Tag Archives: racism

Current read: Out of Their League, Dave Meggysey

While this book first saw the light of day in 1970, it amazes me how relevant it remains today.

Meggysey, one of a large family born to Hungarian immigrants, grew up in Ohio and one might say found his way into professional football without ever having seriously dreamed of playing at the highest level. From high school to Syracuse to the end of his NFL career with the Cardinals, a part of him always knew that football culture was exploitative and racist. What would have been a dream for many young American men was a career from which he was eager to move on.

Moving on was simple enough. As the sixties moved on, all he had to do was become active in anti-war and anti-racist activities. That would get him shown the door if he didn’t retire first, which he did. He moved on to a career in education and activism.

The striking thing about Meggysey’s story is that our progress in fifty years has been modest and incremental at best. He tells freely of the ways and amounts in which Syracuse players were paid, a process that goes on today though less openly. (Whenever I see a college program rocket from mehness to top-ten recruiting classes, my first assumption is that they decided to go the bagman route.) He believes American football has a toxic culture. While I still like the college game, and I do not regret my high school playing days, I also think he is right–especially in places where football is the primary religious preference.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Dave Meggysey, like me, would be proud to kneel with Colin Kaepernick. I don’t have much use for mass nationalistic rallies prior to sporting events. I see them as manipulative and indoctrinary. One major change since his playing days involves the demographics of college and professional football, which are now very heavily black and Polynesian. You’d think it would be impossible to have racist issues in football coaching at any level above high school, and yet we keep hearing of them.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers; perhaps in the past fifty years Meggysey has found some. My biggest takeaway from this book was a better understanding of the game’s dynamics during its unsettled sixties, and the understanding that its troubles are nothing new.

Why I had never heard of him, I have no idea. I’ve normally heard of most conspicuous nonconformists in sports I follow, including those mostly before my time. I am glad I found him now, and I hope I get to meet him someday.


Black History Month: the first on each team

One opportunity I would never pass up would be the chance to edit a baseball book on the Negro Leagues. Hope springs eternal. What talents, what characters, what baseball.

For now, let’s celebrate Black History Month by highlighting a part of the history not everyone understands: the ultimate integration. Until 1961, the white major leagues comprised sixteen teams, eight in each league. Their integration didn’t all happen at once just because Jackie Robinson showed up, kept his temper for a year, and excelled in the face of every form of disrespect anyone could send in his direction. It actually took twelve years, and some teams made themselves look pretty bad by the length of their dawdling.

Twelve years? Seriously. Yet it’s true. Children born the day Jackie Robinson first took the field for Brooklyn were near puberty by the time the Boston Red Sox finally caved.

I do not think that most baseball enthusiasts today stop to consider what it meant that, six years after Jackie Robinson and with talents like Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Larry Doby, and Roy Campanella sparkling on the field, only half the teams in the white major leagues had fielded a player of sub-Saharan African heritage.

(A note on terms. Many Cubans, Dominicans, etc. are of African heritage, but calling them African American is not correct unless we’re defining everyone on both continents as American. So if you would define a black Falkland Islander or Ecuadorean or Canadian as ‘African American,’ be my guest and replace every use of “black” with “African American” as you read. My point is that most people don’t think as they replace one term with another. I once heard Nelson Mandela described as “a brave African American.” Brave, no doubt–but Mandela was an African African, for pete’s sake, and the speaker’s mindlessness was unbecoming the subject.)

No disrespect to Moses Fleetwood Walker and the other black ballplayers of the late 1800s, who played and then were barred as the whole country tilted toward discriminatory practices. The subject matter here is the integration, or re-integration on some level, of the sixteen modern pre-expansion-era (1903-1960) AL/NL teams begun by Jackie Robinson.

Let’s pay tribute to those pioneers, some famous and some not, and talk a bit about their careers and outcomes. Some are familiar only to baseball buffs, but each was a groundbreaker and deserves our respectful memory. The question is not always straightforward because, well, define “black.” If it means a single drop of subsaharan African heritage, well, that’s a lot of really white-looking people including me–but had I lived then and been able to throw like Satchel Paige, I don’t think I’d have had any trouble getting a legit shot at making a 1930s AL/NL roster. As lots of Afro-Caribbean folks will tell you, it’s quite possible to be black and Cuban, black and Dominican, black and Bahamian, and so on. At times, some Afro-Caribbean players were able to sort of “pass” in the US baseball world. The entire distinction shows up the inherent silliness of stressing over people’s racial origin, degree of skin color, and so on. The main distinction, the one society tries not to draw because it brings into focus an uncomfortable truth, is that you’re considered black if you’re treated like you’re black. Makes me wonder what sort of hassles Rachel Dolezal endured before she came out as white.

Of these seventeen (we will get into why there are not sixteen), four are in the Baseball Hall of Fame: Robinson, Doby, Irvin, and Banks. I think one can make a great case for Miñoso; Howard, perhaps and perhaps not. Still, four out of seventeen is quite the haul–testimony to the level of talent of which the white major leagues had deprived their fans for decades. If you wanted to win ballgames, and knowing nothing else, you knew there was a one-in-fourish chance your new guy would become a legend, you’d give him a try yesterday. Of tens of thousands of big league ballplayers who have taken the field since the game went professional, some 300+ are Hall of Famers–maybe one in a hundred. Even if common sense told you that one out of four of those who might follow your rookie wasn’t going to be Ernie Banks, they would still have your fascinated attention. It doesn’t take very many great players to transform a baseball club.

In order of the date of first appearance, here are the first black players to take the field for each AL or NL team:

Brooklyn Dodgers (NL): Jackie Robinson, April 15, 1947. He is perhaps the player least needing introduction for the most obvious reasons, but the thing to realize is that he was 28 in 1947. He did everything well, enough to make one wonder what his .311 lifetime NL batting average might have been had it included seven more of his prime playing years. He did everything at an All-Star level except pitch. For many aspiring black American ballplayers, the Dodger jersey would become a revered symbol of everything Robinson and integration meant to them, and to grow up to wear that uniform onto a ballfield would be a motivational dream. I remember when Robinson passed away (1972, age 53), entirely too young, and one could feel the sense of loss throughout the game.

Cleveland Indians (AL): Larry Doby, July 5, 1947. As the first black player in the American League, Doby deserves more notice than he tends to receive. He deserves better. Breaking in at 23, his AL career lasted until 1959 and included seven All-Star selections. Hitting .283 with good power over that timeframe, he was an asset to three AL teams over his tenure. Not only was he the second black player in the AL/NL, but he later became the second black manager. Doby lived to be 79, standing his ground to the end of his days.

St. Louis Browns (AL; today, the Baltimore Orioles): Hank Thompson, July 17, 1947. A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, Hank debuted at the age of 21. Thompson was a capable if unspectacular contributor to the New York Giants of the early 1950s, hitting .267 for his career and having a number of notable moments; for example, very few players have hit two inside-the-park homers in a single game. By 30 he was out of baseball, and he died of a seizure at the untimely age of 43. The Browns would be the last team of 1947 to begin integration, and the last until 1949.

New York Giants (NL; today, the San Francisco Giants): Hank Thompson (previously mentioned) and Monte Irvin, July 8, 1949. Yes, they both played on the same day, making Thompson the only player to be the first African American on two different teams. (The Giants were visiting Brooklyn, so they batted first, and Thompson hit leadoff; Irvin appeared as a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth). Monte Irvin, another former combat engineer veteran of the Bulge, was 30 that day he got his NL chance, but he made the most of his time with an NL career batting average of .293 and a frightening clip of .458 in the 1952 World Series. A famously pleasant man, Irvin remained close to the game for most of his very long life (96 years).

Boston Braves (NL; today, the Atlanta Braves): Sam Jethroe, April 18, 1950. “Jet” broke in at the age of 33 after a long and impressive Negro Leagues career. He played only three full seasons for the Braves, showing the logic behind his nickname by twice leading the NL in stolen bases. A better hitter and runner than he was a fielder, he was nonetheless a groundbreaker in Boston in that Boston’s other team, the Red Sox, would gain infamy by being the very last integrated AL team. Jet passed in 2001, living to be 84.

Chicago White Sox (AL): Minnie Miñoso, May 1, 1951. One of the steadiest ballplayers of the 1950s and 1960s, the Cuban-born Miñoso’s .298 lifetime batting average barely begins to tell the whole story of this remarkable ballplayer. He got his first taste of AL action at 23 with Cleveland, but became a regular with the Sox in 1951 (hitting .326, making Cleveland’s trading him look awful). He led the AL in hits once, doubles once, triples three times, stolen bases three times, and being hit by pitches ten times. Three Golden Gloves, an award that only began when he was 31. A fan and teammate favorite, he remained a steady hitter in the Mexican League as late as the age of 47. He lived to be 89, remaining close to the game and the White Sox for the rest of his days.

