How To Eulogize Your Enemy

Predictable though it was, the tidal wave of vitriol that has followed Jerry Falwell’s death earlier this week has been truly disgusting. De mortuis, nihil nisi bonum? Forget about it. The death of a public figure now serves only to underscore the earlier death of civility in our public discourse. Which makes the brief mention of Falwell’s passing from the most unlikely of sources: Larry Flynt (who Falwell sued in 1983, taking the case all the way to the SupCt) all the more refreshing. The pr0n king shows a lot more class than, well, a lot of people:

My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends. He would visit me in California and we would debate together on college campuses. I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s very little in the agenda Jerry Falwell spent his life promoting with which I agree. Constantly having to answer for Falwell and his fellows simply because they support the same party in a two-party system is a source of frequent irritation to me. The Religious Right is the favourite bogeyman of the Left, yet there’s never been any real danger tof their agenda having more than a small influence on the margins of American law. As such, I’ve found myself more than a few times pointing out to liberals for whom “well, what about the Religious Right?” is the first line of attack in any debate with someone on the right, that they present a much larger problem for me than for them. They aren’t forced to answer for the Religious Right every time they talk politics with someone on the other side of the aisle.

So Falwell was never more than a nominal ally of mine, especially in the last decade or so as his influence waned and his penchant for going over the top and saying things any long-term public figure should know better than to say waxed. But, unlike some others in his camp, I never saw any reason to believe that Falwell was motivated by anything other than what he genuinely believed, by his own lights, to be good and proper policy. That I largely disagreed with him on what would constitute good policy was no reason to hate him. Too bad more of his fellows can’t be more like Larry Flynt.

UPDATE: Ed Morrissey shares some similar thoughts and provides a link to a longer eulogy by Flynt himself in the LA Times.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, , , , , ,
Dodd Harris
About Dodd Harris
Dodd, who used to run a blog named ipse dixit, is an attorney, a veteran of the United States Navy, and a fairly good poker player. He contributed over 650 pieces to OTB between May 2007 and September 2013. Follow him on Twitter @Amuk3.

Comments

  1. laura says:

    Hitler was very personable, too.
    No, I am not comparing Falwell to Hitler. My point is that a veneer of social skills might make a person good company, but it doesn’t make them a good person.

    And sincerity isn’t an excuse.

    Falwell had disgusting values and that makes him a disgusting person, dead or not.

  2. Mark says:

    Godwin’s Law met after only one comment!

  3. Some people certainly seem to have Hitler on the tips of their tongues all the time. How typically Manichean of those who know their hearts are pure.

  4. My personal challenge will be to write a civil eulogy for Jimmy Carter someday. In hindsight it demonstrates just how bad Watergate must have been to get Mr. Carter eleted president.

  5. Dodd says:

    Let’s all thank laura for proving my point with the irony set to maximum.

  6. NoZe says:

    As a Democrat, I feel much the same way about Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton, and any Hollywood actor who thinks his/her fame equates to insightful political savvy. Although we may identify with the same party, I don’t feel any particular compunction to defend their every utterance!

  7. Jim Henley says:

    Let’s not get carried away here. Flynt and Falwell were business partners. That debate deal, doubtless modeled on the touring show that G. Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary mounted, made Flynt some money and gave him something fun to do. Perhaps there were coeds involved. Of course he remembers Falwell fondly.

  8. James McDonald says:

    Whether you were for him or against him, Falwell is dead, and thus no longer a meaningful object of vitriol or praise.

    The people who would eulogize him, however, are fair game. He was a corrupt and divisive provacateur who did more to damage America than all but a few of his fellow travelers. Anyone who overlooks that legacy to praise some random personal quirk of his is beneath reproach, for they promote the next evil bastard who would follow in his steps.

    So, for anyone reading, if the shoe fits, wear it.

  9. absent observer says:

    The Religious Right is the favourite bogeyman of the Left, yet there’s never been any real danger that their agenda having more than a small influence on the margins of American law.

    What an exercise in intellectual dishonesty! I’m winded!

    There’s never been a risk that say… Regents University grads (a bottom tier law school) would flood the DOJ.

    .. or that African AIDS prevention programs would be tied to a proven ineffective “Abstinence Only” policy.
    .. and there no risk that schools would consider teaching the scientifically baseless “Intelligent Design” notion.
    .. and putting the Gay Marriage amendment on the ticket during a national election wasn’t intended to mobilize the homophobic right.
    .. and many of Bush’s speechwriters would never be Christianists.
    .. and vouchers aren’t meant to undermine the public school system, in support of parochial schools.

