09 July 2008

Standing Up to Jesse

One has to admire the long-standing effects of Jesse Helms: the man's been dead less than a week, was out of the public eye for close to six years before that, but he's still raising tempers and causing arguments.

My fine adopted state, North Carolina, lost its long-time and very controversial former Senator, Jesse Helms, on July 4th. Helms was adored by some in the state and country (even Vice President Dick Cheney paid a visit to us in Raleigh to attend the funeral services), but absolutely reviled by many others. There are clear 'divisions', if you will, between the Jesse-lovers and the Jesse-haters: conservative versus liberal, young versus old, traditional versus modern. Most notably to his supporters, the late Senator was known to be a tireless defender of his beliefs and a hard worker for his constituents. Most notably to his detractors, the late Senator was known for having hard-core traditional values, and he actively campaigned against civil rights. For better or for worse, there was no middle ground about Senator Helms: he was either a source of conservative NC political pride, or a reason that NC should be embarrassed. My neighbours and I, along with about 10 friends who came over to chat while looking at the pouring rain, had a cookout on the 4th and actually toasted Helms' memory...and then we all prayed we would never see his like again in our lifetimes.

(To see what the controversy was about...and there were many...go here and here.

This week, we have made it through the heavy news coverage about his death, as well as a complete rehash of the late Senator's many legislative accomplishments. We have made it through the 'who's who' list of important notables who attended the funeral. I'm even pretty sure that all the delayed passengers at RDU airport (because of Mr. Cheney's arrival and departure and the demands for clear air space) made it through unscathed. Angry about some things like the rest of us, perhaps, but made it through.

Then comes today's news about someone who really took issue with all this posthumous 'Jesse-love'. And a reminder just how divisive Senator Helms was to our populace. In a sign that people with ethical standards still can and do work in the public sector, a politically-minded employee chose to leave his job in protest. Bravo.

My fine adopted state, North Carolina, has essentially strong-armed one of its state employees to either honour Senator Helms for his contributions (a demand of which the employee found morally impossible) or terminate his employment with them. In what may have appeared an appropriate and maybe even innocent gesture by current NC Governor Mike Easley to have all state flags lowered to half staff in recognition of Helms, one employee, L.F. Eason III from the state Department of Agriculture, refused. He would not do so, Eason stated, because he would not honour a bigot in such a manner. The State, for their part, said the decision was not Mr. Eason's to make and that the flags actually belonged to the State. (And I see the State's point to some degree on this, but actually the flag is not just a piece of cloth: emotionally, it embodies all that we Americans hold dear and it's not a piece of property to be taken lightly, like a pencil sharpener.) To Mr. Eason and millions of other Americans, that flag means equality, regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual preference. Equality that the late Senator fought against, for Pete's sake. Once upon a time, the flag belonged to the People, and that's why so many of us were taught to respect its values anywhere we saw it, regardless of whom the owner may be.

Since the story first broke, there has been some additional 'clarification' (and perhaps a tad bit conveniently-released information as this story has started to get 'legs') from the State as to what they said/didn't say to Mr. Eason, but there seems to be a 'no go' area between the two parties, too. Eason has stood his ground, and has acknowledged on the local TV news that while he recognizes there was an order from the Governor and that he does not own the flag and flag pole in question, he felt 'responsible' for his department, and for the directives given to his employees to carry out. Eason was a manager there, after all, and had worked with the State and in the Department of Agriculture for 29 years...it's been his only job since college. His contributions to the State and to the Department are many. Support or hate, Eason has reminded us all of the glory of our right to free speech. Yes, he violated a directive from the highest executive in the state. But he also acted with his conscience, and did not want his employees to do something he himself would not be able, in good faith, to do. Even at the risk of losing his job.

I may agree with him, you may not. But that's what makes America so great, and also what makes our tolerance of those who choose to dissent so unique in the world. At least he was thinking about it instead of just blindly going along, as so many of us do these days. Whether the State gave him an ultimatum as to 'fly the flag half-staff or be fired' is now in some sort of a grey area, but no matter as that's not the issue. The issue instead is that once Mr. Eason's opinions were known by the State (through multiple emails to superiors), the State disallowed any political dissent without consequences to Mr. Eason. There were other options for the State to consider with Mr. Eason, but from what's been reported and from the emails released, it appears that the State was in no mood to look at any of them. Which makes this whole thing ironic as hell...given that the object of all of this respect, Senator Helms, was known as a voice of dissent for over 30 years.

On the positive side, though, Mr. Eason has reportedly received three new job offers. And my fine adopted state has lost a loyal employee in more ways than one.

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