Last week, in the comments to this post on Stanley Fish, I noted that he has a schtick--a Fish schtick, as Bradley pointed out. He likes to play the role of the objective observer who is above it all, and is only showing where arguments lead, not pushing any particular agenda. He's pretty open about it in today's column:
Reading it 200 times wouldn’t help, for I don’t stand anywhere; that’s the (non) point of most of these columns, not to endorse or reject agendas, but to follow out the lines of argument that accompany them, to see how those arguments work or don’t work, to see where they lead.My personal position is that there are few more dishonest statements than the claim of objectivity, and it's what irritates me most about Fish in general. It's especially aggravating because of where he's making the claim--in a blog under the Opinion section of the NY Times. Seriously--if you honestly believe don't have opinions, then give up the space to someone who does. That's what it's supposed to be used for.
Fish's swerve this week is cute because, while last week he basically copped to being a neoliberal--in terms which he helped define--this week he says that the fact that the term is often misused in contradictory ways means it has no real meaning, and that he didn't really cop to anything. And then he points to one commenter who admits to not understanding what Fish wrote to prove his point.
But it's all an act. Fish isn't above the fray in most of his columns. He just does a really good job of hiding his position beneath a veneer of faux-objectivity, by claiming to simply explore lines of argument as opposed to advocate for them. He does a poorer job than usual this week, when it comes to the discussion of the boycott of Israeli academics, because it's clear that he feels the boycott is wrong. I find it interesting that, of the two reasons for this, he chooses the weaker on which to base his argument because it fits in with the very neo-liberal attitude he admitted to last week, namely, that the academic world and the political world shouldn't overlap in the university setting, that the two should remain separate.
The stronger argument is that, quite simply, the divestiture argument used on South Africa is a poor analogy for the boycott of Israeli academics. Look, I'm all in favor of US universities divesting from Israeli companies in protest against the treatment of Palestinians, and I'm not really bothered whether or not it will have a real effect. Symbolic gestures can be powerful as well. But even that is a blunt instrument, and we need to acknowledge that. A better attitude might be to limit Israeli investment to companies which openly support the peace process, much like has been done with green mutual funds and the like. Then you're really voting with your dollars.
If full divestiture from Israel is a blunt instrument, though, then a full-scale academic boycott of Israeli academics is Mecha-Godzilla rampaging through the city. It seems to me that academia ought to be the place where opponents of the current Israeli government's Palestinian policies are trying to gather support, and cutting them off from international discourse isn't the way to do that. Sure, if individual scholars are advocating for policies that you find odious, don't work with them, don't appear with them, and if you have pull at various conferences, don't invite them, but to boycott them seems self-defeating at best.
But Fish eschews that line of argument to fall back on his neo-liberal position that the world of academia belongs in the university and the world of politics belongs outside of it, and never the twain should meet.
What should not be in dispute is that those actions, however salutary and productive of good results, were and are antithetical to the academic enterprise, which while it may provide the tools (of argument, fact and historical research) that enable good and righteous deeds, should never presume to perform them.That's right--put your head down, teach your classes, publish your scholarship. and don't get the university involved. Good to know where you stand. Dr. Fish.