Byrd of West Virginia is in trouble for having used the N-word on
Fox News Channel Sunday
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
O'Reilly is right on this, as
he is on pretty much everything else. Still, and setting aside
the fact that I consider Sen. 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 an easy thing to change the attitudes you
form in your youth. Consider a white American of Sen. 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
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.
is also the simple fact that when you are old, you don't
much care what anybody thinks about your opinions.
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 Sen. 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:
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
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.