Stanley Fish and the violence of neutrality

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Now that the American Studies Association (ASA) has had its say with the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the expected backlash has been loud and furious.  It is pointless to challenge that backlash using the conventions of intelligent debate, because there is little in the backlash that demonstrates intelligence.  It’s often difficult to tell whether opponents of the resolution are making an argument or trying to figure out what the fox says.

We shouldn’t ignore the backlash, however.  By examining its language and assumptions, we acquire greater understanding of how Zionism functions in the institutional spaces that both inform and comprise state power.  Of particular interest is the complicity (or centrality) of liberal Zionism in the durability of colonial values that sustain Indigenous dispossession from the Americas to Palestine.

The ASA boycott resolution, simply put, has washed away the bullshit, forcing people to answer to their actual beliefs.  Opponents of the resolution have appealed not to ethics or to intellectual rigor, but to the authority of the educational and economic elite.  This tells us all we need to know about the bankruptcy of their position.  It also illustrates how Zionism embodies the colonialist mentality that has guided American universities since their inception.

Stanley Fish in particular exemplifies the problems of liberal authority vis-à-vis boycott of Israel.

Boycott Supporters:  Agents of Genocide

Stanley Fish
Stanley Fish

One of my colleagues recently asked the New York Times op-ed editor to consider publishing a piece supportive of the ASA boycott resolution.  The editor explained that he has no interest in the ASA resolution.  It might be useful, then, for him to have a word with Fish, who lately appears unable to discuss anything else.

Fish has apparently written his last piece as a regular Times blogger.  That he chose to spend it on the resolution illustrates how bothersome boycott has been to scholars of a particular disposition.  This type of scholar adores the common sense of disinterested logic, for he cannot see past the many benefits granted to him by the status quo he helped construct.  (Nor will he ever concede the existence of those benefits.)  People of color and the colonized must remain invisible for this logic to function.

Supporters of the ASA resolution, Fish argues,

reason that a boycott is justified because as the result of Israel’s actions, “Palestinian universities have been bombed, schools have been closed, and scholars and students deported.”  I quote from a statement by the American Studies Association, which just a few days ago endorsed the boycott and did so in the name of academic freedom, defined (correctly) by the statement as “the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference.”  Yet, in the next breath, the Association is busily assuming the interests of one state against another and acting accordingly, on the reasoning that the academic freedom of Palestinians has been “severely hampered” by Israel’s policies.  Or, in other words (my words), “the state of Israel has done bad things to the Palestinians and therefore we should do bad things to Israeli universities.”

Advocates of boycott, Fish boasts, provide “a good example of the kind of bad argument I like to skewer.”

It’s really too bad that Fish chooses to skewer an argument nobody has made.  He rather seems to be bickering with the onset of an unacknowledged sociopathy.

Consider what Fish is saying: advocates of boycott are equivalent in deed and action to the practices of the State of Israel.  Fish either severely misunderstands Israel’s brutal mistreatment of Palestinians or he is so desperate to defend Israel’s honor that he reduces genocide to a paltry academic disagreement.

Either way, his logic is deeply violent.  (It is also factually incorrect:  Palestine is not yet a state—certainly not in the way Israel is a state, which further undermines Fish’s appeals to equivalency.)

That’s the thing about the liberal authority Fish represents: it pretends to be neutral and rational and virtuous.  Its primary function, in fact, is to maintain that pretense.  But such liberal authority has always been thoroughly violent to the communities that had to be erased in order for academia to achieve the enlightened modernity for which it was manifestly destined.

Fish treats Palestinian dispossession as an intellectual game.  Never does their mere humanity enter his mind.  Never does he consider their suffering, their demonization, their persecution, their simple desire for the most human of all aspirations, freedom.

To Palestinians, freedom means the absence of military occupation and the agency that can be exercised through self-determination.  To Fish, freedom is something altogether different:  the ability to silence the wretched beasts on whose backs he finds a perch to share with the world his exceptional gift of erudition.

Fish’s logic is older than the United States, consistently found in the language of august white men who abhor not being in charge.  He ignores tons of scholarship on decolonization to make a brutally anachronistic point.  Why should he consult that scholarship?  He long ago declared himself the arbiter of Ideas That Matter through his blog at the Times, which he earned in part by being unwilling to communicate anything more than clichés adorned with high-minded language.

The Cost of Free Speech

Years ago, Fish famously argued that there’s no such thing as free speech; free speech, he theorized, is merely what a society collectively decides to accept as appropriate.  Discussion of Israeli colonization has never been appropriate in the United States.  Speech on behalf of Palestine, then, is nowhere close to free.  It has cost many people jobs, promotions, reputations, and livelihoods.