    Well, actually all of these are true, but inconsequential — if you’re a loyal Bushie.

    GO TEAM AMERICA!

    (Terri Shaivo isn’t just a river in Egypt.)

  10. jpe says:

    Godwin’s Law met after only one comment!

    It’s not Godwin’s, which is triggered for gratuitous comparisons to Hitler; it’s an obvious counterexample to the dubious proposition that sincere motivation warrants praise regardless of the awfulness of the policy positions taken. ‘Courage in a murderer is no virtue’ and such.

  11. Dodd says:

    …Regents University grads (a bottom tier law school) would flood the DOJ.
    … or that African AIDS prevention programs would be tied to a proven ineffective “Abstinence Only” policy.
    … and there no risk that schools would consider teaching the scientifically baseless “Intelligent Design” notion.
    … and putting the Gay Marriage amendment on the ticket during a national election wasn’t intended to mobilize the homophobic right.
    … and many of Bush’s speechwriters would never be Christianists.
    … and vouchers aren’t meant to undermine the public school system, in support of parochial schools.

    Well, actually all of these are true, but inconsequential — if you’re a loyal Bushie.

    I am certainly no “loyal Bushie,” whatever that even means, but not all of these things are true (the last one is demonstrably false, for instance) or consequential (the first is just another ad hominem bogeyman). Of the ones you listed, only one even approaches influence on American law: ID in schools. Which has very little, if anything, to do with Bush since school policy is local, ergo your “Bushie” remark is inapposite.

  12. Dodd says:

    It’s not Godwin’s, which is triggered for gratuitous comparisons to Hitler

    Incorrect. Godwin’s Law states that ‘as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.’ Thus, Mark was correct.

    dubious proposition that sincere motivation warrants praise regardless of the awfulness of the policy positions taken

    I don’t think that that’s a fair reading of the text. One of the biggest problems with our discourse these days is people’s unwillingness to allow for the fact that most people who disagree with them do so for what seem to be good and proper reasons to them. It’s so much easier to ascribe evil motives. With Hitler, the evil motives were manifest. But genuine evil is very rare; most people who disagree are nevertheless people of good will. And our discourse would be a lot less coarse if people would give others the same allowance for that fact that they surely want for themselves.

    That is not to say that one need refrain from criticizing someone’s policy ideas. And you’ll note I didn’t refrain from doing so with regard to Falwell’s – half the post is devoted to it. But the fact that I disagree with Falwell no more makes him evil (or inspired by bad motives) than the fact that I disagree with absent observer about the utility and purpose of school vouchers makes him evil (but note, please, that he feels the need to ascribe ill intent to me: It can’t simply be that I’ve looked at the evidence and come to a conclusion he disagrees with; no, I am being intellectually dishonest). The distinction between criticism of ideas and attacking the person who promulgates them isn’t exactly a subtle one, yet the line has been largely erased in wide swathes of our society. That is the unfortunate phenomenom I’m decrying. Not that I’m surprised to see it in this comment thread; just disappointed.

  13. cian says:

    Lets just take a moment and remember how Rev. Falwell spoke of the 3000 killed in the Twin Towers- something about them being the cause of their own deaths for allowing Gays, Lesbians and ACLU to have a say in how the country might be run.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right, of course, but I think I’ll save my disgust for the truly disgusting ( Republican presidential candidates championing torture for example, and disgracing this once great country yet again).

  14. jpe says:

    But the fact that I disagree with Falwell no more makes him evil (or inspired by bad motives)

    I note here that you seem to have made “evil” and “bad motive” mutually exclusive concepts. My point is merely that one can be immoral for the policies one supports rather than solely for one’s dishonesty. I take Falwell at his word, rather than ascribing some hidden motive to him.

    And, for what it’s worth, I completely agree with your disappointment with the tendency in discourse to demonize or otherwise ascribe something other than sincere motive to our opponents.

    However, I don’t think that’s here or there in this case: I wasn’t saying Falwell was intellectually dishonest. I fully believe that he believed that he was telling the truth. And he was all the more a bad person for it. Someone that thinks that death from AIDS is a just ending for another isn’t someone that deserves the typical niceties of respect for the recently passed.

    So, rather than finding the man dishonest or disingenuous, I think his positions utterly repulsive.

