Idaho stubbornly remains what America used to be

  • Drawing by Malcolm Wells

In Coeur d'Alene, Aryan Nations' leader Richard "I hate you" Butler and his merry band of racists make plans for a "One Hundred Man March" through the city, while the mayor wrings his hands and wonders what he should do.

Kootenai County commissioners declare the county an English-only territory, then wonder why its citizens object. Commissioner Ron Rankin says the critics are "a nonentity, a paranoid clack."

The same commission says that too much is made of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In Oldtown, a Bonner County councilman puts up an Idaho Militia sign along Highway 41. The same county's commissioners abolished the planning department.

Mississippi in the 1950s? A bad novel about Louisiana? No, business as usual in Idaho at the millennium.

You might think I'm too harsh on the Gem State. After all, Idaho is a leader.

It leads the nation in child abuse incidents and deaths, and if it weren't for South Dakota, Idaho would lead the nation in the least amount of money spent per capita for child welfare in 1996 ($17).

Idaho is a leader in not immunizing its children against whooping cough, an ailment that should have gone the way of polio.

Idaho also leads in the highest number of dumb statements by its congressional delegation led by Rep. Helen Chenoweth, who said last year that Hispanics and African-Americans were not interested in moving to northern Idaho because, "The warm-climate community just hasn't found the colder climate that attractive."

For 15 years I've pondered why Idaho lags the country in creativity, diversity and innovation. Why 60 percent of its fourth-graders read at a third-grade level or lower. Why the state's governmental leaders don't make life so unbearable for the Aryan Nations, Bo Gritz and the militia that they choose to live elsewhere - like Mars. Why Randy Weaver was canonized in Idaho for using his family as a body shield. Why the business leaders don't tell us the truth about all the income and jobs lost because the state has a national image as a haven for racists. Why it's against the law to libel Idaho potatoes.

Aside from all that, there is something plainly dysfunctional about this place, but something hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it's the isolation and difficulty of creating networks in an area that is so hard to travel in: not enough traffic with new ideas moving through. That isolation has led to xenophobia, a fear of strangers or, perhaps more precisely, a fear of anyone not white.

Certainly, in the Legislature and in the congressional delegation the problem is easier to define: a paucity of new blood and ideas. And to think Frank Church was once our senator.

A diverse America with an exciting cultural vibrancy is leaving Idaho behind, a trend the state cultivates with slogans like, "Idaho is what America used to be," and "Welcome to Idaho. Now Go Home!" The first slogan is true when you consider America used to be more sexist, racist, xenophobic and environmentally unaware.

A recent article in The New Yorker touted the amazing comeback of the California economy in the last half decade. In Silicon Valley, where a large part of the heart of this economic engine beats, one out of every four employees is foreign-born, and the average annual household income of Santa Clara County is more than $100,000. Ten new firms are incorporated every day and there are no laws limiting language to English only.

Diversity is a major contributor to California's bright economy. Forty percent of the population is Hispanic, and one out of every three foreign-born Latinos can now be considered middle class with an annual income that exceeds $35,000 and/or home ownership. What percentage of white Idahoans can claim a similar income?

Many people in Idaho complain that the state's sorry national image is unfair and undeserved. The same people will tell you they don't care anyway. That's why they moved here, by God! But many of us with out-of-state relatives have to answer questions such as, "What's going on up there?" "What's up with those Nazis?"

How do we answer? How do we defend the indefensible?

When I moved to Idaho in 1983, I came for the mountains and rivers. Now, 15 years later, I see those same peaks as impenetrable boundaries of isolation, and the reflection I see in the rivers is of a man who longs to return home to America.

Stephen J. Lyons recently moved to Washington state.

High Country News Classifieds