One fishy argument

Redoubtable sophist Stanley Fish rushes to the aid of professors who attacked America after 9/11, as though they're in any danger in left-wing academia.


The undisputed king of university sophists, the redoubtable Stanley Fish, has a cover story in the current Harper’s defending the brave professors who sallied forth after Sept. 11 to attack their own country and to provide a rationale for the al-Qaida atrocity (“Postmodern Warfare,” Harper’s, July-August 2002.) Among them were such veteran America haters as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Some like Chomsky condemned America as the “greatest terrorist state,” greater than the Taliban; others contented themselves with describing America as a “rogue nation” or international “outlaw.” The gravamen of their interventions was tediously familiar. America is the imperialist, racist, sexist “Great Satan,” while the specific targets of al-Qaida’s attacks — Wall Street and the Pentagon — were certainly well-picked, even though the results were somewhat counterproductive.

Now comes the Kingfish in the pages of Harper’s to defend the guilty, and imply that the free speech rights of these well-fed, tenured professors were somehow under attack. (All this, mind you, from a man who has written a book called “There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech.” But then, if he had not, he would not be Stanley Fish.) Of course there is no such attack, and the persecuted professors have been able to continue their assaults on their country in time of war with utter impunity. Professor Chomsky’s anti-American ravings since 9/11 have been put between the covers of a bestselling book with that name. In between he has traveled to Islamic countries to try to stoke the hatred against the country that defends his freedoms.

Apparently this hasn’t served to allay the anxieties of Stanley Fish, or to temper his crusade, in the course of which he has inevitably found me in his sights. Apparently responding to a column I wrote for Salon, “Closed Doors, Closed Minds,” Fish represents my position this way:

“One proposal put forward … amounts to affirmative action for conservatives. If the professoriate is predominantly liberal, let’s do something about it and redress the grievance.”

Actually, my research had not shown that the professoriate was “predominantly liberal,” but that conservatives were a vanishing species. I doubted that such an effect could be achieved in the absence of a systematic exclusion of politically incorrect views. Continues Fish:

“David Horowitz — once a virulent left-wing editor of Ramparts and now a virulent right-wing editor of Heterodoxy — complains, for example, that there are ‘whole departments where there are no conservatives,’ despite the fact that ‘the point of a university is that it should be a place of dialogue’ (as long, presumably, as it is not a dialogue about this war, in which case what we want is uniformity of opinion, one-sided opinion).”

“Virulent left-wing editor” is precious coming from a man pretending to defend tolerance. Of course, none of the apologists for al-Qaida’s atrocities get so characterized by professor Fish, who is now the dean of the liberal arts college at the University of Illinois. My conservative views — though robustly expressed — hardly put me to the right of John F. Kennedy, let alone in the camp of what is generally implied by “virulent right-wing.” I am more libertarian on issues of expression than Fish himself, a defender of gays and “alternative lifestyles,” a moderate on abortion, and a civil rights activist. “Virulent” might better describe the leftist professors and students who attacked me, when I tried to place an ad about reparations on college campuses a year ago. I didn’t notice Stanley Fish defending my free speech at the time.

It is equally underhanded of Fish to imply that I, or any conservative, have suggested that there should be no dialogue on the war. What we complained about was that there was no dialogue on campus during the post-9/11 “teach-ins” — because there were virtually no conservative professors available to provide it.

Sidestepping this issue, Fish responds: “But if the university is a place of dialogue (and I certainly think it is) it is supposed to be a dialogue between persons of differing views on disciplinary issues — Is Satan the hero of Paradise Lost? Is there such a thing as Universal Grammar? What historical factors led to the Reform Bill of 1832? Could World War I have been avoided — and not a dialogue between persons who identify themselves as Democrats or Republicans.”

To what university is Stanley Fish referring? The one that the New Left destroyed 30 years ago? Since then the “ivory tower,” as it was derisively referred to, has been deconstructed and rebuilt as a highly politicized “agency of change.” Of the hundreds of thousands of words that professor Noam Chomsky has written in the last 30 years, how many does Dr. Fish think he has devoted to the question of Universal Grammar? Under what academic discipline would Dr. Fish shelter Berkeley’s course in “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance”? Fish is being disingenuous about the debased state to which the university, like his hero in “Paradise Lost,” has fallen.

If Stanley Fish wants allies in a campaign to take politics out of the university, I am here to offer him support. But it is Stanley Fish who has opened the university gates to Communist hucksters, racial demagogues and an army of third-rate political ideologues, and it is they who define what the university curriculum is and is not.

Fish is smart enough to realize that I chose the categories Republican and Democrat not to identify substantive outlooks I felt should be represented in university classrooms. To reiterate a point I have made on many occasions: I would like to see partisan political viewpoints removed from the classroom altogether. I consider it an abuse of students’ academic freedom to have their professors harangue them on political issues.

I chose the categories chosen as a crude measure that would allow me to illuminate the dimensions of the political purge that has gone on in our nation’s universities. If teaching Milton these days were really about teaching Milton — and not about teaching Marxism or feminism or some other leftist fantasy — the issue would no longer be an issue. I needed a handle on the problem of the politicized classroom that was not merely subjective (what is a postmodernist, for example, which is one of the subjects of Fish’s Harper’s obfuscations). It was the need for an objective measure that led me to the choice of party registration as a means to illustrate the problem.

An objective measure is necessary precisely because sophists like Fish will so readily and ingeniously deny the obvious. That’s what he’s done in Harper’s, coming to the defense of professors who don’t need it, while denying the troubles of those who do — conservative academics, a rapidly vanishing species.

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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