Pittsburgh Pirates (NL): Carlos Bernier, April 22, 1953. On this list, he was the first man I’d never heard of until I began this project. A career minor leaguer who played only one statistically unremarkable year in the NL, Bernier might be more famous for the controversy that came to attend his trip to the bigs, in that–in a classic case of “who decides who’s black?”–MLB doesn’t recognize the Puerto Rican-born Bernier as a black man. Evidently Bernier identified as black. If you want to go with MLB, the first black Pirate would be Curt Roberts (1954), but I mean no slight to Roberts or his accomplishment when I say that I’m not buying MLB’s arbiter-of-blackness authority. Bernier died at age 62, sadly by suicide.

Philadelphia Athletics (AL; today, the Oakland A’s): Bob Trice, September 13, 1953. By now, note well, it had been six years since Jackie Robinson who–like everyone else previously named on this list except Jethroe–was still active in 1953. At this point, even the most die-hard illusionist had to admit that keeping black players out of the NL/AL was not merely bigotry but self-sabotage. Trice was also the first first-timer on this list to enter as a pitcher, though he would turn out to be a better hitter (.288) than pitcher (9-9, 5.80) in a three-year AL career that began when he was 26. He didn’t set the league on fire, but neither did anyone else on the A’s staff (if one did, they farmed him up to the Yankees). A sore shoulder was a downer; not long after that, he actually asked to return to the minors. His mojo never really came back for keeps. Trice passed away at the age of 62.

Chicago Cubs (NL): Ernie Banks, September 17, 1953. Well, this one’s pretty easy. Everyone’s heard of Ernie Banks. His only detractor ever was Leo Durocher, who had a detractor or two of his own. In Chicago the churches relax their idolatry rules a little bit for Banks. Entering the National League at 22, he played until he was forty. A power-hitting shortstop (rare find, that), he rarely missed a game until his last couple of years. One Gold Glove, two NL home run crowns, two MVP awards, 512 career homers…well, it’s not hard to see why Chicago so loves this career Cub. Ernie’s talent is testimony to the kind of baseball the white major leagues could have enjoyed watching much sooner had they not been merely the white major leagues. He passed in 2015, aged 83.

St. Louis Cardinals (NL): Tom Alston, April 13, 1954. Seven years into integration, it was starting to get awkward for the holdouts. Those who owned breweries, like Gussie Busch, stood to lose a lot of business if black customers voted with their wallets. The result was the Cards signing 28-year-old Alston, a rangy first baseman. While he didn’t set the league on fire, he did play about half of 1954 and had brief returns to the Cardinals over the following three seasons. Alston lived to be 67, passing on in 1993.

Cincinnati Redlegs (NL; today, the Cincinnati Reds): Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon, April 17, 1954. I actually had to go back and dig up which entered the game first; both were pinch hitters, with Escalera hitting for catcher Andy Seminick (singled) and Harmon batting next for pitcher Corky Valentine (made an out). A 24-year-old Puerto Rican utility player (and a rare left-throwing shortstop), Escalera saw sparing action in what would be his only major league year. Hitting .159 probably explains that. He is still with us at age 91. Harmon, now, was already 30 by the time he stood in to hit for Valentine. His .238 lifetime average for three teams over four years was unspectacular but good enough to keep him ready for the call-up. He lived to be 94, passing on in 2019.

Washington Senators (AL; today, the Minnesota Twins): Carlos Paula, September 6, 1954. Breaking into the AL at 26, this Havana-born outfielder played parts of three years for the Senators. 1955 was his best, with part-time roles leading to a more than respectable .299 average. Not sure why he slipped to .183 the next year, but it was his last at the highest level. Seven years into integration, considering the demographics of the DC metro area and the team’s historic underperformance, I see only one reasonable explanation for that long delay and it’s not comforting–especially considering the later racist attitudes of then-owner Clark Griffith’s son Calvin. Paula passed on in 1983 at the untimely age of 55.

New York Yankees (AL): Elston Howard, April 14, 1955. He was 26 when the Yankees finally integrated, a catcher who did many things well–except run, which I mention here because of a horrible comment attributed to manager Casey Stengel about having finally ‘gotten’ a (person of color; you can guess the actual word that was used) and complaining that he wasn’t fast. While it’s true enough about Howard (nine stolen bases in a fourteen-year career), it testifies to the stereotypical thinking still with us today. Howard was a mainstay of the great Yankees teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and was with them as they declined into irrelevancy in the Vietnam years. Once the AL MVP, twice a Gold Glover, Howard’s best showing at the plate was his .348 monster year on that great 1961 team. Little-known fact: he is credited with inventing the batting donut. Howard died younger than he should have (51) in 1980.

Philadelphia Phillies (NL): John Kennedy, April 22, 1957. Ten years and one week before, when Jackie Robinson had broken in, the Phillies and arch-bigot manager Ben Chapman were the league’s coarsest bench jockeys. Now, finally, they would become the last NL club to integrate–if you want to call it that. Kennedy, a compact shortstop, participated in five games with two times at bat for the Phils, which is more opportunity than the Giants had given him after signing him in 1953. That ended Kennedy’s AL/NL career at 30. Never a tremendous star in the minors, the choice of a fairly unpromising player raises its own set of questions. Surely they had, or could have chosen to have, more promising prospects of color given what others had been accomplishing for the past decade. John Kennedy died in 1998, aged 71.

Detroit Tigers (AL): Ozzie Virgil, Sr., June 6, 1958. The first Dominican in the AL/NL, Virgil joined the Giants for the 1956 season at age 24, but he was not their first black player. When Detroit acquired him, he became the Tigers’ first. Anyone who can catch has a good shot at a career, and Virgil mainly caught and played third, so he would remain mostly in the majors until 1966 with a single appearance in 1969. A combined .231 career average tells us he was not the next Roy Campanella, but he was the one who brought down the second to last team’s wall, and he did spend another twentyish years as a coach. Virgil is still with us, 88 at this writing, and is no doubt proud of a son who became a two-time All-Star catcher.

Boston Red Sox (AL): Pumpsie Green, July 21, 1959. And then there was one, twelve years later. Robinson was actually retired by the time racist Boston owner Tom Yawkey gave a black ballplayer a chance. Green, who was 25 at the time, at least got a chance to show what he could do. A part-time middle infielder for five years (four with the Red Sox, the last one with the Mets), he finished with a career average of .246. Much later, his place in the game’s history received some recognition as the Red Sox inducted him into the team’s hall of fame. The last man to be the first black man on an AL or NL team had a long life, passing away in 2019 at the age of 85.

Some became legends. Some are forgotten today. Most are now gone. Not a one of them had it easy. It is simple justice for fans of the sport, which becomes more global each year even as African Americans seem to drift away from it, to stop and give respect to seventeen ambitious athletes who helped to make our national pastime much more national and inclusive.

My Archie Bunker experience

Everyone over forty knows exactly what I mean by that. Many under forty may not.

In 1971, the nation was divided and distressed. The Middle East would probably boil over again. We were losing in Vietnam, trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really losing if we simply quit and abandoned the RVN government to its fate. Back in those days, there was a left wing, including on the world stage where the Soviet Union worked hard to export its authoritarian-left perspective. It seemed to make inroads everywhere. For our part, we talked big about exporting democracy, but the truth was that we’d throw money and support at any dictator who supported us over the Soviets. We lived in daily fear of global thermonuclear war.

At home, the civil rights movement had won its war but would find that winning the peace was much like the difference between de jure and de facto. The women’s movement was still called ‘Women’s Liberation,’ and it was nowhere near winning its war. Men who had fought in World War II did not understand why their sons not only refused to fight in Vietnam, but did anything possible to avoid it. Cowboys and hippies exchanged insults, and at times punches. In the previous year, Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The year before that, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by a platoon of the Americal Division at My Lai had gone far to shake our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

The Pirates won the World Series in 1971, and I turned eight. That year, the sitcom All in the Family first aired. The show depicted a crabby, selfish, bigoted, working-class, staunchly right-wing World War II veteran, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Jean Stapleton played his wife Edith with great comic genius, keeping a straight face when it was hard imagining anyone could; she was far more tolerant than her husband, but just as old-fashioned. With the Bunkers lived their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a somewhat dimwitted partner to her husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Mike, whom Archie typically addressed as ‘Meathead,’ was attending college while he and Gloria lived with the Bunkers to save money. As Archie was a parody of the day’s right wing and social conservatism, Mike parodied the left wing and social liberalism of the day. He was sexist, condescending, self-righteous, and inconsiderate.

