Commentary

Saunders: Jesse Helms was always 'loud and wrong' about Nelson Mandela

bsaunders@newsobserver.comDecember 12, 2013 

Where is ol’ Jesse when we need him?

With all the love and appreciation being showered upon Nelson Mandela since his death last week, the logical question is: “How’d the dude ever spend 27 years in prison if all these people believed in what he believed in and fought for?”

The answer, of course, is that they didn’t. It was only in his dotage – and now in death – that praising Mandela has become fashionable. When you’ve got Dick Cheney, Sen. Ted Cruz and other reactionaries now singing Mandela’s praises, you’d better grab your wading boots, hike up your skirts and head for the hills, because honey, they’re fixing to start shoveling it high and deep.

Reagan regret

The CIA under John Kennedy was reportedly involved in helping South Africa’s government capture Mandela, yet Jim Baker, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, among other things, said this week that Reagan regretted vetoing sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Those economic and cultural sanctions would’ve sped up Mandela’s release and did, eventually, lead to it.

Fortunately for our nation’s international standing, Congress overrode Reagan’s veto. There is no mistaking where Reagan’s sensibilities lay, and that was with the brutal government that was keeping Mandela locked up and the boot of oppression on the necks of the South African majority.

Sure, it’s possible that some politicians’ views have evolved, that they realize they were on the wrong side of history and they are now seeking to ensure they’re on what is undeniably the right side.

Political revisionism

Others, though, were apartheid apologists who are now simply engaged in political revisionism so that when history books are written, nobody’ll be able to say “Dang, that dude was always wrong.”

Enter, Jesse Helms.

The late U.S. senator was someone who believed deeply in, as popular lingo states, “keeping it real.” He didn’t believe in moderating his views for anyone and never worried about being on the right side of history. Heck, he didn’t even worry about being right. He was, as Langston Hughes wrote about his rambunctious Lincoln University classmate Thurgood Marshall as a young man, “loud and wrong.”

You know how Don Quixote was always ready to march off to battle injustice, tyrants and “the unbeatable foe”? Jesse opposed lifting sanctions, opposed Mandela and turned his back when Mandela visited the U.S. Capitol in 1994.

In short, Jesse seemed always to be battling alongside the tyrants and against the already vanquished and oppressed.

You at least have to respect his consistency, right?

OK, maybe you don’t.

I mean, how many politicians in the 20th century would still maintain that the Civil War was a mistake? Or that the civil rights movement was unnecessary?

Not many, but Jesse maintained those views forever. If he were here, he would be wrong and loud. And proud of it.

During the 1980s, many U.S. performers defied the cultural boycott called for by Mandela’s group, the ANC. They bestowed legitimacy on the illegitimate government by sweeping into South Africa, warbling a few songs, collecting a fat paycheck and sneaking back across the water. That’s why I instinctively change the dial on my radio anytime a song by Tina Turner or Rod Stewart (OK, sometimes I’ll listen to “Maggie May”) comes on the radio. They were two of the more prominent performers who went over there, collected blood money and lent tacit support for the government.

I still can’t stand either of them.

Presuming to speak for the dead, as Jim Baker is doing, is fraught with risk.

But I’m going to do it anyway. As his country mourns his death and commits his body to the earth from whence it came, Mandela, were he here, would probably be asking, “Where were all these people who speak so glowingly of me now back when I was getting my head busted and spending my days toiling in the broiling sun on Robben Island, swinging a hammer and turning big uns into little uns?”

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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