When I started work at the Cherokee Tribune and Cherokee Ledger-News in December of 2017, we threw a retirement reception for community treasure and retiring Managing Editor Rebecca Johnston. It was there that I met Melvyn Fein.
We spoke for a few minutes and I found the Kennesaw State University sociology professor to be funny, bright and engaging. Shortly after that, I would learn that some people shared that opinion and others most definitely did not.
As our only consistently political columnist, Fein’s essays, which have appeared weekly in both the Tribune and Ledger-News, created many fans and also some detractors.
Fein is a conservative and, like most right-leaning pundits, is dismissive of politics on the left side of the scale, just as left-leaning pundits are of the right. That path led to perhaps a dozen emails from Ledger subscribers who decided they’d rather miss the local news than be tempted to read one more maddening column by Fein. Letter writers would take him to task and insist we needed to stop running his column. Whenever one of those letters was published, I’d get a mini-flood of emails and letters urging us to let Fein keep “telling the truth,” every week. More than one person has asked to write a counterpoint column to Fein’s views. He has almost never failed to get people’s passions stirred up.
On Tuesday, Dr. Fein let readers know that he will soon be gone — a victim of one of the deadliest cancers, that of the pancreas. He let me and others know a week before and I hoped he would survive to let readers know the bad news on his own terms. I’m grateful that happened.
I’m not going to sit here and say I always agreed with everything Fein wrote, but it’s mostly a minor quibble. I would have rather he spent more time advocating for solutions to problems and less time figuratively kicking liberals in the shins — though I know some readers enjoyed that.
To me Fein has been at his best when using his expertise and understanding of human society to argue for reducing divisive rhetoric. Here are some paragraphs from a recent column that I found enlightening:
“The times are out of joint. Everyone seems to hate everyone else. There is plainly more craziness abroad in the land than at any time in my long life. Once Americans were assumed to be a reasonable people. That conclusion seems to have gone out of date.
“I know that liberals believe conservatives are not very smart; whereas conservatives return the compliment. The truth is that intelligence has nothing to do with our propensity to be unreasonable. Not only is this so, but ironically we would be in deep trouble if it weren’t.
“In order to coordinate our activities, we humans require mechanisms that enable us to arrive at synchronized conclusions.
“The upshot is that we are able pursue common goals. Because we don’t think for ourselves, we adopt shared perspectives. Furthermore, when there is widespread agreement, this is usually beneficial. When, however, there is not, the conflicts can get out of hand.
“Today this is exactly what is happening. Given that neither liberalism nor conservatism can muster universal consent, people fight about what we should collectively believe. As it happens, this is characteristic of periods of change. While the authorities are incapable of sufficiently influential answers, people fight to see who will prevail.
“There is an answer however. If we understand what leads us to be non-rational, we can control the most dangerous aspects of this tendency. Denial is far worse. This can produce a dangerous hubris, which prevents us from recognizing our deficiencies.
“Although none of us likes to believe we are at fault when things go wrong, humility is in order. Only when we accept our limitations can we calmly review what we know and what we don’t. That is not what is happening today, but it could if we had the courage to admit what we were doing.”
I’ve learned that Prof. Fein has written three more columns to share with all of us. Many readers have sent in messages of appreciation and concern. He should know he leaves a legacy that one reader - one who admitted often disagreeing with him - put well: “You have made people think, and that matters!”