Fish on religion and liberalism

I think Stanley Fish doesn’t understand either liberalism or religion. He writes (behind the Times firewall):

>First of all, I stipulate to the usefulness of teaching the bible as an aid to the study of literature and history. I’m just saying that when you do that you are teaching religion as a pedagogical resource, not as a distinctive discourse the truth or falsehood of which is a matter of salvation for its adherents. One can of course teach that too; one can, that is, get students to understand that at least some believers hold to their faith in a way that is absolute and exclusionary; in their view nonbelievers have not merely made a mistake – as one might be mistaken about the causes of global warming – they have condemned themselves to eternal perdition. (“I am the way.”) What one cannot do – at least under the liberal democratic dispensation – is teach that assertion of an exclusive and absolute truth as anything but someone’s opinion; and in many classes that opinion will be rehearsed with at best a sympathetic condescension (“let’s hope they grow out of it”) and at worst a condemning ridicule (“even in this day and age, there are benighted people”).

In the first place (as we noted in an earlier post), there’s nothing incoherent about studying the body of propositions that compose any particular religious doctrine without embracing their truth. For instance, Fish has made the doctrine and the seriousness with which its adherents believe it without making us affirm it. If what he said about religion were true–you cannot teach it–then he couldn’t talk about why you can’t. Since you can–he has–then what he says is false.

Second, the Rawlsian liberal will point out that there is no absolute truth when it comes to matters of foundational questions of justice and political structure. This is quite a different claim from that which says there is no absolute truth at all. Liberals are not relativists, as Fish seems to think. There is of course plenty of absolute truth possible in matters empirical. These may inform, but do not form the basis of, our conception of justice. So in the end, no controversial system of value can serve as the basis of a political structure.


On the subject of science and evolution, Matthew C. Nisbet and Chris Mooney write in the Washington Post:

>Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. More than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, after all, and many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears — baseless though they may be — but lends them an exclamation point.

For the record, Nisbet and Mooney do not disagree with evolution (and other matters of science fact), they’re simply arguing that scientists need to do a better job of convincing a skeptical public of the truth or the likely truth of their claims. It’s not a surprise that they need to, as even very well educated people hold all sorts of crazy views. Some deny the Holocaust, some insist on the presence of Martians in our governments, others insist that 9/11 was an inside job. The blame here does not lie with scientists. Scientists have their job to do collecting facts, making hypotheses and theories, curing disease and so forth. If the rest of us cannot interpret that, it’s our problem not theirs.

While the authors of the article correctly point out the woeful state of science education as a partial cause of this embarrassing phenomenon, we’d like to suggest that even the best educations and most well-educated people are not free from bone-headedness when it comes to facts. Someone has to be responsible.

But a brief tour of op-ed pages around the country will reveal an impoverished national discourse (just tour our archives). People who deny on no grounds or on superficially skeptical grounds the claims of well established science are given a national forum to disseminate their views. And journalists succumb to some crazy conception of balance when it comes to stories about charged topics such as evolution and global warming–airing both sides as if the truth were a matter of pure opinion. On the one side you have scientists with facts and arguments and tables and charts, on the other, a reverend with a biblical text. What is the public to think when the views of the unqualified global warming skeptic have the same forum as the consensus of qualified climatologists?

The best scientists can do is repeat their facts. They cannot explain their significance. Most of all, however, they cannot explain the significance of having evidence for your beliefs. That’s a job for philosophers.

On the attack. . .

It’s perpetually entertaining to me when writers for argumentative partisan publications fail to understand or appreciate the basic idea of an argument. An argument, as any freshman in philosophy 101 knows, is a series of statement meant to establish some other statement. Rational people make them in order either to convince themselves or others of some proposition. Arguments constitute the very basis of rational discourse between people of differing viewpoints. When those fail, the chanting can begin.

Take these two examples from two National Review Online writers. Cliff May complains:

>I enjoy a good debate as much as the next guy but, increasingly, the next guy doesn’t want to argue — he wants to demonize me. He doesn’t want to win the debate; he wants to shut it down.

>Whether the topic is global warming or Saddam Hussein’s links to terrorists, daring to contradict the “consensus” brings hoots and hollers and worse. My most recent experience with such intolerance of diversity of opinion may be instructive.

He then goes on to point out an instance in which Glenn Greenwald argued with him–I mean, “went on the attack”:

>Glenn Greenwald, at the online magazine Salon, went on the attack — but what he had to say was oddly non-responsive to my question. To establish that the voters’ message in November had been “Get out of Iraq!” would require showing that candidates, particularly in competitive races, had pledged to support what Greenwald calls a “Congressionally compelled withdrawal of troops from Iraq by a date certain.”

