Archive for June, 2012

Willful Blindness, 2012

SEEING AS WILLFUL BLINDNESS

A film by James Higginson

Unlike all other art forms invented out of modern technology, film has remained stubbornly entrenched in its pre-industrial heritage. Even though the technology of “moving images” allowed for a wide range of artistic experimentation, early “movies” re-presented the theatrical experience and borrowed from painting gestures, postures and poses, the vocabulary of visual communication. Trained on the familiar, movie audiences expect to have their belief suspended and that suspension rests upon the ability of directors and actors to create a new reality. Given that making movies is a business, those demands have shaped the history of film, preventing the kind of growth and development that has changed other art forms.  The “movies” have been mired in the late nineteenth century and it is now the beginning of the twentieth first century and still mainstream film stays the same.  If film is to “progress” or change, any experimentation must take place outside of the commercial world and any advance if film as an art form rests in the hands of artists.

Crafted by Berlin-based photographer and filmmaker, James Higginson, Willful Blindness is part of the sub-culture of “art films” where the “consumer” does not exist and where the art audience wants change and innovation. Higginson comes out of a history of experimental art films in the tradition of Bruce Connor’s A Movie and Andy Warhol’s Empire. Connor started with the idea that a strip of film has rows of cels or square pictorial units, each of which is filled with or contains a single image.  But Connor challenged the assumption that these strips had to flow seamlessly from one segment to another, and he took the concept of montage or editing and spliced together found footage to subvert and disrupt the needs of movie audiences to have a “story.” Warhol, conversely, eschewed editing altogether in Empire by reducing “filming” to its most basic essence—pointing the camera at an object—in this case the Empire State Building—and turning the camera on. For eight hours the camera hummed, the sun traversed the skies, weather arrived and departed and the building remained unmoved. Like Connor, Warhol was also playing with attention span and the process of looking, seeing and watching, in at attempt to reinvent or de-invent “film.” This de-invention, or deconstruction of film, means to strip the moving image of its overgrowths of “movie” conventions.

Like these artistic pioneers, Higginson starts with the premise that the medium of recording movement has its own inherent (but changing) properties and that the “movies” have ignored the possibilities of what can be done with camera and film. One of the tropes of “going to the movies” is the dream.  When entering the theater, we leave the real world of sunlight behind and enter into a cave where flickering images are projected onto a screen. As if frozen in a private dream, we sit and gaze raptly, as if watching our own dream.  Afterwards, we wake up, walk out of the dark, and reemerge into the ordinary, which announces itself as a place of light. An award winning film, Willful Blindness moves back and forth between dream and reality, between the present and the past, by borrowing the semiotics of light and dark—that which is well-lit is the outside of the Real and that which is dark is the inside of Desire.

A canny and aware filmmaker, James Higginson deploys his film tools with the mastery of a mature artist. While Connor and Warhol used black and white film in their classic experiments, Higginson works with color, but his color pays homage to the black and white history of movie making with a bleached and grayed out tones intercut with slashes of jarring red color.  These are the main contrivances that Higginson wields—the unparalleled ability of the camera to stare, the post filming intervention of montage—cutting and pasting—and the historical role of color.  In using color as mood and atmosphere, Higginson evokes other film artists, who somehow ventured into the mainstream, using color artistically, such as Todd Haynes in his homage film, Far From Heaven (2002).

To concentrate on the plot of Willful Blindness is to miss the point of this film. The story and the action is really a conceptual play with the properties of film.  Higginson plays with two elements of filmmaking, both often overlooked: the fact that one looks at a movie and conversely the fact that the film conceals as much as it reveals. Willful Blindness begins with an act of enforced watching, deliberately suggestive of the determined ennui of Empire except that something is actually happening or unfolding in successive waves. The viewer is brought to earth, forced the pavement as the camera drags along the ground. Someone—male or female—is crawling, putting one hand in front of another, dragging an unseen body along behind. All we see are the hands, reaching outward for purchase.

Here, Higginson takes up one of the single most overlooked characteristics of the movies—the ellipses—or that, which is left out and not seen. Usually the ellipse is used to move the story forward: rather than showing the character walking from one place to another, the director will end the scene and will begin a new one. The significance of this lack or empty space in the action is that the viewer mentally fills in this gap. When the viewer sees the grasping reaching hands, s/he enters empathetically into the action, even inhabiting the invisible body of the actor who is an obvious victim of some terrible event.  Higginson takes the notion of “economy” in art to extremes, showing a difficult and complex set of actions, dragging oneself along a city sidewalk, with only the barest of suggestions.

