I wish I could write two columns. Column A would always be fresh. I mean, I gotta stay hip, gotta sell some papers. But Column B would be full of revisions and responses to feedback from last week. You see, I tend to get a few e-mails back after each of my columns, with about a 50-50 split on laudatory vs. critical. And I always write back. But last Tuesday Peter Finocchiaro’s critique of my column on faith at Cornell was a little more public and a little more off base than I am used to. So, since The Sun’s editorial staff isn’t exactly chomping at the bit to give me more space, here goes: a little of Column A and a little of Column B.
This semester, I have made weekly visits to Auburn Correctional Facility — a brown brick fortress at the other end of Cayuga Lake. I am one of two TAs for the American Legal Systems class taught on Wednesday nights. As far as I can tell, our class of 20 is made up of a few former Marines, some avid knitters and a comic book junkie. But most were, and continue to be, young and desperate thugs who are guilty of terrible crimes and have yet to find much passion or purpose in their lives. As sympathetic of characters as they are, they are also the meaning behind overused words in our vernacular like “sketchy” and “shady.”
In the grand tradition of legal studies, we have pleaded with our students to relearn critical thinking — to make it a pursuit of good questions, clear answers and balance. We ask Mr. Phillips, seated in the front row, to make a list of all the questions he would need answers to in order to make the plaintiff’s case, then do the same for the defendant. Later, we ask Mr. Franken to answer those questions in plain English, no fluff, no spin. Finally, Mr. Espinoza in the back corner is asked to make the defendant’s case, then immediately argue the reverse for the plaintiff.
Far from being a mere exercise in lawyering, this never-ending process of argument and rebuttal in soliloquy refines the students’ pursuit of truth and justice. Of their own will, students compete against the best, most convincing, most charitable version of an opponent’s argument. Whereas our instinct is to mock or purposefully misunderstand our opponent, in doing so we only fight to win against a straw man. The specter of an objective and authoritative judge (if only imaginary in our mock debates) and a rebuttal process forestall any such deliberate misapprehension or use of melodrama to prove a point. And none of that is allowed to pass in our classroom.
Of all the good things I might say about the Cornell Prison Education Program, I choose to point out that reasonable and enriching debate is alive in Auburn. It can and has been taught in a short time by two law students. Romantic that I am, I believe the students are now equipped, some even eager, to apply these relearned critical thinking skills to their political beliefs and life goals. It is these skills that I believe were missing from Finocchiaro’s last column, leading to an unfortunate and entirely avoidable failure.
Let’s first sweep all of the melodrama away so that we may focus on core issues. Finocchiaro claims I insist a proverbial “scarlet letter” marks the believers on Cornell’s campus, a place “permeated” by anti-religious bias. I neither say nor mean that. The scarlet letter was used as a visible mark of impropriety and shame while I find that believers — a population impossible to identify from appearance — on campus sometimes face mistrust of a rather private type. The literary reference is misplaced and hyperbolic. My claim is that mistrust of faith-based opinions is a feature of campus life, but not overriding or defining.
Just as inappropriate and misinformed is the later charge that I am sympathetic to a “neoconservative tradition of forcing religion into incompatible systems like science, government and the interpretation of law.” To be clear, neoconservatism describes a proactive, hawkish foreign policy — not just “new” conservatism — and has nothing to do with my argument about faith beyond reminding readers of their aversion to the “right” and inaccurately associating antiquated and coercive seeming politics with my column. Furthermore, the substantive claim that anyone is going to do any forcing, and there’s a tradition of that, is contrary to the spirit and theme of my piece. I was writing about discourse, about discussion and respect for others’ ideas.
On to the major claim. A full half of Finocchiaro’s column was devoted to a Sarah Palin reference. I cited “Palin v. Damon” as evidence of one’s discrediting another based on religious belief. Finocchiaro turned this into my defense of teaching creationism in classrooms per Palin’s belief. But this is not the meaning of my words, intended or otherwise. When I wrote Palin v. Damon, I referred to a famous clip of Damon saying the following of Palin: “I need to know if she really believes dinosaurs were here 4,000 years ago … I really do… because she’s going to have the nuclear codes.” The intention was to highlight Damon’s full disavowal of Palin as a candidate based on her religious belief in creationism, which is itself unrelated to the subject of his concern: nuclear missiles.
Taking a step back, I can chalk this complete misunderstanding up to Finocchiaro’s avoidance of the reasoned rebuttal being taught at Auburn Correctional Facility. In a cynical moment, I might find Finocchiaro guilty of exactly the charge I made in the column — and thereby remarkably unaware of himself. I mentioned God and Sarah Palin, so Finocchiaro decided to connect the dots of my argument in the least flattering, least charitable and, as it turns out, plainly wrong way. In a spirit of mistrust, he ripped a straw man to shreds.
Andrew Daines is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. The Right Stuff appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.