    Re: Godwin: you’re correct. But if Godwin’s law is to be saved from being an arbitrary prophylactic rule, it can’t rule out legitimate uses of Hitler (which is what the first comment did). Unless it can be used with that distinction in mind, it’s just silly.

  15. Anderson says:

    Yes, but Godwin’s Law is stupid.

    Hitler is useful as a limiting case. Obviously, one need not refrain from criticizing Hitler when he dies. So Dodd’s rule is not universally applicable. We can then debate where exactly the limit lies.

    As for Dodd’s ridiculous belief that sincerity covereth a multitude of sins, well, that’s been adequately lambasted. I would note only what a bang-up job Allan Bloom did on the “sincerity” virtue in The Closing of the American Mind.

    What Dodd ignores re: Falwell is that many, many people — myself included — considered him a deeply wicked person, one who did great damage to both America and the Christian faith.

    (My contempt for Falwell was not merely partisan — I did not much respect Reagan as a president, but whatever antipathy I felt was purely partisan and thus properly put aside on the occasion of his death.)

  16. Bandit says:

    Hitler is useful as a limiting case.

    Especially if you’re incapable of coherent thought and expression.

  17. jpe says:

    Especially if you’re incapable of coherent thought and expression.

    You might want to rethink that. Hitler is one of the few people on which there’s universal consensus of evil / immorality (and to make use of Anderson’s language, he is a limit figure: those that don’t accept his evil are simply outside the boundaries of decency).

    That’s very useful in a discussion of morality. If someone says that possession of trait X is sufficient for someone to be morally good, Hitler’s possession of that trait destroys the argument (which is what we call a “counterexample”).

  18. Anderson says:

    As someone who spends a fair amount of his free time reading about WW2 and the years leading up to it, I am puzzled by the inability of people like Bandit to remember that Adolf Hitler was a REAL PERSON. He was not a goblin of some sort. He was no more or less human than the rest of us, did particular things that are part of the historical record, and can be evaluated like anyone else can be.

    For excellent reasons, the common evaluation is that Hitler was a wicked person. But for Hitler’s wickedness to somehow make him banned from discussion is … peculiar.

  19. Bandit says:

    He was no more or less human than the rest of us

    Speak for yourself – I never wanted to see 6 million people sent to death camps or sided with anybody who did.

    But for Hitler’s wickedness to somehow make him banned from discussion

    Who’s banning him from discussion? It’s perfectly OK to discuss him with Pol Pot, Basil, Stalin, Mao, Saddam, Castro and other genocidal maniacs. Just when people compare him to whomever they don’t like, like my HS Social Studies teacher who was 6’2″ and had a stupid mustache, it’s proof that someone’s incapable of rational thought. Godwin’s Law in action.

  20. Anderson says:

    Bandit, good luck working through your high school issues.

  21. Bandit says:

    When you can’t discuss always make an ad hominem attack.

  22. Tlaloc says:

    If you asked me last week what I thought of Fallwell I would have said “he is a bloated gas bag who makes the world worse.”

    If you ask me today the only change is I’d say “he was a bloated gas bag who made the world worse.”

    To my mind that’s honesty and forthrightness. Saying one thing about a person the day before they die and something very different afterwards is being two faced and lying. There is no reason to speak well of someone after death when you would speak ill of them before hand.

  23. Anderson says:

    Convergently, see this:

    Cardinal Ratzinger told the bishops about a faculty discussion from when he was a university professor in Germany. The dispute was over “the justifying power of the erroneous conscience.” One professor created a reductio ad absurdum using Nazi true believers. If we should follow our conscience above all else, he said, then we “should seek them in heaven, since they carried out all their atrocities with fanatic conviction and complete certainty of conscience.”
    The example seemed straightforward enough for most of the profs, but the absurdity was lost on one or two observers. In fact, one colleague piped up “with utmost assurance that, of course, this was indeed the case.” Hitler went to heaven.
    “Since that conversation,” Cardinal Ratzinger explained, “I knew with complete certainty that . . . a concept of conscience that leads to such results must be false. Firm, subjective conviction and the lack of doubts and scruples that follow from it do not justify man.”

    But of course, the reductio was illegitimate b/c it invoked Nazis.

    Oh, & Bandit — recall that I’m “incapable of incoherent thought & expression,” which is doubtless why I resort to “ad hominem attacks.” There are plenty of appropriate pursuits for those who can dish it out w/out taking it, but political debate is not one of them.