Conveying extreme effort, Higginson works against the forward movement, however, labored and difficult, not by looping the film but by seeming to overlap the progress: one step forward, two steps back.  The great effort of the crawler is repeatedly impeded but not prevented, adding layers of frustration on the viewer. Higginson makes the watcher watch. There is no way to intervene or help.  He makes the viewer suffer along with the wounded protagonist; the film deliberately drags, mimicking the painful scraping of the hands on the rough pavement. The   irritation at this prolonged scene counters the way in which mainstream movies quickly “establish” the first act for the impatient audience.

Playing with the conventions of slow motion and the undeniable advance of a strip of film through the sprocket, Higginson considers the very concept of “pace” in a movie. In contrast to the slow sequence, are the recurring brisk and rapid actions of a woman walking in bright red very high heels—pace personified. Once again we are on the ground, once again we cannot see the body, only the feet and those shoes, moving fast with purpose.  And these red shoes—baleful and malevolent, intimating violence—are the mirror images of the victim’s slow hurt hands.  These are perpetrator shoes, quickening the processional pace of the film, reassuring the viewer that a story has a beginning, middle, and end that it moves forward and comes to a terminus.  The engine of the film is the determined red heels, but where are we going?

Early on, Higginson warns the viewer: he will give color and he will take it away.  Color, for this filmmaker, conveys both life and death. Full of vibrancy, the red heels are full of life but they are as red as blood and predict and forebode. The hands are drained of color and the environment is emptied of life as if by a vampire. Willful Blindness is a dark and black film without daylight, without bright color. Often the viewer is blind in that it is difficult to see, thwarting the very purpose of the movies, watching and looking. The movie lights turn on only when the red heels appear. But Higginson not only keeps the viewer in the dark, so to speak, but also refuses to bow to the main demand of movie making—explain to the viewer what is going on.  He keeps us willfully blind and pertinaciously mires us in the dark as if to trap us in a nightmare.

The red heels are the parentheses of Willful Blindness the film’s alpha and omega—its beginning and the end.  They belong to a traveling woman. At its heart, Willful Blindness is a canonical road movie in which the main character travels. This journey into darkness is punctuated with a series of incidents, which occur along the way, perhaps connected or perhaps not. In between, Higginson investigates the most compelling aspect of the camera vision: voyeurism. Movie-making essentially splits between what society allows us to see, what is deemed desirable, and what society thinks we should be sheltered from, that which is forbidden. People come to the movies to see the forbidden—sex and violence, which always hover on the edge of pornography and unbridled bloodthirstiness. We enter into an imaginative place to give way to our most unsocial instincts, which are also our most basic and that, therefore, must be the most rigorously suppressed.

Higginson serves up hints of pornography and unsavory sex, but his real theme, resonating throughout his photographic work, is violence. Violence, in Willful Blindness, is private, closed and secretive, taking place in some sort of twisted domestic setting. Willful Blindness is an excruciating journey into extremity, filling the viewer with dread. Along the journey, Higginson picks up and discards the old dead languages of traditional film—the German Expressionist style, the film noir of the crime story, pornography and gratuitous violence, as if searching for the right way to detonate an act of retribution. His reanimation of these old allegories is where the practical practice of editing or cutting unwanted or unnecessary scenes—becomes an act of slashing and hacking, and the film reaches its denouement.

The editing style, which deservedly won a prize, the cropping of fragments, the slicing into slivers of film, mimics Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in Psycho with its eighty odd cuts.  Higginson has moved beyond the literal metaphors of the master and dwells in the conceptual: he cuts the film—rapidly and repeatedly, implying and indicating terrible acts of violence.  Suddenly color bleeds into the film, drenching it. For the viewer, dragged hand over hand into a nightmare composed of a web of image that is both beautiful and dreadful, this explosion of horror is a cathartic relief. We leave the cave of sublimated Desire, our need for revenge satiated.

Higginson was not content with deconstructing the givens of filmmaking; he rethought the role of sound as well. Sound, in a visual medium, is by definition an invasion of an alien other. In fact when “talkies” took the place of silent movies, the purists objected. The technology of sound—talking, ambient noise and music—totally changed the way in which movies functioned. The broad gestures inherited from painting disappeared and pantomime was replaced by dialogue. Interestingly, early silent movies were much more oriented towards action and activity compared to the films of the thirties and forties which relied much more on actors talking to each other to move the plot along. But dialogue along with the sound effects are “natural,” lifelike, an enhancement of the “reality effect.”  But music is inherently unnatural.

It is with the music and the editing of sound that the viewer, who has been intensely interacting with the fabula, becomes most aware of Higginson as the orchestrator of the syuzhet. Suddenly, one is jolted into realizing that, contrary to mainstream film; there is no dialogue, no voice over, not even subtitles.  But not no sound. Once again the artist has pushed filmmaking back in time, to an era when the images had to stand on their own, but the music stood in for human speech. All silent films were, in fact, not “silent” but were designed to have music accompany them. If the theater venue could afford it, an entire orchestra would do the accompaniment, if, if the theater were in a small town, then a simple piano player pounding out the film score would suffice.

