Postmodern warfare:
the ignorance of our warrior intellectuals

by Stanley Fish
from Harper's Magazine
 July, 2002

[NOTE: Journal Prompt follows at the end of this essay.]

Who would have thought, in those first few minutes, hours, days, that what we now call 9/11 was to become an event in the Culture Wars? Today, more than nine months later, nothing could be clearer, though it was only on September 22 that the first sign appeared, in a New York Times opinion piece written by Edward Rothstein and entitled "Attacks on U.S. Challenge the Perspectives of Postmodern True Believers." A few days later (on September 27), Julia Keller wrote a smaller piece in the Chicago Tribune; her title (no doubt the contribution of a staffer): "After the attack, postmodernism loses its glib grip." In the September 24 issue of Time, Roger Rosenblatt announced "the end of the age of irony" and predicted that "the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life" would now have to change their tune and no longer say that "nothing was real" or that "nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously." And on October 1, John Leo, in a piece entitled "Campus hand-wringing is not a pretty sight," blamed just about everything on the "very dangerous ideas" that have captured our "campus culture"; to wit, "radical cultural relativism, non-judgmentalism, and a postmodern conviction that there are no moral norms or truths worth defending."

Well, that certainly sounds bad--no truths, no knowledge, no reality, no morality, no judgments, no objectivity--and if postmodernists are saying that, they are not so much dangerous as silly. Luckily, however, postmodernists say no such thing, and what they do say, if it is understood at all, is unlikely to provoke either the anger or the alarm of our modern Paul Reveres. A full account or even definition of postmodernism would be out of place here, but it may be enough for our purposes to look at one offered by Rothstein, who begins by saying that "Postmodernists challenge assertions that truth and ethical judgment have any objective validity." Well, it depends on what you mean by "objective." If you mean a standard of validity and value that is independent of any historically emergent and therefore revisable system of thought and practice, then it is true that many postmodernists would deny that any such standard is or could ever be available. But if by "objective" one means a standard of validity and value that is backed up by the tried-and-true procedures and protocols of a well-developed practice or discipline--history, physics, economics, psychology, etc.--then such standards are all around us, and we make use of them all the time without any metaphysical anxiety.

As Richard Rorty, one of Rothstein's targets, is fond of saying, "Objectivity is the kind of thing we do around here." Historians draw conclusions about the meaning of events, astronomers present models of planetary movements, psychologists offer accounts of the reading process, consumers make decisions about which product is best, parents choose schools for their children--all of these things and many more are done with varying degrees of confidence, and in no case is the confidence rooted in a conviction that the actor is in possession of some independent standard of objectivity. Rather, the actor, you or I or anyone, begins in some context of practice, with its received authorities, sacred texts, exemplary achievements, and generally accepted benchmarks, and from within the perspective of that context--thick, interpersonal, densely elaborated--judges something to be true or inaccurate, reasonable or irrational, and so on.

It seems, then, that the unavailability of absolutely objective standards--the thesis Rothstein finds repugnant and dangerous--doesn't take anything away from us. If, as postmodernists assert, objective standards of a publicly verifiable kind are unavailable, they are so only in the sense that they have always been unavailable (this is not, in other words, a condition postmodernism has caused), and we have always managed to get along without them, doing a great many things despite the fact that we might be unable to shore them up in accordance with the most rigorous philosophical demands. One of the things we might be doing, for instance, when we're not doing philosophy, is condemning someone or some group, though Rothstein seems to think that we can't do that unless we have all our philosophical ducks in a row--and in the right row. Thus, he says, given postmodernist assumptions, "one culture, particularly the West, cannot reliably condemn another," which means, according to him, that we in the United States cannot reliably condemn those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Again, it depends on what you mean by "reliably," a word that takes us right back to "objective" and to the argument I have been making. If by "a reliable condemnation" you mean a condemnation rooted in a strong sense of values, priorities, goals, and a conviction of right and wrong, then such a condemnation is available to most if not all of us all of the time. But if by "a reliable condemnation" you mean a condemnation rooted in values, priorities, and a sense of right and wrong that no one would dispute and everyone accepts, then there is no such condemnation, for the simple reason that there are no such universally accepted values, priorities, and moral convictions. If there were, there would be no deep disputes.

