Stanley Fish — reputedly the original of Morris Zapp in David Lodge’s Changing Places and Small World — is undeniably brilliant. Alas, Fish (like Zapp) is also far more interested in demonstrating his brilliance and perversity than in illuminating his subject or enlightening his readers. That makes him capable, sometimes, of truly stunning feats of intellectual dishonesty.
Consider, for example, this passage, quoted by Orin Kerr from an essay whose full text, hidden behind the Times Select firewall, I have not read. Prof. Fish argues that the SMU faculty should be cheerful about the prospect of hosting the George W. Bush Presidential Library:
A university is pledged to determine the truth of the texts its faculty studies. It is not pledged to confining itself to texts of whose truthfulness it is convinced. A university is pledged to the integrity of the work that goes on within its precincts. But it is not pledged to conduct that work only on persons and agenda of whose integrity it is confident. A university is pledged to respect the persons of its employees, which means that it evaluates everyone by the same set of nondiscriminatory standards. But it is not pledged to restrict the object of its academic attention to people and groups who do not discriminate. A university is pledged to use its resources — money, equipment, labor — responsibly, but neither the responsibility or irresponsibility of those entities it chooses to study is something it is pledged to consider.
Those who think that by insisting on a moral yardstick, the university protects its integrity have it all wrong; the university forsakes its integrity when it takes upon itself the task of making judgments that belong properly to the electorate and to history. A university’s obligation is to choose things worthy of study, not to study only those things it finds worthy.
College Station, Tex., the home of George H.W. Bush’s library, has become an obligatory stop on the lecture circuit. And while Dallas is no backwater, its cultural and intellectual life would surely be enriched by the presence of still another world-class attraction.
Of course, no one denies that George W. Bush is well worth studying, just as Nero, cholera, and rape are well worth studying. But equally of course the George. W. Bush Presidential Library will not study George W. Bush from some sort of neutral perspective. It will be a $200 million dollar monument and propaganda mill, with the money put up by the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife and by the corporate beneficiaries of Mr. Bush’s crony capitalism and (upper) class warfare.
Given Mr. Bush’s actual record, no study of him that had any intellectual integrity would pass muster with the sponsors, or the accomplices and flatterers who will constitute the library’s governing board and management team. When the library is established, we can expect standards of objectivity and historical accuracy like this.
If Gazprom, Lukoil, and Rosneft offered SMU $200 million to create a Vladimir Putin Presidential Library, would Prof. Fish think that, in spurning that offer, SMU would “forsake its integrity” by “judging” Mr. Putin rather than leaving that judgement “to the electorate and to history”? Or how about a Mahathir Mohammed Prime Ministerial Library paid for by the contributors to UMNO? A Charles Taylor Presidential Library sponsored by his crony and beneficiary Pat Robertson? Obviously, the line gets drawn somewhere, and Prof. Fish states no basis for drawing it on the other side of a monument to the Beloved Leader.
Naturally, Stanley Fish is plenty smart enough to understand this. But it’s annoying that he thinks you and I aren’t.