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Archive for May 10th, 2005

Fishy

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Stanley Fish chimes in on Ward Churchill in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education (why is this still coming in the mail?) I must admit I don’t understand what’s happening in the following three paragraphs. Can someone explain them to me?

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that Churchill can’t be disciplined
or even fired. The analysis he presented of the September 11 attacks in
his controversial essay was part and parcel of an avowedly polemical
set of political recommendations, a veritable call to arms. He has
every right to issue that call, as long as he doesn’t do it in the
classroom and, as it were, on the state’s dime. While Churchill cannot
or should not be disciplined for the political views he urges in his
role as a citizen, he can and should be disciplined for urging those
views in venues designated as academic and financed as such by state
revenues or by tuition.

I am not saying that political matters can never be raised in an
academic setting; such a draconian requirement would mean the end of
departments of political science, philosophy, sociology, English,
criminal justice, and more. I am just saying that when political
matters do enter an academic setting, they must do so in academic
terms. A few years ago, a national conference was held at my university
on an important topic. A flier advertising the conference went out
before I saw it. One sentence in that flier began, "Now that we are
fighting a racist war in Afghanistan … " Because the flier carried
with it the imprimatur of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it
seemed to be the university that was issuing that judgment.

The case would have been entirely different if there had been a list
of the conference’s panels on the flier, and if one of those panels had
been titled, "Are We Fighting a Racist War in Afghanistan?" That would
have been perfectly appropriate because it would have identified the
question as one that would be debated at the conference: Speakers would
give their answers and back up what they said with evidence, and other
speakers would give opposing answers and cite alternative bodies of
evidence. That’s what we do in the academic world, and if Churchill is
doing something else (and I don’t know that he is), he is taking money
under false pretenses, and he should be called to account for it.

So, we have:

1) Churchill can’t or shouldn’t be fired for extra-curricular utterances of any sort, but if he’s in the classroom he can and should be disciplined for urging controversial, polemical views.
2) While banning political matters from the classroom is impossible, the discussion of such matters should take place in academic terms. The assertion that the war in Afghanistan is racist is a judgment, is not properly "academic."
3) On the other hand, it would be OK to have a conference entitled "Are We Fighting a Racist War in Afghanistan," since this would inspire debate backed with evidence. "Speakers would
give their answers and back up what they said with evidence, and other
speakers would give opposing answers and cite alternative bodies of
evidence."

So, from the three, it sounds as though a polemical utterance ("the war in Afghanistan is racist") is only academic, and thus appropriate, when it comes in the course of a debate, a dialogue. A classroom isn’t a classroom when there’s someone from the otherside to talk back? Is this what Fish meant to say? Did he mean to say anything at all?

And given this, what do we make of his dismissal of just this argument a few paragraphs later?

So again, what do you do? One thing administrators sometimes do in
this kind of situation is understandable but academically suspect. They
go for "balance"; that is, they don’t withdraw the invitation to a
Churchill type, but they surround him on the stage with persons from
the "opposing side," say someone who advocates expelling or imprisoning
or (at the very least) registering all the Arabs living in this
country. The idea is to inoculate the institution from criticism by
multiplying the points of view represented so that no one of them seems
to be endorsed or valued. The model for that strategy is to be found in
those U.S. Supreme Court cases in which it was held that you couldn’t
put a cross or a crèche on the courthouse steps unless you placed next
to it a menorah or a Buddha or a wigwam or something. In that way, the
state gets to display those symbols — and its tolerance — without
taking any of them seriously.

But that’s just the trouble. The academy flourishes when it takes
ideas seriously; turning the occasion of a talk on a particular topic
or question into a pledge of allegiance to balance and First Amendment
neutrality blunts the edge of any of the arguments that might be made
and makes them theatrical in the pejorative sense: They are just part
of the "see how ecumenical we are" play. It may look like the
protection of academic inquiry, but in fact it is the evacuation of
academic inquiry.

In other words, discourse isn’t academic when it takes the form of a staged debate, debate for debate’s sake, empty ecumenicalism. Hmm… I’m afraid he’s lost me. Just like he lost me, a month after 9/11, when Fish published in the Times his satantically torqued defense of postmodernism – as a technology built for some serious terrorist ass-kicking. Here’s the piece, hearteningly titled "Condemnation Without Absolutes."

When Reuters decided to be careful about using the word
"terrorism" because, according to its news director, one man’s
terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, Martin Kaplan, associate dean of
the Annenberg School for Communication at the  University of Southern California, castigated
what he saw as one more instance of cultural relativism. But Reuters is simply
recognizing how unhelpful the word is, because it prevents us from making
distinctions that would allow us to get a better picture of where we are and
what we might do. If you think of yourself as the target of terrorism with a
capital T, your opponent is everywhere and nowhere. But if you think of yourself
as the target of a terrorist who comes from somewhere, even if he operates
internationally, you can at least try to anticipate his future assaults.

Is this the end of relativism? If by relativism one means a cast of mind that
renders you unable to prefer your own convictions to those of your adversary,
then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by
definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions. Relativizing them
is neither an option nor a danger.

Only when you get past the false essentialism of assuming that the whole world is out to get you, can you begin smart-bombing the right set of bad guys. To paraphrase a popular Vietnam helmet motto, "Kill ’em all, let postmodernism sort it out."

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May 10, 2005 at 12:17 am

Posted in academia