Politics & Policy

Dangerous Ideas

Stanley Fish plays dumb.

Particle accelerators are very complicated. This is the main reason most people aren’t allowed to play with them. Even if you have a reasonable understanding of how they work, few scientists will permit you to come in off the street and start pushing buttons. Similarly, most folks aren’t allowed to tinker with nuclear submarines, 747s, hydroelectric generators, artificial hearts, space shuttles, and other complicated gizmos without verifiable proof of expertise, proficiency, maturity, etc.

I admit this can be unfair. Some folks with proper credentials, doctorates, licenses, permits, and so forth are probably less qualified in an absolute sense than a few profoundly talented laymen who just can’t get through the door. And while this may be a shame in the cosmic sense, we have a society to run here. And that means we have to set up a system which keeps the sand-poundingly stupid from flooding central Kansas or irradiating Cleveland.

On the bright side, we do permit pretty much everyone to study anything. If you want to read a book about how to design, say, the Hoover Dam, you’re perfectly free to do so. If you want to learn how to make a nuclear reactor, there’s literally nothing stopping you except the price of a few dozen books, some schooling, and the time and energy necessary to process the information.

It’s only when you want to do things outside your head that we as a society saunter-up to your garage workshop and ask “Hey, what are you doing?” If you answer, “I’m making a better mousetrap,” we say “good luck,” and walk away. If you answer, “I’m making a thermonuclear device to slaughter the infidels once and for all.” We say, “Huh. Do you have a permit for that?”

Obviously, I’m simplifying. In fact, we ask too many people to show their permits for the stuff they do. We just institutionalize the process through regulations. And, yeah, there’s some technology you can’t research to your heart’s content. If you post a query to a bulletin board asking how to poison the water supply of New York City, you’ll probably get a visit from the FBI. At least I hope you will.

Regardless, the point remains. When it comes to technology, we understand that abstractions are harmless. Pondering a nuclear bomb never laid waste to a city.


Alas, when it comes to the world of ideas outside the realm of technology — politics, philosophy, cultural criticism, art, and so on — we don’t just merely permit so much as actively encourage people to explore any idea they like. As a society we typically think this is wonderful because we believe in freedom of thought, speech, conscience, etc. And, if you’re going to frame the issue as one of government interference versus my unadulterated right to speak, write, read, and think as I wish, then it is a wonderful thing, on the whole.

But beneath all the clichés, posturing and, breast-beating from “lovers of liberty” and civil libertarians of all parties, there’s an inescapable fact. Some ideas are dangerous. If you are a reasonable person, you will concede this point — even if you disagree with me on which ideas were dangerous. My list includes those notions which constitute the cores of Nazism, Stalinism, communism, postmodernism, Maoism, relativism, scientific socialism, Hale-Boppism, running-with-scissorsism, et al. If you’re on the left you might take a few of those off and add capitalism, conservatism, manifest destiny, whatever.

Or, you might avoid taking the bait in all of these cases. But even the most hyper ACLU-ers believe that the idea that there are “dangerous ideas” in the first place is itself a dangerous idea. It’s similar to what the Catch-22 relativists stumble over when they insist that objective truth is impossible. Well, if it’s impossible, isn’t that an objective truth?

Anyway, the only argument among reasonable people is what to do about the fact that there are dangerous ideas. Many people will argue with great passion and intelligence that there is, simply, nothing to be done. Freedom, they will argue, is meaningless if we don’t have the freedom to embrace bad ideas. Moreover, they will plausibly suggest, the notion that our government can wisely regulate the dissemination of ideas is batty.

To all of this I say: fine, fine. I don’t agree entirely with these declarations of libertarian purity in that I am a believer in censorship rightly understood. But as a matter of practicalities I will concede the point that I don’t want the feds rummaging through used book bins for philosophers they don’t like any more than the next guy. So, okay: Individuals should be free to study whatever they want, period. (I am staying clear of issues like obscenity just to keep things moving, by the way.)

And, in order to cut things a bit shorter, I’ll leap ahead and concede that people should be free to write and say anything they want too.

But so what? Arguments over freedom are often nothing more than a distraction from important questions. Call it a debater’s trick or simply bullying, but voluptuaries of liberty often insist on framing every issue as one of individual freedom versus tyranny, oppression, the mob, conformity, whatever, because few people in this country have the courage to say that freedom isn’t everything. Why I even feel compelled to offer some platitudinous ode to liberty just to preempt the torrent from readers who will tell me freedom is an absolute, uncompromisable good (even though these absolutists pay their taxes, renew their driver’s licenses, keep their music down, and mow their lawns even when they don’t want to).

