On several occasions, when I thought I'd just about had a gut full of this place, I've threatened to pull stakes and move to Funafuti. Now I'm not sure it's an option.
Funafuti is a real place. It is the main island of a string of nine atolls called Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands). The capital city on the island of Funafuti is Fongafale. In Fongafale the islanders often participate in great celebrations called fiafias. And, during the rainy season, these festivals are held in large thatched pavilions called falafones.
And so, it has been my dream to travel to tiny Funafuti, to Fongafale, to be a part of the fiafias that are held in the falafones.
In addition, the U.S. State Department, in its annual report on human rights, recently described Tuvalu as a country that is "egalitarian, democratic and respectful of human rights." According to the report, local officials could not remember when a serious crime was last committed on the islands.
But now, thanks to global warming, Funafuti's days may be numbered. Recently an Associated Press story warned that rising tides threaten the very existence of Tuvalu. Spring tides have risen higher and higher in the last several years. This year, the tide rose to a level of 3.2 meters (the highest point on any of the islands is 4.5 meters---15 feet) and half of the main island was underwater for weeks.
Tuvalu's Prime Minister Ionatana has even traveled to New Zealand, in search of refuge for his people. "Tuvaluans are seeking a place they can permanently migrate to, should the high tides make our home uninhabitable," he pleaded.
Note: Incredibly, at press time, another tragic story about Tuvalu made worldwide headlines when 18 girls died in a dormitory fire.
What does the Executive Committee of the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter have in common with many of the citizens of Escalante, Utah?
An utter fear and loathing for diversity of thought, that's what.
In this issue, Garfield County newcomer Tori Woodard gives her account of the rude reception she and her partner Patrick Diehl have received since their arrival in Escalante a year and a half ago. It's an ugly tale of harassment and rejection by a community that can't seem to find its way into the 20th century, just as the rest of the world has entered the 21st.
At times, I've found myself torn by conflicted feelings over this story. Escalante and much of rural southern Utah have managed to avoid the "real world" for a long, long time: a century or more. A mono-cultural community like Escalante, with basically one religion and one set of social values, can avoid conflict most of the time. After all, when it comes to the Big Issues, what is there to argue about? And it is easy to see how an isolated community can be scared to death by the arrival of newcomers who not only embrace a new and different set of values, but who are critical of the old ones.
BUT...this is too much. An honest and critical debate is one thing. What has happened in Escalante, not just now but going back 30 years, is ridiculous. Garfield County has always wanted to have it both ways--they want the tourist dollar but they hate tourists. Tourists make the oldtimers in Escalante grumpier than they make me. On more than one occasion, County Commissioner Louise Liston has lamented that backpackers come to Escalante with the clothes on their back and a twenty dollar bill, and they never change either.
Which may or may not be true, but it's irrelevant to the debate. We all deserve the right to speak our mind without fear of retribution. I hope that by shining a bit of light on Garfield County, maybe they'll lighten up a bit as well.
Shining a light on the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club has not been an easy or a pleasant task. Its Executive Committee seems to spend a lot of time in the dark and avoiding phone calls and emails from The Zephyr. As I've said previously, trying to be a part of the proposed "Glen Canyon Group" was one of the most disheartening and discouraging events of my life. I have never encountered such arrogant intolerance to a different point of view. On page 22, Ken Sleight and I have told our story of the last nine months, just to get everything out into the broad light of day.
Someday, the Utah Chapter ExCom must decide what it wants to be--an activist organization dedicated to challenging and sometimes controversial issues? Or an "outings" club, dedicated to taking group hikes in mauve and teal outfits? Whether it's taking a back seat to SUWA in pursuing a Utah wilderness bill, or simply defying national positions of the Sierra Club like Glen Canyon, the Utah Chapter is simply not the courageous environmental organization that many of its own members perceive it to be.
The Utah Chapter cannot even agree on the topic of over-population. The Sierra Club at the national level takes a strong position on this issue. While some members of the ExCom, like Teri Underwood, believe that "the population explosion on the Wasatch Front will seriously diminish the quality of life," other Chapter leaders go out of their way to say otherwise. In the October 19, 1999 Ogden Examiner, ExCom member Dan Schroeder had this to say in a letter entitled. "Environmental harm, not growth in population, is club's complaint."
In part, Mr. Schroeder wrote, "For at least the second time, the governor claimed that the club's argument against the Legacy Highway is rooted in a wish that the Wasatch Front wouldn't have so many people.
"I can't speak for the wishes of all club members, but I can assure the governor (and in fact, a year ago I did personally explain to the governor) that population is simply not an issue in our campaign against the Legacy Highway.
"In the case that we and allied organizations have made against the Legacy, we fully accept the population projections that the state has used in its attempt to justify the highway." Incredible. How can population not be an issue?
