By Ben Olson
In the nearly eight years I’ve been at the helm of this newspaper, one constant remains as a motivating reason why we do what we do — to remind the moderate majority of residents in this county that they aren’t crazy. Let me explain.
From the very first edition of the Sandpoint Reader 2.0 in 2015, my inbox has attracted a spirited mix of hate mail, news tips, press releases, conspiracy theories, junk mail and complaints about everything from animal poop left on the sidewalk to the lack of a good chili dog in Sandpoint.
One sentiment, however, continues to dominate the rest. I’m talking about the many thoughtful messages from our readers who continually thank us for reminding them that they aren’t crazy.
North Idahoans are a curious bunch. They’ll help you when you’re stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire or when you come up a dollar short while paying for groceries, but show any opposition to their political beliefs and they’ll disown you. I’ve been bailed out of some crappy situations by people who, if they knew who I really was, would probably spit in my face before helping me. I get that often when telling people my full name. There’s a slow look, a narrowing of the eyes and a pursing of the lips.
“Oh, so you’re Ben Olson,” they’ll say, suddenly imagining my head impaled on a pikestaff. I can see the gears turning in their head as they come face to face with the “cancer” of their community, who dares to print viewpoints from people who have been marginalized, who has the audacity to publish opinions that aren’t popular with those on the fringes.
I hate it a little, being in this position. I wish my love of writing and journalism wasn’t matched by my aversion to being in the public eye. But I can’t help but continue to speak up for those whose voices have been silenced or drowned out by this loud minority of extremists.
I can’t help but point out extremism when I see it. Unfortunately, it’s not dying down. It’s ramping up, year after year.
When an angry mob gathered at City Hall and screamed anti-American and xenophobic comments after a rumor circulated that the city of Sandpoint would resettle Syrian refugees, that was extremism.
When a neo-Nazi living in Sandpoint sent out thousands of robocalls urging our readers to “burn out the cancer Ben Olson,” after I had reported on his actions sharing racist propaganda with high school students, kicking off three years of intimidation, harassment and threats — that was extremism.
When former District 1 Rep. Heather Scott called Idaho Gov. Brad Little “Little Hitler” and, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, compared Little’s stay-at-home order to the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were systematically murdered, that was extremism.
When Bonner County Commissioner Dan McDonald took to social media to urge “some Bonner County folks” to turn out to a protest he erroneously believed was led by Antifa, but turned out to be a group of teenagers, who were then followed by grown men in battle dress openly carrying guns — that was extremism.
When these gun-toting dorks menaced downtown Sandpoint later that night under the guise of “protecting businesses from riots,” that was extremism.
When gubernatorial candidate Ammon Bundy stormed the Idaho Capitol six months before the Jan. 6 insurrection and had to be arrested and carted out zip-tied to a swivel chair by the police, that was extremism.
When District 1 Senate candidate Scott Herndon and several of his young children held up giant posters of aborted fetuses at the Sandpoint Farmers’ Market and Sandpoint High School, then later unsuccessfully sued the city of Sandpoint because of the Festival at Sandpoint’s no-weapons policy — that was extremism.
The examples are easy to recognize for many of us. For others, not so much.
Some might snort and say, as McDonald once told me (I’m paraphrasing here): “Extremism depends on what point of view you’re looking from.”
From my point of view, that’s a load of crap. The people who support these ideas are the same ones who fly Confederate battle flags from their trucks; who referred to the Jan. 6 insurrection as a “normal tourist visit”; who casually use racial epithets in public; who call people “libtards” and “cucks”; who demonize people to the degree that a deranged follower breaks into the speaker of the House’s home and brutally beats her 82-year-old husband with a hammer, then chuckle about how it was just a lover’s spat.
Extremism is a disease that seems less deadly the more we accept it. But it must always be rejected, whether from the extreme right or left of a political party, because watered-down extremism is equally dangerous.
The rest of us live somewhere near the middle, waiting for a time when we don’t have to feel “crazy” for supporting basic things like human rights, law and order, accountability and civility.
As long as I’m involved, the Reader will continue to remind you every week that no, you’re not crazy for believing in these things.
Far from it.
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