Oct 112007

I hate being right so much of the time, like when I refer to Academic Intolerance, or when I say there are no more liberals (except for Nat Hentoff) because they’ve all become leftwing fascists. Or when I point out how I’ll end my days in one of Hillary’s internment camps. I hate it when she shows herself more and more to be the kind of person to prove me right. I’d rather be mistaken and be laughed at for being overly paranoid.

So it was rather spooky to read Daniel Henninger’s column in the WSJ in which he tells us that agents of federal authority are now talking about censuring a talk radio host. That was news to me. And he brings up a good question which ought to be brought before Senator Clinton and examined backwards and forwards, inside and out:

I would like to put a question to the senator: Would you defend Rush Limbaugh’s speech rights against the pressure that was brought upon him on the floor of the Senate by your colleagues Harry Reid and Ken Salazar? Colorado’s Sen. Salazar went so far last week as to say he’d support a Senate vote to “censure” Mr. Limbaugh. Rhymes with censor.

And then I thought he was pointing out how academics are now coming out of the closet with some repressive, anti-free speech moves, which is where things really got scary.

Who threw the first stone in these media-driven bloodlettings? Good question. But to my knowledge the right has no equivalent to “repressive tolerance,” the aggressive theory of scorched-earth political argument laid out in the hothouse years of the 1960s by the late left-wing political philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Just last November, in an admiring essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the left polemicist Stanley Fish aptly summed up Marcuse’s assertion that “liberal” notions of tolerance for political speech should be overturned.

The rationale for this notion is that standard tolerance is rigged against the left. In practice, tolerance extends only to the ideas and beliefs of the powerful, while it shuts out ideas on behalf of the weak or “marginalized”–the poor, minorities, women and the rest. Mr. Fish says liberals fail to see “the dark side of their favorite virtue.”

Prof. Fish has an alternative to traditions of tolerance, and to anyone awash in American politics today it will sound familiar: “That is to say, and Marcuse says it, anything the right does is bad and should not be tolerated; anything the left does is good and should be welcomed.” This would explain the emotional intensity and animosity in politics now: The other side no longer deserves minimal respect.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I think Mr. Henninger is mistaken in saying (or at least implying) that Stanley Fish is speaking approvingly of Marcuse’s statement. I just finished reading that Chronicles of Higher Education article (in the November 10, 2006 issue). Fish may be a leftwing polemicist, but I didn’t find that article to be polemical. It raises a lot of good points about the nature of liberal tolerance which we had better understand if we think we are going to defend it.

I wish it was somewhere online that’s generally accessible, because it ought to be widely discussed.

Oh, and just to give a sample, Fish makes a point that C.S. Lewis had made on another topic. (Or was it the same topic?) Lewis had said you can’t derive conclusions in the imperative from premises in the indicative. Fish, points out that you can’t derive conclusions about what to do to promote and defend tolerance by analyzing its nature. (The article is basically an essay about Wendy Brown’s book, “Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire.”)

On balance, I think it is the latter; she wants a better universalism than liberalism’s, but her articulations of it are without content, as they will necessarily be if she thinks to derive it from her critique of liberalism and liberal tolerance. That critique, to repeat the point made earlier, tells you what liberal tolerance is made of; it doesn’t tell you whether it is bad or good, and it certainly doesn’t tell you what should be put in its place.

I think in looking for threats to the values represented by the 1st Amendment, Mr. Henninger caught the wrong Fish. At least I hope so.

Edit: Fixed the spelling of Mr. Henninger’s name.