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Jesse and Joe

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I dreamed I saw Joe Hill, last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died says he.”

Jesse Helms

This old song popped into my head while I was reading a rightwing blogger’s paean to Jesse Helms. The blogger praised Helms as a “heroic warrior for conservative values.”


Jesse Helms was the son of a rural police chief who kept people in line in the post-Civil War South, making sure that plantation culture stayed intact, though the name had been changed to “sharecropping,” and making sure that the textile mills had cheap labor by exploiting racial divisions while suppressing workers’ rights. Jesse displayed his ‘heroism’ during World War II by using daddy’s political influence to get a job as a navy recruiter. This kept him safe on the home front while “white men” and “colored boys” he recruited went off to fight and die.

While Jesse’s warrior heroism spanned the length and breadth of his recruiting desk, his ‘values’ redefined conservatism.

The early colonists, moving to America to found societies seeking greater freedoms, championed education. Although the Pilgrims arrived only in 1620, and suffered massive death tolls and primitive living conditions, by the 1640s they had set up public schools. They were convinced that freedom and education were inseparable.

Jesse feared that they were right. He devoted his political energy to opposing public education everywhere and in every way he could. His corporate paymasters knew that one of the great dangers to unlimited profits is an educated population. Jesse fought constantly against public education.

The people who wrote our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution tried to give the citizens freedom. Patriots fought and died to ensure such freedom. Jesse fought to give corporations the freedom to discriminate; the freedom to pollute; the freedom to lie in advertising; the freedom to profit from public resources; the freedom to have citizens pay for clean-up of corporate messes.

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,
They shot you Joe” said I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Said Joe, “I didn’t die.”

Jesse fought for the freedom of agri-business to rule colonial South America with death squads. He fought for the freedom of oil companies to use U.S. troops to “protect” our chosen client government in Saudi Arabia. He fought for the freedom to break unions and imprison or kill union organizers and leaders.

Traditional conservative values, like the Puritans brought to America, included taking care of children and the elderly. But Jesse’s conservatism stridently opposed any social safety net, including social security and medicare for the elderly. Jesse was a tireless promoter of the tobacco industry and an opponent of any effort to educate people to the dangers of the narcotic and cancer inducing effects of tobacco.

Takes more than guns to kill a man, said Joe, I didn’t die. Ideas survive the death of any one proponent. And Jesse’s loyal obeisance to corporate greed survives his mortal passing.

Traditionally, ‘conservative’ churches campaigned against the dangers of alcohol. They used to promote legislation regulating where and when alcohol could be sold. ‘Conservative’ once meant protecting children from the dangers of alcohol. But for Jesse, ‘conservative’ meant conserving the right of alcohol companies to market their wares freely to whomever had a little money.

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Now, John McCain has taken up this mantle from Jesse Helms. In his quest to make America a more profitable union, McCain raised his son, Andy, to become an alcohol industry marketing executive. While John preaches “conservative values,” his son works on beer marketing, including working with youth sports leagues.

Joe Hill

Joe Hill

Perhaps every one of those little roadside crosses which mark the crash site of a car full of drunk high school jocks should have a McCain sticker fixed to it.

In his autobiography, John McCain writes about his father’s alcoholism. So John knows, personally, the tragedy of a drunk in the family. Yet he raised his son to help the alcohol industry increase its profits by increasing the opportunities for drunkenness. This reveals the same ‘conservative values’ McCain displayed when he lobbied and voted against giving today’s vets the generous education benefits that he was entitled to after the Vietnam War. The G.I. Bill tradition that stretches back more than 50 years is too radical, and too dangerous to McCain’s corporate policy masters, and so he opposes it with the same energy Jesse Helms devoted to opposing public education.

“Joe Hill ain’t dead” he says to me,
“Joe Hill ain’t never died.
When workers strike and organize,
Joe Hill is by their side.”
From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
Where workers stand up for their rights,
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

The ‘values’ Jesse and John promote will always survive the death of the flaks paid to mouth the corporate message. Jesse made millions working for the textile mill owners and tobacco cartels. John proudly shows off the lavish lifestyle, multiple houses, luxury travel, etc. that corporate loyalty affords him.

But Joe Hill shows up only where workers strike and organize and stand up for their rights. No politician, beholden to corporate ‘donations’ is eager to trot out Joe Hill’s name or the values which improve workers’ lives.

Workers benefit only when they stand up for themselves, work to educate their children and their neighbors, and get out the vote for candidates who care for something beyond corporate power and profits. This year, John McCain is working hard to abandon all of his ‘maverick’ imagery and to embrace the sponsors and ideals that had been Jesse’s natural territory. When one of their champions dies, corporate leaders just buy a new one.

But the values of Joe Hill appear only when we invoke them. On election night, Joe Hill will be there, on Obama’s victory stage, if we organize and stand up for our rights to a free nation, free of the “Patriot Act,” free of telecom immunity, free of oil-war politics, and free from the politics of fear mongering. Free to spend our budget on health care reform, education, and rebuilding our mouldering infrastructure.

Tom Hall

by Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family law attorney. He is originally from Boston, where he grew up in the Cambridge Friends Meeting (Quakers), thinking that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people to participate in highly disciplined nonviolent demonstrations (real disciplined nonviolence is just plain maddening to police forces who count on demonstrators giving them reason to get 'messy' during public demonstrations). After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make himself a comfortable life. The Bush administration has shocked him back into social concerns. Tom can be reached at

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