Although the sound design is by Higginson himself, working under the alias “Roberto Pelligrini,” with his assistant Maik Wolf, the music for Willful Blindness is a totally original score by Roland Hackl. Hackl is part of the European tradition of contemporary film music, for like his colleagues and predecessors, Daft Punk and Tangerine Dream, he comes out of the techno music scene. Once on the fringes of the music scene, techno is now mainstream but is far more flexible in format and sound than established forms of popular music, such as rock ‘n’ roll and blues.  Techno has no history, it comes from machines that are also without history; it is electronically generated artificial sounds that are mimickeries of a new kind of “music.” Hackl has skillfully explored the in-between-ness of techno/music and its split personality and its greatly expanded abilities to evoke emotions within the audience and to intervene with the diegesis. In the hands of Hackl, the absence of the naturalizing effects of dialogue becomes an asset to be exploited and music re-takes its traditional original role in the film as a stand-alone experience, quick-marching the viewer to the determined denouement.

At the end is a reentry into the light of reality and the woman in the red heels strides purposefully towards her appointed task—something must be buried. Bizarrely, the world ignores all this activity, suggesting that, contrary to what we believed, we are still trapped in a bad dream. James Higginson takes the concept of film to its final limits—that it is not the camera that is the projector, it is us, our minds, reaching out of the depths of the repressed impulses who streams our darkest fears onto a helpless blank white screen. The screen is the world itself, the passive recipient of what the ancient Greeks feared most—the beast within all of us.  We sleep, we eat, we mate and we kill, there is nothing else.

 

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger

The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics by Rob Christensen

THE PARADOX OF TAR HEEL POLITICS. 

THE PERSONALITIES, ELECTIONS, AND EVENTS

THAT SHAPED MODERN NORTH CAROLINA

BY ROB CHRISTENSEN

North Carolina is a small state of little consequence, so why is a political history of “modern North Carolina” of any interest to people outside of the state? The immediate answers might be “John Edwards” and his horrifying fall from grace or the upcoming Democratic Convention this summer.  But the long-term answer can be stated in two words: “Jesse Helms.” For the art world that name sends shivers down the spine, because during the last twenty years of his career, the notorious Senator began an on-going war against artistic freedom.  But the name of Helms should resonate for other reasons—-he was, in his time, the spiritual and practical Godfather of the extreme Right Wing and of the Tea Party.  The author Rob Christensen makes an interesting case that the future of many bad things begins in North Carolina.

In the South, race and class are everything, determinative, and have the half-life of uranium. Given that questions of race and class have shaped the past, present and future of the region, the most interesting aspects of this book is the undeveloped subtext—the legacy of slavery.  Christensen, a newspaper reporter, writes in a Dragnet manner and, to be fair, is not a historian and thus does not put the story of North Carolina politics into a fully developed temporal context. The author is a newspaper reporter who has a column in the Charlotte Observer and is a veteran observer of the political scene in the state and his task is to inform the reader of the modern—twentieth century—political history of his state.

Christensen makes a compelling case that North Carolina is a state caught between progressive ideas and traditional values. At this time, North Carolina seems to count as a border state, lodged between the Old South (to the South) and the New South (to the North). Although it is not on the Mason-Dixon line, over the past two decades, it seems to have joined the category occupied by Virginia and Maryland. As with these in-between states, “outsiders,” business interests, and other “new” industries, such as technology, have invaded North Carolina. Maryland and Virginia are outliers of the federal government and home to people, who come from all over the nation, to live and work in the northern-most suburbs. The result has been a slow sea change in their political and cultural make-up that have left these states, like North Carolina, divided between the old and the new.

While Virginia and Maryland accepted the newcomers passively, North Carolina actively courted them. In North Carolina, the changes have been forced by the modernization of the state through the famed Research Triangle between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and the arrival of the big banks in the city of Charlotte. The state is now split into factions—the more liberal university communities and the more conservative business interests and the outlying rural regions that are reactionary in their outlook. The state that unexpectedly went “blue” for a Black man, Barack Obama, in November 2008 also voted for a ban on gay marriage in May 2012.  Christensen’s book explains why the state should act in such contradictory ways.

Christensen sums up the contradictory nature of the state in his opening page of the book:

Politics was largely controlled by big business. The state lit the cigars for corporate executives but was hostile to organized labor; it generously spent money on roads and universities but was stingy when it came to the poor. State leaders sought a measure of fairness toward its black citizens, as long as it didn’t threaten the system of segregation. It was a business progressivism that was in tune with North Carolina’s growing urban middle class of lawyers, power-company executives, bankers, textile-plant owners, newspaper publishers and editors, and others.

