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After three people were killed near Kansas City by a white supremacist who apparently thought they were all Jewish, a local television station went to a nearby small town to talk with those who had known the apparent perpetrator.
The televised segment went pretty much as you would expect. The man residents had known was a bit different. He was outspoken. You always knew where you stood with him. Nobody expected violence.
The mayor of Marrionville, MO, said the alleged killer had been a friend years ago. He spoke with a sort of understated irony.
He was always nice and friendly and respectful of elder people. He respected his elders greatly, as long as they were the same color as him.
- Daniel Clevenger, Mayor of Marrionville, MO, in an interview with KSPR-TV of Springfield, MO, April 15, 2014
Then came the one statement that went around the internet, endowing his honor the Mayor with instant notoriety:
"Kind of agreed with him on some things, but I don't like to express that too much."
It went from there. Mayor Clevenger went on to calmly speak out against Jews:
There some things that are going on in this country that are destroying us. We've got a false economy and it's, some of those corporations are run by Jews because the names are there.
The television station did a little research and came up with even stronger language from years ago. Mayor Clevenger wrote for publication about his friendship with the future killer and how he too condemned what he called the "Jew-run medical industry" and the "Jew-run government backed banking industry."
Pretty ugly stuff.
What is striking about the bigotry expressed on camera is the calm, almost gentle, way it is expressed. Listening, over the years, to relatives, friends, a few, thankfully very few, churchgoing fellow worshipers, certain phrases keep coming up. "I'm not a racist" or "I'm no bigot."
It doesn't often become comic, but once in a while... I remember, as a kid, walking with a group on a naive, self-appointed, mission to search the hearts of neighbors. "I'm not prejudiced," insisted one adult we met. "But I'll tell you who is. It's those damn Irish Catholics."
Hannah Arendt made the point a couple of generations ago in her study of the crimes and times of Nazi genocide perpetrator Adolf Eichmann. The Nazi leaders and those around them were so ordinary in the way they lived, in the way they apparently thought of themselves.
More recently, Atlantic Magazine's Ta-Nehisi Coates rejects what he sees as the Racist Child Molester Serial Killer theory. Racists are not monsters. They are seen, and often see themselves, as decent, goodhearted people.
That bigots are viewed as monsters enables us to reject such harsh opinions about ourselves and those we encounter in everyday life. We, and those we care for, are not the snarling menaces we see in movies. We look within ourselves, we look to those around us, and we can honestly say there is not any such evil in view.
Those who throw about such obviously false and hurtful charges are themselves guilty of malicious slander, playing the race card.
To those two men, race has been both a shield and a sword that they have used effectively to defend themselves, and to attack others.
- Brit Hume, Fox News, April 13, 2014
Brit Hume was speaking specifically about President Obama and his Attorney General, but the same charge can be heard on any given day about pretty much any historically oppressed minority. We need not even turn on radio or television. Face to face conversation in everyday life provides most of us with enough examples.
We look within, we do not find pure evil, and so we reject the charge.
The clearest insight for me comes from my own eventual change of heart as I turned away from from the harsh attitudes toward gays that I accepted so uncritically as I grew up. I wonder what other demons now find shelter inside, protected by a lack of examination, an absence of healthy questions.
Our friend the mayor might, if he chooses, insist he is not a bigot. After all, he thinks the killer of innocent people, presumed to be his friend the white supremacist, should be executed. He himself is not a monster, therefore he cannot be a racist.
We can find, among the famous and among the almost unknown, examples of the opposite: living demonstrations of the human capacity for growth. Hodding Carter, Jr. was an outspoken white supremacist as a college student. He eventually became a tireless campaigner against the very racism he once espoused. He recognized the evil within, then he turned.
Anti-Gay bigotry was once unquestioned. Now most Americans have changed their minds and their hearts. People can change.
Bigotry exists within an umbrella, separated from recognizable evil. I haven't killed anyone. I haven't spit on a child trying to go to a previously all-white school. I haven't attacked anyone, or said anything I recognize as evil.
The worst lie is the one that lies to the teller of the lie.
The unrecognized monster that dwells within survives undetected. It is the evil within the gentle, caring soul.
It lies peacefully, surrounded by the best protection of all:
The security of obscurity.
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