Now, I would not be misunderstood. I am not saying that there are no universal values or no truths independent of particular perspectives. I affirm both. When I offer a reading of a poem or pronounce on a case in First Amendment law, I do so with no epistemological reservations. I regard my reading as true--not provisionally true, or true for my reference group only, but true. I am as certain of that as I am of the fact that I may very well be unable to persuade others, no less educated or credentialed than I, of the truth so perspicuous to me. And here is a point that is often missed, the independence from each other, and therefore the compatibility, of two assertions thought to be contradictory when made by the same person: (1) I believe X to be true and (2) I believe that there is no mechanism, procedure, calculus, test, by which the truth of X can be necessarily demonstrated to any sane person who has come to a different conclusion (not that such a demonstration can never be successful, only that its success is contingent and not necessary). In order to assert something and mean it without qualification, I of course have to believe that it is true, but I don't have to believe that I could demonstrate its truth to all rational persons. The claim that something is universal and the acknowledgment that I couldn't necessarily prove it are logically independent of each other. The second does not undermine the first.

Once again, then, a postmodern argument turns out to be without any deleterious consequences (it is also without any positive consequences, but that is another story), and it certainly does not stand in the way of condemning those who have proven themselves to be our enemies in words and deeds. Nor should this be surprising, for, after all, postmodernism is a series of arguments, not a way of life or a recipe for action. Your belief or disbelief in postmodern tenets is independent of your beliefs and commitments in any other area of your life. You may believe that objectivity of an absolute kind is possible or you may believe that it is not, but when you have to decide whether a particular thing is true or false, neither belief will hinder or help you. What will help you are archives, exemplary achievements, revered authorities, official bodies of evidence, relevant analogies, suggestive metaphors--all available to all persons independently of their philosophical convictions, or of the fact that they do or do not have any.

In the end, the post-9/11 flap about postmodernism is the blowing of so much smoke, sound and fury signifying very little apart from the ignorance of those who produced it. There's no there there. This is not true, however, of what succeeded that flap in the popular and semi-popular media, the question of whether this is or is not a religious war. That question was asked against the backdrop of the Bush Administration's desire that the war not be characterized as a religious one. Any public embrace of Samuel Huntington's clash-of-civilizations thesis would have at least three bad consequences. First, key Islamic nations could not be persuaded to support, or at least to refrain from denouncing, U.S. military operations. Second, millions of U.S. citizens of the Islamic faith would be come the large core of an antiwar coalition. And lastly, the United Nations would become polarized along religious lines, with the possible result that any U.S. attack would be censured. In the context of these and related anxieties, the official party line emerged almost immediately: Although Al Qaeda said that its warriors did what they did in the service of Allah, theirs was a perverted version of the Islamic faith, and therefore their claim to be acting in its name was false and illegitimate; they simply did not represent Islam and had misread its sacred texts.

If you think about it for a moment, this is an amazing line of argument that begs the questions contained in its assertions. Who is it that is authorized to determine which version of Islam is the true one? What religious faith has ever looked outside the articles of its creed for guidance and correction? What is the difference between the confident pronouncements that the Al Qaeda brand of Islam is a deviant one and the excommunications and counter-excommunications of Catholics and Protestants, and within Protestantism of Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, not to mention Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, and Mennonites? Merely to pose these questions is to realize that the specification of what a religion is and the identification of the actions that may or may not be taken in its name are entirely internal matters. This is, after all, the point of a religion: to follow a vision the source of which is revelation, ecclesiastical authority, a sacred book, a revered person. One who adheres to that vision does not accept descriptions or evaluations of it from non-adherents citing other revelations, authorities, and texts; and the fact that non-adherents regard some of the convictions at the heart of the vision as bizarre, and regard the actions generated by those convictions as inadvisable or even evil, is merely confirmation, again from the inside, of the extent to which these poor lost souls are in the grip of error and too blind to see. What this means (and here we link up with the worries over postmodernism) is that in matters of religion--and I would say in any matter--there is no public space, complete with definitions, standards, norms, criteria, etc., to which one can have recourse in order to separate out the true from the false, the revolutionary from the criminal. And what that means is that there is no common ground, at least no common ground on which a partisan flag has not already been planted, that would allow someone or some body to render an independent judgment on the legitimacy of the declarations that issue from Bin Laden and his followers about the religious bases of their actions.

