Saturday, July 5, 2008

Why do we pity the dead?

I'd like to challenge the notion that it's wrong to speak ill of the dead.

Jesse Helms died today, and, frankly, good riddance. I'm not one to celebrate the death or suffering of any man, but I am profoundly grateful that Helms' influence is no longer a direct part of the world. Personally, I did not know him. Politically, it's good to see him permanently out of the picture.

Helms is being lionized today by the modern conservative movement. President Bush has called him "a kind, decent, and humble man," and Pat Buchanan said he was second only to Ronald Reagan in his importance to the bastardization of the Republican party -- admittedly not in so many words.

The media seem to be striving for impartiality in presentations of the late Senator Helms. I am forced to question the acceptability of this seemingly proper act. To say that Helms was a divisive figure would be grotesquely to understate the case; he made a career of pitting racial factions in his state against one another. Helms was the last, longest-standing opponent of equal civil rights for all Americans. He endorsed discrimination against victims of HIV. He relentlessly assailed the separation of church and state. Helms proudly stood firm to his last day in office as a racist, a bigot, a reactionary anti-intellectual, and an elitist in the true negative sense of the word -- not one who endorses the commensurate rewarding of merit, but one who looks down contemptuously on the poor and unfortunate.

Asserting that "the negro" is inherently unstable and violent is not the act of a "kind" man. Attempting to bar HIV patients from employment in a wide variety of careers is not the act of a "decent" man. Advocating the imprisonment of the faculty and students of a major university to prevent the blight of their educated ideas from spreading, however facetiously, is not the act of a "humble" man. Jesse Helms was many things, but President Bush failed to accurately name any of them.

I never hated Jesse Helms the man. In his personal life, he seems to have tried to be a genuinely good person, adopting a disabled boy for no apparent reason other than simple altruism. Nevertheless, neither good intentions nor a long-awaited death change the ugly facts of a long life of evil. Jesse Helms the politician was a powerful and visible symbol of many of the worst facets of American society. I will not pretend to mourn the passing of villainy from the earth, and I do not believe that dying, something which anyone can accomplish with comparative ease, earns a man immunity from criticism.

Jesse Helms has been a blight on America for some sixty years. The fact that he is now no longer among the living does not remove the shame of our failure to rid our government of his taint during that unforgivably long career. Look with fairness on all he did in his life, yes, and praise the good - but do not fail also to condemn the evil.

To put a more positive spin on this, Helms is a useful example of how much positive change we've really made in the last several decades. Things may look pretty bleak to Americans of intellect and good conscience some days, but you just have to look around you to realize that we no longer have segregated schools, active laws about what sexual activities can go on between consenting adults in their own homes, or a government that looks the other way at everything from discriminatory hiring practices to lynchings. Helms was a relic of an era that is passing away, and as much as we may seem to be backsliding some days, his passing is a reminder that things do, in the long run, get better.

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