Let’s be clear, as the Flagler County Commission is choosing not to be: On Easter Day this year, Ku Klux Klan recruiting fliers were dropped on driveways in at least three of Palm Coast’s neighborhoods (the Z, U and B sections). The act itself wasn’t offensive. The KKK is a legal organization. The message was, though it was also boilerplate bigotry: criminalize and kick out illegal aliens (a message an uncomfortable number of “regular” Americans embrace wholeheartedly) and, “if qualified,” join the KKK to clean up the nation of non-whites, the wrong kind of whites, homosexuals, and so on. Crosses weren’t burned on anyone’s lawns, but the stink was there all the same.
At a recent meeting of the county’s government agencies, convened to discuss something entirely unrelated, Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts alluded to the fliers—without mentioning the KKK by name. He wondered out loud if the cities and the county should take a stand, issue some sort of statement or resolution condemning the fliers and putting the county’s embrace of diversity on record. County Commission Chairman George Hanns liked the idea. He, too, wouldn’t say “KKK,” as if the letters were as hooded as the group they clung to. Hanns directed his staff to write something up on the commission’s behalf. The direction was vague, the consensus vaguer.
The result was the vaguest possible statement–a 211-word jig about diversity that manages to be more patronizing than condemning even as it bends over backward not to define what it set out to denounce. It doesn’t refer to the KKK, doesn’t say what the KKK was up to, doesn’t even, for context’s sake, use the KKK’s own slapdash, fly-by-night leaf-dropping against it to properly calibrate the recruitment for what it was: more of a shot in the dark than an organized assault.
- Is KKK Recruiting in Palm Coast?
- Read the KKK flier in question
- Flagler County Commission Statement on the Flier
- Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map of the US
Instead, this is what was written in our name as residents of this county: “A printed document left on driveways and dropped off door-to-door made disparaging remarks about our neighbors and friends.” Seriously? Disparaging remarks? You could be talking about the daily paper’s columns and letters page. I’ve heard friends and neighbors in this town say far more “disparaging” things about any number of people, or kinds of people, than the KKK fliers did about undocumented immigrants. We live in a state that, by law, does far more “disparaging” things to homosexuals than the KKK flier does about “the destruction of our moral culture by homosexuals” (Florida remains the only state in the union to ban gay adoptions. That’s beyond bigotry. It’s legalized subjugation.).
To call Tea Party activists idiots is disparaging. To make a pun along the lines of Obama bin Lying is disparaging. It’s also part of our national conversation. Words aren’t bullets. But white supremacy, especially white supremacy in the context of an American and particularly southern history dominated by four centuries of white, state-sponsored terrorism against blacks, isn’t “disparaging.” Speaking about “placing like-minded people in our government” isn’t in the category of nasty “remarks about our neighbors and friends,” let alone part of the national conversation. It’s bigoted. It’s racist. It’s repugnant. And it must be treated that way, openly and directly, not in the mealy-mouthed euphemisms that are no different than that KKK flier’s euphemisms about “Christian-minded Americans of sound mind and good moral character” and “non-American business owners in our country.”
But that’s what you get when a vague public consensus turns into a vague direction to a few staffers left to decipher the will–actually, the lack of will–of a few well-intentioned but no less grand-standing public officials. And that’s what you get when such a statement goes up on the county’s Web site (not that you could possibly find it, because even its location and headline are veiled) without having been read or discussed, let alone approved, by the county commissioners requesting it–and requesting it without a vote after a discussion in a meeting that didn’t have that issue on its agenda and where taking action was illegal. This is how, in government lingo, an elected board’s “direction” turns into an official act of government in your name. With nobody’s name on it. Unaccountability 101 masquerading as concern for the community.
I asked Netts, the Palm Coast mayor, whether making an official statement denouncing the KKK might give it more of a platform than it deserved. I wasn’t sure. Nor was he. Nor were the county’s other mayors and a few city commissioners when they wrestled with the question at a League of Cities meeting earlier this week. Some thought that addressing it head on was the way. Some thought it was better to let it go, treat the fliers like the one-time night-thieving they were. The mayors couldn’t decide whether to join the county’s statement, sign it all as one, or have their own. It wasn’t clear where they left things when they did leave them.
Here’s the thing. Making no statement at all would have been fine: it would have treated the incident as the isolated imbecility it was. Making a statement may also have been fine, if it was properly deliberated and representative of the explicit and recorded will of elected representatives. It would have taken a stand, however disproportionate, against something that should never be left unchallenged. As Netts put it, citing words attributed to any number of people in any number of permutations, all that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing (witness for that matter the first eight years of the decade).
That’s without getting into the thornier propriety of a government body making a public denunciation of a legal group in everyone’s name, however repugnant the group’s aims. Would the commission denounce a Nation of Islam chapter recruiting in town? Would it denounce a bunch of Islamists who suddenly want their daughters wearing burqas in school? Would I want my County Commission denouncing Planned Parenthood for facilitating abortions or celebrating the United Daughters of the Confederacy?
The worst thing the county could have done is what it did: Make a statement that wasn’t a statement. Pretend to take a stand while taking no stand at all. Do I really need to be told that people in Flagler celebrate diversity “by attending festivals put on by the various ethnic clubs and organizations to enjoy each other, the food, music and customs of many lands”? Are we addressing a Hallmark card to the KKK or telling it to take its recruitment drive and shove it where the hood should follow?
One more point: Even if it wasn’t isolated (and according to Cole Thornton, imperial wizard of the United Norther & Southern Knights of the KKK, whom I interviewed this morning, it wasn’t), it’s not as if the KKK is among the priorities to worry about in this society. It has no influence, no reach, no effect on people’s lives beyond its lust for psychological terrorism, which it rarely pulls off anyway, although I don’t doubt that the election of a black man president has done more for KKK recruiting than anything since D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”–or that more of your friends and neighbors you’d dare admit privately espouse the very ideas they, or you, hypocritically denounce in public. (Thornton told me that he wanted to send a medal to Barack Obama for what his election has done to recruiting, though Thornton blamed Obama not for being black, but for being a radical liberal. His language at that point was indistinguishable from the language I heard at Palm Coast’s Tea Party rally on Wednesday. The Thornton interview will post later.)
Which is precisely why we have more serious bigotries to deal with every day, in our midst, than paper-thin recruitment drives from Confederate nostalgics. We should be worried about the more insidious kind of bigotries that our own sanctimonious elected officials or unelected talking heads revel in every day, the kind that affect our lives far more than a supremacist parading in secret in a cone-headed bed-sheet. An hour’s worth of Fox News in prime time or 10 minutes’ worth of tea partying is enough to make it seem as if the McCarthy era was an ideological civil war on training wheels. The training wheels are off. The country is more divided than it’s been in generations between its “right-thinking” and “wrong-thinking” Americans, between its rich and working class, even, and increasingly, between its young and its elderly, as the recent battle between the Medicare generation and those it shamefully sought to keep from having an equal share of the safety net showed us. Those are the issues we should be confronting, the triumph of evil that goes not only unchallenged but applauded and cheered.
How easy to pick at an obvious target like the KKK, and easier still to do it in language that commits to nothing more than fortune-cookie bromides. How meaningless too, in the end–as meaningless as those idiotic fliers in Palm Coast–when we’re mired in a culture where mutual denigration and the worship of self-interest are national sports and flag-wrapping the most fashionable hood around.