Saturday, July 5, 2008

Jesse Helmes: decent human being or just polite?

I rarely would feel the urge to waste any time writing about the death of a politician, especially if I did not particularly like him or her. A former senator's death is not going to change the world, and in one or two weeks, it will be very distant history - gone and forgotten. So, I did not plan to write about Jesse Helms. Bob Dole made me do it.
Jesse Helms has never been a character that I am fond of. And just because he was getting old, and looked like a permanent fixture in the Senate, he would not automatically gain my respect. I was very pleased when he got out of the picture by not running again for the Senate.
But all those not-too-warm feeling about him would not normally get me to write something not flattering about him a day after his death but Bob Dole got on my nerves earlier today during the 5 seconds I watched CNN news.
Dole said he did not agree with Jesse Helms on many things, and in particular he disagreed with the late senator on civil rights issues, but Dole went on to state that Jesse Helms "was a good decent human being". That got me to shout "What???". Dole then explained that Helms was nice and friendly to the Senate pages, and used to 'talk to them' and 'ask them about their families'.
With all respect to senator Dole, being nice to Senate pages and interns is being polite. Being a 'decent human being' is a far cry from that.
To me, decency especially when it is used as a descriptor of a human being means "the quality of conforming to standards of propriety and morality". Reading about Jesse Helms stances on a lot of things did not fit in this definition of decency. As I did some reading I came across an obituary on the British Guardian Online that expressed exactly how I felt.
Here are some quotes from that obituary:
"To echo this newspaper's memorable comment on the death of William Randolph Hearst, it is hard even now to think of him with charity. From his earliest years, Helms's attitudes recalled those of an earlier southern bigot, ..."
And as for the veneer of 'politeness', the Guardian editor states that he
"... maintained an old-world courtesy in his personal contacts. But that was only on the surface. "
The paper then lists some of his memorable achievements and statements, for example:
"... voting against virtually all arms control measures, opposing international aid programmes as 'pouring money down foreign rat holes', and avidly supporting military juntas in Latin America and minority white regimes in Southern Africa."
His pro-segregation stances are well known and in 1964 he denounced the Civil Rights Act as
"... the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress"
The Guardian writer, Harold Jackson, attributes Helms' extreme views to where he grew up during the years of the great depression in North Carolina in poor rural white areas that:
" ... produced generations of deeply conservative poor whites, steeped in jingoistic patriotism and fundamentalist religion, who regarded the surrounding black population as barely part of the human race."
He established a mysterious extreme conservative organization by the name of "the National Congressional Club" that ushered the era of mass mailing campaigns with "the repeated arrival of impressive-looking letters signed by Helms and denouncing school busing, funding for the arts, compensation for Japanese-Americans ... ".

In a paragraph that tells more about his constituency than about Helms himself, the article reminds the reader of some of the bizarre statements that he did not have a problem making:

"Your tax dollars are being used," he claimed in one letter, "to pay for grade school classes that teach our children that cannibalism, wife-swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior."

But his rhetoric convinced millions of Americans and, invited to save the nation by donating a dollar, they did just that. A river of cash poured into the club.

Other obituaries, especially on American mainstream media, were a bit less scathing but the facts they mention still do not add up to a flattering legacy. And certainly they do not suggest that 'decent human being' is an acceptable description for Jesse Helms.

One could be described as polite while he or she is racist, hateful, exclusive, and xenophobic bigot. But being any of those is an automatic 'decency disqualifier'.

A reader's thoughtful comment on the New York Times obituary article especially resonated with my thoughts:
From his activities on behalf of segregation in the 50s and 60s to his opposition to AIDS research and education while thousands were dying, you’re looking at a career which demonstrates that defense of privilege is conservatism’s purpose and that viciousness is its essence, its world view and often enough its method.
— Posted by Jim Cory on NYT



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