Indeed, only if there were such a public space or common ground could the question "Is this a religious war?" be a real question, as opposed to a tendentious thesis pretending to be a question, which it is. That is to say, the question "Is this a religious war?" is not a question about the war; it is the question that is the war. For the question makes assumptions Al Qaeda members are bound to reject and indeed are warring against: that it is possible to distinguish between religious and non-religious acts from a perspective uninflected by any religion or ideology; or, to put it another way, that there is a perspective detached from and above all religions, from the vantage point of which objective judgments about what is and is not properly religious could be handed down; or that it is possible to distinguish between the obligations one takes on as a person of faith and the obligations one takes on in one's capacity as a citizen; i.e., that it is possible to go out into the world and perform actions that are not related, either positively or negatively, to your religious convictions. And these assumptions make sense only in the context of another: that religion is essentially a private transaction between you and your God and therefore is, at least in principle, independent of your actions in the public sphere, where the imperatives you follow might be political, economic, philanthropic, environmental--imperatives that could be affirmed or rejected by persons independently of their religious convictions or of their lack of religious convictions.

What I have rehearsed for you, in a nutshell, is the core of what has been called America's "Civic Religion," a faith (if that is the word) founded on the twin rocks of Locke's declaration that "the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth" and Jefferson's more colloquial version of the same point: "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty Gods or no Gods; it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Jefferson's further contribution is the famous "Wall of Separation," a metaphor that has lent constitutional force to the separation of church and state, even though it is not in the Constitution. In combination, these now canonical statements give us the key distinction between the private and the public, which in turn gives us the American creed of tolerance. It goes like this: If you leave me free to believe whatever I like, I'll leave you free to believe whatever you like, even though in our respective hearts we regard each other's beliefs as false and ungodly. We can argue about it or privately condemn each other, but our differences of belief shouldn't mean that we try to disenfranchise or imprison or kill each other or refrain from entering into relationships of commercial and social cooperation. Let's live and let live. Let's obey the civil, nonsectarian laws and leave the sorting out of big theological questions to God and eternity.

All of that is precisely what adherents of the Al Qaeda version of Islam hate and categorically deny, which is why the question "Is this a religious war?" will make no sense to them, or, rather, will make only the sense of a question issuing from an infidel who is by definition wrong and an enemy. Not only do Bin Laden and company fail to make the distinction between religious and civil acts; they regard those who do make it as persons without a true religion. If you're really religious, you're religious all the time, and no act you perform--even the act of having or not having a beard--is without religious significance and justification. It is the dividing of one's life into the separate realms of the public and private that leads, say the militants, to a society bereft of a moral center and populated by citizens incapable of resisting the siren call of excess and sin.

This refusal of Al Qaeda-style Islam to honor the public/private distinction is the essence of that faith, and not some incidental feature of it that can be dispensed with or moderated. Commentators who pronounced on the question "Is this a religious war?" tended to see this and not see it at the same time. They noted the fact but then contrived to turn it into a correctable mistake, either by using words like "criminal," "fanatic," and "extremist" or by implying that the non-emergence of the public/private distinction is some kind of evolutionary failure; they want to be like us, but they don't yet know how to do it. Thus R. Scott Appleby, a professor at Notre Dame and an expert on religion and violence, notes (in the November 2001 issue of Lingua Franca), with an apparently straight face, that "Islam has been remarkably resistant to the differentiation and privatization of religion that often accompanies secularization ... and has not undergone a reformation like the one experienced by Christianity, which led to a pronounced separation of sacred and secular." ("What's the matter with these guys? Why can't they get with the program?") But of course there is nothing remarkable in a faith's refusal of a transformation that would undo it. Privatization and secularization are not goals that Islam has yet to achieve; they are specters that Islam (or some versions of it) pushes away as one would push away death.

Appleby's characterization of Islam as a religion stuck in some stage of arrested development and self-blocked from reaching maturity is matched by Andrew Sullivan's condescending description of Islam (in the October 7 issue of The New York Times Magazine) as "a great religion that is nonetheless extremely inexperienced in the toleration of other ascendant and more powerful faiths." Presumably, a good dose of John Stuart Mill or John Rawls would do the trick and move Islam along on the way to health and modernization.

