Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Key Point About the Late Jesse Helms

Matt Yglesias captures what is to me the key point about the career of the late Jesse Helms:
One fascinating thing about the death of Jesse Helms is the conservative reaction. One might expect that Helms' death would prompt from conservatives the sorts of things that I might say if, say, Al Sharpton died -- that he and I had some overlapping beliefs and I don't regard him as the world-historical villain that the right does, but that he's a problematic guy and I regard him and his methods as pretty marginal to American liberalism. But instead conservatives are taking a line that I might have regarded as an unfair smear just a week ago, and saying that Helms is a brilliant exemplar of the American conservative movement.

And if that's what the Heritage Foundation and National Review and the other key pillars of American conservatism want me to believe, then I'm happy to believe it. But it reflects just absolutely horribly on them and their movement that this is how they want to be seen -- as best exemplified by bigotry, lunatic notions about foreign policy, and tobacco subsidies.
Lindsay Beyerstein makes a similar point here. And it's true; conservative web sites have been falling all over themselves to praise Helms. (A sampling of links is collected here (via.))

The one quibble I'd have with what Yglesias said is his implication that this is a choice that conservatives are making -- "if that's what [conservatives] want me to believe" and all that. But it's not a matter of spin. Jesse Helms's politics and all that it stood for (well, maybe not tobacco subsidies) are deeply bound up in the DNA of the conservative moment -- a point that increasing numbers of historians are writing about, incidentally. This is not to deny the rhetorical shifts that have taken place in the past forty or more years -- hell, I just wrote a whole dissertation about 'em -- but the point is that the writers from the National Review & elsewhere are right, that Helms is not incidental to, or extricable from, the modern conservative movement. (However much a few conservatives would like to pretend he was.)

It's just that Yglesias is right that this "reflects just absolutely horribly on them."

(Elsewhere in Yglesias Helms blogging, he notes that
One strange aspect of the settlement of the Civil Rights controversy was that this social and political upheaval resulted in surprisingly little actual political turnover. Instead of segregationist politicians being defeated and hounded of out public life, in essence they agreed to stop challenging the core principles of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts (gutting enforcement under GOP presidents was still okay) and in exchange everyone else agreed to sort of ignore their backgrounds.
And that too is a major theme of the dissertation I just submitted.* Look for it from a University Press.... maybe, sometime, after I do a lot more revisions, and then begin to submit it...)

Update: I'm pleased to see that this is being talked about a lot. Yglesias has a bit more on this here. Steve Benen discusses this in the context of the National Review's editorial on Helms. Then there's Johnathan Chait here, and Ezra Klein here.

But the single other post to read, if you're going to read one, is Hilzoy's extensive round-up of both conservative praise for Helms and for Helms's record here. She (as so often) nails it. It's not a pretty picture. But it's an accurate one.

Update 2: Still more: from Rick Perslstein, here and here. More from Ezra Klein here. And Andrew Sullivan here, although he doesn't quite come to grips, I think, with the implications of the entwining of Helms's conservative positions and his bigotry that he acknowledges.

Update 3: Not every conservative is celebrating Helms (although Hilzoy's list is certainly impressive); some (at least partial) dissents from Max Boot here, and from Ross Douthat here. The latter is in explicit reaction to the sort of liberal blog posts link above, including Ylgesias's and Hilzoy's.

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* Oh, and I promise I won't normally talk about it this much. It's just sort of on my mind this week, is all.

1 comment:

Rasselas said...

I think that the usual suspects have been celebrating Helms, though I haven't seen this point made quite explicitly, because an unpopular President and an unpopular war make Helms' liberal-baiting and media-whining ways of winning his ugly victories highly sympathetic.