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September 25, 2004

A Trophy Fish


Stanley Fish is an extremely intelligent and marvelously articulate man. I remember fondly a debate I saw between him and William F. Buckley, Jr. some years ago (wish I had that on video). While I agreed nearly down the line with Buckley, listening to Fish's argument was both wonderfully entertaining and educational. The result of observing the friction of two minds of this quality rubbing against the hardness of the issue was that I understood my own beliefs, and the reasons supporting them, better, while at the same time gaining a better understanding of how others could, due to different underlying assumptions, believe that positions near opposite to mine could be true.

So it was with interest, and not a little eagerness, I followed the link from The Buck Stops Here to Fish's article in the New York Times. "The Candidates, Seen From the Classroom" is, shock of all shocks, an article which praises the speechmaking skills of President Bush, while at the same time delivering a devastating criticque of John Kerry's. It is very important to note that this is not an endorsement by Fish or his class of the politics of Bush or an attack upon the politics of Kerry. As Fish says immediately in his opening:

My students were not voting on the candidates' ideas. They were voting on the skill (or lack of skill) displayed in the presentation of those ideas.
And by an overwhelming vote of 14 to 2 (including Fish himself, who gives Bush the smile), they award Bush the laurel of rhetorician.

Amusing are their findings, and how the black of the major media's positions on this subject end up being the white of the class's, and vice versa. Where it's commonplace to hear criticism of Bush along the lines of "he is too simple and direct," here he is praised for being exactly that. Kerry, in contrast, is criticized for being too complicated and nuanced. It's very hard to keep track of what Kerry is saying. This consensus delivered the one belly laugh that exceeded the numerous smiles the article evoked. It was Fish's favorite too:

"he's kind of 'skippy,' all over the place."
That could be the caption to a certain ad the Bush campaign as been running recently.

Fish's conclusion is devastating to Kerry (emphasis mine):

And - this is a common refrain among Kerry supporters - doesn't Mr. Bush's directness and simplicity of presentation reflect a simplicity of mind and an incapacity for nuance, while Mr. Kerry's ideas are just too complicated for the rhythms of publicly accessible prose?

Sorry, but that's dead wrong. If you can't explain an idea or a policy plainly in one or two sentences, it's not yours; and if it's not yours, no one you speak to will be persuaded of it, or even know what it is, or (and this is the real point) know what you are. Words are not just the cosmetic clothing of some underlying integrity; they are the operational vehicles of that integrity, the visible manifestation of the character to which others respond. And if the words you use fall apart, ring hollow, trail off and sound as if they came from nowhere or anywhere (these are the same thing), the suspicion will grow that what they lack is what you lack, and no one will follow you.

It's amazing how well this describes Kerry's problems and Bush's successes. While this is already enough to put a smile on the face of Bush supporters everywhere, and have us nodding in satisfaction, Fish isn't quite finished undermining the overly-crenellated walls of Kerry-supporters' hopes:
Nervous Democrats who see their candidate slipping in the polls console themselves by saying, "Just wait, the debates are coming.'' As someone who will vote for John Kerry even though I voted against him in my class, that's just what I'm worried about
You must read it all. Though I've quoted large parts, it deserves reading as an organic whole. Fish is a superlative thinker and writer. Too bad he's wrong about politics.

Posted by dan at September 25, 2004 12:43 AM | TrackBack
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