Until Hale opens his mouth, that is. That's when the illusion of little boys playing with toy guns disappears. Last weekend, Hale and his handful of followers descended upon the ordinarily peaceful town of Superior some 60 miles west of Missoula, for their annual meeting at the ranch of Superior resident and WCOTC member Slim Deardorff.
ale and seven of his followers gathered at high noon Saturday on the steps of the Mineral County Courthouse to exercise their First Amendment rights via Hale's well-rehearsed brand of racist demagoguery. Standing before them were no more than 40 or 50 people, most of us representatives from local and national news agencies, but also a handful of curious onlookers and a smattering of supporters, not to mention an unknown number of agents from state and federal law enforcement agencies.
When Hale began his racist rigmarole, I surmised that most of his onlookers were engaged in some combination of the following: shaking their heads, silently ridiculing him, formulating self-evident arguments in their heads about his ideology, and pondering what better ways we could be spending this fine Saturday afternoon in western Montana than discovering a frightening new reason to lie awake at night.
Eradicating the garden variety of ignorance we all encounter on a daily basis can be challenging enough. But how do you combat the deliberate and premeditated ignorance of Matt Hale's arguments? How much breath should you exhaust debating a man who claims that it was the white race who first inhabited the North American continent? Or that the ancient Egyptians and Chinese were originally part of the white race until their blood was "muddied by Negro blood?" Or that the contributions of African Americans to the fields of art, music, sports and literature are "negligible or non-existent?" Or that the Jews have been historically responsible for their own persecution because "there wouldn't be anti-Semitism without Semitism?"
Still, I resisted the easy temptation to dismiss Hale outright. The national media and the hate-watch groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League which have been monitoring Hale's activities, have been vigilant at unmasking his followers as hate-mongers with violent tendencies. But despite Hale's reassurances that violence plays no role in his church except as a form of self-defense, the guns they wore on their belts on the courthouse steps attested to the deadly earnestness of their message. And still, I was still no closer to understanding what makes Hale tick.
Despite popular misconception, Hale rejects the label of white supremacist, and instead prefers being called a white separatist. Though the distinction may be a trivial one, as he put it, his "kind" has no interest in ruling over other races.
"We do not say that segregation is right," said Hale. "No, segregation was folly. We want separation of the races, and we will campaign to have it. Without racial separation, this nation will one day plunge into civil war."
Hale preached that all the non-white races should be repatriated to their country or continent of origin; the Blacks to Africa, the "Orientals" to the Orient, the Arabs to Arabia, ad infinitum. Exactly where Hale would "repatriate" the Native Americans to was unclear-he made some nebulous reference to their Siberian origins and their subsequent migration across the Bering Strait-but could offer no specifics as to how such a mass deportation might be accomplished.
And when I pointed out that his definition of the white race refers to peoples of northern European descent, and asked why he didn't want to return whence he came, he dodged the question altogether.
Hale was equally ambiguous about what spiritual aspects, if any, there are to his church. While he said, "There will not be a god from the sky to deliver us from evil," he nonetheless spoke of holding church services later that afternoon, and said he encourages his adherents to engage in fasting for its "spiritual benefits."
Hale appeared more comfortable treading in the scientific realm, though even that ground appeared virtually gelatinous beneath his feet. He talked much about natural law, and accepted most of what Charles Darwin had to say about evolution and natural selection. That much is apparent in Hale's own writings. In the pamphlets that Missoula resident and WCOTC adherent Dan Hassett has periodically dropped on the doorsteps of some Missoula residents, Hale tries to prop up his racist theories by using scientific studies dating back as far as the 1920s, which he said "provide ample evidence that the blacks are intellectually inferior. They have smaller brains, less developed brains, less convoluted brains and lower IQs."
When asked if he would renounce any of the benefits he reaps from the other races, Hale said without blinking, "There are no benefits to me or any white person at all from the other races." Nevertheless, he could not say, for example, whether he had ever had been vaccinated for the polio virus, an invention by a Jewish scientist. Instead, he attributed the crippling disease to nutritional deficiencies.
On the subject of African-American contributions to the field of music, he said, "Well, their music has been almost none." I pressed him further about blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll. "Most of rock 'n' roll is not black," he said, then moved on.
And just when I thought Hale's arguments couldn't become any more convoluted, he would lead me around another bend.
"Jews are a race, though not in the strict biological sense. ... When one Jew bleeds, they all bleed," Hale said. He wasn't clear on whether he meant that literally or figuratively. He did, however, admit that Jews are intelligent, which he qualified by saying, "But they're not a creative people. They are a people that are very good at manipulating what already exists."
Finally, I asked Hale how he would define an intelligent person.
"A person who is capable of logical arguments and who can retain a good deal of information," he said. And would intelligence involve open-mindedness, I asked? "No, not necessarily."
When Hale had delivered enough sound bites to fill the evening news, we reporters closed our notebooks, packed up the cameras, turned off the tape recorders and walked away. And the good people of Superior, Montana, especially the folks in local law enforcement standing nearby, seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief to see this guy from Illinois leave without incident.
And yet, we turn our backs on people like Matt Hale, knowing full well that while his message has not reached us, it will-and does-reach someone, somewhere, every day, with consequences that can explode in a deadly plume of rage. Just as it did in early July, when WCOTC adherent Benjamin Nathaniel Smith decided that "Rahowa" wasn't simply a nifty slogan adorning his T-shirt, but a deadly call to arms that took the lives of two innocent people.
"Those who would say that racism, as they call it, is a thing of the past, are very wrong," said Hale. "Race is the issue, in this land and in this world. ... We all know that race does matter."