Monday, July 7, 2008

'Racism' and Jesse Helms

For reasons unknown, the Washington Post decides to memorialize the late Sen. Jesse Helms by re-posting a 2001 David Broder column with the headline, "Jesse Helms, White Racist." Meanwhile, at National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg gets an e-mail from a scold who demands that he "denounce Jesse Helms' racist legacy as a stain on conservatism."

This raises an important question that I think too few intellectuals -- liberal, conservative or otherwise -- have bothered to address, namely: Are "racists" entitled to political representation?

The scare-quotes around "racism" are necessary because, over the past four decades, the word "racism" has been thrown around so casually as to have been stripped of nearly all its power to denote anything real and definite. It is now commonly used an all-purpose epithet. As Peter Brimelow once acidly observed, a "racist" is someone who is winning an argument with a liberal.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between the descriptive power and the political power of the "R-word." The less "racist" can be said to describe anything definite, the more political damage can be inflicted by labeling someone a "racist." And this, I suspect, is a major reason why so few intellectuals are willing to confront the question raised by the Helms legacy.

Are "racists" entitled to political representation? David Broder, apparently, would answer "no." Helms unabashedly appealed to the concerns of white racists in North Carolina, Broder says, and thereby permanently placed himself beyond respectability.

This formula leaves unexamined a number of questions. Who were these racists to whom Helms appealed? What were their concerns? Most importantly, were their concerns politically legitimate? That is to say, did the purported racism of North Carolina voters manifest itself in genuine policy controversies where reasonable men might disagree in good conscience?

Politics is about the pursuit of self-interest, a point which James Madison (that notorious racist) made in Federalist 10. Everybody -- doctors, bankers, auto workers, real-estate brokers, et cetera, ad infinitum -- supports the candidate, the party and the policies they believe will best advance and defend their own self-interest. Quite naturally, most people don't see any conflict between their own narrow interests and the interests of society at large. "What's good for me is good for America," the voter assumes, and who am I to dispute their judgment?

Yet notice that, in the case of Jesse Helms and those evil white racists in North Carolina, David Broder and others do not hesitate to pass judgment. Broder apparently presumes that no white person in North Carolina ever had any legitimate self-interest that would have been harmed by the liberal agenda of Helms' opponents. As Michelle Malkin says:
Shorter Broder: You are an unrepentant bigot if you oppose racial preferences, object to the MLK federal holiday, or refer explicitly to the black voting bloc.
Broder sets himself up as an arbiter of what constitutes legitimate political discourse, without regard to the real-life concerns of those North Carolinians to whose "racism" Helms appealed.

Broder's reflexive condemnation of "racism" -- an unwillingness to consider the circumstances that give rise to the concerns labeled with this radioactive epithet -- is one of those annoying asterisks beside the liberal's otherwise universal toleration for opposing viewpoints. When it comes to al-Qaeda or Hamas, the liberal will tell you, we must try to understand the sense of collective grievance that causes Islamic extremists to slaughter innocents. But when it comes to white North Carolinians voting for a Republican senator, this standard of liberal sympathy does not apply.

Having been excoriated in the past for trying to express the fundamentally American idea that people have the right to their own opinions (even "racist" opinions), I will avoid an in-depth examination of the specific issues of Helms' career. Rather, I will conclude with this observation: When legitimate grievances are stigmatized, marginalized and excluded from public discourse, our political system becomes unrepresentative and dysfunctional. The fact that the grievances of white North Carolinians are not shared by elite journalists in Washington does not render those grievances illegitimate, and the attempt to label them illegitimate by applying the epithet "racist" is undemocratic in the extreme.

1 comment:

  1. When it comes to al-Qaeda or Hamas, the liberal will tell you, we must try to understand the sense of collective grievance that causes Islamic extremists to slaughter innocents.

    Silly liberals, trying to understand our enemies' motivation so that we might better prevail. It's gotten so out of hand that Army War College and West Point have been taken over by liberals trying to "get inside" bin Laden's head

    Poor, deluded fools. This is war. We're not supposed to think.