On the surface, this description could be of many or any state with a substantial minority population, but most states don’t have the same cultural legacy that North Carolina does. For all its contrary aspects, for all its position as a border state, North Carolina was, is and will always be a Southern state burdened by the legacy of slavery.  The fact that the culture of slavery and its unsettling consequences should still be so powerful is rather curious.  If one compares crimes against humanity, it is customary for the succeeding generations to increasingly move beyond the sins of their grandparents and great-grandparents.  The young people in Germany are more than ready to vow “Never Again” and to move forward; they, after all, are not the ones who have to atone.

The famous book, The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior, by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherliche is instructive in that the authors point out the Germany, as a collective society, had difficulty in mourning their loss (the Jews) and were living with melancholia. Many studies, such as that of Lawrence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning From History, the generation that had to come to terms with their crimes refused to do so.  Rees’s shocking book (made into a video) contains testimony of aging Nazis who are too old to prosecute and who were, therefore, willing to “confess” but not repent.  Without getting into the weeds of how to compare cultural crimes, it might be said that the South still has not come to terms with slavery.

But what is the cause of the prolonged melancholia—a psychological condition that has persisted like a cancerous disease for over one hundred and fifty years? What is the “loss” for which the region is unable to mourn? Is the “loss” the defeat of the Confederacy? Or is the “loss” of the feeling of Mastery that slaveholding—owing human beings—brings to the owners (even those who had no slaves)? Or is the “loss” the loss of honor and moral standing for clinging to slavery long after the rest of the civilized world had outlawed it? Or does the melancholia come from the humiliating combination of being marked as wrong, sinful and brought low to a state of abjection?  We can only conjecture at the reason for the South’s insistence that the local customs, however odious, must be maintained at any cost, but it is clear that what sets the region apart is its adherence to slavery and its inability to repudiate its past.

Part of the problem for the South is the consequences of slavery.  And those consequences—a century of segregation—happened not so long ago. Many people living in the South benefitted and benefit still from segregation.  Many people living in the South suffered and suffered still from segregation. Segregation has served the region quite well—if one is white. The result of the continuing benefits is a cultural defensiveness on the part of the whites, who evidence a resentment of “outsiders” who do not accept the unspoken rules of the game.  It is difficult to be condemned by history and to be looked upon with suspicion by the present and to find one’s culture to be out of step with the tide of history. Many Southern states stubbornly defend an indefensible past and stubbornly fight to maintain the traditions of separate and unequal.  But North Carolina splits the difference between an unpalatable past and an unknowable future—it will go along with inevitable change but not too fast.

Christensen outlines the tactics of North Carolina politicians who attempted to navigate the requirement to accept the inherent racism and acknowledge the strata of class in the state. The state began the modern era as a Democratic state.  Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, were few and far between.  In addition to being the party that led the federal government to victory in the Civil War and the party that abolished slavery, Republicans were associated with the decade of Reconstruction. Reconstruction, not to put too fine a point on it, was the Occupation of the South by the North. During this period, backed up by the occupation forces, freed African Americans were given economic and political opportunities and rights.

With hindsight, it seems astonishing that a recently subservient group should move so quickly to political activism, but this remarkable accomplishment got little credit from the outraged whites. By the end of the century, this brief period of relative equality came to an end and white supremacy pushed African Americans out of legislatures and out of the mainstream of public life. Christensen outlines in horrifying detail the long and bloody campaign of the Democrats to regain power through terror and intimidation. He provides a chilling poem of White Supremacy:

THE WHITES SHALL RULE.

The whites shall rule the land or die

The purpose grows in hearts of steel

With burning cheek and flashing eye

We wait what waiting may reveal.

But, come what may the whites must hold

What white men’s patriot valor bought;

Our grandsire’s ashes not yet cold, Hallow the soil for which they fought.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, whites were back in control and African-Americans began to experience life under the regressive laws of Jim Crow.  Christensen gives an account of the violent ouster of African Americans from power in the city of Wilmington—an event of which I was unaware.  Like Tulsa and Rosewood, Wilmington was a city where African-Americans prospered. But all that ended in the fall of 1898, like Tulsa and Rosewood, in the destruction of a Black community at the hands of white terrorists. As Christensen wrote, “Democrats engineered what must surely be one of the few coups d’etat in American history.”

He continued,

“The forced exile of the Republican leaders was followed by a voluntary exodus of 2,100 black residents from Wilmington, including many members of the black middle class. Within two years, Wilmington was transformed from a city with a small black majority to a city with a slight white majority. Wilmington would never recover its position as North Carolina’s leading city.”

