Ding-Dong, Jesse Helms is Dead

By Choire Sicha

Originally published on Advocate.com July 29 2008 11:00 PM ET

First Jerry
Falwell, now Jesse Helms. One by one, the famous bigots of
America are contributing their best (and last) service to
this nation’s progress -- they’re dying.

Helms, the former
North Carolina senator who passed away July 4, was born
in 1921 -- three years after World War I ended and the year
Adolf Hitler became leader of the Nazi Party.
Indoctrinated in hatred decades before the civil
rights era, Helms was known to whistle racist songs to black
elected officials, and, as evidenced by transcripts from any
number of Senate hearings, he had an amazing obsession
with butt sex. (“There is not one single case
of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in
origin to sodomy” typifies his thoughts on the
matter.) As can happen to the luckiest of men,
Helms’s fetishes sometimes coalesced into one
exciting orgy, as when he led the charge against government
funding of Robert Mapplethorpe’s
“obscene” art.

In a tribute in
July, President Bush described Helms as an
“unwavering champion of those struggling for
liberty.” I can’t say Bush’s praise
surprised me, but the Helms I remember was less devoted to
liberty than he was to simply making other
people’s lives miserable.

Yet by
vociferously making gay people his target, the gentleman
from North Carolina ended up accomplishing the
opposite of what he set out to do: He not only made us
sympathetic, he made us stronger, prodding us to
organize among ourselves and with the other
evildoers—including the abortion-havers and the
immigrants who want to take your jobs.

Folks like Helms
will always exist, because hatred is the easiest route
to infamy. But Helms seduced a population that has shrunk,
and he represented a certain mind-set that has passed.
That’s why religious bigots like Fred Phelps of
“God Hates Fags” fame look like madmen, not
prophets. Helms championed a view of America that aged and
declined as he did. And it’s probably better
that the senator died when he did. If he had stayed
around for this November’s presidential election, a
victory by a black man probably would have killed him.

Now that Helms is
gone, there doesn’t really seem to be anyone who can
successfully carry on his life’s work. All the other
tyrannical titans are either dead or close to it.
Falwell, the preacher and Hustler-suing monster who
was nearly as terrible and insanely bigoted as Helms (but a
bit busier lining his own pockets), died last year. And
Anita Bryant, who famously helped repeal a 1970s
Florida ordinance that banned discrimination based on
sexual orientation, is now 68 and never really heard
from (on account of the bankruptcies and tacky concert
runs).

Jesse Helms as Witch -- smaller (Tom Nick Cocotos) | Advocate.com

Nowadays the
political marketplace simply offers fewer rewards for
outright bigotry. (Helms’s increasing isolation as a
lawmaker in the latter part of his tenure, which ended
in 2003, was proof that he, as The Washington Post
put it, “often took stands that isolated him
from the left and the right.”) Compared to a Helms or
a Falwell, today’s bigots wield little real
power besides that of the comfort of blather. They
feed a conservative viewpoint -- but in actual effect
they more closely resemble institutions like the Roman
Catholic Church, which instructs its followers to do
one thing (reject contraception and abortion, for
example) but knows that many of them will do just the
opposite (according to the Guttmacher Institute, Catholic
women are almost as likely to have an abortion as
nonreligious women).

Today’s
just-for-profit pundits lack the power of a Helms or the
pulpit of a Falwell. And they’re getting pretty
old themselves. Syndicated conservative talker Michael
Alan Weiner, who does business under the name Michael
Savage, is 66. Sure, he’s psychotically antigay, and
he reaches something like 10 million listeners. But
think about it. Savage’s audience is much
smaller than the number of folks who grew up absorbing
Sesame Street’s overarching message that “one
of these things is not like the other, but
that’s OK.”

The talking heads
on Fox News Channel and other cable outlets do espouse
a popular conservative agenda, but they’re still what
a Helms would call members of the coastal, cultural
elite. And what of professional opinion-haver Rush
Limbaugh, who’s relatively young at 57? His $38
million contract, three divorces, and arrests on drug
charges assure that he no longer carries much moral
clout with conservatives.

Also supposedly
on the bigot circuit is 46-year-old Ann Coulter. But she
isn’t a threat to gays in the slightest. Actually,
according to mutual friends, she loves them -- though
some pals have dropped her as she’s become more
unhinged. (Calling John Edwards a “faggot”
didn’t help.)

Jesse Helms as Witch -- smaller (Tom Nick Cocotos) | Advocate.com

Other
“threats” are bush league. Heads of
megachurches or honchos of right-leaning media empires
may oppose gay marriage, but they’re not
exactly voting against funding for AIDS drug therapies or
legislating to prevent gays from adopting children.
James Dobson, 72, of Focus on the Family and Family
Research Council fame, might believe gays have a
“sickness” that can be “cured,”
but his Christian doctrine forces him to profess love
for everyone. And in the case of Rupert Murdoch (77!) and
the rest of the cultural and conservative elite, well,
they’re having dinner with gays nearly every
night.

Frequent
presidential candidate Alan Keyes is a harmless wing nut.
Perennial office-seeker Pat Buchanan once seemed
threatening, but he got just 0.4% of the vote in the
2000 presidential election. Plus he’ll be 70
soon.

As New York
University’s Patrick J. Egan and Hunter
College’s Kenneth Sherrill wrote in 2005 in
Public Opinion Pros, “Older, colder
Americans are being replaced by citizens who express more
warmth for gay people.” Their research showed
that from the 1980s to the ’90s, the proportion
of people who said they had a gay acquaintance or close
friend more than doubled, from one in five to a
majority.

Today, we live
and politick with a new generation of voters—average
people with gay cousins or coworkers who just can’t
view gays as some alien army of perverts -- and they
will make their mark in this year’s election,
on local, state, and national levels. This is the great gay
hope of California, where an initiative on the ballot this
November threatens to make marriage equality
unconstitutional. Without a charismatic national
leader or legislator (the unlovely folks behind the
Protect Marriage operation don’t have the talent),
there’s no one to rile the masses against the
imaginary lavender menace.

Not that there
won’t be a dark surprise. The satellite radios and
the 10,000 channels on TV and the wide-open Internet
all need hot air to bring in consumers. The easiest
path to attention is manufactured outrage. And swaths
of America -- those not really overlapping audiences
who tune in to Dobson’s Christian radio show and
Savage’s outrages -- still love to be grossed
out by the dirty gays, the frightening Mexicans, and
the immoral urbanites. A new demagogue may yet emerge--but
will he be as scary, as powerful, as Helms once was?
Not likely.