The Billings Gazette is seeking reader input on a symbol to demonstrate the community’s opposition to hate-filled messages left on a church and on buildings around town.
The idea is to replace the menorah symbol, which was adopted to show rejection of anti-Semitic activities in Billings a quarter of a century ago. The menorah, which was printed on a full page in the Gazette and placed in windows all over town, drew national attention and helped spark the Not in Our Town movement.
The menorah did yeoman duty, but maybe it’s time to find a new symbol, the Gazette figured. Since I played a small but substantive role in publishing the first Gazette menorah, I felt obligated to help out again.
I found one symbol that resonates deeply across a range of cultures, whose very name derives from ancient Sanskrit and means “conducive to well-being.” It’s a symbol of peace and harmony that has been used perhaps for as long as 15,000 years in religions ranging from Buddhism to Hinduism to Zoroastrianism and in cultures ranging from Armenians to Latvians to the Navahos. It has survived centuries of civil strife and religious unrest and remains in wide use in many cultures today. Here’s that honored symbol:
Too soon? Yes, you’re right. Sometimes I use this as a thought question to my freshmen students: When can the swastika overcome the stigma of Nazism and resume its place as the honorable symbol it had been for centuries? Certainly not in my lifetime. Probably not in the lifetimes of my students. But their kids, perhaps? Or their grandkids? Or have Nazis ruined a perfectly fine symbol forever?
That’s what’s so insidious about the haters who infiltrate communities like ours. They are cowardly, weak and dumb, but they do damage far beyond their numbers. Worse, it’s hard to know how to deal with them.
Some are just out to raise hackles. If Americans suddenly became offended by puppies and red balloons, then crude drawings of puppies and balloons would show up all over town.
Others are true believers who immerse themselves in hate literature and feed off the worst of talk radio and the internet.
I confess that I was among those at the Gazette 25 years ago who were reluctant to give much press to the troublemakers. Haters feed on notoriety, and I feared that every story would just spur them on. I thought they should be treated the way newspapers historically treated suicides and bomb threats at schools: Don’t encourage the copycats.
John Abarr, once a white supremacist who now claims to have reformed, says publicity at the time fueled his purported connections with the Ku Klux Klan. Abarr, now a candidate for House District 21 in the Montana Legislature, says on his website that he apologizes for “promoting bigotry and hate against minorities.” He adds, “I’m sorry for all the people I hurt using psychological terrorism and I truly believe that hate speech should be against the law.”
But it’s a twisted apology. Abarr says his involvement with the KKK was just a hoax that was given currency by Lee Enterprises, which owns the Gazette.
“If Lee Enterprises would have ignored me like some people in the Billings community suggested,” he writes, “I would not of been a bleep on the radar and would have given up in promoting this hoax years ago. I’m a big ham and really enjoyed seeing my name in the paper and I relished having a reputation of being a Klan organizer.”
Elsewhere on his website, Abarr doesn’t appear to have repented at all. He says he would support legislation declaring European Americans a protected class because of “widespread discrimination and hatred targeted at European Americans.” He adds, “Caucations [sic] should be able to publicly proclaim their ethnic identity and heritage in all institutions.”
Other notorious characters from those days seem to have genuinely reformed. Roger Roots, now a Livingston attorney, has a checkered past that includes misdemeanors and a felony conviction that he later denied when attempting to purchase firearms. He also wrote a pamphlet arguing that blacks are unattractive and of inferior intelligence.
But he does seem to have cleaned up his act. His website boasts of his doctorate and his law degree. When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014, he pointed out at a debate in Butte that he even taught courses at Jarvis Christian College, a predominantly black college in Texas. He runs as a Libertarian, and he holds right-wing positions that stretch but remain within the bounds of reputable discourse. His reform seems real.
Still, he’s hard to forgive. Just as Nazis stained the swastika, Roots stained his own reputation in indelible ways.
Forgiveness comes especially hard when hate mongers not only survive but thrive on the national stage. Just this week, Rocky Mountain College removed posters placed by Identity Evropa, a neo-Nazi hate group that targets college campuses. And Michael Savage opened his radio show, which is broadcast on KYYA here in Billings, by calling National Public Radio anti-American. From there, he launched into an attack on Barack and Michelle Obama.
Savage was merely mimicking the president of the United States, who lied for years about Obama’s birthplace and who accused Democrats of hating America for failing to applaud adequately during his State of the Union address.
It’s no coincidence that hate crimes spiked in the 2016 election year, according to FBI statistics, and appeared to rise again in 2017. According to the Huffington Post, hate crimes were up 20 percent in 13 major U.S. cities through September.
When elected officials, abetted by local radio stations, spread messages of hate, it’s no wonder that weak souls like Abarr and Roots get caught up in the madness. The question is whether the rest of us can resist being sucked in.
When that Gazette menorah was published in 1993, these words appeared beneath it: “Let all the world know that the irrational hatred of a few cannot destroy what all of us in Billings, and in America, have worked together so long to build.”
Those words ought to resonate with me because I wrote them. So I’m trying to do my part by forgiving Roots. Forgiving the Nazis will take a little longer.