The author noted that the entire campaign of terrorism was bankrolled by the business elite, who wanted to end, forever, the unlikely alliance of Republicans, African-Americans and the lower classes—the farmers and textile workers. By evoking race, Populism could be defeated.  The lower class whites were bought off by being given privileges that African Americans did not have—everything from voting to being allowed to ride in the front of the bus.  Or to put it another way, in order to privilege Whites, constitutional rights had to be taken away from Blacks. And after the campaign of domestic terror, the pre-war status quo was reasserted—African-Americans were inherently unequal and, if slavery were outlawed, then the Jim Crow laws would reify this presumed inequality.

Blacks were put back “in their place” all over the South. North Carolina was but one of many states that rejected federal rule and Reconstruction and any thoughts of racial equality.  In addition, the pattern of separating the lower classes from their natural economic allies, the African Americans was replicated in all Southern states. North Carolina was a fiercely anti-union state and its antagonism to unions was fueled by a natural antagonism to outside “agitators” who would try to change the culture.  Lower class mill workers would rather cleave to the upper classes who exploited them and be complicit in their own oppression because of their shared allegiance to white supremacy. In return for the workers’ willingness to be exploited, the businesses and industries did not hire their greatest competitors, the Blacks.

Having passed through North Carolina some years ago, I noted the presence of the linen industry, the furniture industry, liquor business, and the tobacco industry—long-time business powers in the state.  These industries are huge, providing the nation’s living room sofas, chairs and tables, the nation’s sheets and towels, and the nation’s oral addictions and yet the state was improvised.  On one level, the workers are paid such low wages that the state does not have much of a tax base; on the other level, these industries are enormously profitable and small North Carolina should be a very wealthy state.

Christensen discusses these dominating industries and their political power in the state but I wish he had solved the mystery that puzzled me—where do the tax dollars go?  This is a state that lacked basic fundamental safety conditions on the streets and highways—no reflective paint in the median strips, no reflective caps, and street lights were few and far between, making night driving an exercise in Russian roulette. One can only assume that for over a hundred years, generations of politicians have been paid off by the local businesses and that taxes must be abnormally low, rewarding the few at the expense of the many.

And here is why this book has resonance beyond North Carolina. What is interesting about this book is that it sets out the conditions for today’s politics and patterns that seem inexplicable—patterns that, the author suggests, have spread throughout the nation.  Much has been written about the “Southernization” of certain states and regions in America, most notably Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.  Sadly, starting with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, aka playing the race card, what has been exported has been largely negative—racism, classism, creationism, fundamentalism—none of which is in keeping with the modern world but are defiant survivals of a dead social system.

Without repeating the entire history of all the state’s governors, ably laid out by the author, it is clear that, from the beginning of the century, white supremacy ruled. White supremacy ruled without challenge until the Civil Rights era of the sixties and ended with the two rulings of the Supreme Courts in 1954 and 1955 and the two Civil Rights laws in 1964 and 1965.  Unlike other states that resisted the orders to integrate—Alabama and Virginia—North Carolina quietly complied. But the intervention of the federal government—again—“imposing” outside values and ideas upon a region that cherished its “ways” did not change the minds and hearts of the state.

The problem is that the South is a region of the nation that is often at odds with the Constitution and its ideals.  Off and on, the federal government has to assert itself in attempts to bring these states back into the Union, whether through warfare or legal actions. There was a Southern cultural refusal to accept the authority of the federal government. Ever since the defeat of the South and Reconstruction, the South has understandably never been favorable to Washington D.C. However, the South conveniently ignores the fact that the federal government provides funds and jobs for most of the states through military bases, such as the Naval base in Virginia, and other federal projects, such as the space programs in Florida and Texas.  North Carolina, Christensen stated twice, is “bristling” with military bases.

The problem is not how to escape the contradiction between being dependent upon federal largess and maintaining cultural customs but how to export the attitude of defiance and distrust of the “government” and how to maintain traditional “values” of racism, classism and homophobia. Enter Jesse Helms. Jesse Helms has long since gone to his maker and, upon his demise, cartoonists (who are artists) imagined him going (to his surprise) to Hell for his race-baiting attacks on the fine arts. But to the surprise of those of us in the art world, Helms had far more up his sleeve than the fight against art revealed. According the Christensen, Jesse Helms changed North Carolina from a Democratic state into a Republican state. As he wrote,

“Helms became North Carolina’s most famous national political figure of the twentieth century. He helped transform the state into a Republican stronghold instrumental in the elevation of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, shifted the GOP to the political right, and contributed to the polarization of the nation’s politics.”

The triumph of Jesse Helms and the Southern Strategy of White Supremacy rests upon the fact that in the South race trumps everything.  Race trumps class. Race trumps gender. Race trumps economic self-interest. Race trumps morality and ethics and honor.  Good and decent people are apparently willing to do anything to maintain the system of White Supremacy.  Christensen does not go into that much detail but he make it clear, from time to time, that enormous amounts of time and energy are spent maintaining a system that oppresses African Americans. But now that so many citizens of color have migrated out of the state, joining the other thousands from other Southern states, this time and energy are expended in maintaining a cultural supremacy of Traditional Values.

