There was a simpler time in America, a time when racists wore white hoods and carried torches, when Nazis wore swastikas and a skinhead could shave his scalp without being mistaken for a metrosexual. But those days are long behind us. Now, apparently, white supremacists hold conferences with guest speakers and video hookups to their colleagues overseas, kind of like a Davos for the intellectually vacant.
This is tricky terrain for a politician, as Steve Scalise, the third highest-ranking Republican in the House, found out this week. Back in 2002, Scalise apparently spoke to a conference in New Orleans hosted by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO, for short), which is kind of like a lobby for neo-Nazis and other white extremists.
Scalise said he couldn’t recall the speech and had no idea who these people were. And really, how are you supposed to know these days if you’re talking to the Ku Klux Klan or, say, a “Star Trek” convention with an unusual number of Jean-Luc Picards?
There are no hard and fast rules, of course, but let’s consider a few useful guidelines for knowing when you’ve got a problem, just in case you’re thinking about a career in national politics.
1. The group was founded by David Duke.
To be fair, Duke is a relatively common name in public life, and it’s easy to get confused. You’ve got Patty Duke and Duke Ellington, and of course Michael Dukakis. This being Louisiana, you can’t forget Bo and Luke Duke. Why wouldn’t you show up at a convention if you thought you were getting a ride in that sweet car with Catherine Bach?
But pay careful attention here, because David Duke is actually a pretty notorious character. Starting in 1988, when he first ran for president as a Democrat (alas, only one Duke could emerge victorious), this Duke was for many years the most recognizable, articulate and unapologetic white supremacist in America — a glib and embarrassing reminder of the South’s ignominious past. He even served a term in the legislature. For those of us who came of age in the Reagan era, even if we never stepped foot in Louisiana, David Duke was like some touring museum exhibit, the last of the crusading Klansmen.
So if Duke is putting on your conference, or is speaking at it, or is anywhere in the same ZIP code and hasn’t yet been rearrested, you probably want to exercise caution.
2. Banners that say things like “White Power” hang from the ceiling.
Again, this is confusing. Because you might peer out through the blinding stage lights and think the banner says, you know, “white powder.” And you might think you’re at a drug legalization conference, which is all very mainstream these days, or maybe a ski industry confab. Or you might think “white power” actually refers to a kind of alternative energy, like “clean coal.” Although you can get intro trouble here, too — just look up Solyndra.
Anyway, this is why it helps to read some of the group’s written materials before you block off that date on the calendar. In this case, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, these have included whimsical remembrances of happier days in the 1930s when Germany was dominated by little Aryan kids frolicking through the fields. If that wasn’t in your briefing book, maybe hire some new staff.
3. The name of the group is the European-American Unity and Rights Organization.
This is so nonsensical, really, that I had trouble even typing it without looking it up three times. Actually, Duke originally called the group the National Organization for European-American Rights, or NOFEAR, but then the sportswear company “No Fear” filed a trademark infringement suit against him, and it turned out that Duke had maybe just a little fear, because he quickly changed the name to EURO. Currencies don’t sue.
Now, you know, political groups have all kinds of meaningless names, but they usually sound like “Americans Forward” or “Citizens Together” or “Blabbedy-blah-blah for Rainbows.” If the group you’re talking to sounds like it might have a paramilitary arm, it’s best to ask.
4. The hotel hosting the event is ashamed.
Trust me, I’ve been around, and budget hotels are not easily embarrassed. I once stuck my head into a dingy banquet room in New Hampshire and saw a Rod Stewart impersonator, about 20 years older than the actual Rod Stewart, gyrating his hips to “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” It stayed with me for years. No one even considered apologizing.
But in this case, the Best Western Landmark in Metairie, La., which you can imagine doesn’t do a whole lot of moral policing as a rule, seemed mortified by its role in hosting the 2002 conference. In response to protests before the event that Scalise somehow missed, the hotel said it didn’t share the group’s convictions but would honor its “contractual obligations” anyway.
This came after the Chicago Cubs’ AAA team, the Des Moines Cubs, announced that it would change its travel plans to avoid the hotel because of the white supremacist gathering. I mean, Steve, did you not see the movie “42”? Baseball clubs are not historically known for their extreme sensitivity to racist hotels. So maybe that should have tipped you off.
5. No one actually cares about your tax stand.
Scalise told NOLA.com, which had some excellent coverage this week, that at the time of the EURO conference he had been doing a lot of public speaking about his opposition to a local tax bill and had even talked to the League of Women Voters. You can see the obvious similarities here. The League of Women Voters espouses some deeply controversial ideas too, like suffrage. Also, little-known fact: Its founders originally wanted to call it the National Initiative for Knowledge in Elections, or NIKE. That was a debacle.
Be that as it may, I’m guessing the League of Women Voters’ attendees had some genuine curiosity about the tax debate, as opposed to asking, say, “Would you be in favor of restricting voting rights to only those citizens whose genetic composition could be determined to be no less than 98 percent Caucasian?” Or “Can you comment on the rumor that there are black men serving in Congress and that they use the same water fountains?” Questions like that should raise a red flag.
One last bit of guidance: If you do end up accidentally speaking to a roomful of white supremacists, try to make a note of it somewhere, because eventually someone who doesn’t like you is going to figure it out, and the last thing you want is to be caught unaware and have to say you really have no idea.
If that happens, it’s not just the appearance of indulging pathetic, retro racism you’ll have to worry about, but looking like a fool, too.