argue, is one of the more socially conservative major institutions in the nation.

“Hard work” and “self-reliance” are uniquely conservative values? Frank Luntz couldn’t have said it better.