Iowa, life, Winterset

How I pissed off a bunch of my old friends by writing about racism in the small Iowa town I grew up in

I pissed off a lot of people — old friends from Winterset, mostly — the last time I wrote in this space. I’ve been stuck as to what to say since.

The intent was not to upset people or settle 30-year-old grudges. There was a time in my life when I would have enjoyed that, but I hope I’ve outgrown the need to provoke simply for reaction’s sake.

In reality, it was another childish ideal that caused me to write about racism I witnessed — and was regretfully party to — while I grew up in Winterset: I keep trying to get people to think about things from a different point of view.

One of the many reasons I became a journalist is because things my family endured — and feared — while I grew up in Winterset. My family went broke refurbishing a red-brick mansion about 4 miles west of Winterset. We were so broke that we didn’t have enough money to cover the big windows at the front of the house.

So, we hung sheets for privacy, probably unnecessarily because visitors whizzed by at 55 mph or more and the house was a good quarter mile away from the road.

People made fun of us for our window coverings. Well, I don’t know if they did or didn’t. My dad worried that they did. He was ashamed of his financial status and, real or imagine, he worried the community would judge him for not having enough money for expensive drapery.

After my dad died, my mom and I lived in a small house by the high school. My mother struggled with addiction to opioids — stuff that isn’t even legal to prescribe anymore — and probably a series of undiagnosed mental illnesses. For reasons unclear to me, she decided to pay a service to mow our lawn instead of buying a lawnmower and letting me do it.

The dye was cast. That doughy Finney boy was so lazy he wouldn’t even mow the lawn at his own house for his poor, elderly mother.

This perception of me was so ironclad that it was thrown in my face multiple times, sometimes by teachers. No amount of my attempts to correct this rumor with the fact that my mother, while crazy, was still the adult in the house and the idea not to buy a lawnmower was hers, not mine.

I took to journalism in part because I thought I could set the record straight with facts and supporting information. I believed a well-reasoned argument should be at least be considered.

Small towns can be wonderful. They can also be vicious, especially on the matter of rumormongering.

The last time I wrote, I tried to ask my classmates from the small town I’m so found of to think differently about the things we said and did as they related to one of our classmates of Asian descent after the deaths of Asian-Americans in shootings at Atlanta salons.

Not everyone bullied the classmate in question, nor did everyone use racial epithets that I described, but a lot of us did. I did. And I admitted I was ashamed and had changed as an adult.

The discussion started off nicely enough. Some people apologized. The person I was writing about thanked me for the piece.

This changed.

The subject of the column started calling people out for things done more than 30 years ago. By name. And those folks weren’t too keen on being associated with racist acts. And other people remembered events differently than she did.

I received text messages from the subject of the column with screen shots of the arguments and the caption “I’m having so much fun!”

The arguments heated up. Some people came to me directly and asked me to moderate comments. I appealed twice in comments for everyone to settle down and just think about what we were talking about from a different perspective.

That was a failure.

Then the subject of the column turned on me. She asked me to take it down. I declined. The rhetoric intensified. I banned her from the page and deleted the comments.

I know one or two people put some thought into what I wrote about last week. But many didn’t.

What a waste of time and energy.

I still love my friends from Winterset. I would not be who I am today without them. It still hurts a little that I wasn’t able to graduate with my class, but that worked out OK, too.

But this small-scale incident is one of the large-scale reasons why I don’t know if I could ever be a journalist again.

Almost nobody wants to think. People are quick to yell. The facts are elusive and made irrelevant by the stubbornness in all our minds to see things in a way that supports our existing conclusions.

Nobody likes to be challenged. Journalism is the act of challenging.

Or it was.

Today it’s about Fruit Loops pizza.

I digress.

The whole affair reminds me of a story about the poet and author Charles Bukowski. A reporter rode with Bukowski on an airplane sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when Bukowski wrote strange screeds for the alternative newspapers in California.

Bukowski was drunk. He clawed at the flight attendants and made a boorish fool of himself.

Some weeks later, the reporter saw Bukowski’s byline in one of those alternative papers. He told the story on the plane, except in Bukowski’s version it was the reporter who was a lout and Bukowski who looked with embarrassment.

The reporter ran into Bukowski sometime later and asked him why he said that.

“Hey,” Bukowski said, “I’m the hero of my shit.”

I think we’re all a little bit like Bukowski. We all want to be the hero of our own shit. And we’re willing to lie to ourselves hard enough that we actually believe it.

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311. Zelle: newsmanone@gmail.com. Venmo: @newsmanon. PayPalpaypal.me/paragraphstacker.

des moines, News, Winterset

Recognizing the anti-Asian racism of my Iowa youth

A childhood friend texted recently. She was angry about the gunman who attacked a series of Atlanta spas, killing eight people including six of Asian descent. She worried about the attacks on elder Asians in San Francisco.

