Senator Cruz got in trouble for praising Jesse Helms the other day. In particular, Cruz is quoted as saying: “We need 100 more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate.” This is a ridiculous thing to say. But the most ridiculous and indecent aspect of this story isnâ€™t anything Cruz actually said. Itâ€™s the simple fact that the Heritage Foundation chooses to host such a lecture series in the first place.
I wonâ€™t bore you with a recitation of the many, many examples of Helmsâ€™ awfulness over his long career. My personal favorite was Helms’ charming habit of referring to African-American men, out of earshot, with the uniform moniker, “Fred.”. But wow, thereâ€™s much choose from, ranging from his opposition to civil rights to his disparagement of immigrants Â to his concerted opposition at the worst possible moment to effective measures against HIV/AIDS.
The normally mild-mannered David Broder nailed it on Helmsâ€™ retirement:
What really sets Jesse Helms apart is that he is the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country — a title that one hopes will now be permanently retiredâ€¦. [T]he squeamishness of much of the press in characterizing Helms for what he is suggests an unwillingness to confront the reality of race in our national life.
My own paper, The Washington Post, carried three stories about Helms’s departure. In their 54 paragraphs, exactly two — the 10th paragraph of one story and the last paragraph of another — alluded to the subject of race.
Rather than say more, I simply offer this inspired bit of ACT-UP guerilla theatre in the video below. If Republicans wish to establish a decent, inclusive party, some house cleaning is in order.
ACT-UP, as seen by one improbably young participant in its story.
How to Survive a Plague is up for an Academy Award tonight. Itâ€™s gripping, one of the best films on HIV/AIDS ever made. Those who have seen it know that this film tells the story from one perspective–ACT-UP’s. Of course, other films deserve to be made, films that tell the story from other angles, and that capture the perspectives of other constituencies and risk-groups. The AIDS story is too big to be captured by any one group’s perspective. I hope to say more at a later time on these points.
Over at the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta has a remarkable essay occasioned by this film. At an improbably young age, she was a key contributor to ACT-UP before moving on to other realms. Iâ€™ll let her say more. Here is one snippet:
The first time I saw How to Survive a Plague on the big screen was at its premiere at Sundance in 2011, where it was a selection in the documentary competition. I was a wreck the next day. To say that the movie brought up a lot would be an understatement. Maybe one day I’ll write the story of my life, and how I went from being a high school drop-out who left home two months after turning 16 to a magna cum laude college graduate and journalist after a years-long interlude devoted to fighting pandemic death. But I doubt it. ACT UP made me and then ACT UP unmade me; it taught me to write and argue and speak and know that the world is full of exceptions and you just have to decide you are going to be one of them. But life on the other side of the knowledge of life and death meant also that by the time I was 21 I had seen and felt and experienced so much I became convinced that if I had to process one more thing â€”one more awful thingâ€”I would just keel over and die. I had reached my limit, which might have been lower than that of some of the group’s other members, because I had no well of fortitude built up over time to fall back on, because, again, I’d barely had any “before” years. What I did have though was health and youth and what too many of my friends did notâ€”a future. And so at a certain point I made a decision to go on with my life. Because I could. But also because I had to. As Ingrid Bergman famously quipped, “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” Most days I do not at all mind that I have forgotten as much as I have.
P.S. Watching this film, I realize that this documentary form is precisely what should have been done to bring Randy Shiltsâ€™s classic book And the band played on to the silver screen.I enjoyed aspects of the resulting movieâ€”e.g. Phil Collinsâ€™ turn as an oily bath house owner. Still, turning Shilts’s priceless history into a dramatic celebrity vanity project was unfortunate. Many of the principals are now dead. So that crucial opportunity was lost.
Fortunately Frontline did a nice documentary, the age of AIDS. Thatâ€™s probably the best we have.