By David Michael Green
Among my occasional guilty pleasures is to watch the Friday evening political analysis segment on the PBS NewsHour broadcast. It’s truly a sickness, I’ll admit. First, there’s the show itself, which is so politically neutered that it could make Warren Christopher seem exciting. Then there’s the loose-tooth-wiggling-pleasure-in-pain indulgence of seeing David Brooks in action, dissembling and distracting as his ideological world goes up in flames, on its way to coming down in ruins. I do have a soft spot, I must admit, for Mark Shields, a good guy with good politics, who personifies a more decent time in American history, absolutely looking the part as well.
Last week Brooks was off somewhere, probably writing another New York Times op-ed about the latest sociological academic treatise he’s stumbled onto. Anything not to have to admit that ever since he conveniently switched from the left to the right, he’s been wrong on everything. Along with Norm Coleman and a host of other neocons – even including Ann Coulter (no, I’m not kidding) – look for those surviving the tsunami of 2008 to flip back again afterwards. Can you say ‘political opportunism’?
Brooks was gone, so they had this other cat on there, instead – a certain Ramesh Ponnuru, who is a senior editor at the National Review. Besides wearing trendy rectangular glasses that make him seem like he’s trying way too hard, it seems that Ponnuru also wrote a book back in 2006 called “Party of Death”, which I’m guessing is about as thoughtful as its title is subtle. I’m aided in my estimation by the text from the inside flap, which includes the following choice excerpts:
Is the Democratic Party the ‘Party of Death’? If you look at their agenda they are. It’s not just abortion-on-demand. It’s euthanasia, embryo destruction, even infanticide – and a potentially deadly concern with “the quality of life” of disabled people. If you think these issues don’t concern you – guess again. The Party of Death could be roaring into the White House … in the person of Hillary Rodham Clinton. … Ponnuru’s shocking exposé shows just how extreme the Party of Death has become as they seek to destroy every inconvenient life, demand fealty to their radical agenda, and punish anyone who defies them. But he also shows how the tide is turning, how the Party of Death can be defeated, and why its last victim might be the Democratic Party itself.
Say, that does sound shocking now that you mention it! Well, at least he didn’t use the old Hillary Clinton bête noire gimmick in order to rouse the cave-dwellers on the right. Oh, wait a sec… Okay, well at least he showed his acute skills at reading the political landscape, particularly in arguing how the tide is turning against the Democratic Party. Hey… Hold on there! Thanks goodness he mentions the absurdity of someone whose party brought us Iraq, the death penalty, Katrina, poverty and global warming calling the other guys “the party of death”, eh? Oops. Okay, okay, cut the guy some slack, wouldya? Surely he deserves credit for outing all those pro-infanticide Democrats whom the liberal media have been hiding from us for so long now. You know, like ol’, er, what’s-his-name from Massachusetts, or, um, who’s-her-dinky from California or somewhere, part of the large crowd who ran back in 1998 on a platform of killing babies for sport. You remember, right? You certainly see a lot of that in American politics, and, by gum, it’s time we called a spade a spade!
Speaking of which, my real interest in Mr. Ponnuru actually has to do with the last line he uttered on the NewsHour the other night, as he and Shields were dissecting the sorry life of the recently (but not soon enough) departed Jesse Helms, former long-time senator from North Carolina. Having said nothing particularly positive about Senator No throughout the segment – a guy who, according to Shields “called 1964 Civil Rights Act the single most dangerous legislation ever introduced in the United States Congress” – Ponnuru closed out the discussion with the off-hand remark that “He was wrong on civil rights”.
