If a white hood shows up in your ski town, do you still extend hospitality?
by Allen Best
Two of the white supremacists at the riots recently in Charlottesville have had connections with mountain towns of the West, if one of those connections was thin and long ago. But the protests renewed thoughts about what should be the role of mountain resort communities in the broader affairs of the day.
By the very nature of their fundamental business, mountain towns don’t make a habit of drawing lines. I am told the saying in one mountain valley of the West is that “we don’t care if their necks are red, as long as their dollars are green.”
That statement alone hints at the left-leaning ways of most ski towns, some more than others. But even Aspen, by far the most mouthy of all the ski towns, makes no particular inquiries about the sources of great wealth that arrive at the airport. Tellingly, as Enron founder and chief executive Kenneth Lay awaited sentencing for violating laws governing securities, as had allowed him to accomplish the massive corporate fraud, he died of a heart attack near Old Snowmass.
People generally move to mountain towns to escape the outside world. Ditto for their guests. The biggest debates are about open space, affordable housing, and other, ultra-local issues. Sometimes you like your customers, other times not. Sometimes you recognize the important people, and other times not. Ski towns aren’t ordinarily the venue for arguing politics.
But in December 1991, Crested Butte couldn’t help but note a prominent visitor. Crested Butte had hosted a former president, Jimmy Carter, with great honor. But this presidential aspirant got a cold shoulder when he showed up at a bar and grill named Kochevar’s. David Duke—a white supremacist who was among the leaders in the riot last weekend in Charlottesville, Va.—had been a national leader of the Ku Klux Klan. He ran in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary but got no real traction, then tried as a Republican in 1992.
Kochevar’s, still an institute of Crested Butte, is described as the sort of place that drew everybody from laborers to lawyers, contractors and bartenders. “It would be the place where locals would end up after the other bars had closed. It’s where the partying happened, it’s where current events happened, where information was exchanged,” says Roger Kahn, a former full-time resident.
Jim Schmidt, a long-time member of the town council in Crested Butte, remembers that Duke “was generally shunned” at Kochevar’s.
Mark Reaman, a journalist in Crested Butte now but also then, reported the details of the shunning as Duke played shuffleboard with what Reaman described as “a tall, platinum blond in tight, white ski pants.”
“Stage whispers complemented the one finger hand salutes raised regularly behind Duke’s back,” Reaman reported in 1991. “The cook donned a white hood, crossed matchsticks were burned, references to torchlight parades discussed, and swastikas penned on bar napkins. The mood was that of a dark circus with David Duke as a ringmaster.”
And the case of Whitefish
Richard Spencer, another central figure in last week’s riots in Virginia, is a part-time resident of the Montana resort town of Whitefish. His mother, who has said she does not agree with her son’s beliefs, lives there. The Wall Street Journal this week described Spencer as “a founder of the alt-right” who “promotes white-supremacists ideology and has called for a white homeland.”
In a January story, the Whitefish Pilot offered much the same description and noted that Spencer’s role had flown under the radar of most Whitefish residents. That story—reinforced repeatedly by analysts in national publications in the last several days—noted that Spencer saw Trump’s election as creating a climate conducive to his alt-right white-nationalist views. Whitefish then got in the national spotlight when a neo-Nazi blog asked its followers to take “action” and “troll” members of the Jewish community in Whitefish and also those in an advocacy group called Love Lives Here.
City officials responded to the white supremacists and anti-Semitics with clear language. “It’s important for the city to reiterate that we are a community that is united and not divided,” said Deputy Mayor Richard Hildner. “Also that our values are not that of racism and bigotry. We are a welcoming community.”
Indeed, a graphic was developed in response, playing with the Dr. Seusss rhyme, declaring: “whitefish, blue fish, red fish, all fish.”
Where do you draw the line?
Whitefish is exceptional in its circumstances. Mostly, as with Aspen and John Lay, nobody gets a quiz when they register for a room or look to buy a home in a mountain resort.
During my years at Vail, I used to muse about this apolitical—and arguably amoral—bent. This was in the aftermath of Reagan liberalizing rules for Wall Street. The money sharks vacationed in the Vail area. A book, “Barbarians at the Gate,” chronicled the machinations. I remember looking at the book’s index of miscreant characters and finding an overlap with the local phonebook. A few Wall Streeters were punished, but not many. Poor people stealing money would be locked up. I wrote a sarcastic column in one of the now-defunct newspapers where I worked then, musing about how Vail would pamper ruthless dictators—as long as they had money.
That criticism may have been harsh. If ski towns get into measuring the political correctness of their customers, where do you draw the line? And who gets to make the choice?
