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Know the West

The different faces of bigotry

  Dear HCN,

Regarding Stephen Lyon's essay "An ugly message marches down an Idaho street" (HCN, 8/16/99):

The rise to power of the Nazi Party in 1933 was both surprising and rapid. Few people then anticipated the process or magnitude of events to come. Just shortly before, Germany had been a refuge from the wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across an increasingly fascist Europe.

I commend Stephen Lyons for recognizing the different faces of bigotry in Idaho. I fault him for limiting his observations to Idaho, and for dismissing xenophobia's potential so lightly. Bigotry knows no educational, economic or geographic boundaries, and it can hide itself well in political correctness and in the most densely populated areas.

My wife's graduate research centers around refugees who have escaped their home countries and oppressive governments. Generally, a common experience of refugees is that, prior to the outbreak of violence in their immediate community, and even when faced with sufficient evidence of it elsewhere, most persistently clung to the belief "It can't be happening, not to us, not now, not in our society." And after the violence (directed mostly along racial and ethnic lines) has been experienced and the refugee's understanding of order and meaning in life has been destroyed, many are left wondering "I don't understand ... they were my friends just before the troubles started."

Tolerance begins with the individual and flows into the institutional fabrics of society, which after time reflect tolerance back. The same is true of the destructive partnerships of bigotry, fear, hatred, and greed. The most dangerous individual is the one who is absolutely convinced of his correctness and his cause, and Lyons should remember this. Let us have the courage to re-examine the adequacy of our own tolerance when we think the work we have done is enough; failing this, we will lay the destructive foundations for others, and possibly ourselves, to use.

Stephen Hansen

Logan, Utah