The teaser copy atop the December issue of Harper’s is simple — “Stanley Fish on Intelligent Design.” What fan of Stanley Fish or the Intelligent Design debate wouldn’t want to read that creative pairing of author and subject?
Fish begins with an unpredictable angle by accusing I.D. proponents of misappropriating the academic style of Gerald Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago:
What the Christian Right took from him (without acknowledgment) was the idea that college instructors should “teach the conflicts” around academic issues so that students will learn that knowledge is neither inertly given nor merely a matter of personal opinion but is established in the crucible of controversy.
Then he shifts into overstating what I.D. proponents seek:
What is ironic is that although Graff made his case for teaching the controversies in a book entitled Beyond the Culture Wars, the culture wars have now appropriated his thesis and made it into a weapon. In the Intelligent Design army, from Bush on down to every foot soldier, “teach the controversy” is the battle cry.
It is an effective one, for it takes the focus away from the scientific credibility of Intelligent Design — away from the question, “Why should it be taught in a biology class?” — and puts it instead on the more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry. Rather than saying we’re right, the other guys are wrong, and here are the scientific reasons why, Intelligent Design polemicists say that every idea should at least get a hearing; that unpopular or minority views should always be represented; that questions of right and wrong should be left open; that what currently counts as knowledge should always be suspect, because it will typically reflect the interests and preferences of those in power.
By the end of his brief essay, Fish argues that I.D. proponents are guilty of — oh, he knows how to hit where it hurts — relativism:
In the guise of upping the stakes, Intelligent Designers lower them, moving immediately to a perspective so broad and inclusive that all claims are valued not because they have proven out in the contest of ideas but simply because they are claims. When any claim has a right to be heard and taught just because it is one, judgment falls by the wayside and is replaced by the imperative to let a hundred (or a million) flowers bloom.
There’s a word for this, and it’s relativism. Polemicists on the right regularly lambaste intellectuals on the left for promoting relativism and its attendant bad practices — relaxing or abandoning standards, opening the curriculum to any idea with a constituency attached to it, dismissing received wisdom by impugning the motives of those who have established it; disregarding inconvenient evidence and replacing it with grand theories supported by nothing but the partisan beliefs and desires of the theorizers. Whether or not this has ever been true of the right’s targets, it is now demonstrably true of the right itself, whose members now recite the mantras of “teach the controversy” or “keep the debate open” whenever they find it convenient.
Considering that Fish directly takes on Philip Johnson, and knowing how Johnson loves a good argument, the response should be worth the wait.