Regardless, the fact that I am free to do something is absolutely irrelevant as to whether I should do something. I am free to eat an entire wheel of brie, for example.


In the sciences, when we translate an idea to physical reality we take into account the fact that there might be tangible repercussions in the real world. If you have a “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” bumper sticker you might take this principle too far, but at least it exists.

In the world of art and humanities, however, no such principle exists. Indeed, the total lack of a principle of restraint is more often mistaken for some kind of principle. In the humanities, all ideas — except conservative ones — spurt out as if from an unmanned fire hose, spraying in every direction without a care about who gets soaked. Indeed, the only notion actively censored is the suggestion that things might be better if someone grabbed hold of the hose.

You might wonder why I’m writing all of this. So, let me exhume my lead before this whole column ends. In the latest issue of Harper’s, Stanley Fish has a long defense of postmodernism, which has been under assault since September 11. The doctrine that there are no moral absolutes, it seems, is fun to play with when arguing about the president’s pants or the meaning of “is.” But when thousands of Americans are murdered by zealots, the demand for postmodern analysis over the last few decades all of a sudden seems like the intellectual equivalent of the tulip-bulb craze of the 17th century: a huge market built up around an amusing but essentially valueless commodity. Fish, the George Soros of the PoMo market, has been working overtime to protect his investment.

I’ll leave it to others — Peter Berkowitz, for example — to take Fish’s efforts head-on (though you might take a gander at my “Facts and Firemen“). But what’s set me off is Fish’s claim that postmodernism is simply “a rarefied form of academic talk.” Fish would have people believe that postmodernism is simply what postmodernists do in their hidden English-department laboratories.

Well, not only did the virus of postmodernism escape Fish’s lab, but he and his henchmen ground it up into fine particles and sent aerosolized packets of it to every magazine, newspaper, publishing house, and movie studio in America. Fish’s hypocrisy is stunning. The PoMo virus has infected millions, destabilizing traditional institutions across the social landscape. And yet when confronted, he says “I’m not responsible for what happens in the real world, I’m just a lab technician.” Well, this high priest of the cult of the twelve monkeys is responsible.

When Fish is on the defensive he can make postmodernism sound humble and useful. Postmodernism, he says, merely holds that people from different or opposing belief systems cannot appeal to objective truth in order to persuade each other who is right and who is wrong. “Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one,” he writes. Assuming he’s not being an intellectual Arafat, saying one thing in English to the American public and another thing in his “rarefied academic talk” to his minions, that actually sounds somewhat reasonable. It certainly isn’t a radically destructive idea.

But whether that’s the truth or just a propagandistic lie is entirely irrelevant. Fish damn well knows that millions of people think postmodernism means something very, very, very different — even if they don’t know what postmodernism is. For lots of Americans, the idea that there are no objective standards of truth or morality is incredibly sophisticated and intelligent. The authors who write the clever novels, the film directors who get awards and rave reviews for blurring the lines between good and evil, the professors who claim George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden are morally indistinguishable: These are the “thoughtful people” in our culture. Meanwhile, the people who talk in terms of right and wrong are ridiculed by the sophisticates.

Call it feminism, critical race theory, critical legal studies, queer theory, whatever: It’s all shrapnel from the same postmodern bomb, broadly speaking. These doctrines haven’t all been terrible for America, but their misapplication and over-application have. Scientists take responsibility for the damage they do. English professors take speaking fees. Conservatism, which does not fetishize the masses, understands that even an intelligent idea can have horrific consequences if let loose upon a society. The uninformed, the lazy, the affected, the ambitious, and the dumb can adopt sharp-edged ideas and use them as blunt cudgels if we are not careful. The authors of postmodernism have not been careful.

I keep thinking of the exchange in the film A Fish Called Wanda. Otto, played by Kevin Kline, is an idiot and a bully who also fancies himself an intellectual (he thinks the central message of Buddhism was “every man for himself”). Wanda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, says to him: “To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep who could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs, but you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?”

Otto objects, “Apes don’t read philosophy.”

To which Wanda replies, “Yes they do, Otto, they just don’t understand it!”

There are legions of Ottos out there who believe postmodernism means there is no truth, no right, no wrong, no good, no bad. They believe it because they either misunderstood Fish and his disciples or because they understood them all too well.

Stanley Fish knows all this. And, a few throwaway lines notwithstanding, he clearly thinks it’s great. Indeed, if he didn’t think so he would not devote his energies to defending postmodernism. Rather, he would, like Dr. Frankenstein, run through the village trying to make amends for the damage all of his Ottos have done.


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