From neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan to the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, there is nothing more inherently pathetic than a bigot in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
This isn't to say that bigots aren't a pitiful sight as a general rule. As the philosopher Eric Hoffer noted in his classic monograph on mass movements and fanatical ideologies The True Believe, "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race, or his holy cause." Although this insight was meant to apply to all forms of political zealotry, it had special relevance for those based on hate. "Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life," he explained later in his book. "Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance."
Sadly, this tendency has been given a disturbing reality in my home state. According to a report released earlier in March by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which specializes in studying and monitoring hate groups in America, Pennsylvania is home to nearly three dozen organizations based around racial and/or religious intolerance.
Of these, more than three-quarters fall into one of two categories: white supremacists such as neo-Nazis (including the Creativity Alliance in Philadelphia and branches of the National Socialist Movement throughout the Lehigh Valley and East Pennsylvania), the Ku Klux Klan (including chapters in Export, Honesdale and York), skinheads (including The Hated in Philadelphia, the Keystone State Racist Skinheads in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and Volksfront in Pittsburgh), and white nationalists (including the Council of Conservative Citizens in Revere and the European American Action Coalition in Pittston); and black separatists, including the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ (branches in Allentown, Coatesville, Norristown, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), the Nation of Islam (branches in Chester, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), and the New Black Panther Party (in Philadelphia).
There are two ironies to all of this. The most obvious one is that these organizations exist in a polity that has long served as an exemplar of the very principles of religious, racial and cultural pluralism which these hate groups flout. From the first colonial charter drawn up by William Penn in 1682 (which guaranteed freedom of worship and established much of the framework for democratic governance later integrated into our federal Constitution) to our commonwealth's role as a center of abolitionist activity in the years leading up to the Civil War, it is hard to imagine a state whose history is less welcoming to intolerance than Pennsylvania. As the historian Henry Adams once put it, "Had New England, New York and Virginia been swept out of existence in 1800, democracy could have better spared them all than have lost Pennsylvania."
On a deeper level, however, there is the simple fact that these groups are on the wrong side of history. This is not to say that America doesn't continue to grapple with serious issues on its road toward racial, religious and sexual progressivism. Even as we are led by our first black president, we are also confronted with the rise of the Tea Party, with its heavy racist streak (as made clear by studies like the sweeping 2010 survey published by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Sexuality); with the likelihood that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected minority voters from discrimination at the polls, will be partially or entirely overturned by the Supreme Court; and with continuing signs of racial unrest, from the prevalence of gang violence in our inner cities to police brutality against profiled minorities.
At the same time, while immediate battles may be lost (the Supreme Court case on the Voting Rights Act comes to mind), it is worth noting that even the main culprits behind those manifestations of racial prejudice that persist today will still pay lip service to the principles embodied by Pennsylvania, even if they fail to uphold their spirit. This is hardly ideal, of course, but it underscores the simple fact that extremist groups like the ones identified in the new SPLC report are woefully out of touch with the zeitgeist of this era. In their quest for ideological fulfillment and a sense of personal meaning, they have transformed themselves into caricatures too cartoonish to be respected except by one another. That, more than anything else, underscores just how pathetic it is to be a bigot in Pennsylvania.