Is Judge Victor Valdivia a liberal or a conservative? Short answer: Both. Long answer: Neither.
Liberalism and Conservatism 101 for citizens fed up with the status quo.
It's a self-released, independently produced documentary, edited at home and shot on a shoestring budget. You would expect it to pedantic or biased, and you would also expect it to consist of interviews with academics and journalists you've never heard of. You would be wrong. American Feud is a surprisingly entertaining and informative documentary about political history that treats both sides fairly, gives some interesting historical detail, and manages to rope in some intellectual heavyweights on both sides of the spectrum. In fact, it's a lot better than most of the political content you're likely to see on any of the 24-hour news networks this year.
What American Feud's director/producer team of Richard Hall and Simone Fary are trying for is ambitious: to understand the history and definition of the words "conservative" and "liberal." This is no small goal, and in order to pull it off, Hall and Fary have brought in some sizable big guns. Any documentary that incorporates Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Thomas Frank on the left and G. Gordon Liddy, Kevin Phillips, and Lee Edwards on the right is clearly going for the widest possible breadth. What's even more impressive is that, with a few minor exceptions here and there, most of the commentators stay away from snappy sound bites and talking points. Even the normally outrageous Liddy comes off as thoughtful and lucid. Throw in libertarian David Boaz, historian David Stoesz, and filmed speeches from everybody from Democratic activist Donna Brazile to right-wing columnist Michelle Malkin and you've got a film that is more interested in exploring divergent ideas rather than pushing one view over the other.
American Feud is about more than talking heads. The documentary examines, using historical analysis and political maps of several crucial presidential elections, how and why the meaning of "liberal" and "conservative" have changed, and how that's actually affected the voting results of the political parties. Philosophers and politicians like John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke are discussed, and the film uncovers some less famous but hugely significant theoreticians. The film gives credit, for instance, to Russell Kirk, whose 1950's book Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot was influential to a generation of young conservatives. Though he is all but unknown today, Kirk's book is credited as a landmark in modern conservatism; Ronald Reagan cited Kirk as one of his favorite writers. Similarly, it's fascinating to learn that the word "liberal," when it was first used in political discourse in the 1800s, would today be more similar to libertarian conservative, which is to say, someone who favors small government regulations and is opposed to any form of social regulation. There are also historical revelations. FDR, for example, exempted domestic and agricultural workers from Social Security benefits when he created the Social Security program. The reason was to win over support from Southern senators and congressmen, who knew that the majority of agricultural and domestic workers in the South were black, and that this was the only way to keep them poor. In addition, it's intriguing to track electoral maps from each election and seeing how patterns changed as Republicans, seen as the party of the rich and cosmopolitan, captured the urban northeast while Democrats ruled the South for over a hundred years until the 1960s. Now that's reversed.
As full of interesting revelations as American Feud is, it's also got some fairly sizable holes. The biggest is the complete absence of William F. Buckley, considered by many to be the modern father of conservative intellectuals. No, it's not necessary to have interviewed him, but the fact that he isn't mentioned even once is a crucial failing. It's the equivalent of leaving out Chomsky on the left. Because the film was mostly done in 2004, it also doesn't really address in detail the collapse of the neo-conservative movement that lead to the disastrous invasion of Iraq and the general incompetence of the Bush administration. Moreover, it leaves out the question of whether the Democratic Party's resurrection in 2006 (and possibly 2008) is significant or just a reaction to Bush. Though nobody expects old-time New Deal/Great Society style liberalism to ever return, this is probably the best time for some form of left-wing renaissance, although to be fair, the documentary does point out that the left has a history of wasting even the most valuable opportunities.
The neo-con issue, the issue of those wasted opportunities and more related issues are discussed, to a degree, in the many deleted scenes and outtakes included in the disk. These are full of even more interesting insights and stories, and it's a shame they couldn't be included in the main feature. Anyone who enjoyed the film should watch them, as they are of the same high caliber. Chomsky fans (of which there are many) will be pleased with "Bonus Chomsky," a section of additional pronouncements from their man. There's also a commentary from Hall and Fary that's immensely frustrating. Both have a lot to say about the film and the ideas and effort that went into it, but unfortunately the commentary isn't mixed properly. At several points, the voices of the commentary are drowned out by the feature, even when the filmmakers are speaking. Finally, there's a suggested reading list of books by the authors and academics interviewed in the film, as well as others who defined conservative and liberal thought throughout U.S. history. The full-screen video and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix are not bad for a project that's essentially a self-released movie.
In the end, American Feud isn't just an exploration of two well-entrenched political ideologies, but an argument that maybe it's time to search for a new path. Not just one that's in the middle, but one that incorporates ideas from both while addressing the unique challenges of this millennium. Of course, it's hard to find a new path unless you understand the one you've been on, and American Feud explains that while being both witty and informative, and, best of all, genuinely impartial. Whatever your political persuasion, American Feud is highly recommended. Not guilty.
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