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06 Juli 2008 @ 17:36
Whistling Dixie  

Mistah Helms, he dead.

I'm certainly not going to pretend to be at all saddened by that fact, but I'm not dancing for joy, either. The United States Senate was much improved by Jesse Helms's departure,1 but his departure from the world of the living does nothing to repair the harm he did over the course of his long and nasty political career. Of all the right-wing lunatics who were in office during my formative years, Helms was probably the one I detested and resented the most, but I didn't want to see him defeated by old age and ill health; I wanted to see him defeated at the polls, preferably by Harvey Gantt, and by a very large margin.

Failing that, I would have liked to see Helms recant and repent. In later years, he did acknowledge that he had been wrong about AIDS as a global health crisis, evidently deciding that he had nothing against AIDS victims as long as they were heterosexual, and nothing against black people as long as they were in Africa. He also gave a revisionist account of his virulent opposition to the civil rights movement, claiming that what he had really objected to was government-imposed integration, and that he had thought all along that communities should just sort of integrate themselves naturally, in their own time. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence to support this interpretation, and Helms spoke of civil rights leaders, and of African Americans in general, in contemptuous terms for as long as it was politically possible to do so. In the fifties, he would rather have seen the public school system abolished than integrated.

Helms's eulogists insist that, whatever you may think of him politically, in person he was the model of the charming Southern Gentleman. This glosses over episodes such as his notorious run-in with Senator Carol Moseley Braun, in which he said he was going to sing Dixie at her until she cried. Moseley Braun was generous enough to laugh this off as just so much light-hearted collegial banter, and responded in kind by telling Helms that his singing was enough to make anyone cry, but in light of Helms's record, it's impossible to imagine that there wasn't genuine malice behind his facetious threat.

Helms used charm as a weapon. Barry Saunders, of the News & Observer, recalls a phone conversation in which Jesse said the worst thing he could have said to me: You're my favorite columnist. This statement was not one that anyone would be likely to believe; the point was presumably to make Saunders wonder, How [...] could I continue to write bad, albeit truthful, things about him after that? (As it turned out, It wasn't hard.)

In 1962, Helms and his wife, Dorothy, adopted a child with cerebral palsy, so there is reason to believe that the senator had some capacity for empathy. But he never had the imagination or courage to allow either empathy or reason to transport him beyond the commonplace bigotries of his time and place. His notion of defending freedom consisted entirely in fighting "communism"—never in standing up for individual liberties in the United States (or South Africa, or Chile)—and his notion of what constituted communism was broad enough to encompass (for example) Martin Luther King and the University of North Carolina. When the times moved forward, Helms was at best dragged reluctantly and belatedly along after them.

Rob Christensen in the N&O tells us that A number of historians say Helms' historical image will be tarnished by his opposition to the civil rights movement and the aspirations of black people. But that opposition is no mere blemish on the surface. How else should we remember "Senator No," if not as an obstacle to the rights of black people, women, and gay people? There is no metal under the corrosion; it's tarnish all the way through.


1. This statement should not be mistaken for an endorsement of his successor; to the extent that it implies that Senator Dole is an improvement over Senator Helms, this should be construed as damning her with faint praise.

A note about the illustration: The cartoon is by Dwayne Powell, of the News & Observer; it originally ran on July 7, 1980. If you are interested in calibrating your sense of who counted as a "liberal" in Jesse Helms's books, you may wish to recall that this was just a couple of months after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, and that the public had therefore not yet been exposed to the redeeming characteristics of Darth Vader that emerged three years later in Return of the Jedi.

 
 
 
harkalarkharkalark on 8. Juli, 2008 03:51 (UTC)
A very complete and thoughtful analysis of an absolute douchebag. Well done.

Have you ever heard of MC Hawking? A few years ago, some talented (though slightly tastefulness-challenged, I suppose) guy decided to do joke rap songs as if they were done by Stephen Hawking, and they're surprisingly good. Since I heard the news of Helms's death, I haven't been able to get the chorus of one of his songs out of my head: "Why Won't Jesse Helms Just Hurry Up And Die?"

It's here if you want it:
http://www.mchawking.com/mp3s/
(lots of other funny stuff there too).
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 16. Juli, 2008 04:12 (UTC)

Thanks! I had heard of M.C. Hawking before, and of that song in particular, but I had never actually heard the song itself.

(Anonym) on 11. Juli, 2008 18:55 (UTC)
Blog Reciprocity
Hello! Please forgive me if this post is inappropriate, but I couldn’t find a direct email address on your blog. I’m Anton and I’m launching my new blog dealing with language translation issues and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss mutual collaboration. You can contact me if you like at anton [at] icanlocalize {dot} com. Thanks!
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 16. Juli, 2008 03:58 (UTC)
Re: Blog Reciprocity

Well, how hard did you look? There's an e-mail address in my profile.

If the "mutual collaboration" you have in mind is simply a matter of reciprocal links, then perhaps you could tell me where your blog is? My general policy is that I'll link to any blog if (1) it looks interesting and (2) I happen to get around to adding it to the list.