Stanley Fish has written his last “Opinionator” column for the New York Times, and I can’t say I’m sorry to see him go. His writing was dreadful (and he’s an English professor!), his opinions cranky and quirky (see here, for instance). He was the intellectual equivalent of the old man who yells, “Hey, kids! Get off of my lawn!”, and he always conveyed an invidious air of intellectual superiority—if you could actually wade through his tedious prose to discern that. Plus he hated New Atheists, though I suspect he was an atheist himself. (I says “suspect” because, as he notes in his column, he was more interested in the nature of an argument than resolving it.) He merely wanted to show that the rest of us weren’t up to his ability to tackle the sophisticated arguments for religion. It’s a mystery to me why the Times let him rabbit on so long: eight years!
His last column, published December 23, is called “So long, it’s been good to know you,” but what he really meant was “So long, it was good for you to know me.” In his final column, he explains why readers were often frustrated with him, gets in a lick at New Atheism, and then decries the boycott of Israeli universities—but without giving his opinion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
His atheist bashing:
I explained (too often) that I was typically less interested in taking a stand on a controversial issue than in analyzing the arguments being made by one or more of the parties to the dispute. I was making an argument about the structure of argument, and the fact that I came down hard on the reasoning put forward by one side didn’t mean either that I rejected its position or embraced the position of the other side.
So, for example, when I found the writings of the “New Atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens — shallow, callow, historically uninformed and downright silly, that didn’t mean that I was a religious believer. Bad arguments can be made on behalf of a position you may well hold, and by pointing out their badness you don’t (necessarily) reject the position.
. . I tried to stand on the side of cogency and against slipshod reasoning, which meant that I stood on neither side of a substantive question like “Is there a God?” or “Does religion do more harm than good?” I might of course have answers to those questions, but it wasn’t the point of the columns I wrote to reveal them. Let me hasten to say that I wasn’t trying to be objective (a label pinned on me by both my detractors and defenders) or to be above the fray; I was in another fray, making points about making points, and reserving the deeper, moral issue for another day, which usually never arrived.
Pity about that. As Marx said in his Theses on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” But Fish didn’t even interpret the world; he interpreted arguments. That’s fine for a philosophy class in college, but not for a newspaper column. “Making points about points”, an arcane meta-analysis, does have its uses, but it would have been nice had Fish let us know where the correct arguments actually led. But at least he gets to show here that he’s brainier than the more popular New Atheists. (I suspect a bit of jealousy, since Fish aspired to be a “people’s scholar”.)
Fish does note, thank Ceiling Cat, that the boycott of Israeli universities is misguided (“No matter what the motivation or the circumstances, curtailing the freedom of academics because of a political judgment — saying, as the boycotters say, “because we don’t like the policies of your government, we won’t have anything to do with you” — is just flat out wrong.”), but then pulls back when it comes to the larger question, saying that this is “a geopolitical calculation I am not competent to make.” Bullfeathers! I don’t believe that for a second.
So goodbye to Fish, goodbye to meta-analysis, goodbye to tedium and labored prose. Let us hope the New York Times, which has often made dreadful choices in its “Opinionator” writers, will replace him with one of the many academics who write livelier prose and actually have opinions beyond “Look at ME!”.
Fish’s final paragraph:
In saying that, I find myself back at the same old stand, making a point about the kind of point I’m not making, doing what I do just after having announced that I will no longer be doing it. As John Wayne might have said, but in fact didn’t, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And in whatever venue (including, perhaps, this one) I continue to do it, I hope you’ll be along for the ride.
“As John Wayne might have said, but in fact didn’t”?? I’d cross that out if it were in a student essay.
And sorry, Dr. Fish. I’m getting off that horse.