When Sullivan says of Islam that it is "a great religion," he means a potentially great religion. Islam will be fine when it rids itself of its impurities, the chief impurity being a stubborn insistence on a fidelity to a set of particular beliefs. In the morality Sullivan shares with Appleby, particularity is a sin, because it sets up barriers between persons devoted to different particulars. The better way is the way of generality, of a religious sense so large and capacious that anything and everything can be accommodated within it. The only problem with such a religion would be its total lack of content, but as it turns out that is just what Appleby, Sullivan, and company really want. It is instructive to watch them as they take the heart out of religion in the name of religion--or, as they put it, "true religion." Of course you can't have a true religion without a false religion. A false religion, Jane Eisner tells us in the Philadelphia Inquirer of October 14, is a religion that has "failed to master modernity," and the sign of this failure is its insistence on a single creed in an age of pluralism. The true religion is what Eisner calls "the American national religion," which she describes as "our nonsectarian belief in the freedom of the individual to think, speak, and act in his or her best interests." Here Eisner is either disingenuous or unaware of the implications of her own language. By nonsectarian belief she would seem to mean, and probably thinks she means, belief not limited to any particular religious denomination; but what the phrase really means in the context of her essay is a belief in the evil of any sectarian belief whatsoever, of any belief that asserts itself strongly and is jealous of its priority. She is not, as she would have it, defending all beliefs against an intolerant exclusionism but attacking belief in general, at least as it commits you to the truth of a conviction or the imperative of an action. The only good belief is the belief you can wear lightly and shrug off when you leave home and stride into the public sphere.

This is surely what Sullivan means (whether he knows it or not) when he declares that this "is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity." A faith at peace with freedom and modernity is a faith that has given up its franchise and has made itself into something occasional and cosmetic. It is only in the name of such a faith--emptied of all content and committing you to nothing but the gospel of noncommitment--that Sullivan can say, again with a straight face, that by denying "the ultimate claims of religion" we "preserve true religion itself"; that is, we preserve this vague, nonbinding, light-as-air spirituality, the chief characteristic of which is that it claims--and believes--nothing.

Although it may not at first be obvious, the substitution for real religions of a religion drained of particulars is of a piece with the desire to exorcise postmodernism. In both instances, what is feared is the absence of a public space or common ground in relation to which judgments and determinations of value can be made with no reference to the religious, ethnic, racial, or national identities of the persons to whom they apply. It should, to Sullivan's way of thinking, be obvious to all, including those Muslims not blinded by fanaticism, that Bin Laden and his followers are criminal terrorists and not religious freedom fighters; and if they quote the Koran at us and rehearse histories in which we are the oppressors and villains, that just means that they are misreading their own scripture and distorting their own history, and we have the experts at Johns Hopkins, George Washington, and Yale universities to prove it. This can't be a religious war. It must be a war of common sense or common ground against the fanatical and the irrational.

What must be protected, then, is the general, the possibility of making pronouncements from a perspective at once detached from and superior to the sectarian perspectives of particular national interests, ethnic concerns, and religious obligations; and the threat to the general is posed by postmodernism and strong religiosity alike, postmodernism because its critique of master narratives deprives us of a mechanism for determining which of two or more fiercely held beliefs is true (which is not to deny the category of true belief, just the possibility of identifying it uncontroversially), strong religiosity because it insists on its own norms and refuses correction from the outside. The antidote to both is the separation of the private from the public, the establishing of a public sphere to which all could have recourse and to the judgments of which all, who are not criminal or insane, would assent. The point of the public sphere is obvious: it is supposed to be the location of those standards and measures that belong to no one but apply to everyone. It is to be the location of the universal. The problem is not that there is no universal--the universal, the absolutely true, exists, and I know what it is. The problem is that you know, too, and that we know different things, which puts us right back where we were a few sentences ago, armed with universal judgments that are irreconcilable, all dressed up and nowhere to go for an authoritative adjudication.

