Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law. He’s hella old, but instead of retiring to Florida, he did the next best thing: Got a job writing editorials for the New York Times. Oh, and took an academic job in Florida. Before that, he taught at UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke and University of Illinois, Chicago. During his protracted journeyings around this great nation, he’s built an intellectual reputation for advancing anti-foundationalism and extreme relativism. Not the fake kind of relativism, where it just means you like gay people and disagree with Glenn Beck, but the real kind, where you go around like a dickhead telling everyone that truth doesn’t exist and human nature is just a bunch of historically contingent cultural norms.
Looking at his Wikipedia page, I find that critiques of his philosophical stance are legion. For instance, Judith Shulevitz reports Fish “rejects wholesale the concepts of ‘fairness, impartiality, reasonableness,'” Terry Eagleton “excoriates Fish’s ‘discreditable epistemology’ as ‘sinister,'” and Martha Nussbaum says he “‘relies on the regulative principle of non-contradiction in order to adjudicate between competing principles,’ thereby relying on normative standards of argumentation even as he argues against them.” I’m glad someone finally said something! That’s basically what I was going to point out myself, but I didn’t want to be the first to one bring it up.
Knowing that Fish’s discreditable epistemology and regulative principle of non-contradiction have been duly addressed, we can turn with an easy conscience to this blog’s rightful concern: His writing for the Times. Specifically, his sentences. Fish is a master of sentences, having authored the recent volume How to Write a Sentence. So it’s fitting that we look to his methods for guidance and instruction. What kind of sentences can a world-famous Milton scholar, teacher to generations of young minds, and distinguished commentator for the Paper of Record turn out?
Love has always proved a difficult subject for NYT writers to tackle. Having existed for over 50,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded human history, it cannot be convincingly described as a “trend.” It could even be said defy trends, outlasting all epochs, regimes, reigns, administrations, and empires. It’s a human universal! That is all very inspiring, but poses difficulties for the Styles scribes, who have a paradigm that — while perfectly serviceable when men’s eyebrow grooming appointments go up 8 percent between 2009 and 2010, or some such — lacks explanatory power when dealing with with time frames in the tens of thousands of years.
Are trend pieces the only option? No. If you want to explain the vagaries of affection to Styles readers, you could turn to another perennial format, the one that I call “article about a press release.” Specifically, an article about a press release about a scientific study, a study that is about something of interest to Styles readers. Creating an AAAPR(AASS) is easy, because all you have to do is read the one-age press release, paraphrase what it says, and add in some Jersey Shore references. You don’t have to weigh conflicting opinions and reach an independent conclusion, or read a bunch of relevant scientific work in the field, or even read the one scientific work that the article is about. Just summarize the press release, and bam, you’re a Science Reporter, using all kinds of cool words like “hypothesize” and “control group.” Science is great!
Some of the problems with the New York Times are nebulous and diffuse. The writers’ tone can seem kind of smug and suck-uppy. They write about rich people too much. They care way too much about iPhones and hipsters and artisanal axes and stuff. Yet none of these things are wrong, exactly. It’s not incorrect to write that a man in TriBeCa is crafting beautiful handmade “urban axes,” as indeed he is. Yet some claims and ideas in the Times aren’t just annoying; they’re concretely, satisfyingly wrong. That is what we’ll be looking at today. How many kinds of wrongness are there in Times articles, and what form do they take?
Michael Leviton is a New York musician and author who has a children’s book forthcoming from Hyperion next year. The video above gives you an idea of his worldview: It features accordion and glockenspiel, warbly soprano vocals, and lyrics about how all the normal beautiful people are having fun in the summertime but the speaker is lonely and disillusioned because he’s so quirky, unique and sensitive. The video contributes to the atmosphere, spinning a nostalgic yarn about a 1940’s sailor who falls in love with an emaciated mermaid and is lured by her coquetry to a watery grave. I posted it on my Facebook page, and one music fan was moved to comment on the song’s “incoherent lyrics, extremely amateurish singing, and worst of all, an acoustic guitar (technically ukulele) with which absolutely nothing interesting is done,” observing that “Benjamin Franklin invented electricity for a reason.” I think it sounds like an imitation of parody of a Stephen Merritt/Belle and Sebastien cover band. You might like it, though!
Why am I telling you about Michael Leviton? Because he is the author of the latest “Modern Love,” and the subject of this post. But before looking at his writing, let me shift gears for a moment. Why do people write embarrassing stuff about themselves? Everyone has done dumb stuff they feel bad about, but why publish it for all the world? It’s hard to say. Yet autobiography, memoir and standup comedy would all be impossible without the speaker’s penitential urge to be bracingly honest. No one wants to read a story about how you went to Stanford, didn’t do drugs, got a job at a financial firm, bought a Prius, and married someone just as upwardly mobile as you. Or maybe they do, if you’re in the New York Times wedding pages, but that doesn’t make it interesting. So it’s lucky we have some writers who feel compelled to tell the ugly truth.
Some time has passed since my last post, and now we must face a poignant milestone together: Randy Cohen’s last column. In this goodbye essay, he gives us a window into his world, summing up a decade’s worth of his adventures reading people’s letters and trying to have thoughts about them.
Over the years, Cohen has been fortunate enough to have thousands of readers request his opinion, then slaver over how great he is. So naturally, he begins by discussing his hate mail. He got a lot of angry letters, but it’s all good: “Ethics is a subject about which honorable people may differ. I was less sanguine about readers who disparaged not my argument but my character or my shoes or my nose, attacks that generally concluded, ‘You should be ashamed.’ I blame the anonymity of e-mail. And underprescribed medication.” I’m not sure you’d have to be off your meds to find Randy Cohen’s face to be objectionable; have you seen the guy? It’s a little tactless to blame him for it, though. If anyone should be ashamed of how Randy Cohen’s face turned out, it’s God! They should take it up with him!
But I’m not here to make puerile digs about people’s looks. Especially when Cohen himself is striving so hard to be fair. “From time to time, readers persuaded me that I was — what’s that ugly word? — wrong. Then I would revisit a column and recant my folly. I first did so when readers powerfully asserted that yes, you could honorably take your own food to the movies, despite a theater’s prohibition.” Why would you even think they couldn’t? “Ye shall not eat of the Raisinets that are in your purse, nor shall ye touch them, lest ye die” is not a serious moral edict. I don’t recall forbidden Jujyfruits being mentioned in the Bible — or in the Q’ran, the Code of Hammurabi, the Dialogues of Plato, Thomas Aquinas’s Commentaries on Aristotle, the Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, Atlas Shrugged, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch, or anywhere else ethical doctrines are to be found. So what’s the deal?