No Cheers for Stanley Fish’s Tribal “leftism”

Last month, Stanley Fish wrote a piece on the Limbaugh “slut” controversy for the NYT column called “Campaign Stops: Strong Opinions on the 2012 Elections.” It’s, at least to my mind, a deeply disturbing piece, that reveals a political agenda people like Stephen Hicks have long argued lay behind the pseudo-relativism of post-modern thinkers.

Two Cheers for Double Standards


What is a double standard? It’s a double standard when you condemn an opponent for doing or saying something you would approve or excuse if it were said or done by one of your buddies. The double standard that is in the news these days concerns Rush Limbaugh, who called Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown, a “slut” and “prostitute” because she told Congress that her university’s health plan should cover the cost of contraceptives.

Limbaugh has not had many defenders (Mitt Romney said weakly that he wouldn’t have used that language), but some on the conservative side of the aisle have cried “double standard” because Ed Schultz was only mildly criticized (and suspended for a week) for characterizing Laura Ingraham as a “right-wing slut,” and Bill Maher emerged relatively unscathed after he referred to Michele Bachmann as a “bimbo” and labeled Sarah Palin with words I can’t mention in this newspaper. If you are going to get on your high horse when Limbaugh says something inappropriate, shouldn’t you also mount the steed when commentators on your team say the same kind of thing? Isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

These questions come naturally to those who have been schooled in the political philosophy of enlightenment liberalism. The key move in that philosophy is to shift the emphasis from substantive judgment — is what has been said good and true? — to a requirement of procedural reciprocity — you must treat speakers equally even if you can’t abide what some of them stand for. Basically this is the transposition into the political realm of the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Don’t give your friends a pass you wouldn’t give to your enemies.

So if you come down hard on Limbaugh because he has crossed a line, you must come down hard on Schultz and Maher because they have crossed the same line; and you should do this despite the fact that in general — that is, on all the important issues — you think Schultz and Maher are right and Limbaugh is horribly and maliciously wrong.

These are not so much judgments based on content so much as attributions of venal motives. Limbaugh is “malicious” – i.e., it’s not that he’s wrong, he’s bad. For Fish not to note the shift from content to character, from substance to ad hominem, seems rather sloppy. Presumably he knows the difference.

(Some left-wing commentators have argued that there is a principled way of slamming Limbaugh while letting the other two off the hook, because he went after a private citizen while they were defaming public figures. Won’t wash.)

Interesting that he waves away this option, which is the preferred rationalization among many. I am not particularly impressed with the distinction (everyone’s a public figure here in the sense that they’re weighing in about public policy in the public sphere).

The idea is that in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere in which you can have and vent your prejudices) you should not privilege your own views to the extent that they justify treating those with opposing views unequally and unfairly. (Fairness is the great liberal virtue.) This idea is concisely captured by the philosopher Thomas Nagel when he says that in political life we should regard our most cherished beliefs, “whether moral or religious … simply as someone’s beliefs rather than as truths.” In short, back away from or relax your strongest convictions about what is right and wrong and act in a manner that grants legitimacy, at least of a formal kind, to the convictions of others, even of others you despise.

It’s quite striking how often the gut emotions appear here – “despise…” “malicious…” “can’t abide…” Are political disagreements so visceral for Fish?

But there is an alternative way of looking at the matter and it is represented in a scene (which I have discussed previously in “The Trouble With Principle”) from the classic western movie “The Wild Bunch.” Two outlaws, played by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, are talking about the gang of railroad detectives pursuing them. What rankles is that at the head of the gang is one of their old comrades. Borgnine’s character is dismayed at what he takes to be the treachery of a former colleague. Holden’s character explains that he gave his word to the railroad. Borgnine’s character shoots back, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give your word to.” What counts is who your friends and allies are. You keep your word to them and not just to anybody. Your loyalty is to particular people and not to an abstraction.

This is the classic notion of asabiyya described by Ibn Khaldoun as the highest moral principle: “my side right or wrong.” It is, by modern, civilized standards, a primitive notion associated with tribal warriors, self-help cultures (like the mafia), and patriotism (Gott mit uns). It’s precisely what people so often condemn among Zionists (communautarisme, “Israel-firsters,” “Israel right-or-wrong crowd”). That Fish would invoke it in a moral discussion in a culture based on “whoever is right, my side or not,” is rather astonishing.

The same disdain for choosing principle over family and friends was displayed by the Chicago Mayor Richard. J. Daley when he was accused of nepotism for having steered the city’s insurance business to his son’s agency. Nonplussed, Daley asked (rhetorically), “Isn’t that what fathers are supposed to do, help their children get a start in life?”(“Liberty in America”, by rtbohan, June 18 , 2008).

Precisely. And it’s the act of breaking up “old boy networks” and making way for merit-based promotion that lies at the heart of modern democracies.

Another assertion of the primacy of family loyalty is found in Milton’s “Paradise Lost” when Satan describes himself as a “faithful leader.” The angel Gabriel retorts, “Faithful to whom? To thy rebellious crew? / Army of fiends?” Like Daley and like the character Borgnine plays, Gabriel rejects a notion of fidelity that is indifferent as to its object. Your faith is not binding simply because you have pledged it; it is binding only if it is pledged to the right people. (What counts is who you give your word to.) If you’re going to be faithful, be faithful to the Father who made you and not to a bunch of ungrateful apostates. Obligations are not owed to everyone, but only to those who are of the right sort.