What to do? Well, you do the only thing you can do, the only honest thing: you assert that your universal is the true one, even though your adversaries clearly do not accept it, and you do not attribute their recalcitrance to insanity or mere criminality--the desired public categories of condemnation--but to the fact, regrettable as it may be, that they are in the grip of a set of beliefs that is false. And there you have to leave it, because the next step, the step of proving the falseness of their beliefs to everyone, including those in their grip, is not a step available to us as finite situated human beings. We have to live with the knowledge of two things: that we are absolutely right and that there is no generally accepted measure by which our rightness can be independently validated. That's just the way it is, and we should just get on with it, acting in accordance with our true beliefs (what else could we do?) without expecting that some God will descend, like the duck in the old Groucho Marx TV show, and tell us that we have uttered the true and secret word.

The distinction I am trying to make here is not between affirming universals and denying them but between affirming universals because you strongly believe them to be such and affirming universals because you believe them to have been certified by an independent authority acknowledged by everyone. Andrew Sullivan teeters between these different affirmations when he declares in the concluding paragraph of his essay that "We are fighting not for our country ... or for our flag. We are fighting for the universal principles of our Constitution." Is Sullivan here identifying and standing by his conviction of what the universal principles are, or is he claiming that it is not his conviction but the world itself that has identified them? If he is doing the first, he is acknowledging that this is a religious war and that it is our religion (embodied, he thinks, in the Constitution) against theirs, not their religion against common sense. If he is doing the second, he is saying that this is a war between the world's religions and those crazy outlaws the world universally condemns. His penultimate sentence removes the doubt: "We are fighting for religion against one of the deepest strains in religion there is." The deepest strain in a religion is the particular and particularistic doctrine it asserts at its heart, in the company of such pronouncements as "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me." Take the deepest strain of religion away, as Sullivan wants us to do, and what remains are the surface pieties--abstractions without substantive bite--to which everyone will assent because they are empty, insipid, and safe.

It is this same preference for the vacuously general over the disturbingly particular that informs the attacks on college and university professors who spoke out in ways that led them to be branded as outcasts by those who were patrolling and monitoring the narrow boundaries of acceptable speech. Here one must be careful, for there are fools and knaves on all sides. On the fool side, there is the case of Richard Berthold, the hapless University of New Mexico professor of history who said in class, on September 11, "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote"--and then in the wake of the subsequent protest acknowledged that he had been a jerk to say it, but, after all, "the First Amendment protects my right to be a jerk." Well, yes and no; the First Amendment does protect him from prosecution by the government--unless his form of jerkiness could be characterized as libel, incitement to violence, or treason--but it does not necessarily protect him from disciplinary action by his university if it can be determined that what he said amounted to using class time and state dollars to propagate his own political views and thereby undermined his ability to fulfill his appointed duties.

On the knave side, there is the politically murky but conceptually clear case of Sami Al-Arian, a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida, who has been sent a letter of dismissal because he appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, a crime of which I am also guilty. The university says that he is being dismissed not because of the views he expressed over a decade ago but because the public airing of them produced a hostile response that took the form of threats from individuals, potential donors, politicians, and trustees; but this is what is known as the "heckler's veto" argument--speech is to be silenced or punished because of the actual or potential hostile response to it--an argument rejected by a long line of Supreme Court decisions and almost certain to be rejected again.

Closer to my home, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern University have been more adept than South Florida in dealing with the cases of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn--one-time Weathermen, fugitives, and most-wanted celebrities, and now married, middle-class, and distinguished professors--who are under fire for actions performed thirty years ago and no longer the object of judicial attention. As both universities saw, the only question is whether Ayers and Dohrn are currently living up to their contractual duties and doing their jobs; and since the evidence says clearly that they are, there is no case. Contrition for acts long past and not presently under indictment is not a legal or even a moral requirement for university teaching.