I don’t remember Archie ever saying “nigger”–by 1971, that was the first (and only) racial slur that had become unacceptable on a broad social basis–but I’ve been watching old episodes, and I did hear him say “chink,” “spic,” “Hebe,” “gook,” “bohunk,” “fag,” and “Dago.” In nearly every episode, he called Mike a “Polack.” It must be quite jolting to the younger ear; it jolts mine, and I remember when such talk was just starting to go underground, throughout the seventies. (Some of us thought it had been eradicated, but that was wishful thinking. One can prevent a person from articulating bigotry, but that will not change that person’s beliefs.)

The show was so popular because it held up a mirror to the culture of the day, with nuanced characters and some good comedy. It may have been the catalyst for some self-awareness growth. We all knew at least one Archie Bunker. All in the Family ran for nine years, with a couple of middling spinoffs.

The reasons all this matter, at least to me, are:

  1. If I don’t help to tell the history of my times, people will make up fictitious purpose-driven versions.
  2. It touches my life because I came moderately close to being the son-in-law of an Archie Bunker.

Back in my twenties, I got involved with a young lady–we’ll call her Katie–who was in a mode of post-collegiate-but-still-living-at-home rebellion against her parents. The father, who worked construction, might well have been somewhat grateful that this time his daughter had brought home someone of similar ethnic background to herself. The previous one had not been, and you can imagine what Archie (I think I’ll just call him that) had on his mind about that. He was an ugly flat-faced SOB who looked like he could eat wallpaper off a wall, and not without virtues; unfortunately, among his virtues was not multicultural tolerance and acceptance. He was also a troll, and knew that his racism offended me, so he made the most of that: he’d turn the channel to a boxing match, for example, and talk about how much fun it was to watch a couple of “niggers” beat each other up.

Unlike TV’s Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith had a heart of gold, Katie’s mother was as mean and bigoted as her husband, and considerably more vindictive. On some level, her husband was human; the mother was not. In fact, Katie did not have one single relative I could bear: a brother and cousin, clones of the father; an absurdly dumb sister; a stereotypical drunk, deaf uncle. The price of dating Katie, and of later being engaged to her, was to be required to endure these people most weekends.

Can you believe I tried for five years to make this relationship work? Good lord. I had my flaws, and I contributed my share of mistakes, but in the end it was time to bow to reality. Significantly poorer, I moved on in relationships. We still have a few friends in common, but Katie moved on and married (this time, to a Hispanic man; Archie must have just loved that). We haven’t spoken in nearly a quarter century; both her parents are gone, but I’ll be glad just never to have any reminder too direct of that experience.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you’re young, and you happen to be watching old TVLand reruns of All in the Family, and you simply cannot believe they could get away with talking like that on TV (except maybe on premium movie channels), much less that such views were commonplace, believe it. And they are by no means all gone even today.

I hope your generation sees the final die-off of those attitudes, because with their current remalnaissance*, mine will not live to see it.


*For those of you who are not French speakers, this is my neologism for ‘re-misbegotten.’ ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and ‘mal’ means ‘bad.’ It is not meant to be correct French, but to modify the English term to indicate that the original birth was no good either.

Asatru: the reality

This post addresses religion as well as a social issue. If religion is not your cup of tea, then it may not be your favorite post on the ‘Lancer. For those who stick around to the end, you will see why I had to write it.

On Sunday, April 13, 2014, a rabid anti-Semite from Missouri named Frazier Glenn Cross allegedly committed lethal violence at a Jewish Community Center and a Jewish assisted living home in Kansas City, Kansas. Reminding us that bigots usually aren’t too bright, the killer couldn’t even commit a gutless hate crime against defenseless people according to intentions. So happens that the three murder victims were all Christians.

That’s kind of like if Cliven Bundy had fired on the BLM, but through poor aim, killed a couple of sagebrush and a Steller’s jay.

That was bad enough. Then CNN got into the act, focusing on Cross’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan, the ‘White Patriot Party,’ and Odinism. Odinism might best be described as a subset of Asatru, the modern incarnation of the pre-Christian heathen beliefs of the ancient Germanic peoples (Norse, Goths, Suevii, etc.). I happen to be Asatru, so that randomly flung grenade sent shrapnel my direction, and I didn’t like it. It was careless and ignorant–but I know why it happened. The primary reason, which is that CNN is sloppy, lousy and sensationalistic, is becoming evident enough to most people that I don’t see a need to belabor that.

Some ass was chewed, and CNN presented another viewpoint–without, of course, demonstrating integrity by openly admitting that it had thrown a grenade blindfolded. This piece was by an Asatruar, and it presented an extended version of what I call the Standard Heathen ‘We Aren’t Nazis or Racists’ Disclaimer. You will find it on nearly every webpage associated with Asatru. You even get it from some representatives of some Asatru groups whether you ask about it or not, as one of their first points of description/explanation. When it is presented pre-emptively, one may fairly say they are touchy about it. It seems to anticipate the first question as: “Are you Nazis?”

Maybe that usually is the first question. I don’t know. No one ever asks me if I’m a Nazi.

Why would they be so touchy? Partly because of stuff like this CNN business. You might be touchy too, firing off pre-emptive disclaimers, if verbally incontinent and factually challenged news organizations periodically did stuff like this to your religion.

But its journalistic and ethical bankruptcy is not the only reason CNN conflated Odinism with racism; that simply made it possible. Nor did they do it simply because we are presumed weird, non-mainstream, fair game for such things–true as that may happen to be in a theocratic nation where the theo- in question is not our own.

Partly it was because there’s a grain of truth in there. Not enough to justify the way the article put it, but one that we must address. We cannot say we have addressed it until we confront it. We cannot confront it until we admit it.

Before we talk about what Asatru is not, let’s talk about what–for most of its adherents, including all of those who were paying attention when they read the ancient materials–Asatru is. The term means ‘true to the gods,’ as in, the Aesir (Odin, Thor, etc.). However, it’s not precise that way, because the Vanir (Frey, Freyja, etc.) are also revered by most Asatruar. There are people who self-identify as Vanatru, but that splits a hair. There is nothing fundamentally racist about Odinism, which is not to say an Odinist cannot also be a racist. A few are. Some keep it on the down low. It speaks well for us as a movement that they need to keep it there, but not well enough to satisfy me.

For most of its professing believers, Asatru is not just loyalty to the ancient gods. It also means a code of conduct based upon nine Noble Virtues derived from ancient lore: courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance, perseverance. A failure in any of those areas is shameful for any Asatruar (adherent).

Asatruar (it’s also the plural term) greatly esteem the ability to give and keep an oath. Politically, we lean right/libertarian on average, with a high emphasis upon personal responsibility. If an observant Asatruar fairly owes you money, you won’t have to send a collection agent after him or her. S/he will see to it that his or her obligations are met, or stand accountable. We have no salvation from the consequences of wrongs we do, save that granted by those wronged (and it isn’t recompense until the victim or his/her kin say it is). Asatru is not a pacifist belief system; we believe there are times when one must fight, and that one should do so with valor and ferocity. I dislike that I even need to mention that cowardly murders, such as those of innocent people at community centers and old folks’ homes, are diametrically opposed to Asatru values. A more Asatru behavior would have been to guard such places, and gun this murderer down in his tracks at the first sign he demonstrated a threat. And your typical Asatruar would own the firepower and will to do just that. Most Asatruar would have tackled him even unarmed, and if they died doing so, reckoned that an admirable end.

Let’s relate this to the hate criminal in Kansas City. As we reckon it, he was not only an idiot, but a coward, and he deprived innocent people of life. No amount of prayer will do him a damn bit of good. If the world operated according to our values, he would be outlawed, meaning that he could legally be killed as a public service. By anyone. He would owe weregild (compensation) to the kin of his victims, if they would accept it, which they would not need to do. His status is one of odium, not Odinism.

I often wish you, society, would let us do it that way.

Asatru is not an easy path, but it satisfies those of us who follow it, and helps guide us toward right conduct. Such conduct makes us outstanding friends, partners, hosts, guests, neighbors, business contacts, employees and warriors. It is completely egalitarian, recognizing no gender bias. We do not proselytize, so you will never find Asatruar at your door handing out tracts about Thor. I suppose we have some homophobes, but most of us don’t care who you boink.

