Are we willfully stupid? Just look at Jesse Helms


When I first heard that Sen. Jesse Helms was blocking medical spending on people who become sick through their own "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct," I thought that was a pretty tough thing to do to smokers.

Smoking is deliberate. It is disgusting. It is revolting. And it is the leading cause of death in America.

Further, smoking harms completely innocent people. Through passive smoke, it harms people who do not engage in this conduct.

But then I thought: Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, comes from a tobacco state. So he couldn't be attacking cigarettes.

Then it became clear to me: Helms was attacking Mickey Mantle.

Sure. Mantle is a guy who, through decades of disgusting, deliberate, revolting boozing, helped kill off his own liver.

And Mantle is alive today only because he got a new liver. So Helms must be angry that medical spending is being squandered on people who willfully drink.

But then I thought: Naw. Mickey Mantle is a national hero, an icon. And Jesse Helms adores such symbols of Americana.

So could Helms be talking about people who willfully eat fatty, high-cholesterol foods and block their arteries? Could he be questioning why we continue to fund research into heart disease if so many people insist on eating things that are bad for their hearts?

But then I took a close look at Jesse Helms. And he does not seem to have the body of a health nut. He seems to have the body of a man who never met a cream pie he did not like.

So who on earth is Jesse Helms steamed at?

Well, you probably know already: People with AIDS.

Helms is blocking the renewal of the Ryan White Care Act of 1990, which would provide $690 million over the next five years for the care and treatment of people with AIDS.

This amount represents a 22 percent decrease from what was authorized in 1990 -- even though we have more people with AIDS today -- but Helms thinks that amount is way too much.

"We've got to have some common sense," he told the New York Times this week, "about a disease transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts."

Which made me wonder just what unnatural act Ryan White, an Indiana teen-ager who died of AIDS, deliberately engaged in.

Answer: A blood transfusion.

So you can see why the kid deserved to die.

And how about all those babies born with the human immunodeficiency virus every year? Don't they deserve to be punished, too?

And who can forget Elizabeth Glaser, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1992? She got HIV from a blood transfusion and then unknowingly passed it on to her newborn daughter through breast milk.

Her daughter died at age 10; Glaser died last December at age 47.

And how deliberate, disgusting and revolting can you get?

But deep down we all know why Jesse Helms is against AIDS funding: He has a long-standing hatred of homosexuals.

Helms' personal demons aside, however, his comments do raise a fundamental question: Why do people do things that will harm or even kill them?

Why, you might ask, do homosexuals continue to engage in practices that make them vulnerable to AIDS?

Well, why did Hugh Grant, the dashing heterosexual movie star, not want to use a condom when he picked up a prostitute last week? (And only used one when the prostitute insisted.) Didn't Grant know how dangerous that could be?

I'm sure that he did. I am sure that the majority of people, homosexual and heterosexual, who engage in unsafe sex know the risks involved.

I am sure smokers know about the dangers of what they do. And drinkers. And people who eat unhealthy foods. And people who drive too fast and pass on curves and hills.

I am sure all these people know what they are doing is wrong.

But they do it anyway.

Imperfection is part of what makes us human.

And we can either turn our backs on each other or we can decide to help one another.

Why do people do willfully stupid things?

I don't know. Ask the people of North Carolina.

They've re-elected Jesse Helms three times.

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