It would be pleasant to linger over these and other cases and tease out the doctrines they illustrate, but what finally interests me about them is their link to the pattern I have been describing, the pattern of demonizing the particularism of local and partisan perspectives (either philosophical or religious) in favor of a general perspective that claims to be universal and has the advantage of disturbing no one because it is at once safe and empty. The effort of those who would silence or dismiss professors who cross some invisible line is at bottom an effort to narrow the range of what can be said to a rote patriotic discourse that is a form of cheerleading rather than serious thought. This is in fact the naked thesis of Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism by former secretary of education--and author, at least by his own claim, of all the Virtues--William Bennett. In this book we learn that the problems not only of the current moment but of the last forty years stem from the cultural ascendancy of those "who are unpatriotic" but who, unfortunately, are also "the most influential among us." The phrase "among us" is a nice illustration of the double game Bennett plays throughout the book. On one reading, "the diversity mongers [and] multiculturalists," mistaken though they may be in their views, are part of "us"; that is, they are citizens, contributing to a national dialogue in ways that might provoke Bennett's disagreement but contributing nevertheless in the spirit of deliberative democracy. On another reading, however, these cultural relativists are "among us" as a fifth column might be among us, servants of an alien power who prosecute their subversive agenda under the false colors of citizenship. That the second is the reading Bennett finally intends (though he wants to get moral credit for the first) is made clear when he charges these peddlers of "relativism" with un-patriotism, and in that instant defines a patriot as someone who has the same views he has.

This also turns out to be Bennett's definition of honesty and truth-telling. As the remedy for what he and his allies see as the moral enervation of the country, Bennett urges "the reinstatement of a thorough and honest study of our history," where by "honest" he means a study of history that tells the same story he and his friends would tell if they were in control of the nation's history departments. Unfortunately (at least as he sees it), history departments are full of people like Columbia's Eric Foner, who draws Bennett's ire for wondering which is worse, "`the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House.'" Bennett calls this sentiment "atrocious rot." Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but even if it were atrocious rot, it could be honest atrocious rot; that is, it could be Foner's honest attempt, as a citizen and historian, to take the truthful measure of what the events of September 11 and their aftermath mean. But Bennett's epistemology does not allow for the possibility that someone could honestly put forward as the truth of a matter an account that differed from his. If Foner and all the other "Foners of the United States" say things about American history that do not square with the things Bennett and Donald Kagan (his hero-historian) say, it must be because they are self-conscious enemies of the good and the true. They are not merely mistaken (which is how we usually characterize those on the opposite side of us in what John Milton called the "wars of truth"); they are "insidious," they are engaged in "violent misrepresentation," they practice "distortion," they "sow widespread and debilitating confusion," they "weaken the country's resolve," they exhibit "failures of character," they drown out "legitimate patriots" (guess who), they display a "despicable nature," they abandon, yes, "the honest search for truth."

This long list of hit-and-run accusations is justified in Bennett's eyes because the persons at whom it is directed would give different answers than he would to questions still being honestly debated after these many months. It is one thing to believe, and believe fervently, that someone has got something wrong; it is quite another to believe that the someone you think to be wrong is by virtue of that error unpatriotic, devoted to lies, and downright evil. It has often been the case that religions have identified sacred texts and sacred persons as the repositories of wisdom and truth and have consigned to the deepest circles of hell persons who read from another book or assert truths contrary to those declared necessary for salvation. But I did not know that there was now a Book of Bennett, and that the teachers and intellectuals who inhabit our universities were obliged to rehearse its lessons and recite its catechisms, lest they be drummed out of the Republic and cast into outer darkness. Live and learn.

There is a tension in Bennett's book--one common to jeremiads on the right--between his frequent assertions that our cultural condition couldn't be worse and his equally frequent assertions that the vast majority of Americans thinks as he does. How can the enemy at once be so small in number and so disastrously effective? The answer is to be found in the fact that this small band controls our colleges and universities, and the result is the "utter failure of our institutions of higher learning," a failure the product of which is a generation of college students ignorant of our history and imbued with the virus of "cultural and moral relativism." What to do? One proposal put forward by some of Bennett's allies--and a surprising one given the free-market propensities of this crowd--amounts to affirmative action for conservatives. If the professoriate is predominantly liberal, let's do something about it and redress the imbalance. (Does this sound like multiculturalism and diversity?) 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 in the social sciences 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). 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. That dialogue takes place in the arenas of elections, lobbying, and political fund-raising, and while there may be some overlap between academic disagreements and disagreements in the realm of partisan politics, the overlap is not structural, even if it is statistically significant; moreover, altering it is not an academic imperative, because it is not the business of the academy to assure proportional representation of different political positions.

But what about affirmative action? someone might ask. By this argument, it isn't the business of the academy to assure proportional representation of women, blacks, and Hispanics either. No disciplinary concern demands such a correction, so what's the difference?

