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Helms, The Right, And The History Of Racism

Both Jonah Goldberg and Ross Douthat recommend a Claremont Review of Books essay by William Voegeli on race and American conservatism. The compelling piece does a fine job of tracing the shortcomings of conservatives like William F. Buckley on the issue of civil rights. Voegeli's central intent is to rebut the idea that:

Everything that conservatism has accomplished and stood for since 1965—Reagan, the tax revolt, law-and-order, deregulation, the fight against affirmative action, the critique of the welfare state...everything—is the poisoned fruit of the poisoned tree [of racism].

Fair enough, but I think Voegeli (and Goldberg, who discusses this idea frequently) is mistaken on one crucial thing:

The constitutional principles at the heart of this project were—are—ones that liberals find laughable, fantastic, and bizarre. Because they cannot take them seriously they reject the possibility that conservatives do. Thus, liberals dismiss "states' rights" as nothing more than a code word for racism. There is no point in conservatives even asking what the code word for states' rights is, because liberals cannot imagine anyone believes this to be a legitimate political concern.

From this viewpoint, conservatism's "reasons" for opposing civil rights were, in fact and from the beginning, excuses for oppressing blacks.

The point is not that liberals believe every conservative is pretending to be in favor of states rights, or using the phrase as a code word. The point is that liberals think it says something really, really bad if you cared more about states rights than you did about keeping blacks as second-class citizens throughout much of the country. At certain moments in his piece, Voegeli seems to admit as much, but then the point is lost. Meanwhile, when you read National Review's editorial on the death of Senator Helms, you do start to wonder why the folks at today's NR appear so much more passionate when detailing Helms' stand for "political incorrectness" than they do when talking about Helms' civil rights record (which is mentioned, but mainly as a way to bash the New York Times for political correctness). Everyone is allowed to have different priorities, but when they are that out of whack, it is understandable that people notice.

--Isaac Chotiner