What? Really? Ya think, dude? I guess maybe if you’re name is Ramesh Ponnuru, and you look just like one would expect a Ramesh Ponnuru to look, even you can overcome your insane ideology long enough to figure out that Jesse Helms was a racist SOB. Maybe you can even go one step further and note that he wasn’t quite the only one over on your side of the fence who had that tendency, not least your vaunted deity Ronald Reagan, who opened his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, home of civil rights murders, talking about – wait for it, now – “states’ rights”. Maybe, Ramesh, you might even want to go so far as to note that your folks’ treatment of gays is nothing less than a more acceptable contemporary version of racism, eh? Or is it perhaps your contention that any semen squirted anywhere besides the inside of a fertile vagina represents the destruction of inconvenient life by the Party of Death? Masturbation is murder! Gay sex is genocide!
But I digress. Oh boy, did I digress.
Okay, then, here’s what really just slays me about remarks by people like Ponnuru. Thirty, forty, fifty years later, now that all the hard work has been done on civil rights, now that all the blood has been shed so that people named Ramesh Ponnuru can have jobs like senior editor of a leading American journal, only now do conservatives grudgingly admit they were wrong on civil rights. And, really not even that. He simply acknowledges that nearly the most odious figure of the entire Jim Crow movement was wrong. As if Willy Horton hadn’t happened since. As if Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris hadn’t incorrectly and intentionally purged tens of thousands of African Americans from the voting rolls in Florida. As if voters in Ohio’s black precincts hadn’t faced massive obstacles in 2004 that whites did not. As if millions of right-wing racists won’t be caught dead voting for Barack Obama in 2008 because he’s black.
And – most importantly – as if civil rights was the only thing that regressives ever got wrong.
Someone once said that “A conservative is one who enshrines his grandfathers’ revolution and fears his children’s”. In the end, that’s an accurate perception, though ultimately too generous. But it certainly points to the tendency of those on the right to be wrong about everything in their own time, only to coopt some of the same themes a generation or two later. Does anyone remember the right leading the charge on gender equality? Social Security or Medicare? Voting Rights? Environmental protection? Human rights? Economic justice? The promotion of democracy abroad? The empowerment of international institutions? The expansion of the franchise? For that matter, even the abolition of slavery or the American revolution?
Of course not. Whichever of their grandparents’ revolutions they now pretend to support in full, they not only didn’t support them then, they (or their grandparents) in fact actively blocked them. Today you might hear a regressive say lovely things about, say, Martin Luther King, but it wasn’t that long ago that they sought to block a holiday in his honor, and it wasn’t that long before that that they were siccing the FBI on him and harassing him and accusing him of being a commie and even murdering him.
Jesse Helms himself touched all the bases of regressive depravity, absolutely including race. But some lunatic named Jeff Jacoby, a columnist for the Boston Globe, couldn’t even get as far as Ponnuru did, lambasting ‘liberals’ this week for wrongly trashing Helms as a racist monster. Did you know that Jesse was actually a good guy when it came to race issues? Here’s Jacoby, quoting Walter Russell Mead, on how Helms went from being a racist to a pioneering reformer on behalf of equality:
Instead of leading his followers into resistance, Helms “disciplined and tamed the segregationist South, prodding it “into grudging acceptance of the new racial order.” Yet rather than hail his statesmanship and acknowledge his contribution to the civil rights revolution, liberals marked his death by reaching for pejoratives. Helms’s sin was not racism; it was his tenacious political incorrectness. Had he been willing to tack left on other issues, his racial wrongs would have been forgiven.
Thanks a bunch, Jeff, for setting that record straight! I was particularly confused, because I remembered that, trailing in his 1990 re-election bid against Harvey Gantt, the black former mayor of Charlotte, Helms ran television ads in which a pair of white hands crumpled up a rejection slip from a job that had been lost to affirmative action.
Did I mention this was in 1990? Yeah, ‘cause that was the same year that the Justice Department found that Helms was behind threatening letters sent to black voters, warning them of arrest if they showed up to vote on election day.
In 1993 he got angry at Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to serve in the United States Senate, for blocking a bill of his giving a patent to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which included a confederate flag insignia. So as he got on an elevator she was riding he said to a colleague “I’m going to sing Dixie until she cries”.
