Today I learned something. It's about something that happened to me about 40 years ago. I was 18 and went to see my dad. He was in his barn, tending to his favorite cow. I said I was planning to go to college. He said if I went to Free Will Baptist Bible College in Nashville, Tennessee, then his church would pitch in and help pay my way.
I knew I couldn't go to bible college. I would have been kicked out the first day, as soon as I whipped out my guitar and started with the protest songs. Besides, they had separate snack bars for the men and women, and the men had to remain at least 10 inches away from the women at all times. You had to have a chaperone to leave campus and freshmen were not allowed to own a car. They told you where to sit in the cafeteria, you were required to attend all meals, and for some reason they arranged you boy-girl-boy-girl. If you became "too familiar" with the person next to you they reassigned you. There were a ton of other draconian rules and of course, you mostly studied the bible there. They were anti-evolution etc., and many of the folks I had met on a visit down there were racist, unabashedly so.
I told my dad I wanted to go to Western Washington University which is located in Bellingham, Washington and he said (and this is what stuck with me all these years) "Western is run by communists."
My dad and I differed on just about everything. He was a preacher, I'm an atheist. He was a right wing conservative, I'm a liberal. So at the time I just chalked it up to his predisposition to check under his bed every night for communist spies. A generation later and it might have been al Qaida. In an earlier century it might have been Jews or Irish or something. I assumed it was an attitude that just came with the Christian variety of Persian Dualism, the cosmological framework of an invisible underpinning to the Universe, where armies of good and evil fought an eternal battle over men's souls. The communists fight for the demons.
Fast forward to today, August 18, 2014. Dad died last year and I have worked 20 years now for the planetarium at WWU in Bellingham, aka Satan's outpost. So I walk out to the driveway this morning and pick up today's copy of the Bellingham Herald.
Over the years I have frequently criticized the Herald. In fact, this subscription isn't even mine. It belongs to an elderly gentleman who we take care of. He was born the same year as my dad, 1923. I called and cancelled my own subscription years ago. When they asked me why I said because my parakeet died. I love that joke. But actually, on the day I cancelled the paper the front page announced that because Georgia Pacific was moving its plant from downtown Bellingham we should expect an environmental disaster.
GP was an industrial plant that made toilet paper and chemical products which is great for jobs but it smelled terrible, it really stunk up the downtown area. The city sort of wrapped around it. That happens. The water in the bay downtown was all black around GP and there were signs posted down there warning people not to fish or swim. Yet the paper warned that moving the plant would be bad for the environment because GP used a lot of water from our biggest lake and without that usage the lake might become stagnant. It seemed like a pretty messed up argument to me, more of what I'd expect in a letter TO the editor, not FROM.
Anyway, the front page of today's paper commemorates the 75th anniversary of the firing of one of the early presidents of WWU for un-American activities. His name was Charles Fisher. His principle accuser was the general manager of the Bellingham Herald at the time, Frank Sefrit.
The year was 1939 and same as now, the university was a marketplace of ideas. Students formed clubs and marched for this or that. College is supposed to be the place where young minds sort out what they believe in or not. Fisher was accused of being too tolerant of students voicing their own opinions, even rather liberal ones in support of things like labor unions, social security, peace, civil rights for women and blacks, and yes even for the dreaded atheism. All of these things were specifically listed and thrown in Fisher's face by editorials in the Herald. Eventually he was called before a kangaroo tribunal of sorts where he exchanged snipes with Sefrit and defiantly answered charges from his other accusers, which included a local Presbyterian minister, and the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan had recently held their annual state convention in Bellingham.
The Governor of Washington at the time was Clarence Martin who was also a right winger on the hunt to burn a witch. Martin pressured the trustees to fire Fisher, apparently by threatening to terminate their appointed positions. In a very unusual breech of protocol, the trustees dismissed Fisher without citing a reason.
The Fisher controversy in Bellingham went national. It was fodder for an ongoing political struggle to rid all the colleges and universities of "un-Americans." This was around the beginning of what would become the McCarthy Era, aka the Red Scare, a concentrated effort by republicans to gain and maintain power by associating anyone who challenged them with communism. Red Scare was the America that my dad knew.
Suddenly, after all these years, I'm thinking that my dad believed he had intimate personal knowledge about America that was less available to me because of my tender age. He understood that not only were American universities tainted by the red menace, but that Western in particular was a source of the evil blight. After all he had seen it in the national news, in 1939.
Weeeell shiiiiiiiit. My opinion is that pure unadulterated communism is a completely failed system, I think that has been thoroughly demonstrated. But I also think that pure unadulterated capitalism is a failed system. Also, aside from the macro-economics of who owns the general means of production, by the very definition of government ALL of the systems are varying levels of socialism, some more and some less, and that competition and cooperation are not mutually exclusive. That's another story and it involves a long joke about two cows and whether you milk them or shoot them or share them or pour half the milk down the sewer to keep the prices up. The punchline involves the capitalist selling off one of the cows and buying a bull, or some yeehaw crap like that. I'm not telling it right.
A few years after Fisher died they built a fountain at Western and named it after him. It's right outside from the planetarium in the middle of "Red Square" - no shortage of irony there and today's Herald even points that out.
By the way, the downtown Bellingham area is wonderful now that Georgia Smellrific is gone. The water in the bay downtown is clear and there are fish swimming around, and green stuff like seaweed growing down there, and seals sunning on the rocks. The city and the university are presently conspiring to build facilities and a park on the old GP site, with maybe a marina, a restaurant or two, and other social amenities. There have even been some discussions of the possibility of a new planetarium down there. True story.