'Hitlers' is a solid analysis
Special to The Seattle Times
"A Hundred Little Hitlers" is going to be a hard sell. It's about the beating death of an Ethiopian by skinheads in Portland in 1988, and how, after plea bargains, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a civil suit not against the skinheads but against a neo-Nazi in California, Tom Metzger, who they claimed created the atmosphere that led to the death of the Ethiopian. A neo-Nazi gets the shaft. Most people will react: And?
That question haunts the book: And? Another racist murder — one 15 years old now — in which the killers were caught. Why should I care? Portland author and Nation contributor Elinor Langer divides her book into two sections — "History" and "Law" — and attempts to answer that question in the preface. She writes, "When the history of a political movement is seen through the calculus of the law: when the law, which should itself be subject to history, is instead its source: when the transcript of a political trial becomes the principal historical record, which is what happened in this killing: too much is omitted." Later she implies that those who ignore their history are doomed to repeat it — a better if not wholly satisfying answer.
Yet this prism of history and law through which Langer reflects the killing of Mulugeta Seraw is precisely what makes "A Hundred Little Hitlers" worth reading. This is no hand-wringing account. Langer is constantly challenging our assumptions. That I disagreed with her half the time isn't criticism. Just the opposite.
The facts: In the early hours of Nov. 13, 1988, a car full of Ethiopians and a car full of skinheads crossed paths in Portland; words were exchanged, a fight broke out, and Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat by Ken Mieske, a racist skinhead. The killing made headlines; the headlines "screamed." According to Langer, Portland has an uptight, politically correct puritanism (not unlike Seattle's) and its residents couldn't believe such a thing could happen in their city.
The trouble: Langer finds fault with almost every step of the legal process. At first the trial of the three skinheads is too political. "It was precisely who they [the skinheads] were that was on trial," she writes. When the state decides to try each skinhead separately, the political show trial disappears, but this isn't good either. It opens the way for deal-making, and plea bargains, and when Mieske admits his guilt in exchange for a minimum 30-year sentence, suddenly there's no trial — and no discussion — at all.
When the trial re-emerges, in a civil lawsuit brought about by Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center, its focus is no longer bad Oregonians but a bad Californian, neo-Nazi Metzger, who sent his representative Dave Mazella to Oregon to stir things up. "This time Portland would not be judged," Langer writes. "It would be the judge."
Langer is excellent at describing the Byzantine legal process in layman's terms, and equally good at telling the histories of each major participant. The section, "Underground," in which she describes how Mieske, Kyle Brewster and Steven Strasser became skinheads, is fascinating, disturbing reading. It's as if she's lifting up our house and showing us the ugly, creepy things crawling in the dirt beneath.
For a time, I even thought this was the point of the book. These ugly, creepy things may damage the foundation of our house! Later, when she became critical of the way Dees and the SPLC went after Metzger, I thought her point was almost the opposite: The exterminator is doing more damage to our house than the ugly, creepy things he's trying to eradicate. In the end, though, her point seemed to be this: The exterminator got rich, and the ugly, creepy things are still there.
Sometimes Langer is too in love with her own energetic voice (the grandiose "when ... when ... when" quote is an example), and she uses her own brand of puritanism to judge the salesmanship of Dees. But her insights and provocations make "A Hundred Little Hitlers" and its disturbing subjects — dare I say this? — fun. Yes: Racism bad. But even under this umbrella, there's still a lot to argue about.
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