Twilight of the Pale Patriarchs
Continued from previous page
These ladies make it harder to convince me, at this point, that eliminating testosterone is a straight path to salvation. I’ve never understood Republican women. But what have we done to deserve a trifecta of twisted sisters in the House of Representatives? It’s Ellmers, a registered nurse from Michigan, who has now crossed the line and bared her gleaming canines at North Carolina’s cowering Democrats. By embracing the legacy of Jesse Helms, she aligns herself with the most extreme faction of the white supremacist revival, evident now in North Carolina and nearly everywhere south of here, that began to uncoil itself the minute Barack Obama was elected president.
When you hear that name Helms, you know the White People’s Party — the new Republican Party (89% white) — is once again on the march. Ruthless player of the race card in election after election, supporter of apartheid in South Africa and death squads in Central America, Darth Vader to the civil rights movement, Jesse Helms was everything North Carolina should be striving to forget, not remember. He was an ignorant man whose beliefs were perfectly compatible with the beliefs of his father and grandfather, back when women did as they were told and a white man could kill a black man without fear of punishment. He never changed his mind and he never apologized. If you believe as I do that racism is a disease, Jesse Helms was an invalid all his life. He forfeited the right to be included in any general amnesty for the dead — or the undead.
No self-respecting journalist would mince words about Jesse Helms. But over the years I spent so many words trying to articulate my shame and dismay that he existed. So very many. This time I’d prefer to pass the sharpened stake and the mallet to another writer, the late Christopher Hitchens. In an obituary he wrote for Slate, headlined “Farewell to a Provincial Redneck,” Hitchens dismissed our dreadful senator as “a senile racist buffoon.” (Before senility, of course, he was a wily racist buffoon.) “The way to mark Helms’ passing,” Hitchens concluded, “is to recognize that he prolonged the life of the old segregated South and the Dixiecrat ascendancy and that in his own person, not unlike Strom Thurmond, he personified much of its absurdity and redundancy.”
I second every word of that. To raise Helms from the dead, even as a name to adorn a federal building, is an unspeakable perversion of civic pride. This was the man who called civil rights activists “moral degenerates,” who said that UNC — as in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — stood for “the University of Negroes and Communists.” This was the boor who sang “Dixie” in an elevator to humiliate Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to serve in the Senate. Imagine schoolchildren of another generation touring the federal building and asking “Who was that man with his name on the wall there?” Imagine the teacher who has to tell them. Better to dedicate the building to the memory of Christopher Hitchens, though my first choice would be the late Rev. William Finlator, Helms’ Raleigh contemporary and adversary for 50 years, a brave man who was right even more consistently than Sen. Helms was wrong.
The white patriarchy is doomed, make no mistake about that. A few more solid whacks and that pointed stake is going to hit a coronary artery. Barack Obama, pants-suited Hillary Clinton in his wake, was the first not-quite-white foot in the door they can never close again. That’s why the South, ruled by a dynasty of Big Daddies since colonial times, hates the president so intensely, though not all of his enemies are smart enough to understand why they hate him. In the foreseeable future, the eclipse of the pale male will mean fewer wars, fewer guns and massacres, less emphasis on violent sports and entertainment, a safer and saner America. I think. But in Connecticut it was the maniac’s mother who bought all the guns. Twenty years from now, I don’t want to wake up from my nap at the nursing home and see someone planting a “Re-Elect Sen. Virginia Foxx” or “Renee Ellmers for Governor” sign on the lawn. (Early polls — incredibly — make Foxx the favorite to run against Kay Hagan in 2014.) I don’t want to die in the shadow of the Tea Potty, hounded by Jesse Helms handmaidens in a state where the patriarchy has changed its sex but not its politics.