In Colorado Springs this week, the line came into clear view. The Cheyenne Mountain Resort booted a conference of a group called VDare that had been scheduled for next April. It has been described as a white nationalist and anti-immigrant group by several national media outlets, including The Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Associated Press. The Southern Poverty Law Center says VDare is a white nationalist website that “regularly publishes articles by prominent white nationalists, race scientists and anti-Semites.” Among the speakers was to be Tom Tancedeo, a former congressman who represented Denver’s southeastern suburbs and once made a run at the Republican presidential nomination.
The mayor of Colorado Springs, John Suthers, had this to say: “Businesses need to make their own decisions in situations like this, and in doing so, consider both the business and community impacts of hosting disruptive groups.”
Koch brothers in ski towns
Then how do you treat David Koch? He’s a central figure in an issue that isn’t quite as black and white, so to speak: our reliance upon fossil fuels with all the risks of continuing that dependence. He and a brother, Charles Koch, have become central figures in our national debates and whether we will move forward more briskly in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Many—including me—see this opposition to a rapid energy transition to be utterly immoral and cynical.
The Koch Brothers have held meetings at Beaver Creek, and they are central figures in Jane Mayers’ 2016 book, “Dark Money.” The New York Times, in a book review, summarized the brothers this way: “The Koch-sponsored advocacy group Americans for Prosperity has been at the forefront of climate-change opposition over the past decade. When the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2011, Americans for Prosperity lobbied lawmakers to support a “no climate tax” pledge, and by the time Congress convened that year, 156 House and Senate members had signed on.”
But if you go to the lovely Aspen Institute campus on a bench above the Roaring Fork River, you will find a Koch Building, funded by David Koch, and Koch himself in the flesh at many events. One such event was the Aspen Ideas Festival two years ago. I was there to write a magazine story, and I happened to walk into a tent where former hedge fund manger Tom Steyer, now a climate change activist of the first order, was holding forth. The final question of his interlocutor from Atlantic magazine was about what he might say if he knew that David Koch was sitting in front of him. The punch line, of course, is that Koch was in fact sitting at Steyer’s feet.
Aspen doesn’t always open its doors without local words. Thomas Barack, a Trump friend who chaired the president’s inauguration committee, spoke at a conference in Aspen. Linda Lafferty said enough was enough. “I woke up one morning, and I just couldn’t take it any longer,” she told the Aspen Daily News about why she organized a protest march. Several dozen people turned out to chant “Dump Trump” on a march that ended up at a local park.
But again, where do you draw the line? If David Duke, Richard Spencer and other white supremacists want to rent a conference room to share their dark views, do you let them? Take David Koch’s dark money? The Aspen Institute does and, for that matter, so does the Smithsonian.
You may wish from me a stiff argument, a clear definition of the line that should not be crossed. I cannot deliver. Meetings of the Klu Klux Klan are an easy call. But a meeting of oil and gas drillers? A much more difficult call.
The ironies of ski towns
Telluride Mountainfilm several years ago honored an activist who had violated federal laws in order to disrupt auctions of drilling permits in Utah. You had to honor this young guy, Tim DeChristopher, at some level, including his willingness to serve prison time for his non-violent action on behalf of a deep conviction about protecting the environment. But the irony was blatant: We had all gotten to Telluride to hear him talk because of oil. It still being May, we likely stayed in hotel rooms heated with natural gas.
Ski towns are full of these ironies, what some might also call hypocrisies: giant homes, jet travel, and all the rest. I remember a festival held at Crested Butte called “One World,” to celebrate diversity. I thought then that I knew of few places with less diversity than Crested Butte. A heavenly place, to be sure. A dozen kinds of Paradise (Basin, Bowl, Divide and so forth) literally outside the door. I would have fit right in had I chosen to move there as a 20something.
But for more diversity, you need to visit Aspen and Vail, which at least have their own down-valley slums (at least, that’s how the title of one book put it). If Jackson Hole and other major resorts have made significant and admirable efforts to embrace their new workforce as community members, the demographics of ski towns are still mostly glaring. This is nearly all white, economic separatist America.
On Monday I talked about this with Roger Kahn, who lived in Crested Butte for 12 years back in the day and still is spending five months a year now. But he left for two reasons, he said. One was his career. He needed to be out in the world. But the second was that Kahn, who is white, was concerned about raising his multi-racial children in a place that had just one or two black men to serve as role models. So he and his family moved to Denver.
That’s the irony of the raised fingers in Crested Butte when David Duke in all his Aryan manhood visited a quarter century ago.
This story was published in the Aug. 17, 2017, issue of Mountain Town News, a subscription based e-mail based emagazine. Please consider subscribing to see what you are missing.