Cartoon liberalism

Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida International University, illustrates a logical confusion as fundamental and pervasive as it is difficult to identify. In short, Professor Fish confuses the way a belief is held by some people with the logical character of that belief. Take the following, for instance.

>Mr. Rose may think of himself, as most journalists do, as being neutral with respect to religion — he is not speaking as a Jew or a Christian or an atheist — but in fact he is an adherent of the religion of letting it all hang out, the religion we call liberalism.

>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. This is managed by the familiar distinction — implied in the First Amendment’s religion clause — between the public and private spheres. It is in the private sphere — the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship — that one’s religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.

Here Fish is speaking of the attitude of Westerners to the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published recently in Denmark. There seem to be two basic confusions. First, Fish confuses the *political* neutrality of liberalism toward different kinds of metaphysical or theological claims with the *psychological* neutrality of individuals who affirm one or other (and there are many indeed) variation on liberalism. Individuals who embrace one or other of the liberal views caricatured by Professor Fish may do so as if it were a religion, but that doesn’t mean that the view is a religion–a religion, that is, of the sort characterized by liberalism.

Second, Fish employs the surprisingly amateur anti-liberal device of calling any recommendation for action, qua recommendation for action, a moral claim.

>This is itself a morality — the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.

It’s vacuous to assert that all systems involving beliefs and actions are of the same logical order. If all action-inducing claims are moral claims, then none of them are. Liberals, of all stripes, consider this distinction between controversial moral claims and political structures to be the aim of their many and varied arguments for the superiority of their view. They may be wrong. But they’re wrong on the merits of their arguments, not because, as Fish alleges, they don’t have an argument.

6 thoughts on “Cartoon liberalism”

  1. Fish is overly generalizing the action-guiding role of morality. Morality is related to the specifically moral emotions of guilt and resentment, and need not apply to activities based on, say, irony or exuberance, etc. I’m not sure what you mean by “psychologically neutral,” but I see your point about the need to distinguish moral thought or action from other kinds of thought and action. I feel this distinction is tied to the relevant emotions that are occurring while the action is being pondered or performed.

  2. I agree that Professor Fish is a bit confused.

    But I think his confusion arises rather earlier than noted here.

    Fish has assumed a premise with respect to “liberalism” that appears most questionable to me.

    It has never been my impression that liberalism requires expression at all costs.

    In fact, I would cite as authority for this the common law, which has developed its concepts related to freedom of expression over a couple centuries now. I believe the common law in the USA to be one of the best exemplars of what liberalism actually is, for the purpose, the very soul of common law is to protect, foster, even encourage liberty.

    Let us call what the editor did what it was: an ill-advised, unwise, even foolish exercise of freedom of the press. While one presumably would not favor restrictions on the rights of editors to act in bad taste, or to act as fools, only if it had been reasonably forseeable to the editor that his actions would be the proximate cause of violence and death should any question arise as to his freedom of expression.

    Since it has been alleged that a well-orchestrated campaign, or road show, was organized by clerics and government intelligence agents for Syria and Iran, it may be that the reaction could not have been reasonably forseeable.

    That said, it still appears to me the editor lacked good judgment and taste in fashioning his project and in choosing to publish the results.

    As for Prof Fish — I’d simply throw him back.

  3. After re-reading the article, I see another problem with Fish’s argument. He uncharitably asserts that a liberal would never fight to the death for a principle, namely because he assumes that liberals have no principles, other than “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law (because none of us give a shit about anything anyway).”

    Perhaps Fish is taking relativism a little more seriously than he would like to admit. It “makes sense that” Islamic protestors are angry about the Danish cartoons, however, it doesn’t “make sense for” them to be as angry as they are (i.e. burning and destroying embassies). The “making sense that” someone reacted in a certain way is an objective judgment given knowledge of Islamic rules and beliefs.

    However, that doesn’t make these rules and beliefs reasonable, so it doesn’t “make sense for” the protestors to react in the manner that they did. This part is a subjective claim by me, and presumably many liberals, who take as a presupposition that an insult doesn’t warrant arson. This pressuposition smacks to me of some sort of action-guiding principle, even if its not necessarily a strictly moral prescription.

    Rather than boiling down his argument to a maxim of cultural sensitivity (as Dr. Fish must surely avoid for fear of being a liberal), Dr. Fish attacks the nature of liberalism itself by asserting that it has no moral principles, and yet is a moral system (which he calls the “liberal religion”). This is, as Dr. Casey’s already remarked, a “vacuous claim.” The difference between religious zeal and liberal permissiveness is the way one would go about justifying principles. The religious zealot accepts the law as given, while the liberal questions and ultimately makes the law.

    There is a difference in content between philosophy and theology.

  4. The debate over “liberal” versus “conservative” long ago became quite tiresome.

    I think it all can be boiled down quite simply to a fundamental conflict: A conservative, by his very nature, is bound to defend established privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege. The essence of the liberal position, however, is the denial of all privilege, if privilege is understood in its proper and original meaning of the state granting and protecting rights to some that are not available on equal terms to others.