Fish’s theory is instructive.  It is the powerful who decide on behalf of the collective.  Societies do not adhere to rules of acceptable speech based on organic interchange, but on the preferences of the ruling class and its elite constituents.  This stuff isn’t new.  Antonio Gramsci analyzed it (with more sophistication than Fish) nearly a hundred years ago.

Yet we continue to grapple with questions about how best to challenge the commonplaces of mainstream debate, especially in situations in which mainstream political norms do not cohere with the realities of anti-colonial struggle.  (Norman Finkelstein, notably, has grappled with this question, ultimately deciding that satisfying the fickle sensibilities of liberal Zionists is more important than justice for Palestinians.)

One’s adherence to the norms of ruling class discourse often determines how far he or she advances through the hierarchies of public commentary.  Fish’s faithful adherence to those rules through the years has served him well in becoming the highbrow version of Christopher Hitchens.  He was able to diagnose the incongruities of free speech, but has never been willing to challenge the structures of power that determine the freedom or suppression of certain ideas.

His consistent rationale for his rhetorical cowardice has been the conceit of neutrality.  Take, for instance, this passage from his latest piece:  “[T]he substantive question that will be of interest to many readers:  who, generally, is in the right or wrong, the Palestinians or the Israelis?  The answer to that question has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether a boycott of Israeli universities can be justified.”

Of all the arguments made against the ASA resolution, this is by far the most depraved.  Fish would have us believe that it just doesn’t matter who is doing wrong.  These are trifling questions, the domain of agitators and politicos who don’t deal, like Stanley Fish does, with Big Ideas.

The answer to the question Fish dare not contemplate is quite simple based on indisputable evidence of every conceivable variety:  the Israelis are “in the wrong,” though nobody but Fish speaks in such juvenile absolutes.  In reality, the substantive question has nothing to do with rightness and wrongness vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine.  The substantive question—indeed, the only question that matters—is whether boycott is an appropriate response to Israel’s brutal suppression of Palestinian academic freedom.

I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Moral Judgments

The nadir of Fish’s argument arrives when he proclaims, “Moral judgments are often necessary, but they are not always necessary, and sometimes the better part of wisdom is to refrain from making them because they get in the way of conceptual clarity.”

Who but a man flush with the arrogance of his own virtue would make such an absurd declaration?

People of color and other rabble-rousers make “moral judgments”; deep thinkers like Fish, though, do not concern themselves with such nonsense.  They provide “conceptual clarity.”  Of course Fish can be neutral while the advocates of boycott cannot.  It’s easy to be neutral when you make the rules and then decide what sort of activity violates them.

Fish epitomizes the rhetoric of liberal Zionism in the academy: its champions embrace unctuous, often tendentious, commitments and then confer the act of moral judgment to those of a lesser intellectual caliber.  The default norms of academic rigor thus reproduce colonial power without ever having to claim an affiliation with the state violence from which the ostensibly apolitical derive their authority.

Fish doesn’t condemn moral judgment in itself, noting that it is “often necessary.”  What then is worthy of moral judgment?  Fish doesn’t say.  He simply declares Israel exempt from it.  It is a damning equivocation, illuminating a deep attachment to Israel that he refuses to acknowledge.  He pretends to be above the ethnonationalism he implicitly endorses, instead.

Fish and other Protectors of Timeless Standards were less tortured before the ASA resolution.  It is yet another reason to support boycott: it has required liberal Zionists to explain themselves, which has validated the suspicion that their main intellectual substance is mutually-conferred prestige.

Traditionally, this sort has talked much but said little.  These days, though, the more they talk the more they undo decades of colonial mythmaking.  Those of us marginalized by their authority are happy they are finally doing something useful, even if only by accident.

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How about omission? All those things not said, stated or purposely left out?

Snow job about Israel-Palestine – or ‘The subtle Zionist propaganda of the New York Times’.

It takes 2 to tango.

A strong clear rebuttal by Salaita. To the point.

Its very peaceful and rewarding to be without any character whatsoever–at least for people who dont have any. “the necessity for intellectuals to remain free from state interests and interference.” Yet, in the next breath, the Association is busily assuming the interests of one state against another and acting accordingly,… Read more »

People of color and other rabble-rousers make “moral judgments” There is little, next to nothing, that I agree with Fish on. But to be fair to him, I don’t think he really racializes the conversation the way you do. Lots of white people, Jew or gentile, have taken moral judgements.… Read more »

What a beautiful, courageous piece by Salaita. Throughout this ASA debate, I have been reminded of the risks taken by academics who support the ASA’s decision to boycott. These risks are among academics who are committed to true academic freedom in a traditionally liberal Zionist institution. As someone who has… Read more »