Thursday, October 7, 2010

Learning from the Past

Eastern Michigan University Logo
    The following article is reprinted with permission from Eastern, the official magazine of Eastern Michigan University. I choose it for several reasons. First and foremost, it is a well written piece about the Aryan Nation and their attempts to recruit farmers in the early 1980's, with a brief mention of a similar rhetoric in today's politics and the importance keeping the fight against hate crimes in the spot light. Eastern Michigan University is also my alma mater. I had a wonderful experience at Eastern and recommend it to anyone considering a higher education. Re-posting this article is a great way to highlight some of the great faculty and staff that Eastern has to offer.

Watching the Movements of Hate
by Jeff Mortimer

Jack Kay
     When Jack Kay, EMU’s provost and executive vice president, was just starting out in academe in the early 1980s, he made a risky move that has echoed throughout his career.
     An assistant professor of speech communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he was researching the farm crisis of the time (in many ways, a precursor of the subprime mortgage crisis that torpedoed the economy a quarter of a century later) when he learned that the Aryan Nations, a white supremacist group, was trying to enlist members from the farm community.
     This wasn’t unusual. Such organizations, Kay says, are always on the lookout for people who might be sufficiently disaffected to join their ranks.
     “I decided that I wanted to find out more about how this group operated,” he says, so he spent several days a week over a three-week period at its compound in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where the Aryan World Congress was being held.
     While members of the media who had been invited by the group to attend the event focused their attention on its more spectacular aspects, even renting planes to cover the cross-lighting ceremony, Kay kept a low profile.
     “I was more interested in their everyday operations,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily in disguise, but I didn’t volunteer who I was. They just thought I was someone who was interested in joining their movement. I didn’t embed myself, but I worked pretty closely with law enforcement before going in and saw some of the folks I had communicated with in law enforcement undercover in the compound.”
     He got an eyeful, and an earful.
     “In addition to the picnics and the small talk and those sorts of things, they did a lot of ‘othering,’ where they tried to distinguish themselves from the other, to be frightened of the other,” he recalls. “I heard, over and over again, about how the Jews have controlled the Constitution. And I discovered the book that the members all read, The Turner Diaries, a novel of what happens when the white revolution occurs and how bands of white warriors exterminate the Jews and send the blacks back to Africa.”
     But the worst, he says, was the “Bible training” provided to youngsters in the early elementary age group:
     “The minister would hold up a caricature drawing of what was supposed to be a rabbi, a person with a yarmulke, crooked nose, and a long beard with what looked like lice crawling through it, and say, ‘Children, what is this?’ and a six-year-old boy would raise his hand and say, ‘It’s a Jew rabbi.’ The minister would say, ‘What do Jew rabbis do?’ and a little girl would say, ‘Around our holidays, they will kidnap Christian babies and cut their throats and drink their blood.’
     “It made you want to crawl to get out of there.”
     He did, of course, eventually get out of the compound, but he never got his experiences in the compound out of his mind. Not long after his stint with the Aryan Nations, he was called upon to testify before the Judiciary Committee of the Nebraska state legislature. Then he presented testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.
     Even as his record of accomplishments grew – as a leading scholar of rhetoric and communication, and as an administrator at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Flint before coming to EMU in June 2009 – he continued to study and speak out about the methods, motives and dangers of groups promoting racial and ethnic hatred.
     And he became a “go-to guy” on the subject for the media. From the time he started keeping count in 1990 until last spring, he appeared on television news programs more than a hundred times and did more than 60 interviews for newspaper and magazine articles.
    Then his already busy life got even busier late in March, when nine members of the Hutaree, a self-described Christian militia movement, were arrested in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana on various federal charges stemming from an alleged plot to kill police officers.
     National Public Radio wanted to know Kay’s views. So did WDET in Detroit. So did And so on. What he had to say wasn’t sensational or alarmist. In keeping with his demeanor and the rubrics of scholarly precision, he tried to be clear about what was and wasn’t happening.
     First and foremost, he differentiated between most militia groups and those that claim a divine imprimatur.
     “I really do get frustrated when there’s a broad brush stroke applied to these groups,” he says. “There’s a great deal of distinction between religiously fervent groups like the Hutaree or Aryan Nations and the southeast Michigan militia, people who have come together to do target practice, learn survival skills, learn how to live off the land. They’re not all that happy with the government but they’re not out to overthrow the government. The groups that go undercover, that advocate violence, that advocate sedition, those are the groups I’m talking about when I talk about dangers.”
     The possibility that one of these organizations might actually achieve its far-fetched dreams is not among those dangers. Kay estimates that they have a combined membership of about 100,000, hardly enough to pull off a revolution. But that doesn’t make them harmless.
     “They desperately want attention,” he says. “They want to show that their movement is real and has power. You do that by using the tactics of terrorism to instill fear, and they have the potential to engage in some actions that would be pretty terrifying. That’s why we saw things like Oklahoma City.”
     That’s also why, in Kay’s view, hate groups need to stay near the top of law enforcement’s to-do list. “It’s important for them to take these people seriously,” he says. “I understand that there is clearly a First Amendment issue here. Certainly these groups have the right to speak, to have extreme views that are terrible views, and we can’t and should not attempt to prosecute them for those views. It’s when those views turn into an action, that’s when we need to go after them.”
     A more subtle concern is the seepage of their rhetorical style into mainstream political discourse, a kind of collateral cultural damage.
     “The real fervent groups use Hitler’s technique of dehumanization,” Kay says. “It becomes much easier to commit genocide if you reduce people to subhumans. In the debate on immigration, you’re hearing some of the same language that some of these neo-Nazi groups are using.”
     In the long run, an ounce of educational prevention will probably be worth more than a pound of law enforcement cure.
     “Really, this is an educational challenge,” he says. “How do you help young people see this is not a choice to make, or that people who have made this choice have made the wrong choice? Unfortunately, we aren’t that good at teaching history, and these folks have become far more rhetorically sophisticated. Why can’t those of us who want to point out how wrong they are use words and symbols as well as they do?”
     While experience has shown him that a pedagogical pairing of the arts and history can work − “Seeing a play of the diary of Anne Frank can be far more powerful than reading a paragraph in a history book,” he says – he’s well aware that the evidence is still largely anecdotal.
     “I have a strong belief that the arts are an incredibly effective way of creating discussion of these situations we should be talking about, but I can’t point to many research studies that show whether they’re effective,” he says. “How do we promote behaviors of civility, behaviors of understanding, behaviors of accepting differences? Quite frankly, I don’t think we’ve done enough study of what is effective and what isn’t.”
     Maybe it’s time to revisit those farmers the Aryan Nations tried to recruit back in the ’80s.
     Their efforts, Kay recalls, were “very unsuccessful. Farmers don’t scapegoat.”

Posted with permission from Eastern magazine, Fall 2010 edition. Links and images added by The Itch

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