For nearly two centuries, the American West has symbolized a place of unlimited opportunity for people of every persuasion. It is as if the spaciousness of the mountains and canyons makes room for a larger, more accepting social atmosphere. Too bad it's only a myth.
Intolerance lurks here just as it does in the rest of the country, even penetrating bustling tourist towns, such as my hometown, Moab, Utah, where ethnically diverse hordes from all over the world pour in to gawk at the wonders of our canyon country.
Last New Year's Eve, two young men allegedly assaulted an interracial couple with racist epithets. One of them, Jaric Robison, was charged with a third-degree felony based on Utah's new hate-crime law. Whether he is found guilty is up to a jury of his peers. But weeks after the incident, stories of an underground white supremacist subculture in Moab persisted, fueled by a circular distributed in town by the National Alliance in Hillsboro, W. Va.:
"The Leftists are celebrating the fact of the Nonwhite America in the future. The so-called right-wing is ignoring it. But it is coming, and we are all going to die like a bunch of dumb grasshoppers, if we do not get White America fired up soon."
It then urges its readers, "Show that you do not agree with 'Hate Crime' laws by supporting Jaric Robison. And share this with a friend." Naturally, no one attaches a signature to this garbage. Another gutless wonder for White America.
Earlier this year, Stuart Matis, a gay 32-year-old man in California, committed suicide on the steps of a Mormon church in Los Altos. His family and friends insist that Matis' death is not connected in any way to the March 7 vote on Proposition 22, the controversial initiative that states only heterosexual marriages can be recognized by the state of California. But the suicide note is telling. Matis wrote, "I am now free. I am no longer in pain and I no longer hate myself. As it turns out, God never intended me to be straight. Perhaps my death might become a catalyst for some good."
Perhaps. But what a tragic and desperate way to seek acceptance from a society that still cruelly mocks and rejects his lifestyle. And because Matis was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, his death has grave implications for Utah as well, since the LDS Church campaigned actively in support of Proposition 22.
It is too easy to blame intolerance and bigotry on ignorance. I have an ex-friend who is educated, makes a more than comfortable living, and has been given all the cultural and social opportunities anyone could ask for. And yet, he used to sit in front of the television, watching the nightly news, foaming at the mouth about the "goddamn niggers and queers."
"Tell me," I asked, during one of our last encounters, "how have homosexuals and African-Americans made your life worse?" He shrugged and refused to answer, but I persisted. "What would you do about the AIDS epidemic?"
He glared at the TV screen for a few seconds and then snapped, "I'll tell you. I'd take all the people infected with AIDS and put them on a small island in the South Pacific, and I'd drop a nuclear bomb on them." We no longer stay in touch.
A few years later, after the brutal beating of Matthew Shephard in Wyoming, one of the young man's killers, Aaron McKinney, shared a similar sentiment. Many blamed his homophobia and bigotry on the difficult economic and social circumstances of his life; yet here are two men with vastly different backgrounds and with the same irrational hatred. Why?
I believe it is due to our tolerance of intolerance. For every one person who aggressively and actively expresses this kind of hatred, there are 10 of us who turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to it. Prejudice and intolerance flourish not because it is the predominant philosophy of humans, but because we give it permission to survive by doing nothing.
Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He publishes the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.