If the Utah Chapter leadership prefers outings to activism, then perhaps it should devote all its time to hikes and abdicate the pursuit of real issues, including all that wilderness under "Lake" Powell, to people who have the courage of their own convictions.
If you do not live in Moab, and certainly if you reside outside of Utah, you are probably unaware of an ugly incident that occurred here on New Year's Eve. Two young local men allegedly assaulted an interracial couple with racist epithets and one of them, Jaric Robison, was charged with a third degree felony, based on Utah's new hate crime law.
Whether the man is found guilty of the alleged crime is up to a jury of his peers to decide. The fact that the incident underscores a nasty racist and bigoted underside to this community is undeniable. A few weeks after the incident, stories of an underground white supremacist subculture in Moab persist. They are fueled in part by a circular that recently made its way around town in defense of Mr. Robison. In part the inflammatory rhetoric from the National Alliance in Hillsboro, West Virginia proclaims:
"...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. When I was growing up, there was a television commercial, where there was a cartoon bear who was promoting fire safety. The slogan was, Smokey Bear says, 'Only you can prevent forest fires!' However corny that sounds, it is fundamentally true. Only you, collectively and individually, can prevent the Winter slaughter of our race. You CAN prevent it. You must prevent it! "WE MUST SECURE THE EXISTENCE OF OUR PEOPLE AND THE FUTURE FOR WHITE CHILDREN."
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. Just a post office box and an email address. Another gutless wonder for White America.
On the one hand, such vitriol seems incredible in this day and age. And certainly we have come a long way in the last four decades. I am old enough to remember when incidents like the one that occurred here on New Year's Eve were so commonplace as to be unnoteworthy as a news story. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and, in my mind's eye, I can still see, as a little kid, the black people sitting at the back of the Blue Motor bus. I can even remember asking my mother why.
One summer, when I was about eight, my family took a trip to Florida. Passing through Chattanooga, Tennessee, we noticed an old black man walking along the shoulder of the highway. Suddenly the car in front of us jerked and swerved to the right. The old man leaped out of the way and tumbled into the tall grass as the occupants of the car turned around in their seats to laugh and jeer.
My father slowed down and pulled alongside the man, who lifted himself up from the litter and weeds, brushed off the dirt and the dust and nodded to us that he was alright. I will never forget his face, etched with sadness and a great dignity. It was an odd combination of resignation and defiance--resigned to the fact that such acts would occur again and again, yet defiant that they would not break him. That was decades ago. Now, in the first months of the 21st Century, we find ourselves confronting the same mean-spirited demons that have always haunted us. So while we can pat ourselves on the back for the strides we've made in the arena of human rights, we are still a primitive and intolerant species.
Intolerance can take many forms. Two weeks ago, 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's 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 of seeking acceptance and respect from a society that still cruelly mocks and rejects an alternative lifestyle such as his. And because he was a member of the LDS Church, his death and his sad legacy have grave implications for Utah as well. (The LDS Church campaigned actively in support of Prop 22)
It is easy to blame intolerance and bigotry on ignorance, but it's too easy an explanation. Too many people who know better spew the same kind of vicious intolerance that contributed to Stuart Matis's unhappy life and awful death.
I have an ex-friend who has always worn intolerance on his sleeve like some black badge of honor. The man is educated, makes a more than comfortable living, and has been given all the cultural and social opportunities that anyone could ask for. He has, in essence, lived the "American Dream."
And yet, he used to sit in front of the television, watching the nightly news, foaming and frothing at the mouth with predictable precision about the "goddamn niggers and queers." It was his mantra.
"Tell me," I asked, during one of our last encounters, "how have homosexuals and African-Americans made your life worse? You seem to be doing pretty well in spite of them." He shrugged and refused to answer but I persisted.
"Let me ask you this," I continued. I was now more intrigued than amazed by what he might say next. "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 what I'd do. 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 death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, one of the young man's killers, Aaron McKinney shared a similar sentiment--in his case, he wanted to put all AIDS patients in an airplane and blow it up. Many blamed his homophobia and bigotry on ignorance and the economic and social circumstances of his life; yet here are two men, with vastly divergent backgrounds, and with the same irrational hatred. Why?
I believe it is due, in large part, to our tolerance of intolerance. For every one person who aggressively and actively expresses this kind of hatred, there are ten of us who turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to it. We are passive participants to behavior that we know is despicable, but which we refuse to condemn. How many times have we sat silently at the table, or at a party, or at the bar, or in school, or, incredibly, even in church and endured the bigoted vitriol of some pea-brain? And we never said a word?
We all have done this. I recognize my own history of guilt by omission and I am ashamed of myself for those occasions when I knew better and did nothing. Human history is littered and scarred with its timidity and indifference. Prejudice and intolerance exist and even flourish, not because it is the predominant philosophy of humans, but because we give it permission to survive by doing nothing.