So the white supremacists have come to the soil of North Dakota. Our job is to make sure it is not fertile soil.
Now that the initial flurry of angst is over, and the street confrontation of September 22, 2013, has peacefully come and peacefully gone, the best thing we can do, I believe, is to leave them alone to their first winter in Leith. They are in for a considerable surprise. As you and I know, but they might not yet or not quite, winters are very long and not altogether balmy in rural North Dakota, on the northern Great Plains. After six or seven months of high winds, ground blizzards, below-zero temperatures and rawhide wind chill, plus the cabin fever of living almost entirely indoors in a town that doesn't even have a quick shop or a bar, they may choose to pick up stakes and winter hereafter in Scottsdale or Hemet. Or perhaps they'll tuck away their Nazi flags and hateful rhetoric, form an Optimist Club, and start writing rural redevelopment grants for poor little Leith and Grant County. Maybe we should flood them with hotdishes and fleischkuechle—kill them with kindness as my mother-in-law would say—in the hopes that they clog up their arteries, settle into their recliners, and start purchasing the premium NFL Sunday Ticket Package. Once they start watching Real Housewives of Orange County, our troubles are over.
I do not take their presence in our homeland lightly, but I believe that this unwelcome visitation is a test of our character and the robustness of our rural democracy. We would be equally foolish to under or to overreact.
We need to remain vigilant, because such types occasionally do (rather than say) appalling things, but as long as they are just verbal extremists wearing anti-social body art, the best thing we can do now is completely ignore them. They feed on us, on our outrage, on the righteous attention we give them. The way to hurt them is not to call them names or try to cut off their access to rural water and sewer, but to ignore them and assume that as long as they don't commit illegal acts they are free to mimeograph Aryan newsletters and spy a Jew behind every American success story. I don't blame the media for giving them the attention they have received so far—it is big news, national news, when a group of self-proclaimed extremists invades a wee pastoral village of 15-26 people in one of the most unsensational states in the union. But now that we have noted their presence, expressed our displeasure with their silly but dangerous doctrines, and put them on notice that we are watching their every move, we should turn away in quiet disgust.
I'm with Voltaire (1694-1778) and the Enlightenment: "Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it." But the minute they burn a cross on someone's front yard we'll unleash the full fury of the Civil Rights Division the U.S. Justice Department on them.
I had never been to Leith before last Sunday. I have driven past it many times, but nothing had ever compelled me to turn off the highway and drive three miles over gravel roads to see the hapless little village. Now that I have been there I really like it and, like almost everyone else, I wish the supremacists would take their British Israelist flags, their Jewish conspiracy theories, and their dark hearts elsewhere. I defend their right to exist and to spew, but I don't like it that they have chosen us to be their petri dish, and frankly I wonder why. They did not choose Massachusetts or San Francisco. One of my friends said they made a fundamental strategic mistake. Instead of Leith, they should have located in nearby Heil, population 15. They could have painted over the town sign to Seig Heil. In addition to that, New Leipzig is close at hand, and up at the other end of the state is Walhalla, if they are really planning a Wagnerian Götterdämmerung.
Meanwhile, I'm a little suspicious of some of the calls on the state's radio talk shows, stoutly defending the newcomers' first amendment and property rights. I agree in theory, but I wonder what the talk show chatter would be if instead of white supremacists Leith had been invaded by a cell of Radical Environmentalists, or PETA activists, or Marxist-Leninists, or Anti-Frackers, or Shoshone Indians, or—God forbid—Sharia Muslims. We'd be more likely to hear "lock and load" than "live and let live."
It would be interesting to know how many white supremacists are scattered across the North Dakota landscape. I don't just mean tattooed and swastika white supremacists (extremely rare), but also "maybe after three drinks at the bar with like-minded friends" white supremacists, and "well, I really don't like to talk about it much, but I do sometimes think we white folks have lost control of our own country" white supremacists, and "I'm not prejudice (the d usually omitted), but I'm noticing an awful lot of Ne-groes in the oil patch" white supremacists, and "why am I supposed to feel sympathy for Indians when they spend their time cashing their welfare checks and huffing—why can't they get their @#X#X together?" white supremacists. I don't know how many full-bore white supremacists there are in North Dakota, but the number is more than zero, and if you add in the percentage of people who would never display a Nazi symbol or fly a Confederate flag, but who are not altogether unsympathetic with at least some parts of the doctrine of chief supremacist Craig Cobb and his friends, you begin to feel a little uneasy
Anti-Semitic incidents are rare in North Dakota, but they do occur. Contempt for the lifestyles and values of American Indians is so routine that we hardly notice ourselves. And to be openly anti-Muslim—well, that's just American patriotism since 9-11.
I listened carefully for a while last Sunday as Craig Cobb explained his views to members of the North Dakota media, who let him hold forth without interruption and made no attempt to argue with him. Much of it didn't make sense to me, but I did hear him say that the Civil Rights bills of the 1960s and 1970s were a social disaster that unleashed a black reign of crime terror in our cities; that Jews control the world, particularly Hollywood and banking; that our lax immigration protocols are producing the mongrelization of the American dream; and that the Founding Fathers intended a White Christian Nation and they knew whereof they spoke. Heck, that's just Rush Limbaugh on a bad day, except perhaps for the anti-Semitism.
The best thing about the protest rally in Leith was the presence of about 50 Lakota Indians and their friends. In their marvelous dignity and their prayerful seriousness of purpose, they made us all realize that the presence of these Aryan skinheads among us is a very grave and disheartening thing, a sad day in the long, hard, uneven arc of social justice that is the unfinished history of North Dakota. A setback, but potentially also a breakthrough.
And I fell in love with the Lakota woman who spoke forth at the height of the tension: "Come set up shop on the Rez—see how that works out for you." The lovely assembly of 300 anti-supremacists laughed.
A long healing laugh.