    To protect their privilege, including the ability to plunge into self-dealing while ignoring certain Constitutional rights or legal requirements as inconvenient using the mask of national security, conservatives find it convenient to smear all concepts of liberalism, classical as well as what passes for it these days. In doing so, they assassinate their own credibility.

    So where does it start?

    According to Aristotle, “of all the varieties of virtues, liberalism is the most beloved.”

    At least in the 19th century, according to William E. Gladstone, “Liberalism [was] trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism [was] distrust of the people tempered by fear.”

    You will find Gladstone’s premise in various works describing this ageless conflict characterizing even the conflict of Pericles and Thucydides.

    More recently, in a witticism made more painfully relevant in the wake of the Abramoff era, Mort Sahl presciently quipped: “Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.”

    My favorite saying, however, is something Phil Ochs said: “Does defending liberalism leave you friendless and perhaps wondering about your breath?”

    Whatever could they be on about?

    When used as an adjective, the word “liberal” means not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry. A “Liberal” favors proposals for reform, is open to new ideas for progress, and is tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; a “Liberal” is broad-minded

    As the Wikipedia so helpfully notes, stick the “ism” onto it, and “Liberalism” is a kind of “political thought, which holds liberty as the primary political value.[1] Liberalism seeks a society characterized by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on the power of government and religion, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a free market economy that supports private enterprise, and a system of government that is transparent. This form of government favors liberal democracy with open and fair elections, where all citizens have equal rights by law, and an equal opportunity to succeed.”

    How you get from this to the various characterizations by so-called “conservatives” is quite beyond me. Perhaps Ambrose Bierce started it when he said: “Conservative: a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

    Today, it would appear so-called “conservatives” merely feel threatened by so-called “liberals.” So they exaggerate most absurdly the “liberal” side of things. The essence of the conservative complaint was nicely put by Willis Player, who said: “A liberal is someone whose interests aren’t at stake at the moment.”

    This reduces the “conservative” complaint to something Thomas Sowell characterized and which in altered form I believe to be true of most who today call themselves “conservatives”: “The problem isn’t that [conservatives] can’t read. The problem isn’t even that [conservatives] can’t think. The problem is that [coinservatives] don’t know what thinking is; [they] confuse it with feeling.” That appears to be Dr. Fish’s problem, as well.

    Today’s conservatives are really populist authoritarians. They might be surprised by their similarity to those like them in other eras, especially post-Weimar Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. But that might require them to read and understand something of history. Today’s “conservatives” I think you will find, do not read or think anything: they feel and believe things.

    I say this due to the clear difference between that political philosophy with which I identify myself and these “conservatives” who so blindly swear fealty to the arbitrary, capricious, and lawless swaggering of the present Administration and their ilk. Whereas those in authority apparently can do no wrong, even if it means outsourcing torture or manufacturing intelligence falsely to link an attack on the United States to Iraq, I hold with those who oppose in all its forms the exercise of arbitrary coercion in the name of the people.

    I, along with my namesake, believe that the “rule of law” is not embedded in the arbitrary exercise of authority by men, but that the “rule of law” exists independent of men as the living body of principle by which the governed give their consent to those who govern.

    So often one finds “liberals” accused of having “perverted” classical liberalism. Yet that shoe seems to me to be on the other foot and it is so-called “conservatives” who have betrayed and perverted their own classical roots and morphed them into a simulacrum of Benito Mussolini’s pathetic, corrupt and doomed Corporatism.

  5. I have a different take on the Fish article than Dr. Casey. Fish is basically arguing from the perspective of a postmodern critique of the putative universality of Enlightenment reason and the supposed neutrality of modern liberal society (specifically the separation between Church and State). I am personally persuaded by the argument that modern liberal society does rest on various exclusions and therefore is not neutral. In other words, its a hegemonic formation, not a natural one. However, Fish undercuts this argument by defining liberalism in terms of an apathetic and an uncritically permissive attitude. His appeal to this tired old platitude leveled against liberal society by religious conservatives does not help his overall argument. Against this I would argue that a postmodern acknowledgment of the hegemonic, and therefore contingent character of liberalism encourages efforts passionately to defend liberal values in the face of fundamentalist opposition.

  6. I think Jem’s comment on Fish “taking relativism more seriously than he thinks” is precisely what is at issue in this piece. One need only look to Fish’s career to see this in practice. He spends the first part of his career insisting on the instability of texts and the openess of literary interpretation, then spends the later half “arguing” against liberalism and/or relativism, which would seem a striking contrast. Fish, however, in this piece as in his entire career, is maddeningly inconsistent and will likely remain so–so while he writes in criticism of liberalism, he actually lends it extra creedence by elevating it to the moral realm. I have known Fish’s writings to be incessantly proleptic; he is constantly anticipating the arguments of his detractors, often to too great a degree, as I think he has done here. It’s good to see someone actually opening up Fish’s writings. If anyone is a glutton for punishment, check out his book on reader-response criticism, “Is There A Text In This Class?” It is quintessentially Fish.

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