The Asatru movement has several large, loosely-knit organizations that have zero say in the way local Asatruar handle their business, either individually or in groups. It could not be any other way. We don’t boss around easily, especially when one bears in mind that we don’t turn the other cheek. Many Asatruar are firearms or blade enthusiasts. Military service is an esteemed career among us. If oath-keeping and courage lead us to a grave, we esteem that a worthy way to die. Just as we are good friends, we make bad enemies, and a threat from an Asatruar is good enough reason to make plans to defend oneself. We are a fierce people, without apologies for that.

Asatru and Wicca (a far more numerous neo-pagan belief system, of which more people have heard) differ markedly. Many Asatruar heap scorn upon Wicca, though many also found their way to Asatru through Wicca. As for the greater neo-pagan movement, the best capsule summary of Asatru I’ve ever read is that we are ‘the Klingons of neo-paganism.’ Far nearer the truth than not, even though most Asatruar dislike the label ‘pagan,’ preferring ‘heathen.’ I’m not touchy about it, but most are.

On race, the subject brought to the fore by this event and its perpetrator, we vary. This variance of belief is generally accepted with comfortable mingling. For the most part, that is a good thing, because we don’t have very many real racists, let alone racial supremacists. However, in one area, it exposes a serious problem within Asatru. I’m going to talk candidly about it, and it’s going to offend and/or alienate some people.

Some will be mad because they know I’m right, but am saying the thing we aren’t supposed to say, making public an issue that most prefer to paper over. In my view, Asatruar need to face facts and take a stand themselves, for the sake of honor, truth and courage.

Some will be mad because I will have explicitly taken a stand against them. They need to build a large fire and leap in, because they are the members of the hate groups who call themselves Asatru. I am their enemy. I refuse to make nice, or to pretend comradeship I don’t feel.

We might assign Asatruar ‘wings,’ resembling political divides, for the sake of discussion and understanding. The primary questions that divide us involve views on ancestry and racialism. For purposes of this discussion, please use this definition of racialism: the notion that ethnic heritage is worthy of note, or can ever play a valid role. I would define racism as the notion that ethnic heritage is a grounds for exclusion, discrimination or antipathy in any form. I would define racial supremacism as racism with the added component of assumed superiority.

Far left: essentially Norse Wicca, which is to say, Wicca with Norse overtones. This view rejects racialism. There is minimal consideration of the Eddas and examples from the sagas, or the differences between Nordic and other pre-Christian pagan beliefs. Norse Wicca tends to be near-standard Wicca with Germanic deity names. I won’t go so far as to say they are not Asatru, but I suspect the Norse Wiccans would decline the label. Let’s say that if they adopt the label at all, their version minimally resembles mine, except in the ways that most life-affirming religions resemble each other.

Moderate left: universalism. Universalist Asatruar also reject the notion that race or heritage play any role in being Asatru. So far as I am aware, neither the Eddas nor the historical record say anything directly about race or heritage as they relate to religion, so they are on firm ground. In the first place, the universalists would point out, the Germanic peoples got around a lot; other peoples also got around to them. In the second, deeds and conduct matter far more. In the third, short of a mandatory genealogical study, we can’t really know anyway. (One could have great hilarity compiling and publishing genealogies on known racist leaders, considering that the typical ‘white’ American is probably about 10% nonwhite.) Anyone can get in, and deeds and conduct are all that pertain.

Center: tribalism. Tribalist Asatruar, like myself, consider it fairly natural that Germanic ancestry is a draw to the belief system (as best we understand it today) of one’s ancestors. The best I can describe this, from my own experience, is that it felt like coming home to what and who I was. However, a tribalist does not concern him/herself much, if at all, with whether others profess or possess Germanic roots. Put another way, if someone shows up, and feels truly drawn to Asatru ways, and lives an Asatru lifestyle, we reckon that common ground. If they ain’t blood kin, we can adopt them as such, strengthening us. Just because I feel drawn this direction by my own roots doesn’t mean I can assess anyone else’s commitment, or how they came to it, except in terms of how their actions demonstrate it. This is slightly racialist, but only on a personal level.

Moderate right: folkish. Folkish Asatru teaches as a core tenet that Germanic peoples are descendants of their ancient gods. However, that does not mean that folkish groups make a habit of inquiring into one’s heritage, or that they consider themselves superior to any other culture. The most similar (if not precisely analogous) examples would be some Native American belief systems, or Judaism. Folkish Asatruar respect such beliefs, and do not place themselves above or below any such group. In fact, if you took a poll of folkish Asatruar, you’d probably find that many admire Israel’s warrior spirit and strongly support Native Americans’ right not to have their culture strip-mined by outsiders. The Noble Virtues matter greatly to folkish Asatruar, but they would at least wonder why someone with zero discernible Germanic heritage might be drawn to Asatru. It’s fair to call that racialist. If grounds for exclusion, it is racist.

Far right: basically, Team Adolf. There is an extremist wing calling itself Asatru that is avowedly racist. Such groups are not necessarily violent, but for me, the key breaking point is that their doors are flatly barred to non-whites, and that many are racial supremacists. Many sympathize with Nazism, which means they favor a viewpoint that committed mass murder of many innocent people. Many, probably most, are Holocaust deniers, which means they are idiots concerning the historical record. Team Adolf is an embarrassment to respectable Asatruar at the very least–you can infer that from The Disclaimer. At mainstream gatherings, if Team Adolf shows up, it is usually sensible enough to keep its real beliefs toned down. Put another way, if a bunch of assholes start singing the Horst Wessel Song at a mainstream Althing, they’ll be squelched (I know of one instance where this actually occurred). A lot of Team Adolf is in jail, and/or joined Team Adolf there. That usually results in some symbols.

So let’s talk about symbols. The Nazis misappropriated a number of honorable and venerable Germanic emblems, making them hateful in most people’s eyes. There’s a lot of debate among Asatruar about symbols. I can tell you where I stand: I believe that we must reject and disfellowship racists and hate groups, which begins by calling them out in noisy and vulgar fashion. I believe we must not legitimize such groups in any way. I believe that the Holocaust was the ultimate dishonorable action, and that it is honorable and right for us to show respect for the many innocent people dead, brutally mistreated, robbed, tortured and otherwise subjected to unwarranted cruelty–not so much because we’re Asatru, but because we’re decent human beings with a sense of justice and compassion.

One way to show that respect is to set aside the swastika. We don’t have to concede that a very ancient good luck symbol is now fundamentally evil; I for one will not concede that, not least because it concedes a victory to Nazis, who will get nothing from me that they’d like. We should, however, abjure its display and use in public or private. This serves to nail our colors to the mast, emphasizing our hostility to the Nazi movement and its modern illegitimate spawn. I believe that, while no one has the right to demand this of us, they shouldn’t need to; we should do it for our own reasons and by choice, because it’s the right thing. I also believe that, with this done, we have the moral right to reclaim and use other symbols that were perverted in the name of evil, provided we do so in honorable causes and with consideration and common sense. I think it would be a stupid overreaction to remove the S-rune from the Elder Futhark, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to think it’s cool to tattoo two of them side by side on one’s body. Rights must be balanced with consideration and compassion in their exercise, if that exercise is to be thought honorable.

So. Mainstream modern Asatru is not racist, though some aspects have racialist overtones to one degree or another, not unlike some other groups. The racists are the fringe. But our movement has a problem. And if bringing this up makes some people angry, maybe they should ask themselves why.

Here’s the problem: we don’t always draw the line firmly enough, take the right stand. I have seen a desire to avoid making waves, or a reluctance to exclude, taken too far in many Asatru situations. This can take the form of tolerating the presence of Team Adolf, as long as it behaves (in essence, lies about itself by omission). Part of the logic probably stems from the strong individualism of Asatruar, and our nonjudgmental tendency concerning professed belief (and one that has positive sides, which is how universalist, tribalist and folkish Asatruar can find common spiritual ground). Part of it is just fear of confrontation. There may be other motivations I don’t understand, but I don’t really care what those are. There are no valid excuses.

To me, non-confrontation and tolerance toward evil serve to sweep the problem under the rug, where it is never disposed of. That’s just not good enough. Where it exists, tolerance of Team Adolf harms our movement. It lends a fig leaf of respectability to those who have forfeited all respect. It leads to stuff like this CNN article, which offends me with its ignorance, but we would have a stronger foundation against such ignorance if we did our rightful part by slamming the door in Team Adolf’s face at every turn. Why does the Southern Poverty Law Center keep suggesting that the smoke of racism, that some associate with Asatru, has its source in a small but actual fire? Because the fire does exist. And it exists because we do not hose it down with cold water, as noisily and fiercely as we can arrange. We post The Disclaimer, but we do not all refuse every association with members of Team Adolf.

