That’s always how Robert Byrd’s name seems to come up: “Oh yeah, well what about Robert Byrd?” And his name does come up, quite a bit, which is odd considering the former West Virginia senator died in 2010. I mean, when was the last time someone just randomly changed the subject to Jay Rockefeller or W. Chapman Revercomb?
But that happens with Robert Byrd, with astonishing frequency. And that’s because Robert Byrd — a former Exalted Cyclops* of the Ku Klux Klan — is the No. 1 tu quoque response invoked every time anyone highlights evidence of Republican racism.
Tu quoque is just a fancy term for a beside-the-point playground retort. It’s a Latin phrase meaning, roughly, “so’s your mother” — with all the relevance, substance, and compelling logic that entails.
Actually, it translates “you also” — because that’s shorter than the full version of flexilis sum tu et gluten (or whatever the proper Latin phrase would be for “I’m rubber and you’re glue”). Like all forms of the argument “So’s your mother,” it abandons any attempt at a logical defense and unintentionally surrenders the main point of the accusation. Whether or not it is true that “you also” stand condemned by the principle being argued, the tu quoque assertion reaffirms the legitimacy of that condemnation.
If Robert Byrd’s racism was also bad, that concedes the point that the contemporary racism of Donald Trump is bad. Condemning Byrd doesn’t exonerate Trump anymore than condemning your mama exonerates anyone on the playground.
Unlike your mama, though, Robert Byrd really does deserve that condemnation. He was, for decades, a truly awful racist. The guy wasn’t, like, some casually Klan-curious occasional member of the racist terrorist organization. He spent years as a recruiter for it, indoctrinating others in its toxic religion. And even though he abandoned his membership in the Klan when he entered politics, he carried its white-supremacist, segregationist ideology with him into the Senate, where he joined in a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and fiercely opposed the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall as a Supreme Court justice.
Alas, Byrd was not unique in all of that — he was one of many segregationist “Dixiecrats” who rose to prominence in the Democratic Party during the mid-20th century. But most of those other segregationist Dixiecrats faded into obscurity after losing ground — and losing their party — to the Civil Rights Movement. Others — like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond — switched parties and became Republicans in the great realignment of the 1960s and -’70s.
Byrd, however, never renounced the Democratic Party, and the party never renounced him. He became his party’s leader in the Senate and a formidable master of the chamber’s rules and procedures.
Now, it’s also true that somewhere along the way over his many years in the Senate — where he served longer than anyone else ever has — Robert Byrd changed. He went from being a fierce opponent of civil rights to a staunch supporter of them, winning commendation from the NAACP for his unfailing support for their civil-rights legislative agenda. He repudiated his involvement with the Klan, calling it the worst mistake of his life, and he apologized for his earlier opposition to civil rights legislation.
Byrd credited his change of heart and change of mind to his Baptist church, and to a crisis of identity following the death of his grandson in 1982. (There were also more than 30 Friday the 13ths between 1964 and 1982, so perhaps that played a part in his transformation.) Whatever the case, though, the man changed. His words and deeds in his final decades in Congress were completely opposite from the words and deeds of his early career.
That change is another reason the tu quoque invocation of Robert Byrd is unintentionally self-defeating for those who attempt it as a defense of contemporary racist politics. It introduces a dramatic example of change — of the possibility of repentance and redemption. And that’s not really what you’re shooting for when you’re angrily shouting “Oh yeah? What about Robert Byrd?” in a misguided attempt to argue that you personally have no need for repentance and no interest in redemption.
But while Byrd’s repentance and transformation is important, I don’t think it should be the main focus of any response to the hilariously frequent recitation of his name as a tu quoque non-defense of Trumpist racism. The main focus of that response should be agreement.
This is, after all, one of the rare instances wherein liberals and conservatives can actually agree on basic facts. We may be unable to agree about whether or not President Obama is a secret-Muslim socialist, or whether Hawaii is a state, or whether the U.N. is about to take over Texas last summer, but we do agree that the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, was once a proud, active member of the Ku Klux Klan.
And, since they brought it up — and they do bring it up, over and over — we can mention that we also agree that Byrd’s membership in the Klan was odious and shameful. Granted, that wasn’t the point they intended to make by shouting “Oh yeah? What about Robert Byrd?” but this objection makes no sense at all unless his involvement with that white-supremacist organization was self-evidently deplorable. By invoking his name, these folks demonstrate that they know this. That’s the only reason for them to have introduced his name and (part of) his history in this context.
It’s simply not possible to shout Robert Byrd! Robert Byrd! in this way without thereby affirming the moral judgment that racism is bad.
That doesn’t seem to be the point that those shouting this intend to be making. They’re really just trying to say that “Democrats are racist too!” (Or that Democrats are the “real” racists, although the logic of “you also” doesn’t allow that — also means both sides, not one exclusively.)
And here, again, I think we should agree. Not just agree, either, but remind them that there are far more — and far worse — examples than just poor Robert Byrd. Let’s not forget Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, John Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson, among many others. The Democratic Party as a whole may have, like Byrd himself, repented of its vicious racism and reversed course, but the fact of that history — the harm of it, and the shame of it — remains a fact.
And thus again we find our Robert-Byrd-invoking neighbors unintentionally reaffirming the very criticism they meant to shout away: the principle, the fact, that racism is undeniably deplorable.
That conclusion is unavoidable. It is not just the conclusion, but the premise, of their own choice to change the subject to a discussion of Byrd’s deplorable racism. If his racist views in his years as a klansman and a segregationist were not self-evidently deplorable, there would be no reason to have introduced them to this discussion.
And yet, somehow, in the great majority of these What-about-Robert-Byrd? conversations, it seems impossible to get the Byrd-brains shouting his name to see this or to accept this. They reject the basis of their own argument as well as its only possible conclusion.
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* An “Exalted Cyclops” is a big deal in their nomenklature — it’s much Klannier than a mere Grand High Kobold, if not quite as prestigious as an Imperial Gelatinous Cube or an Estimable Mind Flayer.