And it continues. But it’s obvious that the evidence May gathers for people not wanting to argue makes exactly the opposite point. May didn’t argue anything. He asserted some claim that was challenged by someone else. That’s what an argument is. He’s not attacking you, he’s questioning whether what you say is true. The difference ought to be clear.

The second item comes from Jonah Goldberg, writing for National Review Online as well. He writes:

>I try not to let the lefty piling-on of late bug me. But that doesn’t mean it’s not nice to have someone stick up for me every now and then. So many thanks to Steve Burton over at Right Reason for recognizing that, whatever my faults, there is something like a Goldberg Derangement Syndrome out there (as one reader puts it).

As May points out in his piece, some people (an emailer in his case–nutpicking again) won’t engage. But many do. And it’s wrong to lump all of your critics in the same group. Learn to tell the difference.


“. . . Allobrogum, qui nuper pacificati erant. . . .” (The Allobroges, who had only recently been pacified. . . ” That was Caesar (B.G. I.6). Now Charles Krauthammer, speaking of progress in Iraq:

>The situation in Baghdad is more mixed. Yesterday’s bridge and Green Zone attacks show the insurgents’ ability to bomb sensitive sites. On the other hand, pacification is proceeding. “Nowhere is safe for Westerners to linger,” ABC’s Terry McCarthy reported on April 3. “But over the past week we visited five different neighborhoods where the locals told us life is slowly coming back to normal.” He reported from Jadriyah, Karrada, Zayouna, Zawra Park and the notorious Haifa Street, previously known as “sniper alley.” He found that “children have come out to play again. Shoppers are back in markets,” and he concluded that “nobody knows if this small safe zone will expand or get swallowed up again by violence. For the time being though, people here are happy to enjoy a life that looks almost normal.”

At least Caesar had a flair for Irony, the second casualty of war.

Little things

Earlier this week Paul Krugman wrote about the rhetorical effectiveness of spreading little falsehoods. These little lies, as he called them, get repeated over and over again first by the irresponsible media (Drudge, talk radio, Hannity, and so on), then they work their way up to Howard Kurtz and various other mainstream outlets, who take them or their authors seriously. It’s not of course only a right wing thing–just ask Bob Somerby or Glenn Greenwald. These little falsehoods take various forms. The most obvious is the malicious fabrication (e.g., recent inventions about Nancy Pelosi). Less obvious is the subtle or not so subtle distortion of views you don’t agree with. Those are the little lies George Will tells. Today, for instance, he returns to the theme of global warming (which he insists on calling climate change, despite the propangandistic origin of this phrase). The article is a Summa of all of Will’s recent climatic confusions, so it might take a while. So for today we’ll just comment on this:

>In a campaign without peacetime precedent, the media-entertainment-environmental complex is warning about global warming. Never, other than during the two world wars, has there been such a concerted effort by opinion-forming institutions to indoctrinate Americans, 83 percent of whom now call global warming a ” serious problem.” Indoctrination is supposed to be a predicate for action commensurate with professions of seriousness.

What are “opinion-forming institutions”? Are they the kind–like right wing talk radio or the Post editorial page–that endeavor to produce loud and sometimes false opinions about political questions? Or are they the ones (like universities) that produce what sometimes get called, true opinions with a logos–i.e., knowledge–about the world around us? Not all opinion-forming institutions, in other words, are the same; if so, parents can save a lot of money by sending their kids to Rush Limbaugh University. Aside from the sneering stupidity of the remark about the “entertainment-environmental complex” (this from a man, mind you, who takes a science-fiction novel (by a Hollywood producer) about global warming to be scientific evidence on par with the consensus of credentialed climatologists), we’d also wonder what “indoctrinate” (used twice here) means. One usually uses such terms in order to stress the value-laden character of the views being taught. Rarely would one use it to describe the process of informing someone of some other other fact about the world. Some call that “teaching.”


Richard Cohen, liberal pundit, has examined the evidence and concluded that Monica Goodling is not a criminal:

>In the end, though, some thought has to be given to why Monica Goodling feels obligated to take the Fifth rather than merely telling Congress what happened in the AG’s office. She’s no criminal — but what could happen to her surely is.

That’s not good news for Goodling. For according to Cohen, neither was Scooter Libby:

>No lawyer is going to be thrilled about letting a client testify in today’s political environment. Remember, please, that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was not convicted of the crime that the special prosecutor was appointed to find — who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame — but of lying to a grand jury. In fact, the compulsively compulsive Patrick Fitzgerald not only knew early on who the leaker was but also that no law had been violated. No matter. Fitzgerald valiantly persisted, jailing Judith Miller of the New York Times for refusing to reveal her sources and, in the end, nailing Libby. It was a magnificent victory, proving once again that there is nothing more dangerous to the republic than a special prosecutor with money to spend.