There’s another reason to be vocal, a personal one. I’m the one who often points out that if other religions do not want to be lumped in with the scum who pollute their belief systems, they need to step forward and be vocal in that opposition. Christians should shun and condemn the late Fred Phelps’ picketing club, for example (and most do). Muslims should not make nice with extremists who murder (and I think most do not). Every group has low-lifes who wave its flag and do wrong. I can’t tell others they ought to take out their own trash unless I’m willing to help haul ours.

Take for example the pedophile priest revelations within the Roman Catholic Church. The pedophiles themselves were disturbing enough; what compounded the issue was that the church hierarchy warehoused pedophiles rather than defrock them and turn them over to the police. If your religion has an internal problem that some of your people aren’t taking seriously enough, and your religion matters to you, you will stand up. And you won’t be intimidated by big-name religious leaders. If a Catholic, for example, you’d make your point to your clergy hierarchy. And if they tried to pressure you to silence, you’d refuse. If they hinted at consequences, you’d tell them to bring it on. You either live by your principles or not. Sometimes leaders need to be clocked on the head and dragged back to their principles.

Was I eager to write a post calling out some Asatruar (whom I would otherwise respect) for lack of action? Of course not. I’m no social activist. Am I glad that this post will stay with me, and make it problematic for me to fit into some Asatru social circles? Surely not–but going-along-to-get-along, refusal to make waves, legitimization through silence, is less bearable to me than solitude. If not a form of outright enablement, at the very least it fails to answer the bell for action.

To the degree that it associates itself with Asatru, Team Adolf makes itself our problem, because the world notices. The Disclaimer is not adequate. We must reject Team Adolf, refuse kinship with it, and cuss it up and down the floor. We must stop looking the other way. The standard disclaimers aren’t good enough.

One of my greatest pet peeves is people who don’t believe their own philosophy. Do I really believe in courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, industriousness, self-reliance, perseverance?

Either I do or I don’t, and sometimes living our beliefs means we have to fight, or that we may pay a price.

And now you see why I had to do it.

Mistaken for Santa

An armpit-length beard has a way of drawing attention and comment. Some of the discussion is interesting and promotes conversation (“what motivated you to grow it?”) and some of it is high-water-pants dumb and tiresome (“how long you been growing that?”), but the choice to own this facial hair requires some patient acceptance of reactions from strangers. I have heard it described as ‘scruffy’ (that’s uncomplimentary) and ‘kingly’ (that’s pretty nice; thanks, Marcy).

The beard confers the benefit of starting me on at least neutral terms with any big shaggy/bikery/Vietnamy guy, some of whom have potential to be dangerous if offended, so I like that part. One downside is that some women, incredibly, think they can just reach in and play with it, or want to braid it and otherwise diddle around with it. Not enamored of that part. I never know what sort of reaction it’ll bring. The kids on my last baseball team immediately nicknamed me “ZZ” as well as “Badger” and “Scrap Iron,” all of which fit perfectly, except that I had to look up ZZ Top to find out why. I knew they were a Southern band, but that was it.

It wouldn’t be strange to mistake me for Santa Claus, or at least a younger version. When I describe myself to people, I usually explain that I look like Santa in his dissolute middle age. I get shoutouts from mall Santas at the holidays, and near-constant stares from wide-eyed children (whose parents should correct this discourtesy, but there’s nothing I can do…as a boy I was told to stop, and would have been spanked had I kept it up), so it’d be hard to be unaware of the resemblance. But in my baseball uniform?

Before I tore up my knee, I was an amateur baseball player with minimal talent but significant hustle and combative spirit. When my knees could take it, I loved to catch in spite of my mediocre arm to second base. I liked handling pitchers, wearing the gear, and quarterbacking the infield. I even liked catching the knuckleball, which I also threw during my rare mound appearances. Few catchers like catching the knuck. I gained great amusement watching the batter try to follow it.

One fine July Saturday afternoon in my late thirties, I had just caught a full game at Roy Johnson Field in Kennewick. If you have never done time behind the dish, you may not be aware of the filthiness involved. The mercury exceeded 100° F. Most home plate areas are full of powdery dirt called ‘moon dust,’ which clings to all moisture. Soaked with sweat, and squatting down frequently amid clouds of moon dust for nearly three hours plus batting and baserunning, I was disgusting. I always refused to wear the skullcap. The catcher’s correct gear involves wearing your regular baseball cap backward as the gods intended, and doesn’t include a helmet, so my cap was also gross from the frequent need to toss aside the mask. I wore a royal blue jersey and cap, grey pants, and beige dust which had turned to tan salty mud on the numerous sweaty spots. Each cleated shoe contained its own miniature sand dune. I didn’t need a shower; I needed hosing off.

I’d gathered up all the gear (I assume that we lost, as was our custom) and was leaving the field. My knees ached, and heavy bags of gear hung from my shoulders: one for my regular equipment, and one for the Tools of Intelligence, as the catcher’s gear ought to be called. As I walked behind the backstop toward the parking area, two pleasant-looking African American girls aged maybe seven and five blocked my path. They gazed up at me in wonder, even adoration. Kennewick has a very small black population, less than 2%*; it is 1/4 Hispanic, by comparison. If I had spent my morning coffee time imagining “stuff I expect will happen to me today,” “be adored by young African American girls in my filthy, smelly baseball uniform” would not have made the list. I assumed the kids must be related to the opposing shortstop, a good guy named Taylor who gave us fits as a fielder, hitter and baserunner. With him being the only black player present on either team, this wasn’t a reckless presumption.

I stopped, looked down and smiled. On rare occasions, little kids would ask for autographs, having no idea how insignificant we were in the grand scheme of the game. Not this time. The older girl began with “I want…” and started reciting her Christmas list.

I don’t remember what all she asked for, but most of it didn’t sound too exorbitant. The pony might have been a little over the top, but I doubt I was the first ‘Santa’ who ever fielded a girl’s request for an horse. When she finished, the younger gal took her turn.

Since I wasn’t in my ideal mental frame of mind thanks to aches, fatigue and disgustingness, I was glad it took them a while to finish telling me what they wanted. It gave me time to decide how to react. I decided to play along, with a sidelong wink at their adult relatives wearing amused smiles in the nearby third-base bleachers. When very tired (or drunk), I tend to drawl. “Okay. Well, a couple of things for ya. First of all, please make sure y’also tell your parents, because Ah’m kinda off duty and tired, and don’t have anything to write with, and my memory isn’t what it once was. Also, remember that in order to even have a chance at any of this stuff, you need to be real good for the rest of the year, and mind your parents. Especially no going cattiewhompus in the restaurant. Everyone understand?” Both nodded, still gazing up in wonder. “Good to meet you young ladies. You have a good day now,” I finished. I don’t remember the rest of their reactions, but it was probably the big moment of their day.

Nothing more came of it, though I had a chance to talk with Taylor about it a few weeks later, either before or after another game. They were his nieces. Evidently the incident had amused everyone, which gratified me because any time I’m taken by surprise and manage not to say anything dumb, I count it as a win. In hindsight, it amuses me too. Those girls must be near adult womanhood now, and I wonder how they’re doing. Well, I hope.

If they never got all the stuff on their list, I hope they forgave me.


* Thanks to Kennewick’s deeply racist history as a sundown town, with racially restrictive covenants still technically on the books (albeit unenforceable, and in fairness, it’s unlikely anyone would try to enforce them), few black people choose to live in Kennewick. Same for nearby Richland, which was a different type of sundown town: with the whole townsite run by Westinghouse, one had to work there to live there. By hiring very few African Americans, segregation was de facto if not de jure. Most of the black population of the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick, Pasco) lives in Pasco. Many older black Pasconians much dislike Kennewick to this day, and I can’t blame them.

Not that race mattered here; I just resent Kennewick’s efforts to shovel its odious past under the rug, and have made a decision to remind the city of it online every excuse I get until some official acknowledgement is forthcoming, ideally in the form of an exhibit at the East Benton County Historical Museum. Perhaps they thought me moving to Idaho would make me stop this. Nah. All that has done is put me beyond retaliation. If they can put an exhibit in the museum about the Asatru Folk Assembly’s claim that Kennewick Man (ancient bones found along the Columbia) might have been a proto-Viking, piously stating that they respect all viewpoints on the issue, they can find a photo of the sign on the old green bridge to Pasco that said something like ‘All Blacks Must Be Out By Sunset,’ and talk about those years honestly. The civic spirit of Kennewick is ‘stuff it into the closet until all the eyewitnesses die out.’ To quote Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”

By the way, any live witnesses to those sordid days are welcome to get in touch and tell me their stories, that they may be recorded. I offer you any terms of confidentiality you wish, and consideration that the memories not be pleasant to recall. If you are younger but have older relatives who remember, it would be a service to history if you could persuade them to speak with me. Memories do not last forever. You may contact me as tc_vitki at yahoo dot com.

