Saturday, July 05, 2008

Jesse Helms, Racism, Manners, Law, and Cognitive Dissonance

(Cross-posted at Legal Profession Blog)

Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina senator, described by the New York Times as having a "courtly manner and mossy drawl," died.  He was also an unrepentant and nasty racist and segregationist with a courtly manner.  I don't have my copy of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope handy, but I recall there was a description of Helms' courtly manner upon Obama's arrival in the Senate.  For those of you who remember this far back, Helms was the most recent incarnation of Allen Drury's character Senator Seab Cooley in Advise and Consent, played by Charles Laughton in the movie.  (Before he became a Watergate hero, Sam Ervin had the honor.

What do we make of the well-mannered racist?   In the sequels to Advise and Consent, Drury got more and more conservative and hawkish, but I remember being troubled by his sympathetic treatment of Sen. Cooley, most of which had to do with courtesy and manners (like would it fair for the liberals to object to an aged senator leaning against his desk while filibustering against a civil rights act?)  Our custom is to be charitable upon one's passing, but I don't think we have to go so far as to extol, which was what President Bush did:  "Jesse Helms was a kind, decent, and humble man and a passionate defender of what he called 'the Miracle of America.'  So it is fitting that this great patriot left us on the Fourth of July."

At the risk of taking on a political label, I'll confess I think a lot of manners and courtesy even if others think they merely promote the status quo, and even if it bars me from ever participating in a philosophy faculty workshop.  I like Edmund Burke's famous quote about manners:  "Manners are of more importance than laws . . . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in."  Manners are about what we do rather than what we think, and perhaps it's the one place that law makes a difference, if there's something to the theory of cognitive dissonance, and particularly the variant that says we want to eliminate dissonance between what we believe and what we do.  We can't, as a practical matter, outlaw racism, but we can pass laws affecting behavior that is the natural result of racism, and I think, slowly but surely, attitudes and beliefs start to change so as to harmonize what we believe with what we are doing.   Putting aside the extremes of political correctness, when a Don Imus steps in it today, and there's a quick and relatively unanimous consequence, I think it's because what we do has required that we change how we think.

I'm reading Stephen L. Carter's New England White (more on that after I finish it),  and it's helpful in seeing that even equal material status does not kill the instinct (I suspect the product of our evolution) that makes us fear the "other," and fear the "other" even more to the extent the "other" doesn't look like us.  I'm still not sure that either President Bush or Sen. McCain were compelled, other than by political considerations, to mark Helms' passing, but even if compelled by friendship or courtesy in the Senate hallways, I would have preferred that it had gone something like this:

Jesse Helms will be remembered for his courtesy, his courtly manner, and his willingness to stand by his principles.  These are all things we can and should admire.  But he also stood for attitudes toward racial, ethnic, and other superficial differences whose day has long since passed.  We should take solace in the death of very few, because we should mete out carefully our attributions of evil.  But we will live in a better world if Jesse Helms' legacy is only his courteous behavior, and he is otherwise remembered as the last anachronistic embodiment of a condition we have overcome.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Nice thoughtful post. I guess I am about 180 degrees the other way. Surface manners are a great way to make those who oppose you seem unreasonable. For extremists of all varieties they serve as a shield that allows them to promote their ideas and survive even longer. Ultimately they are means to an end and if the ends are evil the means are dangerous.

7/05/2008 10:19 AM  

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