First, my apologies for not getting to this yesterday. Deadlines intruded and a minor family crisis took priority (my wife backed the car over my daughter’s — parked! — bicycle. The Dauphine was not well-pleased).
Anyway, it’s never fun admitting you’re wrong, but I’ll confess that in retrospect I think I was wrong to come down as hard as I did on the reader who chastised me – and NRO — for it’s undiluted praise of Helms. So rather than attempt anything like a definitive response on all this, I’ll just let lay out how I come to the issues involved.
I was never a huge fan of Helms, which is one reason why I refrained from saying anything at all upon his demise. Speaking ill of the dead, particularly when one doesn’t have much to say, seemed — and seems — inappropriate. But since the cat is out of the bag, I think a few points are worth making. First, there’s a great deal I agreed with him about. Indeed, I agree with the substance of most of the stuff said about him on NRO. He was an immensely important champion for numerous conservative causes.
If it’s not what conservatives have said about him that I object to, it’s what we haven’t said about him. As Ramesh suggested, I think NR’s editorial silence on the darker side of the man can’t be explained away simply out of a desire to speak well of the dead. The man belongs to history now and as a historical figure, it’s worth accounting for his racist attitudes and actions, not necessarily to demonize him (as liberals are determined to do) but to understand him and his relationship to larger things.
Defending Helms from the charge of racism for most of his career is impossible — starting from the days when he was, ahem, a Democrat. Was he always a racist? I don’t know. But my guess is, yeah. He was certainly insensitive, and I don’t just mean politically incorrect. Calling all black people “fred” strikes me as more than one bridge too far.
But here’s the thing. The reader who ticked me off yesterday cited no evidence that Helms was a “stain on conservatism,” he merely took it as a given. Others cite Helms’ opposition to the Martin Luther King holiday and his 1990 ad with the white hands. I don’t consider either of these things racist in and of themselves. Indeed, like the Willie Horton ad, I consider them examples that liberals cite over and over again as racist as if doing so will simply make it true. Now, as for other Helm’s positions and comments, I think it is very hard indeed to defend the man. In other words, I’m not sure the “stain” spreads nearly so far as the left insists. If having men with racist pasts on your team is, in and of itself, a stain, where are the liberal washerwomen going after Bill Clinton’s mentor William Fulbright, Robert Byrd or for that matter Jeremiah Wright? In short, these things are more complicated than the simplistic morality tale in which conservatives are evil and liberals are good (hey, I think someone wrote a book about this).
Indeed, I grow weary at the constant liberal browbeating administered to conservatives to not only apologize for the racist skeletons in our closet but the insistence that those skeletons define modern conservatism, particularly when liberals insist that liberalism has no skeletons whatsoever (which is, simply, a Big Lie). That’s what I took to be going on in that e-mail. But, again, I was wrong. Or rather, that’s not all that was going on.
Still, after thinking about it. I think the conservative celebration of Helms has been too hagiographic, just as I think the left’s demonization has been too two-dimensional. Helms was the product of his times and upbringing, just as Fulbright and Byrd were. The difference is that liberals think it’s childish to point such things out about Democrats, but it’s all you need to know about Helms – and the GOP.
Am I saying that Helms became colorblind simply by virtue of being baptized into the Republican Party? Of course not. But he was pretty well constrained to the limits of what the GOP would allow. Nonetheless, conservatives have a heavier burden to speak clearly on these issues. But in response too Helms’ death, we chose kindness over a more honest accounting.