»  National Review Online

March 7, 2001

  Senator Byrd's N-Word


Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia is in trouble for having used the N-word on Fox News Channel Sunday night. He used it in a peculiar context, one which I admit I don't altogether understand. From his manner and tone, it seems to me he was speaking apologetically and defensively, without the intention to anger or insult anyone; but that's a personal impression. Fox's own Bill O'Reilly, in his Monday show, tore a strip off the Senator, on the very reasonable grounds that the N-word is just bad manners in any context outside academic linguistics, and U.S. Senators ought not display bad manners on television.

O'Reilly is right on this, as he is on pretty much everything else. Still, and setting aside the fact that I consider Senator Byrd to be an ideal poster boy for the term limits movement, I'm not altogether without sympathy for him on this one. The Senator, I note, is 83 years old.

A few weeks ago, in a piece I wrote about racial profiling, I passed the opinion that of all the several hundred white Americans I have known well enough to form a judgment on the matter, I did not believe that there was even one who harbored any ill will towards black people. A reader, responding to this, said that he could go along with me so far as people born since about 1940 were concerned; but that many older whites still, in their hearts, despised black people and wanted to keep them down.

There are some hairs to be split here. I was talking about actual ill will — the desire to keep black people in a socially inferior position. I do, of course, know some white people who dislike blacks in a general way — a way not incompatible with liking particular black individuals. This, however, is an irritated, unwilling dislike, a "why can't they shape up?" dislike, a dislike that would, as I said at the time, disappear if the statistical profiles of black American life (crime, illegitimacy, etc.) were brought into line with those of whites. It's more frustration than ill will — frustration colored by some anger at the noxious system of race preferences, which can be seen, from the point of view of people with this cast of thought, as rewards for group misbehavior.

All right, the hairs have been split. Now: was my reader correct? Is actual ill will towards blacks — the desire to keep them down, resentment that they should think they are just as good as whites — still alive in old white Americans? Well, I have to admit, and my own acquaintances notwithstanding (few of them are over 60), I guess I'd be surprised if it wasn't.

For one thing, it's not easy to change the attitudes you form in your youth. Consider a white American of Senator Byrd's age, born in 1917. It would have been in the 1930s that he would have begun to notice the world in a serious way, and form — or borrow — opinions about it. In 1940 this person would be 23, and his opinions would be starting to "set". By 1957 — age 40 — he would have assembled the general world-view that, with some tweaking and adjusting here or there, he would carry forward with him to the grave. 1957 was the year President Eisenhower had to send Federal troops to Little Rock to overcome opposition to the integration of that city's Central High School.

In 1957, ill will towards blacks, of the kind that I have defined, was still quite common in the U.S., and by no means only in the South. Even if you didn't harbor it yourself, it was not shocking to you, just one part of the ordinary spectrum of opinions that reasonable citizens might hold. What you might call the Great Shaming — that is, the rise of intense social disapproval towards those kinds of opinions — did not really get under way until the early 1960s, and was not complete until the late 1970s, at which latter point Senator Byrd was 60 years old.

It's a bit much to expect of human nature that people in their 50s and 60s will change their thinking completely to conform with large social movements. Some will; others, probably a much larger number, will just become skillful at hiding their innermost feelings when in polite company. Some others — a stiff-necked, proud, awkward few — will swim against the current and go on saying out loud what they think, regardless of how anyone feels about it.

I can speak, at any rate by analogy, from some slight personal knowledge here. I grew up in the days when promiscuous cigarette smoking was socially accepted. I can remember when rolling stock on the London Underground had one carriage in four assigned to non-smokers. In the other three-quarters of the carriages, you rode in a fug of cigarette and pipe smoke. Among my earliest memories as a child was sitting in a movie theater watching the screen through a hundred filaments of rising smoke from the cigarettes of other moviegoers. When I came of age I started smoking myself, and continued for some years, until I became a father, which was, as it happened, pretty much the point in time at which it became impossible to smoke anywhere but in your own home. Having grown up with all that, I don't mind smoking half as much as my kids have learned to do. On the rare occasions that someone asks: "Do you mind if I smoke?" I reply truthfully: "Not at all." Truthfully, and even a bit enviously, in fact — I rather miss smoking. (I dream about smoking quite often — am I alone in this?) I keep ashtrays in the house in case visitors want to smoke.

Probably there are a lot of old white Americans who feel about racial segregation the way I feel about unrestrained social smoking. Regrettable? Yes. Deplorable? Sure. Anti-social? Certainly. Are we better off without it? Definitely. But: Scandalous? Shocking? Inhuman? Outrageous? Um, not really. You had to be there. (I had better spell out, for the reading-impaired, that this is not the way I feel about racial segregation; I'm just arguing that it's the way some old white Americans may feel.)

There is also the simple fact that when you are old, you don't much care what anybody thinks about your opinions. You know that your own little show is nearing the end of its run. Soon you will be out of it all, and soon thereafter, unless you were very extraordinary in some way, you and your opinions will be utterly forgotten. You fall into the dull solipsism expressed by the sage in Rasselas:

Praise … is to an old man an empty sound. I have neither mother to be delighted with the reputation of her son, nor wife to partake of the honors of her husband. I have outlived my friends and my rivals. Nothing is now of much importance; for I cannot extend my interest beyond myself. Youth is delighted with applause, because it is considered as the earnest of some future good, and because the prospect of life is far extended: but to me, who am now declining to decrepitude, there is little to be feared from the malevolence of men, and yet less to be hoped from their affection and esteem. Something they may yet take away, but they can give me nothing.

If you arrive at that point in life after a decade or two of masking your feelings, you will probably continue to do so out of sheer force of habit. On the other hand, you might decide that "there is little to be feared from the malevolence of men" when the stage-hands are looking at their watches and fingering the curtain ropes. You might decide to have a little valedictory fun by shocking the easily-shocked.

If a speaker is taken by that spirit nowadays, his fun is guaranteed, for there has surely never been a society as easily shocked as ours.