It may sometimes seem like women face an impossible task: Whether it’s motherhood, professional life or just walking down the street, ladies are vulnerable to the conflicting demands and judgmental expectations of society. A woman is liable to be judged on tiny details — of speech, behavior, even the clothes she wears — and must negotiate the conflicting dangers of being labeled too butch or too feminine, too assertive or too timid, too prudish or too sexy.
But if you think that sounds hard, it’s nothing compared to what New York Times writers have to deal with. Just look at the first sentence of Ruth La Ferla’s article “Women Enjoy the Cool Comfort of Summer Dresses“: “Trends come and go, but the dress persists, secure in its status as a metaphor.”
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?
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?