Monday, March 19, 2012


"Obligations are not owed to everyone, but only to those who are of the right sort."

There's a baseball term which describes a pitch in exactly the perfect spot a batter wants and hits best, right in his "wheelhouse." And Professor Stanley Fish threw me a fat one right down the middle of the plate.

Professor Fish is an academic, an emeritus professor at University of Illinois and several other American colleges, and he writes for Slate Magazine, the New York Times, and Wall Street Journal on occasion. He is a respected leftist thinker and legal scholar, and has done extensive writing about literary theory.

And he's more honest than a lot of folks on his side. Professor Fish wrote a recent New York Times piece about Bill Maher, Rush Limbaugh, hypocrisy, and civility toward women in which he argued that since they're the good guys, leftists get a pass and its okay to ignore their evil while attacking far less awful things non-leftists do.!

To a certain extent, everyone believes in this kind of calculus. You don't give a mass murdering rapist who builds shrines out of the body parts of his victims the same break you do a productive citizen. We condemn even the somewhat neutral things Joseph Stalin or Idi Amin did, and are more willing to give a pass to someone otherwise beneficial to everyone for bad things they do.

But Professor Fish is taking this much further in his argument than most would agree to. Its part of the "the left thinks their opponents are evil" syndrome, where Fish is treating Rush Limbaugh not as a political opponent, not as someone wrong or mistaken, but as destructive to all we hold dear.

And he goes further than that. Most on the right think that someone as radical as President Obama is actually destructive to America, to culture, and to the future of liberty, but Professor Fish treats Limbaugh as if he is an evil force, akin to a Ceau┼čescu or Pol Pot, someone so evil it is natural and proper to reject them and attack them even for doing what you'd ignore in an ally.

But give Professor Fish credit. He follows through with his argument until the bitter end:
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.
He's perfectly fine with the logical conclusion of what he's arguing here. If what he's arguing means that the people in power crush those out of power and state that their ability to do so makes what they are doing right, he can live with that.

And that's the ultimate, horrid end of moral relativism. Make no mistake, that's what he's arguing here. To be sure he appeals to a "higher" overarching sense of morality with lines such as these:
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.
But that isn't ultimately what he means. What he's referring to when he speaks of a moral standard and "good" is that which helps your tribe or group, not that which is objectively ethical and proper. Here's a paragraph that explains his position:
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.
Your convictions must give way to your group's benefits. What you believe is right and true is simply an opinion, a statement of ideology, which bends to accommodate your tribe's well being. In other words, there is no absolute good, no true standard of behavior, other than anything which helps your side. Once you've chosen a side, anything you do which benefits it is good. Truth is simply that which more effectively extends power to your tribe.

And that great liberal virtue of fairness - justice - is simply not a virtue at all to Professor Fish:
“Fair” is a weak virtue; it is not even a virtue at all because it insists on a withdrawal from moral judgment.
And here we get to the heart of his moral and worldview failings, what leads Fish to be such a hardcore leftist. Because he believes that his version of morality - helping your side win - trumps everything. Because truth, justice, goodness, beauty, right, and all other concepts are malleable and adjust themselves to the final, noble goal of triumphing over one's rival groups.

And this sense of tribalism is ultimately all you can end up with once you jettison the concepts of absolute truth and goodness. He praises Mayor Daley for nepotism (Daley was infamous for it, responding to critics “Isn’t that what fathers are supposed to do, help their children get a start in life?”). If you destroy any standard outside yourself to follow then all that's left is what you prefer - and can enforce on others. The world is split into tribes, with your guys all thinking roughly the same way versus others who have their opinions and preferences. And if you're going to get your way, you have to crush the others. And any means to that end becomes good.

So unlike many on the left, Professor Fish gets it, and is honest and comfortable with that principle. And he's trying to argue that others should be as well. For some, I suppose it will be a salve for their consciences, seared as they may be. They can feel better about themselves and how they are acting and arguing, if they take this to heart.

But will that win over anyone? If you take Conan's philosophy of crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women seriously and make that your strategy, will you win allies and converts? When you've scorched the earth to victory, what will you have left to rule? And what does it do to society and civilization in the process as you destroy everything everyone holds dear in your drive for power?

Where does the cherished concept of civility the left keeps appealing to go when you have this as your core philosophy? Its no coincidence that the left is the side that keeps calling for civility, and keeps violating it in the most egregious ways.

Finally I can't help but notice that culture has come full circle in a bizarre, unexpected way. In the 19th century and before, the concept of honor and gentlemen (lords and ladies before that) dominated western culture, especially in Europe.

One of the principles of that concept of honor was equality of class and status. That you owed honor and treatment to one group of people but not another; or at least that the principles changed for other groups.

The king, for instance, was the font of all honor and could not possibly be challenged or questioned. The king could negate a duel because he defined and personified honor. Maybe you were called a qualling, ill-nurtured puttock by Lord Davies, but if the king said you must not duel and honor was satisfied, it was.

Your peers were another matter. Honor reigned supreme and you had to have satisfaction for any slightest question of your honor. Further, honor demanded that you give assistance and support to any of your peers (or the king) at any moment, provided it did not otherwise violate your honor. If your peer required help with a certain matter of a pregnant peasant girl kept quiet, that was your duty, but if it required you to cheat in cards or betray a vow, then you must decline and possibly duel the man for such a slight on your honor.

Then there were the lower classes, merchants, peasants, street people, servants, and so on. They had no honor, they were not expected to. You treated them with a sort of dignity you would a dog you are fond of but they could not insult your honor and you would never duel one. Put him to death, yes, but duel, no; that implies they have honor as well. You were obliged by your status and nobility to certain protections and good treatment of the lower classes, but only to a point; they were beneath you in quality.

And here we come to the 21st century leftists who call for the end to classes and status, with Professor Fish arguing that you owe nothing to your foes, and everything to your peers. That your group is to be treated nobly and honorably, but everyone else is beneath you and has no honor, and as such is not extended the same dignity and kindness.

And these guys want more power to implement more of their ideas, to "fundamentally reshape" America and western culture. I say they've done well more than enough damage already.


Eric said...

The problem is it's not just the left taking this approach. This is how politics in America gets done, no matter which side you are on.

The Rush Limbaugh/Bill Maher argument that has taken place the last two weeks has only served it illustrate: it's not that one side is so much worse about it than the other, it's that both sides are willing to treat their opponents like subhuman pieces of refuse.

Christopher R Taylor said...

I agree, the right started trying this out especially after Obama won. Every right-leaning site seemed to be yelling the same thing: lets do it to them just like they did it to us!!! They beat Bush this way, let's destroy Obama!!!

Its relativism and everyone seems to be picking up on it, instead of principle.

Philip said...

Apparently the lessons of Nuremberg have a 75-year shelf life.