So everybody’s up in arms about this whole Ben Domenech situation. For those of you who aren’t as obsessive about the politics game here in Washington, let me give you the quick recap:
In reaction to criticism that Dan Froomkin’s column at washingtonpost.com (not published as part of the Post newspaper, incidentally) was a little too left-leaning, the Post.com editorial staff hired Ben Domenech, previously an online writer for the conservative blog Red State. And the recriminations — on both sides — are flying around furiously. Left-wing critics are bringing up offhand comments Domenech made in his blog, not to mention potentially plagiarized movie reviews he wrote back in college. Right-wing critics are using those criticisms as an excuse to claim that they were right in the first place that the mainstream media is poisoned with liberal bias (and, therefore, any criticism of Domenech’s hiring must be completely unwarranted). And both extremes are drawing attention away from the fact that there are legitimate positions somewhere in between. (See Tom Bridge’s thoughts on all of this for one of them; in fact, this entry started life as a comment there.)
Let me preface this statement by saying I don’t know Ben’s work (in anything more than a cursory-look capacity). I strongly suspect that I would find little to agree with him on politically (the fact that he wrote for RedState, which I tend to find pretty far out there on the extreme right, might give you a clue), but everything I’ve heard has been secondhand, so I’m going to reserve judgment.
There are two schools of thought in the protest arena. The first — with which I find myself in agreement — is that the decision to hire Domenech was an utterly wrongheaded, knee-jerk reaction to overblown (and strategically orchestrated) protests about Froomkin’s column being overly critical of the Bush administration. Kowtowing to a very vocal minority with a persecution complex, as it were. Fine, fair enough — but in this case, the criticism is of the washingtonpost.com editorial board, not with Domenech himself. And that criticism should be directed appropriately.
The second is that any right-leaning (or perhaps “right-wing,” though again, that’s not an assessment I am suggesting at this point) opinion is deserving of outright attack for no other reason than that it comes from the right.
Let me be clear — as regular readers will be aware, I am by no means above personal attacks; I’ll fully admit to any perceived hypocrisy right up front. But I at least try to make a distinction between views I can respect but disagree with and views that by their very nature I cannot respect. For example, I find myself in disagreement with much of the libertarian philosophy, but I do listen to Penn Jillette regularly (or read the occasional libertarian-leaning weblog) and respect that point of view as being legitimate. Hell, I can disagree with the neocon strategy that invading Iraq was a necessary first step in achieving lasting security in the Middle East, but (so long as it’s presented straightforwardly — and that’s a big qualifier) I can look at it as a legitimate alternative point of view. I disagree with Christianity (or Islam, Hinduism, or most other major religions), but fully respect people’s to view the world through a different “lens,” so to speak. From my perspective, religion is (or at least can be) just a different way of interpreting things, of understanding that which everyday experience cannot cover. (Not to mention that religion has produced some of the best music in all of recorded history — debates about Beethoven’s specific beliefs notwithstanding.)
On the other hand, we have raving lunatics like, say, the Westboro Baptist Church (a.k.a. the “God Hates Fags” ranters) set. While, as a First Amendment nut, I will defend their right to express their opinion (within practical limits — more on that shortly), I have absolutely no respect for the opinions themselves. And in this particular case, this disrespect extends to those expressing the opinions. I have no respect whatsoever for Fred Phelps and his cronies; if I believed in a Manichean universe, I would take great pleaure in the thought that these people would burn in Hell for all eternity.
In between the two there is some gray area. I don’t respect George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Katherine Harris, John Cornyn, William Donohue, Sam Brownback, Pat Robertson, or any number of other extreme right-wingers — not even as human beings. (I usually stop short of wishing that they spend eternity in Hell, though. Usually.) I will readily engage in unlimited personal attacks upon them, because their publicly expressed views are so offensive as to irrevocably reflect on them as individuals. But that’s not to say that people who do have respect for either their views or them as human beings must necessarily be tarred with the same brush.
A key distinction: There’s a world of difference between expressing an opinion and using a position of power (either elected office or disproportionate political/financial influence) to force those opinions on those of us who do not share them. Religious evangelicals (even organized evangelicals) are pretty much inoffensive; those who attempt to impose their views on others by way of governmental power are most assuredly not. A John Cornyn sitting at home in Texas talking about how he hates homosexuals does not warrant personal attack. The same man legislating his bigotry sure as hell does. (Though the substance of any attacks should be relevant to the particular context. Freshman papers — just like “Swift Boat” attacks — should really be left out of it.)
Frankly, some of the attacks leveled against Domenech have seemed a little childish — dredging up anything just to make an assault. Saying his movie reviews at William and Mary’s Flat Hat newspaper (for which, incidentally, I used to write reviews as well, in addition to serving a stint as graphics editor) might have been “borrowed” from other reviews might have relevance in an academic setting (so I have no problem with the Flat Hat editorial staff making it an issue), or if Domenech were being asked to serve as a journalist, as opposed to being asked to express his opinion. But otherwise, it’s a little silly. If true, it would have been wrong, yes, but at least mostly irrelevant (kind of like a president having sex, but that’s another argument). As for calling Coretta Scott King a “communist,” it’s inflammatory, sure. But like it or not, it is a defensible position, particularly if it was hyperbole (and hell, I could have told you that Bush attending her funeral was a bad idea).
I find no fault with pointing out (to the public at large, and presumably by extension to the washingtonpost.com editorial staff) that an author’s views are extreme, offensive, inflammatory, whatever. And I’m not saying that he should be judged solely on the columns he writes for washingtonpost.com; I would contend that his (public) writing beforehand is legitimate territory for criticism. But until I see evidence otherwise (and I do reserve the right to change my mind), I think it’s probably best to keep criticism of Domenech limited to that writing, and criticism of the circumstances of his hiring separate from the man himself.
(And if you’re still wondering, that headline isn’t meant to suggest that I’m purple with outrage, but that the red-staters and the blue-staters are both coming in and... oh, never mind. It wasn’t that original in the first place.)
Labels: Blog, Media, Politics