Jesse Helms and the Future of Gersonism

The scholarly article to read on the topic of Sen. Helms and Mssrs. the Edge and Bono is Bono Made Jesse Helms Cry: Jubilee 2000, Debt Relief, and Moral Action in International Politics, by Josh Busby. The setup:

Bono claimed that Helms wept when they spoke: “I talked to him about the Biblical origin of the idea of Jubilee Year…. He was genuinely moved by the story of the continent of Africa, and he said to me, ‘America needs to do more.’ I think he felt it as a burden on a spiritual level” (Dominus 2000, 6). Of his meeting with Bono, Helms said, “I was deeply impressed with him. He has depth that I didn’t expect. He is led by the Lord to do something about the starving people in Africa” (Wagner 2000). The story of Helms’ tears may be apocryphal, but it speaks both to the peculiar religiosity of the United States and more generally to the power of a compelling frame to persuade key veto players or “policy gatekeepers” to support a morally motivated policy. This article, through a case study of the Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt relief, seeks to explain how states may be moved to support “moral action.”

Indeed. The spiritual burden to take on the burden of the suffering of foreign strangers is right at the heart of Gersonism, and when Gerson is finished applauding Obama for joining spirit and state on behalf of domestic citizens, get ready for a ringing eulogy of Helms. Also prepare for a great irony: opponents of Gersonism recommending the morally decent but relatively hands-off policy of ‘just throwing money at the problem’ — especially by recycling Holbrooke’s notion that AIDS, for instance, is a national security problem.

The point, I think, is that a substantial difference can be drawn between applying federal resources to actions with morally laudable ends and organizing federal action around the pursuit of interminable moral imperatives. The preservation of prudence requires a certain amount of circuitousness, messiness, and roundabout indeterminacy. But the kinds of evasive, wiggly, reticent paths you wind up with given a politics of prudence is starkly at odds with the marching orders of modern culture: straight line to fixed destination. Postmoderns (except Rorty) want us to waver away: bad for the culture, but good for domestic politics. So we come back to a basic question: how much should what’s going on in the rest of the world distract us from doing our own thing in a healthy, successful way? At the meta level, my bet is that we can recur to prudence again.