Saturday, July 3, 2010

What should we think of Byrd in Klan?

It has been a staple of the conservative ideologue attack rhetoric – whenever somebody of the GOP says something incredibly stupid, we get reminded that “Robert Byrd was once in the Ku Klux Klan!”

It is supposed to imply that nobody should assume all the nitwits are of the conservative faction that has become all dominant in the Republican Party. After all, the senator from West Virginia was a southern boy who resisted the trend of his many regional colleagues to shift allegiances to the GOP.

BUT NOW, BYRD is gone, with funeral services held Friday at the Statehouse in Charleston, W. Va. In line with his stature as the longest-serving senator, he got an incumbent president and the previous Democrat to hold that office. Both Barack Obama, the first biracial president whose existence in that post would have been anathema to Byrd when he began his political career, and Bill Clinton even eulogized the man.

Both are getting hit with charges that they’re being hypocritical because of the way they addressed Byrd’s long-ago membership in the Klan.

Obama described Byrd as a man with “a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen. A capacity to be made more perfect.” Clinton, the boy from Hope, Ark., said that a Klan tie was something that can be found in people who were “country boy(s).”

As Clinton put it, “Maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done. And he spend the rest of his life making it up. And that is what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There certainly are no perfect politicians.”

AN APOLOGIST FOR anyone willing to keep a “D” after his name? Or just a realistic view of what life in our society is about?

Now as I have written, it is not a new disclosure that Byrd was in the Klan back in the days before he became an elected official. Based on his rhetoric and writings from the times, it seems that Byrd was delusional enough to believe the line of thought that the Klan still tries to peddle about itself, but that people today have enough sense to disregard.

That “thought” is that the Klan represented American ideals, because naturally real Americans were white people of a Scottish-Irish ethnic background. Some people still try to peddle that line of thought, although they don’t speak quite so bluntly as what was once considered to be appropriate.

There has never been evidence that Byrd kept Klan ties once he became a federal government official in the 1950s, other than the fact that he was a Southern White Male.

IN A 2005 autobiography, entitled “Robert C. Byrd, child of the Appalachian cornfields,” the senator explained his one-time Klan membership as having occurred because, “I was sorely afflicated with tunnel vision – a jejune and immature outlook – seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.”

I’m not necessarily trying to defend Byrd for his Klan membership of six decades ago. I do find it reprehensible that he could ever have thought that the white supremacist ideology of the Klan represented what this country ought to strive for.

But I do realize that such attitudes were prevalent, in that there once was a time when anyone who pushed for the idea that anyone not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant could have a legitimate place in our society was somehow regarded as being “communist.”

Then again, maybe we haven’t changed as much as we’d like to think we have. How often do we hear rhetoric these days claiming that Obama is a “socialist” because of his stance on health care reform, immigration or, well actually, just because of his existence?

CHANCES ARE THE people who like to spew this rhetoric are the biological descendants of at least a couple of individuals who once put on a robe and hood and claimed their rants against miscegenation were meant to preserve “American” ideals. They’re definitely the ideological descendants of those people.

Which is why it always struck me that anyone who tried to lambast liberal causes in recent years by exclaiming that “Robert Byrd was once in the Klan!” was doing nothing more than trying to misdirect attention away from their own stupid rants.

On this issue, I’m willing to consider the likelihood that Byrd was a Southerner in character (although not all bigots are from the South), but that his attitudes adapted throughout the years. I base that thought largely on the fact that he managed to get himself re-elected every six years since the 1958 elections.

I am enough of a political realist to know that anyone who mentally was still stuck in 1959 would have at-best become a fringe member of the Senate, and would not have risen to the ranks of majority leader.

WHICH MAKES ME wonder if Obama hit this issue right on the head when he said the Byrd story is one that reflects the ability of people to change.

If anything, the fact that some conservative ideologues will try to characterize Obama’s remarks at the Byrd funeral as “a socialist giving praise to a Klansman” ought to be evidence enough of the nonsensical nature of much of the rhetoric that emanates from the far right.


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