Big Brother 15: CBS’s gigantic disconnect

If you were ever tempted to believe that ‘reality’ TV accurately reflected the events that occurred during taping, this should fix that wagon.

In case you have better taste than I do, Big Brother 15 is the current season of CBS’ reality’ franchise, in which some 14-18 ‘houseguests’ take up residence in a sound stage mocked up to resemble a large ‘house.’ They get little to no news from the outside world except in the most serious cases, such as 9/11, when one contestant had a relative in the WTC (happily, the relative was uninjured). Each week, contestants compete to become Head of Household, which has perks, including nominating others for a live eviction vote. There are more twists and curves involved than a debate with my wife, but that’s the game in a nutshell. It lasts between two and three months, with taped shows airing twice weekly and a once-weekly live show. Live camera feeds are available for subscription, which makes it impossible for CBS to cover up the full story. Even when they cut all the feeds, contestants are sure to discuss events spontaneously after the fact.

Over the years, there has been plenty of drama on the sound stage. With dozens of cameras and microphones inside the residential portion of the sound stage, CBS has a vast surplus of footage available per week, compressible into about an hour and a half of TV time. You’d expect a lot to fall through the cracks, but you’d like to expect that you got a representative sample of how people acted.

Nothing of the kind.

We’ve had a few near-fistfights, a lot of tears, some sexual activity, plenty of nudity, shouting matches, outright delusions, meltdowns, ejections, a knife held on someone, vandalism, and quite a few objectionable comments. We got to see most of that unfold, most of the time, on some level–it was the sort of TV the producers love. (By the way, the production company is called Endemol. Who came up with that name? It sounds like a medication you’d hear about on pharmercials. “I was always listless and depressed. My spleen seemed out of whack. I had lost my sex drive and had a craving for raw leeks. So, despite never having heard of it before, I asked my doctor about Endemol.”)

This season, it’s gotten bad. One contestant, Aaryn from Texas, has behaved like a narcissistic ‘mean girl,’ throwing out ethnic and homophobic remarks that have earned her the nickname ‘Aryan’ from recappers. Another, Gina Marie from Staten Oiland, hasn’t been much better. Contestants have sarcastically ordered Helen, the affable Asian mom and political consultant from Illinois, to ‘go cook some rice.’ They’ve mocked Candice, a resilient African American speech therapist from Houston, for the size of her derrière (which isn’t even that substantial). Every season of BB has one visibly gay man; sometimes they also cast a lesbian, though it’s always a lipstick lesbian. This season’s visibly gay contestant is Andy, a witty public speaking professor from Illinois. It didn’t take the bigots long to locate the word ‘faggot.’ And none of the racism and homophobia is any secret to anyone in the house; Howard, a sincere, ripped African American youth counselor from Mississippi, has said on the live feeds that he has to bottle up most of what he feels in order to get through the game. I’m impressed that he can. There have also been anti-Semitic slurs. The more of this I learn, the more I respect the minorities in the sound stage, and the more I want them to win simply because their path to victory will be that much harder, thus more well deserved. I want to see them celebrate as, one by one, the bigots get booted.

And this brings us to the gigantic disconnect: the TV show has shown none of the bigotry. I suspect CBS was told by its advertising sponsors: “Do it and we’re done with you.” It’s not that the word isn’t out. Gina Marie (pageant production) and Aryan (modeling) have already been sacked by their real-world employers; the press release from Gina Marie’s employer was corrosive. Thanks to the live feeds, and those who recap them (my brain would suffer irreparable harm), the whole nation knows or can know the truth. Yet CBS refuses to show it, even though people using vile words like ‘nigger’ or ‘faggot’ would certainly spike ratings as people would watch in outrage. What cannot be hidden is Julie Chen’s obvious loathing for the cast. I’ve never felt much sympathy for Chen until now. I can only try to imagine how she felt when Aryan described Helen as the first Asian she’d ever met who wasn’t doing her nails.

Yeah. It’s that bad.

There’s a movement to have the bigots kicked off the show, and of course the usual “We Hate PC” counter-movement. Here’s the thing: if CBS did boot them, they’d have to field awkward questions about why they failed to televise the bigotry to begin with. That would prove to even the most gullible that what they see is not representative of reality. I myself don’t think the bigots should be ejected from the game, because then we wouldn’t get the joy of watching them crushed. I want the targets of their abuse to have the satisfaction and material rewards of well-earned victory. I also believe that it’s important for us to see that, while these attitudes may be in decline, they are not dead, and they still need to be countered and rejected by honest women and men. I do think it’s dishonest of Endemol and CBS not to show some of the despicable behavior, so that the casual viewing public remains hoodwinked, and so that they can duck some of the controversy–and, if my analysis is correct, keep the ad dollars.

Reality TV is unreal. Never forget that–or if you didn’t grasp it, know it now.

Update: one of my favorite blogs, angry asian man, seems to see this as I do.

A treatise on Tri-Cities: what I will and will not miss

As some of you know, we live in the Tri-Cities (Richland, Kennewick, Pasco) of Washington, and will be moving to Boise, Idaho later this year. We weren’t eager to relocate, but we’re embracing it–kind of a shock for my system, after thirty-nine years in Washington. This has gotten me to thinking about what I will miss and what I won’t.

In Washington (economically dominated by the Seattle region), the stereotype is that Tri-Cities are full of dullness, wind, meth, Republicans, Mormons, Mormon Republicans, nuke-lovers, and Mexicans. To Tri-Cities, of course, Seattle is full of Democrats, hippies, atheists, sneering snobs, junk science anti-nuke kooks, tree huggers, vegans, weed, and so on. Like most stereotypes, all of the above are overblown but with bases in fact. As always, I find myself caught in no-man’s-land between the extremes, finding both of questionable credibility, which is my typical ideological comfort zone on any topic. I’ve lived about the same amount of my life in both regions. When I left Seattle, I didn’t miss that much about it, whereas there’s a fair bit I’ll miss about the Dry Cities.

I will miss:

Great Mexican food. It’s not all good, but enough of it is great, and that meets my needs.

Great neighbors. Except for the idiot who puts up the 12′ lighted cross at Christmas (showing that, in his need to advertise his faith, he has fully missed the point of the holiday), I would take them all with me if I could. Most Tri-Citians really don’t get to know their neighbors, which I consider to be cheating themselves. Home security system? Every one of my neighbors would call 911 at the slightest indication something were wrong. None of them solve mutual concerns with lawyers, even those whose children are lawyers; they come over to talk about it, and we figure something out.

Cheap hydroelectric and nuclear power. We get off very easy.

The option to be in Seattle or Portland in a little over three hours.

A remarkable resiliency and interdependency in crises. The huge fire at Benton City, some years back, was a great example. The Red Cross’s main problem was not helping the few refugees, but trying to figure out how to direct everyone who called in wanting to help. When they could not get through, they drove down to the Red Cross, bringing anything from bundles of clothing to horse trailers. These are a remarkably kind people, and if you had to ride out a rough time, you could not ask for a better place.

High levels of volunteerism even when there isn’t a crisis. For a long time we had a bi-county volunteer center just to find things for them to do. If told they would have to pay for their own training, they paid it. As quiet as this place seems, there’s steel in there. Good example: some time back, the ‘mayor’ of Kennewick led a initiative to build a great play area in the park for kids, which looks a lot like a fort with lots of stuff to climb on and slide down. Contractors willingly donated materials; citizens showed up in dozens with their own tools. It was wonderful. Then some vandal burnt it down one night. The people just went out and built another one, right in the same spot. Not doing so wasn’t even open to question.

Three hundred days of sunshine a year, with just enough cold weather to make me happy. Roads rarely get icy.

Triple-digit temperatures in summer, which toughen you up if they don’t kill you by sunstroke. It truly is a dry heat. Speaking of which, I will miss such a dry climate. You can hang stuff up and it actually dries, which was not the case in Seattle.

Friendly politeness. Whatever faults some here might have, malice is rarely among them. Disabled? You can’t avoid having the door held for you if you try. Even clods who block the shopping aisle smile about it, not realizing that makes it twice as annoying. I have to give them credit for good hearts, anyway.

