Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Fishy rhetoric

One of the pleasures of reading the New York Times is that it's relatively free of the anti-modern, anti-western pseudo-leftism that currently infects its British liberal counterpart, the Guardian. You'll search long and hard in the pages of the Times to find the equivalents of Madeleine Bunting, Seumas Milne, Jonathan Steele, John Gray, et al.

But there is one exception: his name is Stanley Fish, and he writes a regular blog on the NYT website. You can find out more about Fish and his po-mo take on subjects such as free speech here. (I love Camille Paglia's characterisation of him as a 'totalitarian Tinkerbell'.) Last year, he wrote a piece arguing that Random House's decision not to publish Sherry Jones' novel about Muhammed's child bride was not censorship, at the same time sneering at Salman Rushdie as a 'self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment'. (Incidentally, don't these anti-liberal leftists just hate it when non-whites refuse to follow their script and instead stand up for 'western' values? Remember Seumas Milne excoriating Ed Husain as a 'neocon pin-up boy', and Jonathan Pilger dismissing Barack Obama as a 'glossy Uncle Tom'. Gosh, if you didn't know better, you might be inclined to detect a note of neo-colonial elitism, or even - whisper it if you dare - racism in these remarks.)

The other day Fish devoted his column to a spirited defence of that other master of rhetorical evasion, Terry Eagleton. Ironic, given that the latter once described Fish's 'discreditable epistemology' as 'sinister'. But in the new war against Enlightenment liberalism, pro-faith universalists and post-modern cultural relativists find themselves on the same side: a fact that Fish acknowledges, without noting the irony, in this article. 

Fish's piece is virtually a precis, laced with generous quotes, of the first chapter of Eagleton's latest book. Both Eagleton's original argument, and Fish's uncritical commentary on it, repeat many of the points made in the former's Guardian article last week. There's the same defence of religion, not because it might be true, but because of its social value, and the same sneering at 'liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals', while once again declining to engage with their criticisms. 

Have you noticed that the new breed of anti-secularists always have to add a damning qualifier to the characterisation of their opponents? In their looking-glass world, atheists are always 'militant', secularists 'aggressive', liberals 'dogmatic' or 'muscular', and believers in progress 'doctrinaire' or 'fundamentalist'.  I find this strategy, like the habit of condemning any criticism of a certain religion as 'Islamophobic', profoundly anti-intellectual and unworthy of those, like Eagleton and Fish, who claim to be scholars and academics.

Reading the article, you can understand why Martha Nussbaum described Fish's writing as 'sophistry' and 'rhetorical manipulation'. He and his former antagonist Eagleton have much in common.

Via B&W: Read P Z Myers' hilariously insightful account of being stuck on a plane for 8 hours with nothing to read but the Eagleton book fawningly reviewed by Fish. Plus Crooked Timber and Jason Rosenhouse on Fish. (And thanks to B&W for linking to this post.)

Further update
Russell Blackford (just added to my blogroll) has an epiphany and conjures up an Eaglefish at war with 'Ditchkins'.


KB Player said...

When I read Fish & Eagleton I'm gob smacked. They are distinguished guys in their fields but they make errors of logic and wild assertions that wouldn't be allowed in a sixth form essay.

Martin said...

I agree. I'd give them both a bad fail for logical argument if they were my students - and insist they rewrite their essays in plain English with references and footnotes.

TNC said...

I know we do not agree on everything but I am surprised to read your take on the NYT. Yes, the paper is closer to the center than the Guardian, but it has a decidedly liberal tilt.

For example, people who support gun ownership rights are presented as gun nuts, those that support tighter border controls (but are in favor of legal immigration) are presented as nativists and those with religious values and worldviews are presented as backward and anti-modern.

The paper is even worse when it comes to Israel and terrorism. It routinely refers to Hamas terrorists as militants, even when the organization explicitly targets Israeli civilians. This bias does not only appear on the opinion page, it is reflected in the reporting.

As far as the op-ed page, I can’t even read the material they print there anymore. A couple of weeks ago they published some garbage written by Bono and then something by the co-host of “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s no wonder the paper is losing so many readers.

OK, rant over.

Jonathan Rauch (the Atlantic, National Journal, etc.) is a good antidote for the likes of Fish:


Martin said...

I'm sure you're right about the Times - and you've shown up my limited acquaintance with it. I read it online here in the UK, and only read the paper version when we're in the US - which tends to be only a few days each year (and then I tend to focus on the excellent weekend arts coverage...)

But my point wasn't really about liberal bias, or even about unbalanced Mid East coverage...It was really about the comparative absence of regular reactionary-leftish commentators in its pages. I'm note sure the NYT has others on its books besides Fish?

Thanks for the Rauch link - I'll follow it up.

Hope all's well with you.