Which is to say that Paisley -- with an accompaniment from legendary rapper LL Cool J -- is striving for something important. The song is a ballad about a white Southerner trying to reconcile his Southern pride and his rejection of racism. It begins with a scene where a black barista at Starbucks takes offense at the Confederate flag on the white narrator's shirt. "To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand/When I put on that T-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan."
Paisley defends the song as an effort to -- you guessed it -- start a conversation. Personally, I think art that has to be defended on conversation-starting grounds probably isn't art. Conversely, I'm inclined to think that any song with Paisley's message would be denounced and ridiculed. Right or wrong, letting the South off the hook for its racial sins is not something that interests many of Paisley's critics. The fact that Paisley (and LL Cool J) made the critics' job so much easier doesn't change that.
Something similar can be said about the reception to Rand Paul's appearance at Howard University this week. Here, Paul did exactly the right thing by making his case to a politically unsympathetic audience of minorities. Though, at one point, he miscalculated a bit in an exchange where he assumed his audience didn't know that black civil rights pioneers -- including the founders of the NAACP -- were mostly Republicans. Howard, one of the nation's premier historically black colleges, is one of the few universities where the average student probably would know that stuff.
Much of the criticism of Paul centered on speculation about his motives. He's just trying to soften his image! He's using the audience as a prop! To which the only intellectually honest rejoinder is: Maybe he is! Isn't that what politicians do?
Both Paul and Paisley are doing exactly what liberal politicians, civil rights activists and editorial boards have been demanding for decades. Paisley contributed his best effort for a "frank dialogue." Paul reached out to minorities, engaged in the conversation and didn't take blacks for granted. No one should be shocked that neither effort settled anything. That's how conversations are supposed to work, but not, apparently, the kinds of conversations the conversation-starters have in mind.