A live-and-let-live mentality. Whatever your difference is, in Tri-Cities, no one will care about it unless you more or less wad it up and wash their faces in it. If you do that, yeah, you’ll get their opinion. But if you just live your life gay/atheist/pagan/vegan/Raelian/Klingon, no one gives even half a damn what you do. I remember when the porno shop moved in where a rowdy bar closed down. It wasn’t festooned with gaudy signage; it was just there. For a while, a couple of protestors tried standing outside it on the sidewalk; they soon gave up. Whether locals liked it or not, it wasn’t washing everyone’s face in it, thus it should be left alone–if you don’t like that stuff, hey, don’t shop there. The gay bar in east Pasco remains completely unbothered, and has been since I’ve lived here, on the same principle.

Great dental care. I have no idea why, but this area is loaded with quality dentistry and nearly everyone seems happy with it.

Hearing Spanish now and then, and knowing that if I want to practice mine, I can simply go hang out in east Pasco–where I’ll be doubly safe, a) because it’s pretty safe to begin with, and b) because a friendly Anglo speaking Spanish is not an outsider. I don’t like when businesses pander with bilingual signs, but I have no problem with what people want to speak among themselves. If someone has enough English to get by at need, that’s all that concerns me.

Lots of wineries. There are 160 wineries within fifty miles of my office, and many of them earn international recognition. This is wine snob heaven.

Some urban rurality. Just down the hill from me is the proudly proclaimed Tri-City Polo Club, with horse barns on one side of the street, a grange on the other and a small cattle pasture across from both. Only in Tri-Cities. I love it. Going into West Richland (with its famously speed-trappy police force), crossing the Yakima River, a sign orders: DISMOUNT AND LEAD HORSES.

A remarkably good airport in which it is impossible to get lost, and where parking is relatively cheap.

Radcon, at least when I’m not mobility impaired.

Ralph Blair of Tri-City Battery (west Kennewick) and the whole crew of the company–they authentically solve car problems. I don’t know why anyone takes their car to Cheapo Lube when they could have it glanced at by honest professionals for the same cost. Dr. Ronald Schwartz (ear/nose/throat, Richland)–solved a perplexing balance issue for my wife, and was always honest with a great staff. Monica and the staff at the UPS Store (2839 W Kennewick Ave), who have always gone the extra mile. The WSU Master Gardeners at the extension office, an excellent resource allowing us to tap into the best knowledge available concerning things that grow in the ground–this is precisely what the land grant concept was supposed to bring us, and it does.

Living in a city where about five miles of the northern boundary is a park along a river, some of it nearly undeveloped except for a few picnic benches and a nice walking/cycling path. Oh, and the river is about half a mile wide. If you like to sit by a river in complete peace, Kennewick can arrange that. So can Pasco, and so can Richland.

I will not miss:

So much mediocre Mexican food. How can so many people patronize so many crappy places when there are enough great ones handy?

Minimal other ethnic dining, and much of it mediocre. Chinese food here is a joke. The Greek restaurant specializes in ‘Greek style pasta.’ Seriously?

The Hanford mentality of “never complain” and “don’t make waves.” This complacency and silence assures the mediocrity of local municipalities and businesses. You see, the Hanford nuclear site’s main form of employment involves not cleaning up the nuclear waste from the Cold War. This assures that their children will still have jobs not cleaning it up, which will be good for when their grandchildren need jobs not cleaning it up. Much of the work is heavily overpaid and ridiculously bureaucratic. As for not cleaning it up, that’s all blamed on the Department of Energy and unions. Never mind that government money is the area’s economic base; they want government to butt out, and want me to believe that this would create some kind of Nirvana in which they would immediately work themselves out of jobs. Never mind that there has never been a union contract that was not also signed by management. Nope, all the fault of DOE and unions. I’ve long been fond of saying that while I believe we ultimately will need nuclear energy, I hope to the gods they expand its use anywhere but here, because these are the people who made a massive mess during the Cold War here and now are taking the longest possible time cleaning it up. Don’t ever give more responsibility to a business culture in whose best economic interest it is to cause problems and then be inefficient at fixing them. That’s like paying mechanics to break your vehicle, then mill around it doing nothing.

Dust storms. Sometimes this is like living near a giant hair dryer filled with beige talcum powder.

Most of the local vendors one is stuck with. I will feel joy the day I never again have to send money to Waste Management, Sprint, Frontier Communications (they might just be the worst of all), Cascade Natural Gas, DefectivTV, Pemco, the City of Kennewick, and the Kennewick Irrigation District. Some I will actually get to fire, and it will feel good.

Monumental business boneheadedness, such as Richland using some of their best real estate not for a convention center (next to a nice golf course and the river), but for a Winco (discount grocery) and some crappy strip malls. Such as Kennewick building a convention center, wondering why it didn’t thrive, and only then learning that you need hotels near convention centers in order for the concept to work. Such as the Kennewick School District thinking they needed to renovate a whole new building because they were ‘really cramped’.

Meanderthals. You see, Tri-Cities are in the middle of a huge high desert. Without human activity, everywhere but river coasts there would be nothing but sagebrush and sand. As a result, the local mentality does not register that anyone else really exists, let alone is also trying to get to a destination, be they on foot, pushing a grocery cart or behind the wheel. Driving here is very dangerous because one must assume that everyone else thinks there is no one else on the road. Grocery shopping is a pain in the ass, with constant aisle blockages. Walking through the mall is even obstructed, usually by packs of eight people who have decided to have a discussion completely blocking the throughway. Costco is a nightmare. And if you’re crabby about it, no one understands why. A New Yorker transplanted here would be dead of a stroke in one week, unless s/he smoked about six joints before leaving the house.

A terrible medical situation. I have come to believe that, while there are a minority of competent and caring local medical providers, most are here because it’s easier to practice in an area where expectations are so low. I think most of them simply couldn’t make it anywhere that crappy and apathetic didn’t cut it. It’s bad enough that, despite three fully equipped hospitals, a shocking number of Tri-Citians go to Spokane or Seattle for surgery if they value their health. Medical offices have a tendency to hire bored, lazy office personnel who really don’t care. The key to getting decent medical care here is word-of-mouth combined with willingness to shop around–and once you get a decent doctor in a given area, you don’t endanger that.

Racism. Richland used to be a ‘sundown town’ by virtue of its status as a company town–you couldn’t live there unless you worked for Westinghouse, and they generally didn’t hire blacks. Kennewick was worse: it had actual signs at the bridge with Pasco (where most of the rather small African American community lived and still lives) requiring all blacks to be out by sunset. They came down sometime around 1965, but ask any older black Pasconian: they have by no means forgotten, and most of them loathe Kennewick. Considering that some Kennewick neighborhoods still have racially restrictive covenants on paper (though unenforceable), I can’t blame anyone who lived through that time. (The title companies are slowly magic-markering that part out of the covenants, but some persistent irritant found an unexpurgated one.) It’s one thing that there is significant racism here, especially with police very prone to profile Hispanic and black men as potential criminals, but the worst part is the denial of history. Kennewick does its very best to say as little as possible about the covenants and sundown town history, essentially waiting for all the witnesses to die off so they can pretend it never happened. (I bet they think that when a certain local gadfly moves away, he will stop bringing this up all the time. They had best think again. All it will mean now is that even if they wanted to retaliate, they’ll lack the means.) The other racism here has to do with Hispanics (mostly of Mexican heritage, many being US citizens who not only speak native English, but speak less Spanish than I do), and it’s in a sort of sneaky way. When Tri-Citians speak of a “bad area” or “dangerous part of town,” that’s code. It means “has Hispanics.” I once heard east Kennewick described with a straight face as ‘Beirut’–but what the person really meant was ‘has lots of non-white, non-Asian people.’ (And by the way, comparing east Kennewick to Beirut is like comparing the oil you spilled in your garage to the Exxon Valdez.)

Indifference to literacy and reading. The area simply doesn’t read much and doesn’t care much about it.

Indifference to the world at large. Yesterday on the Amazing Race, I watched a fairly Cletus couple try to figure out where the Kalahari Desert was. You could ask 90% of Tri-Citians which continent it was on, and most would guess wrong–and it would be a guess. They don’t know, and they largely don’t care. We have a whole lot of insular ignorance here, and we do little to ameliorate it.

Remarkably stupid speed limits designed purely to raise speed trap revenue. It has nothing to do with safety. Same for school zone lights that operate when there is not a child in sight–it’s just a way to nab people for ‘speeding.’