Then, in 1995, he was on Larry King Live, when a caller thanked him for helping to “keep down the niggers”. You wouldn’t think a fella would say that to a guy who was bringing “statesmanship” in “contribution to the civil rights revolution”, would you? Nor would you think that such a statesman would respond by saying, “Whoops, well, thank you, I think”. More likely, that’s just another way of saying, “Hell yes, Brother Cracker! But don’t forget we’re on national TV, okay?”
No, Jeff Jacobs, you need to lay off Karl’s Kool-Aid, my man. People doing and saying these kinds of things in the 1990s were unreconstructed racists, nothing else. What was different about Helms was that he figured out how to play the PC game. In 1960, he would go on television and say things like, “When you educate a negro, you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand”. Or, “The negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic and interfere with other men’s rights”. By the 1990s, he had learned to speak in code words, like “states’ rights” or “affirmative action”. That hardly makes him a “contributor” to the civil rights movement. In fact, it doesn’t even make him a believer in equality. It just means that he had become a more clever racist. And, actually, therefore, a more pernicious one as well.
But, wait, there’s more!
Helms was great with presidents. He idolized Richard Nixon. He saved Ronald Reagan’s career when that monster was tanking in 1976. He told Bill Clinton that “he’d better bring a bodyguard” if the president planned on visiting North Carolina.
He fought bitterly to block AIDS research and treatment because it was the product of “unnatural” and “disgusting” behavior.
And, as Mark Shields reminded us the other night, he “embraced every anti-communist dictator, regardless of how ruthless that dictator happened to be”. And they were plenty ruthless, thank you very much – from the Shah to Pinochet to Marcos to apartheid South Africa. Helms was also a major force in creating and arming the murderous Contra terrorist force which brought old-fashioned Gringo misery back to Nicaragua, after the Sandinistas had booted it out a few years earlier. He was famous for tightening the screws ever further on Cuba, and blocking family planning aid overseas if it had any hint of a shadow of a relationship to abortion.
In short, if you want a quick and (very) dirty explanation of the current mess this society is in today, “Jesse Helms” would not be a bad shortcut.
The truth is, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and a whole lot more despicable, if that can be imagined. The truth is that much of the racism and sexism and homophobia and liberal-bashing and all is just a smokescreen for economic raping and pillaging, and for getting your victims to assist you in that effort. Yeah, Obama got it right at that San Francisco fundraiser, but it was former conservative Michael Lind (once a protégé of William F. Buckley and Irving Kristol who somehow lived to tell the tale) who nailed it best, when he wrote that:
What passes for intellectual conservatism is little more than the subsidized propaganda wing of the Republican Party. … The leaders and intellectuals of the American right [have adopted] a vision of the United States as a low-wage, low-tax, low-investment industrial society like the New South of 1875-1965, a kind of early 20th-century Mississippi or Alabama recreated on a continental scale.
Yeah, that’s right, bro. It’s all about the Benjamins. Which can only lead me to wonder what kind of monsters are these, inhabiting otherwise perfectly normal human bodies? What trauma of their formative years so dehumanized them that they are not only willing to foment such destructive behavior and policies, but even to do so purely on the basis of lies covering up an insatiable greed that justifies every other crime?
And so – speaking of propaganda wings of the Republican Party – what I’d really like to hear Ramesh Ponnuru say is that conservatives were wrong. Not just about civil rights, but about women’s rights, about environmentalism, about human rights, about foreign policy, about organized labor and fair wages, about taxes, about the whole nine yards.
I’d like to see him admit that neither he, nor his wife, nor so many of the rest of us would ever have had the slightest opportunity in this society if previous members of his conservative family tree had not been roundly defeated in bitter and often lethal struggles, during which they acted neither as ally, nor spineless milquetoast, nor even indifferent bystander – but rather as precisely the obstacle to decency, humanity and progress they entirely were.
And then I’d like to see him quit his job, get down on his knees, beg forgiveness, and promise never, ever, to do this again.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.
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