That said, it seems that Helms was—compared to the more courtly Sam Ervin—blatantly open about keeping Blacks out of power, assuring that the rights of women suppressed, and maintaining business as the state’s overlord.  The passage of the Civil Rights Act gave Helms an opening.  Christensen remarked, “Few people understood the power of the white political backlash better than Helms.”  The author explains that the Southerners were conditional Democrats, that is, they would support the national party if, and only if, white supremacy could be continued without interference. After decades of lynchings and oppression and Jim Crow systems could no longer be allowed to continue, the agreement was broken and Dixie sprinted to the welcoming arms of the Republicans.

One could wonder why the Republican Party—the party of Lincoln—would accept an entire region of White Supremacists, but the heritage of history is trumped by the desire for power.  Helms was an early and loud voice of modern day “conservatism.” He was a one-man Fox News before Fox News, starting out as a newspaper and radio reporter who became increasingly unwilling to accept the political progress that followed the Second World War. By 1960, Jesse Helms was on television in Raleigh, appearing on a station owned by a conservative son of a Baptist minister. As Christensen wrote,

“Although Helms did not host a talk show, in some ways he was a forerunner to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and other national conservative commentators who would emerge in the 1990s, giving voice to conservative anger.”

Indeed, the author quotes a few of the “commentaries” of Jesse Helms that sound familiar to anyone who follows the news today.  Stating that “Helms preached an unvarnished libertarian conservatism. He called Social Security ‘nothing more than doles and handouts,’” Christensen further described the sentiments of Helms towards “…Rural electrification cooperatives were “socialistic electric power,” and Medicare was a “step over into the swampy field of socialized medicine.”

As quoted by Christensen, Helms opined that, “They didn’t call it socialism, of course. It was given deceptive names and adorned with fancy slogans. We heard about New Deals, and Fair Deals and New Frontiers and the Great Society.” In speaking of anti-war protesters, Helms stated, “Look carefully into the faces of the people participating. What you will see, for the most part, are dirty, unshaven, often-crude young men, and stringy-haired awkward young women who cannot attract attention any other way. They are strictly second-rate, all the way.”

These comments would be transplanted without much alteration onto the current debates on “Obama Care” and “Occupy Wall Street.” Helms (who had a well-earned reputation as a nasty political campaigner) became a United States Senator in 1972, riding to glory on the coattails of Richard Nixon. Helms would stay in place for the next thirty years, fighting the good fight, voting reflexively against everything federal. Christensen states, “…he was an ardent foe of nearly every social program, from food stamps to child nutrition programs; opposed nearly every consumer program, including the creation of the Consumer Protection Agency; and voted against nearly every environmental bill.” He was an early supporter of school prayer and was vehemently anti-abortion, bringing together like-minded Congress members to fight for and against their “causes.”

But for Helms, the real Messiah was not Nixon or Ford and not fellow Southerner, Jimmy Carter, but Ronald Reagan. Helms allied himself early on with someone he considered to be a true conservative. As Christensen writes, “By the beginning of the 1980s, Helms was the leader of a powerful political movement that would soon be dubbed the New Right. Helms had helped install Ronald Reagan in the White House.” Christensen quotes a Reagan biographer, Lou Cannon, who emphasized the importance of Helms to Reagan: “…the 1976 North Carolina primary was the “turning point” of Reagan’s political career. “Without his performance in North Carolina, both in person and on television, Reagan would have faded from contention before Kansas City, and it is unlikely that he would have won the presidential nomination four years later.”

In addition to using newspapers, radio and television to spread the doctrine of opposition to the “government” and of White Supremacy, in addition to working hard to bring a fellow conservative, Ronald Reagan, into power, Helms was also a pioneer in forming a powerful financial and political machine to get himself elected. The Congressional Club was a forerunner of today’s “grass roots” organizations that serve as laundering operations for billionaires who want to control the government. The achievements and reach of this “Club” was astonishing.  Christensen listed its accomplishments:

The Congressional Club not only engineered Helms’s reelection in 1978, 1984, and 1990, but it also elected John East, a political science professor at East Carolina University, to the U.S. Senate in 1980 and Clinton businessman Lauch Faircloth to the U.S. Senate in 1992. In the process, it defeated Democrat after Democrat. The Congressional Club handed four-term governor Jim Hunt his only defeat in 1984. It unseated Senator Robert Morgan, a moderate Democrat, and Senator Terry Sanford, a liberal. It scotched the hopes of John Ingram, a white populist, and Harvey Gantt, a black candidate. The Congressional Club also had a national reach. It helped elect Reagan, but it failed in its attempt to elect Steve Forbes as president in 1996. The Congressional Club tried in 1985 to buy the giant television network CBS because it wanted more conservative national news broadcasted. The club became a training ground for a generation of young conservatives—people such as Charles Black, Alex Castellanos, Carter Wrenn, Arthur Finkelstein, Richard Viguerie, and Ralph Reed—who later ran the campaigns of U.S. presidents as well as those of prime ministers of other countries.