Lack of a major university campus. Pasco has a relatively blah community college, and at the extreme north of Richland is a branch campus of Washington State University (enrollment less than 1000). A full-dress, sizable university brings with it so much, and that is largely denied to the Tri-Cities. Oh, sure, on average the level of education appears high, but that’s mainly because of all the nuclear engineers working at Hanford and all the Aspies out at Battelle with physics Ph.Ds. In reality, local kids seeking a serious degree mostly leave town, and many of them will never be back unless they’re nuclear engineers or physicists.

Crappy local businesses that continue to succeed simply because they are more habits than enterprises. I could name half a dozen such without effort. Longtime Tri-Citians keep going there. It’s where they’ve always gone, and where they continue to go.

The combined reek from Wallula of the IBP feedlot and the Boise Cascade paper mill. When there’s an inversion, smells like something died. Richland is spared this, but southeast Kennewick sure isn’t.

Finding ways to be short of water despite living next to the confluence of two great rivers (Snake and Columbia). This is like living by the ocean and not being able to get salt for your food, or freezing to death near a big pile of deadfall with a functional lighter on your person.

Boat Race Weekend. Unlimited hydroplane racing (which is strictly limited) is sort of like Nascar on the water. I don’t begrudge it to anyone, but it doesn’t interest me, and turns the place into a madhouse one weekend a year.

Lousy contractors and mechanics. Like the doctors, once you find a good one, you don’t let go. Many consider that they are doing you a favor just by showing up or accepting the job. Many do very shoddy work. Unless you have the ability and will to raise tremendous hell–which will stun them, because everyone else just accepts the shoddy work (“so why can’t you?”)–you will become a do-it-yourselfer simply because you often can do a better job than the so-called professionals. Plus, at least you are likely to show up for your own work. They often won’t.

Having only one independent local bookstore that quietly makes sure that males know they are barely tolerated, without good grace. Your call, Book Worm. It takes a lot to make me avoid a bookstore, but you were up to the challenge.

The look of fear when I mentioned to a serving city employee how corrupt Kennewick’s government was. It told me a lot. I learned a lot about Kennewick’s government when their piping contractor behaved disgracefully on my property and they told me that I’d have to pay to fix everything myself, then their insurance company would decide if I got reimbursed. Kennewick’s citizens tolerate this. Remember when I was telling you that this area will swallow any mediocrity without a complaint, the Hanford mentality? Exhibit A. Guess what, Kennewick. I will move away, but my words will not.

Ridiculous provincialism leading to failure to merge three cities into a combined city with much larger political pull. They all complain that they would lose their ‘unique cultures’. Seriously? Let’s get real: Richland is whiter than Kennewick which is whiter than Pasco. That’s the difference, though you aren’t supposed to put it that way, nor to correlate it with the historic tendency of Richland to look down on Kennewick which looked down on Pasco. Beyond that, there is hardly any difference, but this does ensure three different bureaucracies, three different police forces, and a whole lot of wasted tax money. There is so much that Three Rivers, WA could do united, yet it doesn’t. And it won’t.

The strange story of Gary Thomas Rowe Jr.

A great American died recently:  Sheldon Kennedy.  He infiltrated the third Ku Klux Klan in the WWII and post-WWII years, then wrote about them.  The Klan never forgave him, which made him my friend in spirit on some level.  That got me back to some re-reading in a subject that has long interested me:  the KKK and its kind.

In the mid-1970s (age 12 or so), I happened to pick up a book called My Undercover Years in the Ku Klux Klan, by Gary Thomas Rowe Jr.  In brief:  “Tommy” Rowe was a working-class Georgian who liked to fight, and who infiltrated Bobby Shelton’s Alabama branch of the KKK (at FBI instigation) during the civil rights movement.  He informed (how truthfully, we are uncertain) on the Klan until the 1965 day he was in a vehicle from which Michigan civil rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo was shot to oblivion near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, not far from Birmingham and Selma, AL. The jig was up, of course.  Rowe testified against the assassins (never quite shedding suspicion that he was among them), his cover was well beyond retrieval, and he went into Witness Protection.  He passed away in 1998Here is a brief catchup on his story from a biographer, a more reputable source than the NYT.

In a way, Rowe’s ghosted autobio was one of my first introductions to historiography:  how much of what he said could I believe? I wanted to believe as much of it as possible.  As the descendant of a Kansas Ku Klux Klansman (unless my grandfather lied to me in one of his last fully lucid moments, which I doubt), I have had a longtime antipathy toward their kind–and toward all such organizations.  With a little luck, they feel the same way about me.  Any time you start researching any intelligence matter–and anything to do with the FBI qualifies as such–your historiography and skepticism must kick into passing gear.  You must realize that any of your sources have axes to grind and would willingly lie like rugs, the G-Men as much as the racists.  It’s all up to what you believe credible.  The greatest handicap is to be so emotionally involved that there are sources from which you would believe nothing, and on this topic I leave some paint on that guardrail.

So, thinking of Sheldon Kennedy, I revisited The Informant.  This investigative bio of Rowe came out in 2005.  As one may imagine, so long as Rowe lived, information about him would be elusive; he had betrayed a terrorist organization whose propensity for violence and reprisal he knew as well as any man alive.  Even after his death, it wasn’t easy for Prof. May to find the full story of Tommy Rowe.  At the very least, I can re-read what he did find–and even that must be considered historiographically.  Two of Liuzzo’s living relatives call May a liar.  Whom do we believe? Now you see why history can get so fuzzy.  The sister says she didn’t talk to May.  May disagrees.  Even though the principals are still living, we still must decide who’s lying.

All right.  What do I now make of Tommy Rowe, FBI informant, known racist, thug and adrenaline junkie? There is zero doubt that he participated in violence against the civil rights movement (we’ve got pictures).  Was that justified in the name of maintaining cover? Not an easy ethical question.  Did he fire at Viola Liuzzo? He may have, in order to avoid being immediately next, which does not necessarily mean he fired accurately.  FBI agents with motive to lie said his pistol had not been fired, but that means nothing except that someone (with a motive to lie) told us that a given weapon hadn’t been used.  (His was not the only weapon in existence, of course.  Lots of Americans have more than one pistol.  Some have dozens.  Show them this .22, not that one.)  We cannot know if Rowe fired, nor how effectively. What is well documented:  whether Rowe fired effectively at Viola Liuzzo and her passenger Leroy Moton (a black civil rights volunteer), or shot to death the three other Klansman in the car as they overtook the Liuzzo vehicle, fatal violence was imminent. Someone was about to die, by his hand or another.  Rowe could not have doubted that.

One may argue that this is exactly what Lowe should have done:  three quick, calm shots, executions of backseat fellow, shotgun rider, driver.  Two seconds, three violent bigots erased.  All very well to say, except that neither I nor most of you have ever lived a double life for several years while infiltrating a hate organization.  At this remove, it isn’t so easy to lay fair judgment about Tommy Rowe; he was there, deciding on the spot, and I was not.  Blowing people away in a speeding vehicle (in which you too are riding), before they actually commit a crime, in cold blood, well…that’s asking a lot.  Rowe had no more desire to spend life in jail than anyone else, and up to the moment guns blazed, he was still in cover with a job to do.  When does the infiltrator decide that the game is over, and to change his life forever? Judging this is like judging combat veterans.  We weren’t there; they were.

To call Rowe a civil rights hero is unsupportable, but it is equally indefensible to call him a racist redneck out for only a few thrills, some government dollars and shielding for beating people up (preferably integrationists).  He did tremendous damage to the Ku Klux Klan; unless he murdered a baby doing it, that goal was valuable to any enemy of the KKK.  I don’t have to think him an admirable man to be glad he was where he was.  I think he was a moderate racist, the garden variety who knew the cant and could pass, rather than a virulent bigot who only showed up so that he could beat up blacks with Federal impunity. (You think there is no such thing as a moderate racist? Don’t let the desire to demonize racism make you forget to be careful what you wish for.  I know people who use racist language but aren’t ever going to blow up a church.  I can disapprove of their attitudes while being glad they aren’t going to commit murder.)  Meta-fact:  fear of informers was a leading paralytic to KKK violence in the civil rights era, and after Rowe, it wasn’t paranoia on the Klan’s part; the Feds truly were out to get them.  (Go Feds!)  In the end, Tommy Rowe probably prevented far more racist violence than he participated in, and did vast harm to the Ku Klux Klan.

Sometimes we have to take what we can get–unless we ourselves are willing to step up.  Who’s volunteering for such a thing? Had I not married, I might have done so–but that’s not a story I’ll ever tell in a blog.  Rowe was what the FBI could get.  I would have a very hard time constructing an argument that decency would have been better served had he told the FBI and KKK both to go to hell, or had he died before then in a car accident and we never known him.