Reviews

Is It Always Better to Think Things Through Twice?

Columnist Stanley Fish's collection of works has readers reconsidering how they form their opinions.


Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Length: 448 pages
Author: Stanley Fish
Price: $29.95
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2015-10
Amazon

Newspaper columnists once played a central role in mediating public debate. Though their influence is still immense (they still pop up on TV and radio, publish books, they're sometimes cited by teachers and makers of both policy and taste), the disruptions in traditional media structures have drained plenty of water from the once considerable pool of esteem that columnists bobbed in. Now they more often stoke partisan eye rolls instead of detached discussions.

Whether they acted as gadflies and crusaders or were lauded as “public intellectuals”, columnists were expected to be generalists, able to hold forth on a wide range of topics, ready to stake a position on the trends driving society toward good or ill. They were the original explainers of the day, long before websites like Vox appeared.

What happens, however, when a columnist refuses to make a substantive claim? What happens when an esteemed columnist devotes time and energy to the positions of others, refraining from putting the metaphorical cards on the table? Can such a columnist, eager to critique but adverse to risking a return volley, claim any sort of authority? Is this little more than striking an ironic pose? Who is such a writer that would do this?

Stanley Fish, professor and lecturer, is that writer. From 1995 to 2013, Fish hosted a regular column in the New York Times. There he held forth on subjects ranging from politics and popular culture to the state of contemporary higher education. Along the way, Fish provoked a number of heated reactions, mainly from his tendency to state a position circuitously, stripping away the rhetorical inconsistencies of others, leaving his opinions the last ones standing, if only discernible through inference.

This was infuriating for many. A typical response to Fish’s modus operandi comes in the introduction of Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education, a curated, non-chronological collection of Fish’s writings across almost two decades:

"Many readers found my refusal to lay my substantive cards on the table infuriating and agreed with Larry, who sent this comment on November 2, 2010: ‘Could you do us all a favor and state in a simple declaration what you believe, because, man, you’re killing me.'"

The usual stance Fish works in can best be described by entry 1.10 "Truth and Conspiracy in the Catskills, originally published in the New York Times on 23 August 2010. Fish attends a "small gathering of fifty or sixty people; roughly 95 percent white, 90 percent male... all nodding in assent as a series of speakers explains that our government is conspiring against us and fabricating massive lies in order to hide its own crimes..." Fish teases out a bit what political persuasion the attendees hold, a bit of obfuscation that appears again and again in this collection. Yet, when the answer lands, it's somewhat counter-intuitive. Given the context, one would have concluded it corresponded with the rise of the Tea Party or Birthers (as the author points out) but the group is actually a left learning organization of relatively highly educated people ("Truthers") who are dead set that 9/11 was in inside job perpetrated by the federal government (or the UN, or the Illuminati, or aliens).

Fish describes the event, coyly noting "I was the only insincere one in the room," having opted out of making his journalistic affiliations known. In classical fashion, Fish never tips his hand, refusing to portray his sympathies (if he has any) and ending his article at a dinner party where some of his guests secretly harbor the same notions peddled at the conference. A typical columnist would use this as the perfect occasion to lecture and harangue his guests (and the reader) about the perils of conspiratorial thinking, sincerity, trust in authority and empirical evidence, et al. Many columnists do this. Think of Thomas Friedman's constantly deriving wisdom from the back of a cab.

Fish, however, doesn't, which could frustrate and does so for a number of his readers. In withholding, however, Fish earns the title of the collection. He presents a group of people who very well might take as their slogan "think again". It's almost a mantra among conspiracy buffs: Things are not what they seem and all that. Fish, though is the one taking the better approach. If Truthers challenge the official narrative and applaud themselves for not people "sheeple" they ultimately end up being "sheeple" of a different stripe, unthinking and unblinking in their own certainty that they possess secret wisdom. He conveys the situation and what emerges is the underlying theme of this entire selection, maybe his entire career. Fish challenges certainties rather than dabbling in them.

Think Again is an excellent collection. This mainly stems from its coherence. Surprisingly, after pulling from so many years, so many contexts, it comes together as a more or less cohesive whole. Undoubtedly, Fish was a different man in 1995 than he was when he laid down his pen in 2013, or when he worked on this collection a yearsor so later. Time always leaves a mark, something certainly true of a columnist, a writer rooted in the here and now almost by definition.

Yet, Fish’s editing deserves praise almost on its own as an exercise in intellectual curation. The experience of reading a columnist’s (or even a blogger’s) output is quite unlike picking up a novel. There’s an immediacy to the words that the worked over, crafted novel can lack. Of course, this can prove fleeting because that immediacy is typically gone once the next edition hits the newsstands or one’s RSS feed.

However, Fish is able to present his thoughts developed over a series of years and erects them around his key concerns. Though his positions often, frustratingly, emerge after the fact (much like the aforementioned comment of Larry’s) there is a vaguely intentional note to the whole collection, as if Fish has orbited a number of concerns from day one.

So what are these concerns? Think Again presents these in its subtitle. There are reflections on religion, politics, the law, all of the butter and bread columnists typically concern themselves with. Nevertheless, those are mere categories. What really concerns Fish is rhetorical rigor, of argumentative consistency, of producing sound acts of persuasion that stem from hard work, eschewing the cheap, easy, or lazy route to wisdom.

In this way, Fish fulfills the function of the columnist quite well. His columns works as a check against the day’s leading voices. Even if he doesn’t explicitly state his points, he is working as an arbiter of opinion and taste. The reader comes to better understand the positions espoused by other thinkers. Fish claims authority by being an editor of discourse. That might be the best compliment a columnist can receive.

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