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What Would People Think?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

My Defense and My Critique of Jonathan Farley

Background: Those of you who aren't up to speed with the mini-controversy going on between Prof. Jonathan Farley and my friend, Jeff Woodhead, should first read Jeff's blog here - along with the articles he links to and the comments afterwards.

My Defense: Since I've generally been coming to Jeff's defense against Dr. Farley and whoever "Eva" is, it might shock my friends to know I sympathize with him even now....even in calling up Jeff 2 years after the fact and demanding a retraction. I disagree, but I sympathize.

Let me draw a parallel. Recently Howard Dean gave a speech about balloting in Florida, how the long lines work to the disadvantage of the poor. Here's what he said:

You -- (applause continues) -- you know, the idea that you have to wait on line for eight hours to cast your ballot in Florida -- there's something the matter with that. You think people can work all day and then pick up their kids at child care or wherever, and get home and then have a -- still manage to sandwich in an eight-hour vote? Well, Republicans, I guess, can do that, because a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives. (Light applause.) But for ordinary working people, who have to work eight hours a day, they have kids, they got to get home to those kids, the idea of making them stand for eight hours to cast their ballot for democracy is wrong. We ought to make voting easier to do. Mail -- Oregon has got it
right. (Applause.)

Republicans, opposing any reform in voting that might disadvantage them and always looking to be on the attack, instantly attacked Dean for the "Republicans never working an honest day in their lives" line. Oh, the scandal! The horror! That man is calling ALL Republicans lazy slobs.

Of course, by picking out one line - boneheaded comment though it may have been - Republicans effectively took the focus off of voting reform and onto that one line. Dean looked bad, and even fellow Democrats began attacking him. "Dean doesn't speak for me," cried Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

And that really got me mad. Even if Dean's comment was bone-headed, Clinton and Edwards, by piling on the attacks, allowed the Republican spin machine to work its magic and take away from Dean's main point. Most Americans probably never knew he HAD a main point.

Dr. Farley, with some justification, probably feels the same way. He wrote a passionate column about neo-Confederate revisionists who try to paint the Confederacy as the good guys (and even of the North was not pure, the Confederacy WAS fighting for slavery). For the 10,348th time, I agree with that point, as did Jeff.

But conservatives quickly made it all about this one line in which Dr. Farley said the entire Confederate army, generals and solidiers, should have been executed. I think this was a dumb line and horrific idea....Dr. Farley and "Eva" probably disagree. But the point is, neo-confederates gleefully jumped on this one line, portrayed the man as a raving lunatic, and successfully ignored the issue of their own racism. And practically everybody jumped on the bandwagon.

Conservatives seem to believe their leaders can do no wrong while liberals have a tendancy to eat their own. As a result, conservatives usually win the "spin wars" these days. Dr. Farley's message of truth about the South's shameful past was lost in the flood of criticism from people on the Right and the Left.

I can see why he wants a retraction from those who say they are on his side.

My Critique: But that doesn't mean I think he should get it. Even if the above argument is true, there is a fatal flaw in Dr. Farley and "Eva's" reasoning.

"Eva" asked Jeff and his friends (including me) why we were attacking Dr. Farley instead of supporting him. What she missed is that, while disagreeing with Dr. Farley's methods, we shared the same goals.

Whoever said that the Progressive cause is a monolith? Can we not have honest disagreements and still support each other? Have we truly sunk so low that the act of questioning one another is political treason?

Yes, it is difficult, given the tendancy of the modern spin machine to pounce on any disagreement to sow dissension and the willingness of our shallow media to go along with it. But there must be room for disagreement, dissent, and dialogue (pardon my alliteration) among liberals. That is our strength...that we are willing to listen to different voices and hope to become the wiser for it. If every disagreement is a personal attack...if every dialogue is reduced to on side crying "slander" and the other saying "you're a joke of a person"....if we can't each think and make up our own minds, but must mindlessly support whatever one outspoken liberal says.... then we have become that which we hate. ("If you're not with us, you're against us." Golly, where have I heard that before?)

I can understand how Dr. Farley must have felt under the withering stream of attacks and death threats (or, understand as much as I can considering I didn't go through it) and could sympathize with him lashing out and demanding retractions from the likes of Jeff. But, after 2 and a half years, I would have expected better from such a brilliant man. I would have expected him to realize in the intervening time that there is a difference between those who support his cause but disagree with some things he says and those who hate and oppose him.

Given the nature of the dialogue at Jeff's blog, it's looking like I was wrong. I'm deeply disappointed.


  • Wait Ben, you mean you can both criticize and defend someone at the same time? That's pretty impressive. You should be a lawyer or something.

    "Only Sith deal in absolutes." - Obi Wan Kenobi

    By Blogger Mike, at 7/14/2005 11:45 PM  

  • Actually, I respect Dr. Farley more than I respect Dean in these cases. As much as I believe Farley put his foot in his mouth and canceled any gains his piece might have made with his comments, he was expressing his honest-to-God opinion. Dean was just taking a low blow.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 7/15/2005 12:30 PM  

  • Completely off-topic, there's a new Cameron Crowe movie, Elizabethtown, coming out on October 10th (I think). Stars Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin. I saw the preview before War of the Worlds, and it looks like it'll be worth seeing.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 7/15/2005 1:57 PM  

  • A breath of fresh air!

    These are excellent points.

    By Blogger Leah, at 7/27/2005 2:22 PM  

  • With respect to Farley's death threats... I studied the Memorial Hall case at length as part of a grad school project dealing with public relations crises. One of the more somber side stories involved the death threats received by Gee and Schoenfeld, and later Farley. A relatively small number of white supremacist groups mounted a bitter campaign that involved attacking Gee as a Mormon and making anti-semitic threats against Schoenfeld's family, and of course what happened to Farley as well.

    The supremacists, morons that they are, actually ended up solidifying the resolve against their side. By making their side seem unequivocally racist, they dealt a huge blow to people who also opposed the name change for perfectly plausible, rationally debatable reasons, because in the eyes of the death threat recipients the rational players have become guilty by association. This illustrates one of the major problems with nearly all forms of extremism -- think Pat Robertson, or DailyKos if you prefer -- in that they only give ammunition to their opposition and make it difficult to be sympathetic with points that may otherwise be legitimate.

    Anyway, there's two cents for you.

    By Anonymous chad, at 8/27/2005 4:12 PM  

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