Stanley Fish gets it wrong

Stanley Fish attempts to argue that there is no principled way to differentiate between Ward Churchil’s claims that the victims of 9/11 were “little Eichmans” and Larry Summers comments that the preponderane of males in Harvard’s physics department might be partially the result of genetic predispositions. He claims that both sorts of speech are equally permissible from a First Ammendment perspective and that it is inconsistent of the right to condemn Churchill and demand his resignation while at the same time making Larry Summers a free speech martyr.

Fish is largely missing the point. Summers is making a factual claim that may or may not be justified using scientific evidence. See this fabulous debate to betwee Steve Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke to see how such a discussion can proceed. In contrast, Churchill is making a value judgement about America and terrorism that is not per se provable or disprovable. Discussion and evaluation of factual claims are the substance of science and acadamia and it is indeed scandalous that Harvard’s faculty appears unable to engage in it. In contrast, Churchill is infusing facts with value judgements that at odds with those of the people and institutions that employ him. The left has indeed been entirely ok with the politicization of academia. The right has largely stood for the idea that academia should be the province of intellect.

Churchill’s abuse was to shift from intellectual discourse to political discourse and to represent his political discourse as intellectually valid. Summers was making a factual hypothesis ammenable to proof or disproof. The fact that Fish can’t see the difference is indeed part of the problem with academia today, a problem that Ward Churchill so vividly makes apparent.


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