The fallacy (it’s not really a fallacy) of “there are good arguments on both sides,” which is an affirmative variant of “both sides do bad things. . . ” is emblematic of certain liberal columnists–such as Richard Cohen and E.J. Dionne. Dionne writes:

>It’s true that religious Christians were among those who persecuted Jews. It is also true that religious Christians were among those who rescued Jews from these most un-Christian acts. And it is a sad fact that secular forms of dogmatism have been at least as murderous as the religious kind.

Much of that religious violence against Jews the first sentence speaks about was, by the way, Christian in origin, inspiration, and motivation; so it’s wrong to call them “un-Christian.” Aside from that, it seems hardly correct to speak of Christianity in the first sentence and then religion in general in the second. Dionne continues:

>What’s really bothersome is the suggestion that believers rarely question themselves while atheists ask all the hard questions. But as Novak argued — in one of the best critiques of neo-atheism — in the March 19 issue of National Review, “Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.” (These questions get a fair reading in another powerful commentary on neo-atheism by James Wood, himself an atheist, in the Dec. 18 issue of the New Republic.) “Christianity is not about moral arrogance,” Novak insists. “It is about moral realism, and moral humility.” Of course Christians in practice often fail to live up to this elevated definition of their creed. But atheists are capable of their own forms of arrogance. Indeed, if arrogance were the only criterion, the contest could well come out a tie.

And so “the pox on both your houses”: Christians, like the ones in the White House, are supremely arrogant, they attempt to codify ignorance of well established scientific, medical and philosophical practice. But Atheists can be arrogant too. Sure, no question. But Dionne ought to know that atheists do not constitute a large enough party to silence the Christian majority (so you can’t call it a tie). And furthermore, the “questions” at issue are different. Some Christians and many atheists ask the hard questions about knowledge and morality (I’m thinking of Aristotle and Kant, for instance, whose moral theories are not founded on divine command, but I’m sure you can think of others). Everyone seems arrogant in these matters. But we belittle the fundamental importance of intellectual engagement when, like Dionne, we obsess over who gives the appearance of certainty in matters of metaphysics and morals.

Crazy talk

If I’m not mistaken, the last time we undid a regime it didn’t turn out so well. Never mind, though, the cheerleaders of that fiasco have a new idea:

>It is undeniable that the U.S., without either invading or suffering many casualties, could use its air power to send the Iranian economy and military back to the mullahs’ cherished 7th Century. But there is no need to do so.

>Instead, if the EU would cease all its trade with Iran, and if the West would divest entirely from the country — that is, boycott all companies that do any business with Tehran — the theocracy would face bankruptcy within months.

>Even if further escalation were warranted, we could at some future date enforce a naval blockade of the Iranian coast that alone would determine what goods would be allowed into this outlaw regime.

>But bomb Iran?

>For now, we should try as hard to avoid it as these desperate clerics seem to want it.

Economic sanctions strengthened Saddam’s grip on power, and, invading his country in order to punish him succeeded in eliminating him, but greatly strengthened Iran. The last conclusion one could draw from these indisputable facts is that we should seek further antagonism.

Three part invention

I can only be bothered to come up with three. There are many many more problems with this abysmal piece by George Will today. While it does make sense to adjust gas prices for inflation, the rest of his conclusions show a manifest ignorance about the nature of the energy problem and a reprehensible tendency to ridicule anyone who takes it seriously.

Here’s the first part:

>The next wave of stories about “soaring” gas prices will predictably trigger some politicians’ indignation about oil companies’ profits. The day after Exxon Mobil’s announcement that it earned $39.5 billion in 2006, Hillary Clinton said: “I want to take those profits, and I want to put them into a strategic energy fund that will begin to fund alternative smart energy, alternatives and technologies that will begin to actually move us toward the direction of independence.”

Here’s the second:

>Clinton’s “take” reveals her confiscatory itch. Her clunky “toward the direction of” suggests that she actually knows that independence is as chimerical a goal as Soviet grain production goals were.

The third:

>America produces about one-quarter of the 20.6 million barrels of oil it uses a day. Unfortunately, just as liberals love employees but not employers, they want energy independence but do not want to drill in the “pristine” (read: desolate) Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ( potential yield: 10.4 billion barrels) and are reluctant to countenance drilling offshore.

Read the rest. There’s more.