Saturday, July 5, 2008

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

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

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.

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I share your high esteem "for manners and courtesy," indeed, a previous post in which you mentioned this in the context of philosophical discourse and argument has, in conjunction with my fondness for Confucius, inspired me to begin writing something on the role of etiquette in virtuous living and philosophical conversation. One of the lessons Confucius taught was "that mastery of the polite arts is valuable only to the extent that it is predicated on an acute moral sense, whose ultimate worth is greater than conventional beauties of form" (Michael Nylan). Confucius well recognized that "people with fine manners may yet have an underdeveloped moral sense," a phenomenon analogous to the performance of ritual in a mindless manner, bereft of the appropriate attitude or demeanor. And yet Confucius understood the emulation of one's moral and spiritual betters to involve the learning of the polite arts as a form of self-discipline, in particular, with regard to the emotions (not dissimilar from the Aristotelian process of habituation to virtue) which, in the first instance, involves rote imitation until such time as one has developed an acute moral sense and empathic sensitivity. When this occurs, the polite arts and a life of virtue become inextricably intertwined in a manner that suggests aesthetic beauty:

"Moral self-cultivation is itself a kind of exquisite taste: the truly cultivated have learned to delight in the moral Way and to appreciate the beauty and utility of ritual. Such sophisticated powers of discrimination keep them on the path of full humanity (ren), painstakingly refining their initial impulses toward sympathetic understanding, like the jade cutter who cuts and files, chisels and polishes the precious material."

Learning a code of manners does not amount to mastery of the art of moral self-cultivation, as we see so vividly in the case of the "well-mannered racist." A virtuoso in the latter art will be like an exquisite piece of jade, while one with intelligence enough to perform the letter of the former, will turn out on close inspection to be only a simulacrum of same, a cheap copy or piece of forgery.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jul 6, 2008 12:50:52 AM

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