Monday, July 7, 2008

Helms: In Memoriam

One thing conservative pundits do a lot is wonder why black people vote for the Democrats in overwhelming number. I even had a political science GSI who argued that a good deal of the powerlessness of the black community is ascribable to the fact that blacks (unlike say, Hispanics) are not a swing vote. He pointed out that, with overwhelming support of blacks, Democrats could pursue policies directly targeted against them, such as Clinton's welfare reform.
The odd thing is, it should be obvious why blacks never vote for Republicans.
Here's George Bush describing Jesse Helms:
Throughout his long public career, Senator Jesse Helms was a tireless advocate for the people of North Carolina, a stalwart defender of limited government and free enterprise, a fearless defender of a culture of life, and an unwavering champion of those struggling for liberty. Under his leadership, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a powerful force for freedom. And today, from Central America to Central Europe and beyond, people remember: in the dark days when the forces of tyranny seemed on the rise, Jesse Helms took their side.

Too describe an unreconstructed racist and foe of civil rights that way shows the party's utter lack of respect to black voters (praising Helms also disrespects gay voters, though one wouldn't need to look so hard to see such prejudice overtly expressed).
Indeed, in a book review that places Helms near the center of the evolution of the conservative movement, Ed Kilgore argues that Helms is the missing link between segregationist conservatism, and the newer, gay-bashing variety.
Helms was undoubtedly the living connection between the racial politics of the Old South and the religion-based cultural politics of the New Right. He was the one surviving segregationist of stature who never regretted or retracted his opposition to the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s. His career-long opposition to any national gesture commemorating the civil rights movement (most notably, his interminable and often scurrilous rearguard efforts to taint the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.) made his strident rhetoric against voting rights enforcement and anything approaching affirmative action an afterthought. And Helms's two reelection campaigns (in 1990 and 1996) against African American Democrat Harvey Gantt pivoted on explicit race baiting, as Helms's Congressional Club allies later admitted to Link.

Helms practically invented the modern conservative politics of sexuality, along with the electoral mobilization of white conservative evangelicals, starting back in the 1970s. In 1977, he seized on Anita Bryant's successful campaign to overturn a gay rights ordinance in Miami and began building a national backlash against antidiscrimination laws. As early as 1979, he was making speeches about the terrible threat of "secular humanism" to Christianity, making the wonky Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies an unlikely villain. When the AIDS epidemic emerged in the 1980s, Helms began an extended and violently worded campaign to "protect" Americans from the "perverts" whose "disgusting" habits were responsible for AIDS, while attacking efforts to find effective treatments. Most memorably, Helms single-handedly made the National Endowment of the Arts' subsidies for "obscene" and "homosexual" artwork a culture-war staple for nearly two decades.

I should point out that part of Bush's statement is indeed factually not true. As I wrote in my previous post, Helms was a friend of all sorts of monstrous regimes. As Hendrik Hertzberg put it "[Helm's] vaunted anti-Communism was never based upon a principled belief in democracy. His support of the apartheid regime was of a piece with his enthusiasm for any dictatorship, no matter how brutal, that could plausibly be described as right wing. (He even supported the Argentine junta in the Falklands war with Britain.)"
I recommend Hertzberg's article about Helms.

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