The difference is an historical one. For decades and indeed centuries, women, blacks, and Hispanics have been actively excluded from the academy, and while one might debate whether or not universities have an obligation to redress past inequities, the effort to do so can be given at least a plausible historical justification. No such justification is available to support affirmative action for conservatives, who have never been excluded, and in fact were once greatly in the ascendancy, and who are no longer in the ascendancy in some disciplines because they have chosen to go into others. It would be interesting to study why humanities departments do not by and large attract the politically conservative, but I would bet that such a study would not reveal that they have been denied entry or badly treated when they have attained it. The case for bringing more conservatives into the humanities and social sciences is a nonstarter.

The second, and related, argument invoked to justify the current spate of professor-bashing has a bit more going for it, as evidenced by the fact that it has been made across the political spectrum, from Stanley Kurtz, a contributing editor for the National Review, to David Glenn, writing in The Nation. It is the argument that the professoriate is reaping what it sowed in those years when so many of its members (including, no doubt, some now facing criticism and discipline) worked for the implementation of campus speech codes. The chickens are just coming home to roost. (Exactly the line of thought so vehemently rejected by the gatekeepers of our patriotism.)

Aside from a certain historical inaccuracy--most speech codes were never implemented, and none has survived judicial scrutiny--the logic deployed by Kurtz and Glenn is flawed in what should now be seen as a familiar way: it depends on a general equivalence that takes no notice of the relevant historical differences. The equivalence is supposed to be between disciplining and/or stigmatizing persons because they have produced speech hurtful to women, blacks, Hispanics, and gays, and disciplining and/or stigmatizing persons because they have produced speech deemed to be politically inappropriate. If you were for the first kind of regulation, the logic goes--i.e., if you supported speech codes--you have no complaint when you become the object of the second. But this works only if one assumes that all restrictions on expression have the same status (a universalizing, flattening assumption that generated the category of reverse racism), and that assumption runs up against the tradition of the First Amendment, in which one restriction--the restriction on speech critical of government policies--has always been regarded as a violation of the amendment's core.

What this means is that restraints on political speech and restraints on what has been called hate speech are simply not the same thing--one restraint nullifies the First Amendment at its heart, while the other is arguably faithful to its spirit, though the point is contested--and are not interchangeable as pieces of cultural currency. The real equivalent to hate-speech restriction would have to be a restriction on a form of speech that, like hate speech, has a disputed constitutional status. So if a professor were for speech codes but against restrictions on pornography, he might be asked to address what would seem to be a contradiction. But there is no contradiction in being against restrictions on speech critical of the government and in favor of restrictions on pornography, because speech critical of the government stands alone as indisputably protected and therefore cannot be in a relation of equivalence to speech of any other kind. No matter what those professors thought or didn't think about speech codes, their right to be critical of their government remains their undoubted possession. That is what the Constitution says and has always said.

A summary, then, and a scorecard: Is postmodernism either dead or one of the causes of our present distress? No. Is this a religious war? You bet. Are professors as a class unpatriotic and thus deserving of the condemnation William Bennett and so many others rain down on them for the crime of saying things these pundits don't like? No again. Can the complex reality of particular situations be captured by the abstract vocabulary of so-called universals? NO, in thunder!

COPYRIGHT 2002 Harper's Magazine Foundation in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart.
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Journal Assignment

This article contains a number of arguments--about postmodernism, about free speech, about affirmative action, about moralistic history, and about religion. Since we are addressing this article in the context of the sociology of religion it is this latter argument to which I would like you to pay particular attention and to address in your Journal response. However, I want to introduce one important cautionary note. This article was written (as you will have observed) within the context of controversial issues that became strongly argued in the intellectual aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. Thus understandably the religion that is referenced is the Islamic faith. But I want you to read these references as references to any religion as it is understood by its committed adherents, by any set of religious "true believers." And what I want you to address in your Journal is what you make of the arguments that Fish offers in regard to (1) those believers who are "really religious" and (2) those who are involved in "a faith at peace with freedom and modernity."

An addenda: On Wednesday, January 28, 2003, a brief essay titled "My God is Your God" was published on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. It seems to me that it was presciently pertinent to the article above and so I would encourage you to read it now.