"Senator Helms certainly was no bigot. He was a man, however, not into subtlety. You know what he thought about a particular issue. You certainly knew because he was not into the kind of nuance and subtlety that so often divides American politicians." - Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), about the late Senator Jesse Helms, who passed away today at age 86.
I realize that when people die, and those that knew them try to eulogize them on the spot before microphones, some weird stuff can pass through the media ether. But I find this statement to be just plain bizarre.
Not a bigot? Really? Jesse Helms could be counted on in his years in the Senate for his vote against any kinds of civil rights, gay rights or reproductive rights legislation that came his way. He castigated homosexuals, civil rights protesters and activists, feminists and anti-nuclear activists without hesitation.
Now, I suppose, in some academic way, it could be argued that Helms wasn't arguing against civil rights, but rather for states' rights. If a state didn't want racial equality, we can imagine that argument would go, why should it be forced to tolerate it? Okay. I'll pick up that gauntlet.
Because racism is wrong.
Not just a little wrong, like, say stealing those orange roadwork cones or vandalizing bus benches. Big wrong. It's slavery wrong. It's witch-burning wrong. Racism is a violation of everything we say we believe as a democratic society. When it is practiced by local politicians on a local level, it is an insult to social justice and common decency. When it is practiced on the state and federal levels, it becomes an even bigger wrong, because it abrogates the very essence of the freedoms granted to all people in the Constitution. Five times in his life, Jesse Helms stood up, put his hand on the Holy Bible and swore, presumably with great reverence and a damp eye, to uphold and defend that Constitution of the United States. Then he turned around and said, in effect, that there were folks in this country that weren't entitled, either because of their sexuality, their race, their belief in equal rights for women and minorities, their stand against war and its instruments, to the freedoms and rights that Constitution guarantees. Which Constitution was he upholding and defending? The one written for only the white, straight folks who know for sure that a woman's place is in the home?
Since when does defending people who are being denied their basic, elemental human rights require qualities like nuance and subtlety? How about just a little compassion and humanity instead? Was he lacking in those qualities as well?
Merriam-Webster defines the word "bigot" as follows:
"a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance."I know that Senator McConnell, a fellow Republican and Southerner, who grew up with stalwart traditions like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, was probably trying to pay tribute to someone he thinks of as a legend the best way he knows how. But how on this good, green planet Earth can he say with a straight face that Jesse Helms was not a bigot when Helms' own voting record so categorically defines him as such?
Rest in peace, Senator Helms. I can only hope you find the enlightenment and empathy in the next life that you so resisted and overlooked in this one.