Thursday, April 08, 2004

Not-so-dumb Dodd

This blog is supposed to be about international politics; I hope my imaginary readers will forgive this brief detour into US politics. Dan Drezner is hosting an interesting discussion about Chris Dodd's recent praise of fellow senator Robert Byrd. Specifically, Dodd said:

It has often been said that the man and the moment come together. I do not think it is an exaggeration at all to say to my friend from West Virginia that he would have been a great Senator at any moment. Some were right for the time. ROBERT C. BYRD, in my view, would have been right at any time. He would have been right at the founding of this country. He would have been in the leadership crafting this Constitution. He would have been right during the great conflict of civil war in this Nation. He would have been right at the great moments of international threat we faced in the 20th century. I cannot think of a single moment in this Nation's 220-plus year history where he would not have been a valuable asset to this country."

Many bloggers have a problem with saying that Byrd would have been "right" during the Civil War, since he belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and later opposed civil rights legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Dodd's comment seems to them similar to Sen. Trent Lott's 2002 praise of Sen. Strom Thurmond:

"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Facing pressure from all sides, Lott resigned from his leadership post in the Senate. To many Republicans, it seems only fair that Dodd should likewise be censured for making similar remarks.

I disagree.

For the record:
* I am not a supporter of either Chris Dodd or Robert Byrd. For that matter, I am not a supporter of Trent Lott or Strom Thurmond.
* I am a conservative Republican who has donated to Bush's 2004 campaign. I am a critic of the media, which I believe in general has a liberal bias.
* I oppose racism and I think Republicans should do more to let minorities know that both we and our party are their friends and not their adversaries.
* I was in favor of Trent Lott stepping down because of his remarks and wrote the White House to encourage them to publicly repudiate him.

Obviously there are similarities between Dodd's remarks and Lott's. Both men were "just trying to say something nice to old men with despicable pasts." But as we can read in the quotes from the two senators, Dodd only said something nice about the old man, and Lott said something nice about the man's despicable past. That's a huge difference.

Lott said America would have been better off if Strom had won the presidency in 1948. I think that's wrong. Some would say, as was said about the Confederacy, that Strom's run was all about state's rights and other constitutional matters, but I think reading through the States Rights Democratic Party platform makes it pretty obvious that the point of the party was to preserve segregation in particular and Southern institutional racism in general. If the platform doesn't convince you, then listen to what Strom Thurmond said in his speech accepting the party's nomination.

Following what one of my professors called the philosopher's rule of charity, let us try to think of the best way to read Lott's statement. Perhaps he approved of Thurmond's stand for states rights and strict constitutionalism and etc., and was not talking about the racism inherent in Thurmond's segregationist ideas. That's the most charitable reading I can come up with and I still think it deserves condemnation. To say that America would have been better if the Dixiecrats won, except for the whole segregation thing is like saying that it would have been better if the Communists won except for the whole no-private-ownership-of-property thing. The racism was the point, not a footnote. Frankly I am puzzled by those who claim to be unable to see what is offensive about praising the Dixiecrats without even considering, you know, the whole "keep the black folks down" angle. Trent Lott was one of those, and it was right to show him the door.

Okay, so let's look at what Dodd said, again following the philosopher's rule of charity. Dodd said Byrd would have been a good man to have around during any period of American history. Why would Byrd be a good man to have around? The least charitable way to read Dodd's answer is: Because Byrd is a racist. The most charitable way to read Dodd's answer is: Because Byrd is an EX-racist. Perhaps Dodd approves NOT of Byrd's past racism, but of Byrd's abandonment of the KKK specifically and racism more generally. So maybe he means that Byrd would be a good man in any time period because it's always good to have someone around who's not afraid to question their own beliefs and repudiate those beliefs after concluding that they are morally wrong.

Dodd said, "I cannot think of a single moment in this Nation's 220-plus year history where he [Byrd] would not have been a valuable asset to this country." He did not say, "I cannot think of a single moment in this Senator's 87-year history where he was not a valuable asset to this country." Dodd's speech commends the man, not his deplorable past behavior.

Imagine the apostle Peter giving a similar speech about Paul, who persecuted Christians before he converted and became a Christian himself. Peter might say, "I cannot think of a single moment in Christianity's history where Paul would not have been a valuable asset to this religious community." Of course Peter wept for all the Christians who suffered and died because of Paul's persecution, but he also recognized what a great man Paul was after he saw the error of his ways.

Would Klansman Byrd from 1946 have been the right man during the Civil War? Absolutely not. Would Senator Byrd from 2004 have been the right man during the Civil War? Chris Dodd would say yes.

(As a brief historical aside, it is interesting to note that Robert Byrd's home state of West Virginia won statehood for renouncing the Confederacy during the Civil War. The time-traveling Senator Byrd of Dodd's speech could have been one of those who made the choice to turn their back on the South and embracing the Union. "Come with me if you want statehood.")

Me, I don't have such a high opinion of Byrd, but the comment is clearly typical of the kind of congratulatory flattery that senators say to each other all the time. This is not a scandal.

--JOHANNES CLERK

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