FORGIVE MY TARDINESS, BUT last month The New York Times published an article that compared liberals unfavorably to fundamentalist mobs. The piece appeared on the paper’s fun op-ed page, on the occasion of the “cartoon riots” that were provoked by the publication in a conservative Danish newspaper of scornful images of the Prophet—no, that’s not accurate. The riots were provoked by Muslim politicians and diplomats for whom the Western blasphemy was an Allah-sent opportunity to divert the attention of various Muslim societies from what ails them. What would modern Arab satrapies do without medieval Muslim masses? A bloodletting, then, followed by brandy and cigars; and the robed zealots in the streets are glad to do the work of the suited cynics in the private planes. Scores of people died in the cartoon riots. It was not the cartoons that killed them; it was their conviction that violence is a variety of cultural criticism. The intensity of their feeling about their faith was all that they (and in their view, anybody else) needed to know in the world.
AND THERE IN THE TIMES WAS STANLEY Fish, extolling them precisely for this. How contrarian. Fish is the author of a book called The Trouble With Principle— now there’s a danger!—and has made a handsome career as a cheap button-pusher; he is one of those intellectuals who prefers any kind of radicalism to any kind of liberalism. (The flourishing of such intellectuals is itself a great tribute to liberalism.) In this particular prank, the kind of radicalism that Fish preferred was the Islamist kind. He lauded the “strong, insistent form” in which the rioters maintained their convictions. They believed that there are ideas “worth fighting over to the death.” This, he declared, “is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.” Liberals, by contrast, believe only in such “abstract” principles as free speech, which makes them contemptibly indifferent to “the content of what is expressed.” He adduced as his example of this timidity the culture editor of the Danish newspaper, for whom what seemed to matter was not the substance of what his paper said but its right to say it. In the liberal “religion of letting it all hang out,” Fish sneered, “everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously.”
THIS IS AN ANCIENT SLANDER AGAINST liberalism. “I’m liberal,” declares a character in one of Frost’s poems, and explains: “I mean so altruistically moral / I never take my own side in a quarrel.” That is a benign version of the complaint that liberalism is invertebrate, purely procedural, lacking in fervent beliefs about what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil. There were malign versions as well. Fish’s exhilaration at the vitality of the crowd, his contempt for the restraints of reason, his discovery of personal integrity in physical violence—in another time, these were the ejaculations of fascists. Fish’s piece has that ni droite, ni gauche quality. It put me in mind of some rhapsodic pages in Among The Thugs, Bill Buford’s report on his arousal by the violence of English soccer hooligans: “Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures.... What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness,” and “being in a crowd in an act of violence ... [n]othingness is what you find there ... [n]othingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity,” and similar garbage. One is supposed to admire the honesty of such confessions, I suppose. But why should the drama of the confession matter more than the substance of the confession?
IT IS CERTAINLY TRUE, AS FISH WORRIES, that a liberal order exasperates certain types of “strongly held faiths.” The believers in an open society always have some adjusting to do. Yet not all strongly held faiths are alike. Often the aforesaid adjustments are made, for the sake of principle or social peace. And a faith held so strongly that it acknowledges no legitimacy to other strongly held faiths, so that it seeks to suppress or to destroy them—surely such faiths must not be allowed to hide their depredation behind our toleration. They deserve all the exasperation that we can visit upon them. Moreover, not all strongly held faiths are held for reasons worthy of respect. (I mean intellectual respect. About political respect, there must be no doubt; but political respect is not a promise of intellectual respect.) Usually they are just the unexamined promptings of tribe and tradition. But then Fish is not exercised by the intellectual quality of the bellicose dogmatisms that he wishes upon us. Quite the contrary. What excites Fish about fervent belief is the fervor, not the belief.
FOR THIS REASON, IT IS FISH’S GEEKY paean to people who are happy to hurt other people, his anti-liberal envy of muscles, that is perfectly contentless. He recommends the radicalism of the Islamist protesters, but he does not care whether there is no God but Allah or whether Mohammed is His Prophet. The philosophy means nothing to him. He wants only the action. He mocks liberals as editors, but he is himself just a spectator. And he is demanding his thrills. He is living vicariously through the absolutism of others. Those are not the jollies of a democrat.
LIBERALS ARE NOT EDITORS, EVEN IF some editors are liberals. And fairness is not lifelessness. And free speech is the beginning of a liberal order, not the end. And rights are not the enemies of passions, and passions are not most stirringly represented by violations of rights. Where does Fish—not to put too fine a point on it, but in this respect he resembles some of our most virulent enemies—get the idea that liberals cannot fight? From the Democrats, perhaps; but that is liberalism’s problem, not liberalism’s fate. Anyway, Fish is not seeking political satisfaction, he is seeking emotional satisfaction in politics. And the history of emotionally satisfying politics is often a tale of crimes and abuses. The refusal to burn a book or a flag or a person, the renunciation of brutality in political expression, is not a sign of infirmity of purpose. Not at all. I wish to assure Fish, by example perhaps, that liberals can be—in the name of Kant, in the name of Jefferson, in the name of Mill—assholes.
This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.