Here is a multiple spoiler alert:
#1 I am going to give away most of the plot of the documentary by this title, and
#2 This post is about a topic that is guaranteed to upset people who are easily offended.
I am not writing it to be deliberately provocative, but if you are the type who gets riled up at the mere mention of sensitive topics, I suggest you skip this post.
I have watched the documentary called Welcome to Leith multiple times. The issues it raises about civil liberties are really profound, and if you can get past your own biases enough to examine them objectively, they are quite interesting to discuss.
In VERY brief (and I may do somewhat of a hack job of explaining this in the interest of brevity, so please forgive me if I don’t get things exactly right and just go with the spirit of what I am saying…)- a well known white supremacist got a very interesting idea. He would buy land and property in a small town- so small in fact that it had about 25 residents. So small, in fact, that if he could move in enough of his friends they could control a majority interest in the local government and thus democratically vote in their own officials and vote in their own policies. So small that he could create his own white supremacist enclave out in the middle of nowhere (actually in Leith, North Dakota), and they could live how they wanted, not bothering anyone.
The problem was, it bothered the residents of Leith.
And the problem was, on a visceral level, white supremacists bother a lot of people.
So perhaps if it had been a group of vegan pacifists who had wanted to go and vote in peace, love, and happiness, nobody would have cared too much. Or had it been a group of people who wanted to form an artist colony where folks could paint and sculpt and make collages, that would have been okay. But the white supremacist thing got people’s hearts racing- and not in a good way.
All of the land purchases were done legally and above board. No attempt was made to hide anything or be secretive. And to their credit, the original plan was to make use of perfectly legal means to control a government.
But then things went kind of haywire. People started protesting the supremacists being in Leith. The citizens demanded the racists leave. But it isn’t so straightforward to demand that a law-abiding homeowner leave somewhere just because you don’t agree with their political views. The original racist brought in other groups to speak on his behalf. protesters came from far and wide to “support” the original citizens of Leith. Threats were exchanged and petty harassment against the racists escalated to outright acts of aggression and vandalism. Police seemed a little lackadaisical about protecting the racists against the harassment, and eventually the racists took things a bit too far.
They grabbed some guns and went on patrol. Had they merely stayed on their own property, this may have been okay. But they did a walkabout around the town. And they seemed to be looking for trouble. They made several provocative comments, almost wishing someone would provoke a confrontation with them so they could escalate into violence.
The two men who did this were arrested and charged with various crimes, among them some sort of terroristic threats. Though a series of legal ball-dropping and either correct or incorrect (depending on your position) application of the laws in question, the charges were dropped and the men went free. There was a cascade of fallout, which it is worth watching the documentary to see (I highly recommend watching it for many reasons).
But the overall question which I find fascinating is: should people with controversial (some would say abhorrent) views, be allowed to democratically control a government? And I guess the corollary to that is, should unpopular views be allowed to be silenced just because they are unpopular?
If you can suspend your dislike of white supremacists for a moment, let’s do a quick swap. What if a town decided that Catholicism was disgusting and completely contrary to American values? Would it be okay to run Catholics out of town? To deny them the right to buy property in a given place? To silence their voices in a democracy? Because we don’t agree with them in one area does that negate their right to have opinions or their ability to be seen as intrinsically valuable in other areas?
Could we envision for one moment a white supremacist who is also a philanthropist? What percentage of a person has to be “bad” before we discount the whole person? Can you have a Nazi humanitarian? A wife-beater who works for doctors without borders? A volunteer at the humane society who is also a sexual sadist?
Eventually the residents of Leith drove out the white supremacists, but it raises interesting questions about what we say we believe (free speech and free expression) versus what we really believe (you are free to say and express what you believe as long as I don’t find it too distasteful).
Personally I find it useful to do a gut check every once in a while to see if I am truly living in concert with my own principles. Do you?