Homo homini rodentius est

Jesse Helms and his unintended legacy

Jesse Helms as Boogie Man
The boogie man.

Well I never would have believed it, but Jesse Helms ended up sharing a characteristic with Thomas Jefferson! They both died on Independence Day. Of course, down in Old Dixie, this means that for years to come July 4th will take on added gravity as a day of remembrance for a fallen son of the Old South — the antebellum South, that is. But it will also be marked in other places — as an additional reason to celebrate. And not just for the obvious reason that we are relieved of one of the most hateful men who ever held public office in this country, but for the not so obvious benefit that he provided to those he hated the most.

Helms’ reactionary policies and statements are legendary — loyal support for foreign fascists such as Pinochet and Ian Smith, unrelenting opposition to civil and reproductive rights in his own country, and, of course, virulent hatred of gay people. The man who once said, “I have tried at every point to seek God’s wisdom on the decisions I made, and I made it my business to speak up on behalf of the things God tells us are important to Him,” also said of gay people suffering from AIDS, “It’s their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for the disease.” But his hatred went beyond mere condemnation. When he repeatedly opposed funding for the Ryan White Bill to fund AIDS research it was obvious that his intention was to assist what he considered to be God’s judgment in its deadly work.

And yet, ironically, his unmitigated enmity toward the gay community was one of the most effective galvanizing forces for a previously ghettoized and marginal population. There is a great virtue in having a clear enemy who acts as a locus around which opposition can cohere. In political struggles where radical change is needed the greatest danger comes from enemies that diffuse distinctions — which is why Jim Crow and its “separate but equal” sop was so effective for so long in delaying the conflagration that had to come to end American apartheid. It took a Bull Connor and his dogs and fire hoses to lay bare the face of racism and galvanize disparate groups of people to radical action. For gay people, Jesse Helms was our Bull Connor. I’m almost tempted to say we should thank him. Almost. I wonder if he was ever bewildered by the steady advance in civil rights that gay people have enjoyed since the AIDS crisis struck. I’ll bet he was.

The thought of it makes me happy.

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