If we think about the Rush Limbaugh dust-up from the non-liberal — that is, non-formal — perspective, the similarity between what he did and what Schultz and Maher did disappears. Schultz and Maher are the good guys; they are on the side of truth and justice. Limbaugh is the bad guy; he is on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy. Why should he get an even break?

This is pretty breathtaking. It illustrates the claim made by “right-wingers” that while the right thinks the left is wrong, the left thinks the right is evil. Schultz and Maher are the good guys? Always? My side right or wrong? Fish acknowledges no requirement to continuously assess claims rather than just adopt the positions espoused by “my side”?

There is no answer to that question once you step outside of the liberal calculus in which all persons, no matter what their moral status as you see it, are weighed in an equal balance.

And on what basis do you take that step? How can you call the liberals and progressive “good guys” even as you dump the principles that make liberalism strong?

Rather than relaxing or soft-pedaling your convictions about what is right and wrong, stay with them, and treat people you see as morally different differently.

Now we get into matters of faith (or what Maher might call religulosity). The whole point about reaching moral convictions is weighing arguments. The idea that once we’ve come to a conclusion, we should then close the gates and rally round the flag is breathtakingly regressive. What human being on the planet is sure that he/she (and his/her associates) are always right? This is just the kind of flakey thinking that produced the fellow travelers who defended mass murderers. Hitler’s bad; but Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot…. they’re trying to do the right thing.

Condemn Limbaugh and say that Schultz and Maher may have gone a bit too far but that they’re basically O.K. If you do that you will not be displaying a double standard; you will be affirming a single standard, and moreover it will be a moral one because you will be going with what you think is good rather than what you think is fair. “Fair” is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.

On the contrary, giving up on fair, gives up on the permanent demand to examine and re-evaluate. It rushes to stereotypical judgments based on prejudice. It not only doesn’t adopt the “who are we to judge?” meme so popular among the “good guys” that Fish admires, it rushes to judgment.

Fairness is a profound moral value precisely because it involves a fundamental commitment to exegetical modesty, an ongoing admission that as much as we believe we are coming to the right conclusion, doing the right thing, we may be mistaken, and the basic respect for our fellow citizens demands that we listen to them with the same respect we would like them to listen to us. Anyone who dumps this under the impression that they don’t need opposition reveals a level of ego inflation that should disturb everyone around them.

Replacing “moral” for “fair” shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the principles behind fairness. It is, in some deeply disturbing ways, a form of McCarthyism in which “we” can do all kinds of things that “they” cannot because “we” know that “we” are the good guys and “they” are the bad guys.

I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of contested points of view. It substitutes for the rule “don’t do it to them if you don’t want it done to you” the rule “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.

Wow. Who could ask for a better illustration of the devastating thesis articulated by Stephen Hicks in Explaining Postmodernism: the “relativism” of the post-modernists is actually a mask for the politics of a subversive left. Who could ask for a better illustration of how easy it is for groups who, when in the minority, plead for fairness, but when feeling powerful, drop the pretense and go with power politics? Actually, isn’t that what the bien-pensant “left” always accuses Zionist Jews of doing?

This is just the kind of thinking that led so many “beautiful French souls” to come to the defense of Charles Enderlin even when his colossal error in judgment became public: “he’s one of ‘us’, one of the good guys.” It’s also what just happened to George Zimmerman, the “white hispanic” whom the MSNM decided was one of the bad guys and about whom they had no hesitation “shaping” the evidence.

If you have a problem imagining how the media (or academia) could have become populated by people willing lie, cheat, and distort for the sake of (what they believe is) a good cause, start right here for reconsideration.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this column is where it appears: Campaign Stops. In a sense it’s a charter for a biased coverage of the campaign, especially at the NYT. “Obama’s the good guy; Romney’s the bad guy. Why on earth should we, the journalists and pundits, play fair? We didn’t last time; why should we this time?”

But in the still larger picture, it’s a further deterioration into a culture war we cannot afford. The difference between Limbaugh and Maher may seem huge to some, but it pales in comparison with the nature of our real enemies. For liberal good guys (“us”) to declare war on the right-wing bad guys (“them”) — Limbaugh, Palin, Netanyahu — while claiming that such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood or individuals as Mahmoud Abbas are “moderate,” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on.

I can’t live with this, and if Stanley Fish had intellectual integrity, he would feel ashamed. But I guess, as long as his peer group keeps patting him on the back, he has honor, even if it is rooted in shamelessness. Might makes right, but a very brittle kind.

3 Responses to No Cheers for Stanley Fish’s Tribal “leftism”

  1. jacob arnon says:

    I am no relativist, but in this instant I agree with Fish.

    • David Prohofsky says:

      That was hilarious. Fish isn’t a relativist either – relativism requires actually weighing the relative merits.

  2. Paul Rubino says:

    “These are not so much judgments based on content so much as attributions of venal motives. Limbaugh is “malicious” – i.e., it’s not that he’s wrong, he’s bad. For Fish not to note the shift from content to character, from substance to ad hominem, seems rather sloppy. Presumably he knows the difference.”

    So we come full circle. Then Maher et all have to be considered malicious as their attacks are ad hominem as well.

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