Idaho's racists give us a choice
Stephen Lyons told us in the last issue that he left hate-filled Idaho for the more progressive state of Washington (HCN, 3/16/98). Since I made that same move last autumn, here's my response to his essay:
Welcome to Washington! You'll find excellent coffee, happy diversity and easy access to recycling. Enjoy them. Welcome to open-mindedness, high-mindedness, clear thinking and clean living.
Idaho will miss you. Not the racists (they're not limited to Idaho, by the way), not the backward county commissioners (been to rural Washington yet?), not the greedy developers (check out Bellevue when you're here), not the dandy Idaho politicians (is there really a man more reactionary or bigoted than Slade Gorton, Washington Republican?).
But you bailed out on some good people and on Idaho, the place. The wildest spread of mountains in the West - that great yonder in the middle of Idaho - might miss you. They need a strong voice.
Your assessment of Idaho is simple, statistical and rhetorical; soundbite and headline stuff.
I've felt the same anger about Idaho's bigotry. But think of Wallace Stegner's writing as you look out at the Seattle traffic (or is it Pullman? Leavenworth? Olympia?), at raindrops making legs on the window. There are people who pass through places like Idaho and "stickers' who set down roots. Think of William Kittredge writing about environmental degradation (it could as well be about racism) when you consider making a stand: "Many of us are seeking ways to stop that devastation; we think it is an enterprise of uttermost urgency. We at least think we are trying to save the world, which is a particularly powerful way of saving ourselves."
You begin with the image of the Coeur d'Alene mayor wringing his hands about how to deal with racism. Your response is less than helpful to a mayor who needs support. Running encourages a bully and a racist. You fear questions from relatives about the racists in northern Idaho. But your response is this question: "How do we defend the indefensible?" My suggestion: Condemn the indefensible, don't defend it.
I suppose that the world is not ours to change so much as it is to understand. That is a life's work, whether in Idaho or in Washington.
I have been in Seattle for six months now - I left Idaho for some of the same reasons you did - and have been considering whether to move back to Idaho when I finish school in June. Your essay has helped me to understand which way I am traveling. We might just pass on the road home.