In a prediction of the “permanent campaign,” the Congressional Club operated continuously for twenty years. The anti-gay, anti-Black, anti-government take-no-prisoners confrontational approach to politics of Helms was part of what Christensen called a “civil war” within the Republican Party. As early as the 1980s, a war began for the soul of the Republican Party, a battle between the “moderates” and the “conservatives.” Today, we know that the “moderates” lost and the Jesse Helms-types of politicians are now in control. In another foretelling, the 1982 race between the former governor, the progressive, Jim Hunt and Helms for the Senate was expensive. According to Christensen, “…the race cost $26 million, a national record for a Senate race at the time and the equivalent of $51 million in 2007. The advertising lasted nineteen straight months, breaking only for a week-long 1983 Christmas truce.”

Suddenly in trouble in this campaign, Helms resorted to the race card. Christensen recounts,

“When conservatives are in trouble in North Carolina, they frequently turn to racially charged issues. The momentum in the race began to shift in October 1983, when Helms launched a heavily publicized filibuster against legislation making slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. For several days, Helms attracted headlines as he hammered away at King’s alleged communist connections. “King’s view of American society was thus not fundamentally different from that of the CPUSA [the American Communist Party] or of other Marxists, and political agitation, his hostility to and hatred for America should be made clear.”

Helms also tied Hunt to “gay activists” to “right wing death squads” and continued his opposition to abortion rights. Christen noted that while the fight of Helms to fight against the Martin Luther King holiday played well at home but his stand against abortion was not as popular. But nevertheless, in another foreshadowing of the avalanche of “war on women” bills that have been put forward and bills that have been passed in the past two years, “During his career, he sponsored twenty-seven antiabortion amendments or bills. Helms called the legalization of abortions a ‘human holocaust with no parallel in history.’  And he said abortion should not be permitted under any circumstance. ‘Rape does not justify murder of an unborn child,’ Helms said in 1988.”

The last stand of Jesse Helms was, in another prophecy, against a Black man, the poised and polished Harvey Gantt. Helms had a long career opposing racial equality.  Christensen writes,

“During his Senate career, Helms managed never to find a civil rights bill that met with his approval. In 1982 he staged a filibuster against an extension of the Voting Rights Act, even though it was supported by seventy-five senators and endorsed by President Reagan. Helms sponsored bills that would have banned court-ordered busing for racial integration. He was a major backer of the apartheid regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). For years, he blocked efforts to put a black judge on the conservative, all-white Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, prompting President Clinton to call his actions “outrageous.”

And yet, Christensen continues, “Helms’s segregationist views in the 1960s reflected those of a majority of white North Carolinians, according to public opinion polls.”

Although it was the 1990s and thirty years after the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of North Carolina voters could not bring themselves to vote for a Black man, and Jesse Helms defeated Harvey Gantt twice during this decade. During the first campaign, the Helms campaign produced one of the most devastating ads against racial equality in modern history.  More powerful and more aesthetically produced by Republican operative, Alex Castellanos, this ad is described by Christensen:

One TV ad dealing with racial quotas became perhaps the best-known political commercial in North Carolina history. The ad featured a pair of white hands crumbling a job application as the announcer says: “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is. Gantt supports Ted Kennedy’s racial quota law that makes the color of your skin more important than your qualifications. You’ll vote on this issue next Tuesday. For racial quotas: Harvey Gantt. Against racial quotas: Jesse Helms.”

Although he vehemently denied playing the race card with this ad, Helms evoking white fears of Affirmative Action, stated, “…you want quotas to dominate and dictate whether you get a job or whether you get a promotion, you vote for Mr. Gantt.”

Christensen also reports on the efforts of his campaign to suppress the Black vote— tactics that also predict those that are being deployed against people of color, students and the elderly today. Although he won his election through his usual underhanded and unseemly fashion, Helms, according to Christensen seemed angry, his customary victim pose: “The confederation of liberals has struck out again: the homosexuals, the defenders of pornographic artistry—if you want to call it that—the National Organization for Women, the pro-abortion crowd, the labor union bosses, and the left-wing news media,” he said.  The only reason Helms seems to have decided to retire in 2001 was because of his declining health. Too bad, he would have like what he could see in today’s politics. Jesse Helms died in 2008, the year a Black man was elected President.  A new era of backlash had just begun.

