Monday, November 13, 2017

Truth-telling

Friends

This is a newspaper column I wrote for the Wallowa County Chieftain this week. It was suggested I post it here. I don’t think it is out of place.
best, rich


We live in a strange time. National news is dominated by arguments over facts—half-facts and fake facts, social media condemnations and accusations—while a growing chorus of serious speakers of all ages, religious and political persuasions rises to speak truth.

The liberal movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was not the first person of note to be accused of sexual abuse and huge hush money payments—Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly beat him on that score—but the accusations against Weinstein have opened a dam of stories about major figures in entertainment, religion, sports, and politics with sometimes bizarre accounts of power, control, and sexual predation.

Diana Nyad, the greatest long distance swimmer ever, wrote last week in the New York Times about a swimming coach who abused her and others when they were in high school, and how, after the girls told the school, the coach was quietly let go, and then went on to coach in college and in the Olympics! She’s been telling the story for decades; now people are listening. And listening to Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who joined the chorus with accusations against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is already facing charges of abuse and child pornography. These stories—and powerful organizations and a naïve public—are too late for scores of abused swimmers and gymnasts, but “late” is saving lives.

Last week also the Brooklyn Diocese released the names of several priests who had been “laicized” for abusing young boys 30 and 40 years ago. One went on to an illustrious academic career—which Arizona State University terminated with the new revelations.

The comic Louis C.K. joins Kevin Spacey and Public Radio’s Senior Vice President of News Mike Oreskes in the parade. In the NPR case, as in most others, the women—and in Spacey’s case, men—who had been reluctant to come forward have found courage in the wake of Weinstein’s fall. Even the US Senate has decided that sexual harassment training should be required—as Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore fights off accusations of pursuing and abusing teenagers as a young lawyer. My favorite defense: the Bible has stories of older men happily marrying teenagers.

If you think this all happens somewhere else, talk to the folks at Safe Harbors, and comb old local newspapers for reports of men physically and sexually abusing girls, women, and the occasional boy. The legions of famous victims who have stepped forward will embolden ordinary people in towns and cities across the country.

And listen for other stories too. Race has not been far behind gender in today’s truth-telling. Recent studies show that the tide of white Trump voters who swept him into office—despite evidence of questionable sexual and racial behaviors—was largely motivated by fear of immigrants and the fact of a sitting black American President.

In Wallowa County we named the mascot at Wallowa High School “Amos,” after an African-American named Amos Marsh, probably the most successful athlete who ever graduated there. And we laugh at the story of our beloved County Clerk, Marjorie Martin, who felt obliged to hide documents related to the massacre of Chinese gold miners on the Snake River while close relatives of the perpetrators were still alive.

Oregonian reporter Greg Nokes caught wind of the massacre story and doggedly pursued it, befriended Marjorie, and gained important information after she retired and new Clerk Charlotte McIver uncovered old documents stuffed away in the “wrong place.” A book, a monument on Snake River, and an Oregon Public Television documentary followed.

A recent showing of “Massacre at Hells Canyon” drew over 100 people at the Josephy Center, and Joseph teacher Jason Crenshaw showed the film and taught the event in his US History class.

Gwen Trice has been uncovering the history of African-American loggers in Wallowa County with the Maxville Heritage project for several years, and Pearl Alice Marsh, younger sister of star athletes Amos and Frank, is compiling a written history with interviews of the first generation descendants of those loggers.

Last week Pearl Marsh told the Joseph student body, grades 7-12, what it was like to grow up black in Wallowa, how she couldn’t be a “Brownie,” but a kind 4-H leader recruited her, how famous Amos could dance with white girls, but not date them, how living in Maxville and Wallowa was tough, but a huge step up from the Jim Crow south. When a student asked if she still experienced discrimination, Pearl said yes, but we’re much better now than we were with the legal discrimination and the lynchings that haunted all black American lives just a few years ago.

We are all better for knowing the truth—even when the telling is hard.

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