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Stanley’s Fishy Crack at Liberalism and Progress

On his New York Times blog, Stanley Fish loves to create wild complaint by inflating, no, inverting the factual basis for them. Example #1: using the case of an academic who was fired by his university and hauled off campus for his behavior to bemoan the lack of standards and punishments by universities. Example #2: using the existence of social problems to bemoan the idea of social progress. Blogging yesterday for the Times online:

And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”

That’s Stanley Fish’s position: if any social problems exist at all, then the idea of progress itself is a crock! That’s like getting on a Greyhound in New York City, waiting a half hour, then declaring that buses obviously don’t work because you’re only in Hackensack. It’s like wanting to break all the rulers in a school after you’ve measured the difference in height between Julie and Jonas because Jonas isn’t infinitely tall. It takes liberalism and progress to be destinations, which is a huge misunderstanding, because liberalism is a procedural idea and progress is a claim about change.

In all the areas mentioned by Fish, is our society making progress? Yes. No, racism and sexism are not gone, but they are on the wane in measurable ways. Colonialism and imperialism are not gone, but they are nowhere near as present as they were in the 19th and 20th centuries. The standard by which poverty is measured has been raised, and across the world and in our nation hunger is on the decline. The intensity of these social problems is waning, and it has been for some time. Stanley Fish chose these indicators to “bust” the myth of progress, but by those indicators things are getting better. That’s the definition of progress.

I expect some of you are rolling out your protests right about now, coming up with examples of matters that are getting worse: the environment, civil liberties, warfare. I’d agree with you on that count. Progress is not an inevitability like Fish’s alternative, the invisible, supernatural Kingdom of Heaven. It is a variable that responds to our observable behavior here on Earth. My point is that yet again, Fish’s own examples are contrary to his conclusion.

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