The career of Jesse Helms was a curious one.  On one hand, he seems to be working against the tide of history and justice—opposed to the rights of women, people of color, gays, the working class, and social equity and equality—that wonders how he survived for so long.  On the other hand, he spoke powerfully to all those who were fearful of change.  The fears of losing Supremacy, whether of race, class or gender, are long-lasting and tremendous effort has been put towards maintaining the status quo.  Jesse Helms was in artful and intemperate in his phraseology—-in his own time—but his crude coarseness is now commonplace in political “discourse.”  Christensen pointed out that

“As late as 1965, Jesse Helms was still defending the use of literacy tests. The real question, Helms said, “is whether illiterates ought to be allowed to vote. And that raises the question of what kind of politician is likely to benefit from a system in which people who cannot possibly understand their responsibility are allowed and encouraged to register and vote without question.”

Today, it is accepted to propose an electrified fence on the Mexican border to kill “illegal aliens,” it is acceptable to suppress voting rights in a Redeux of Jim Crow laws, and it is acceptable to call for taxing people so poor that they are not eligible for income tax while, at the same time, cutting the taxes of billionaires. All of these “proposals” are part of a larger effort to restore the balance of power the way it was one hundred years ago. Undoubtedly it was that nostalgic longing for social control over a long list of people who should be suppressed that led to the passage of an amendment in May 2012 to deny the right to marry to gay couples. It is unlikely that the people who voted to (unconstitutionally) deny an inalienable right to a certain segment of the population actually know any gays or lesbians; they are voting against the future. But they were also voting in the face of increasing legal opposition to such oppression.  On May 31, less than a month later, the federal court of appeals in Boston declared the Defense Against Marriage Act to be unconstitutional. The constitutionality of homophobia, a favorite bugaboo of Jesse Helms, will be decided by the Supreme Court sometime this year.

Christensen ends his book with a description of the rise and fall of John Edwards, just acquitted of campaign finance misdeeds.

“There is a temptation to see Edwards as a tragic Greek figure like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Unquestionably, he was a man of immense political talents, but his vaunted self-discipline wilted under the pressure cooker of big-time politics and he lost his grounding.”

But on a more upbeat note, the author recounts an attempt to undo the race riot in Wilmington:

“In 2000 the state legislature created a commission to investigate the insurrection—patterned after Florida’s inquiry into the 1923 Rosewood Massacre and Oklahoma’s investigation into the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The commission’s final report, issued in 2006, recommended greater efforts to educate the public about the violence, compensation to the heirs of victims who can prove a loss, creation of incentives to help Wilmington areas damaged by the violence, and efforts by newspapers to distribute the report and acknowledge their own role. In 2007 the Democratic Party apologized for its role in the white supremacy campaign.”

It is always assumed that California, particularly Los Angeles, is the predictor of things to come. But, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics makes a disturbing case that North Carolina, a small state caught between the past and present, is also a role model for how America deals with social change—one step forward two steps back. But, despite the one step forward, the legacy of Jesse Helms lives on in North Carolina that is still run by a well-funded political machine.  Christensen’s book perhaps could not continue to present day, but North Carolina is now owned and operated by the “Knight of the Right,” James Arthur Pope, profiled in 2011 by the formidable Jane Meyer in the New Yorker article “State for Sale.” I quote her at some length to make the parallels between the foundation that Helms laid and today’s political tactics clear:

Yet Pope’s triumph in 2010 was sweeping. According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, of the twenty-two legislative races targeted by him, his family, and their organizations, the Republicans won eighteen, placing both chambers of the General Assembly firmly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. North Carolina’s Democrats in Congress hung on to power, but those in the state legislature, where Pope had focused his spending, were routed.

The institute also found that three-quarters of the spending by independent groups in North Carolina’s 2010 state races came from accounts linked to Pope. The total amount that Pope, his family, and groups backed by him spent on the twenty-two races was $2.2 million—not that much, by national standards, but enough to exert crucial influence within the confines of one state. For example, as Gillespie had hoped, the REDMAP strategy worked: the Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly have redrafted congressional-district boundaries with an eye toward partisan advantage.

Experts predict that, next fall, the Republicans will likely take over at least four seats currently held by Democrats in the House of Representatives, helping the Party expand its majority in Congress. Meanwhile, the Republican leadership in the North Carolina General Assembly is raising issues that are sure to galvanize the conservative vote in the 2012 Presidential race, such as a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Republican state legislators have also been devising new rules that, according to critics, are intended to suppress Democratic turnout in the state, such as limiting early voting and requiring voters to display government-issued photo I.D.s. College students, minorities, and the poor, all of whom tend to vote Democratic, will likely be most disadvantaged. Obama carried North Carolina by only fourteen thousand votes and, many analysts say, must carry it again to win in 2012, so turnout could be a decisive factor. Paul Shumaker, a Republican political consultant, says, “Art’s done a good job of changing the balance in the state.”

 

And this state—North Carolina—is the site of the 2012 Democratic Party Convention.  Stay tuned.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger