IF ONE MAN can come to personify an era, as Fred Astaire might for the 1930s, then Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is the embodiment of this one. He is a man of firm, almost zealous beliefs, of convictions so strongly held that it doesn't matter to him whether he is in the majority or the minority or even, I think, all alone. What matters is being right, and Jesse Helms seems convinced that he is, by the grace of God, always right.

There is something to applaud in all this. At a time when all that qualifies someone for a political career is a winning smile and a blow dryer, it is refreshing to come across a politican who actually stands for something. But having strong convictions is not all there is to Helms. What really counts is that he is more than willing to impose those convictions on others. For that, please hold your applause.

In this way, Helms is like so many organizations on both the right and the left, but mainly, at the moment, on the right. Some of them claim to be majorities, but whether they are has little to do with their ability to affect policy. What matters is that they are strategically placed so that they can in some way impose their views on the majority.

The classic example of where this has happened is the State of Israel. There, a minority bloc of Religious Party members in parliament has managed to make Israel a quasi-religious state where, for instance, secular marriage is impossible. In this way, a minority calls the tune for the majority and it does so not to secure and ensure its own rights, but instead to impose its beliefs on others. You have to do things their way or not at all.

In America, this would violate not only to Constitution but the unwritten concept of pluralism. Pluralism is hard to define but it is about a society's willingness to tolerate -- even encourage -- different ways of doing things. And if you had to put your finger on the one concept that is under attack in America today, it is pluralism. More and more we are all being asked to conform to a single standard of sexuality, morality, religion, ethics and just about anything else you can name.

Take, for example, the proposed attempt to boycott television advertisers who sponsor what the Moral Majority and its allies consider to be immoral programs. In one sense, there is nothing wrong with that. A boycott is as American as apple pie and it is not the same as censorship.

But if you look past the boycott itself, what you see is an attempt by a few people to limit the viewing of a whole lot of people. The point is that you don't need to be a majority to make your weight felt. Maybe 10 percent would do -- and then the other 90 percent would have to watch what the 10 percent wanted.

The same is true of abortion. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll indicates that 76 percent of Americans approve of abortion in some circumstances, with a bedrock 46 percent of them approving of it on demand. You would be hard-put, though, to reconcile those figures with legislation being passed by the Congress and in state legislatures, limiting abortions as much as possible and eliminating any government funding of them. The proverbial visitor from Mars would have to conclude from what's going on now that America had a clear antiabortion majority.

Somewhat the same sort of thing is going on when it comes to prayer in schools, birth control and, yes, even gun control. The devices that once encouraged and protected pluralism -- the ability of minorities to get enough votes to protect their interests -- have somehow been turned on their heads. Now, it is the minority that is attempting to call the tune for the majority, limiting options not just for themselves, but for everyone. It is not enough, for instance, for some people to watch only what they want on television and turn off the rest. They have to choose for us, too.

What really matters is not whether these are minority or majority views, but the apparent unwillingness of some to tolerate divergent views and behavior -- pluralism. Like their titular leader, Jesse Helms, they are so certain they are right that they must coerce the rest of us to be their version of "right" too -- by law if need be. That's certainly not pluralism. It ain't even right.