My friend is of Chinese descent. Her father was an Iowa farmer who fought in the Vietnam war. He met and married a Chinese woman. They settled in Winterset. They opened a Chinese restaurant on the edge of town.

My friend struggled growing up. She was the only minority face in our class and among a very small number of minorities in Winterset. This is typical of most small towns in Iowa.

But until recently, until the protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last summer, I never bothered to look at the world from my friend’s perspective.

She was the only person who looked like her. We grew up in the 1980s and anti-Asian talk was common. Parents remembered Vietnam. Grandparents remembered World War II.

People still gave cold stares to anyone who bought a Japanese car.

People used regularly the racial slur “chink.” My friends did. I am ashamed to admit, I did, too.

We referred to her, our classmate and peer, like that in casual conversation. I remember it clearly and it turns my stomach.

I offer no defense. There isn’t one. I spoke in ignorance. I thought only of myself and trying to be cool or thought of as the funniest guy around.

Not everybody behaved that way. She named classmates who were kind, who were friends she treasured.

I apologized to my friend for the words I used, my immaturity and my ignorance. She said I was never the problem and she didn’t remember being angry with me. It was small comfort.

My friend endured a lot. The anxiety she suffered from daily bullying and racial insults gave her an eating disorder in high school. She lost her hair. Can you imagine being a teenage girl and losing your hair?

I had moved away by this time to finish school in Des Moines. The story goes that one day my friend wore her wig and another classmate, also a friend, pulled it off her head and ran down the hallway as she chased him.

My friend took her grievances to the school counselors. She complained of the bullying and racial epithets. One counselor, she said, just stared at her without blinking. Another told her she would need to toughen up.

The counselor told her parents – in front of her – that she would never succeed in college.

They were wrong. We were all wrong. She graduated from Iowa State. She went on to become a famous hairdresser in Chicago. She worked “The Jerry Springer Show” and “Jenny Jones.” She moved to Florida and began competing in Iron Man competitions around the world.

She’s married now and lives in California.

She told me a sweet story about her daughter coming home from second grade one recent day. The private, Christian school her daughter attends celebrated multi-cultural week.

Her daughter learned that her friend was from Africa. The child was so excited to have a friend from Africa and wanted to know more. My friend spent time with her kids looking up facts about where the child grew up.

“I wish I had grown up with this kind of inclusiveness and I loved that my own daughter saw things as they should be,” my friend said.

I spent most of my life rolling my eyes at things like multi-cultural week. I never bothered to understand the violence inherent in my words as a child and too far into my present.

In mind, I didn’t understand hatred toward Asians. From the perspective of a white man, they seemed to acclimate so well. Many own businesses. Their children were high achievers in school.

The fault in that thinking, of course, is that it’s from a white guy. I haven’t lived in world where I have to bite my tongue every time someone uses derogatory words at or near me.

I didn’t have to suppress my culture – reading comics and playing video games – because it was the dominate culture. I missed out on learning about my friend’s experience because of white privilege.

White privilege gets mocked in the conservative community. I see white privilege as having the freedom to ignore the struggles of others, especially Black and brown people and the LGBTQ communities, because the culture doesn’t force them to see it.

My friend could never ignore or rise above racism because it was always there, in her face, every damn day.

She’s doing well. She’s happy.

Then some asshole in Atlanta shoots eight people to death at massage parlors. More assholes beat old men in San Francisco.

And my friendship with my classmate helps me see those events better, understand the sinister underpinnings of racial hatred that had always been present in my life – all the way back to grade school.

I ignored it because I was allowed to. Now I understand a fraction better. All it took was the suffering of a fellow human being and classmate to finally shake me awake.

What, I wonder, will it take for me and the rest of us to do something about it?

Daniel P. Finney writes columns for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I continue writing while I pursue my master’s degree and teacher certification. I’m freshly unemployed and have a big tax bill to pay. All donations are greatly appreciated and needed. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.

Faith and Values, Iowa, Movies, Pop Culture, Winterset

John Wayne: Iowa’s cultural icon or a ‘rotten SOB?’

Some California Democrats want Orange County to strip John Wayne’s name off their airport because of some racist and homophobic things he said in an interview.

Wayne, of course, was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset in 1907. He became one of the most successful actors in history. He died in 1979 at age 72.

The damning Wayne quotes come from a 1971 Playboy interview. Wayne supported white supremacy, referred to gay men as perverts and a common homophobic slur and demeaned Native Americans.

I read the interview text. No context has been stripped. Racist thoughts came out of his mouth the way bullets came out of his six-shooter in his Westerns.

It’s ugly and sad.

I don’t know what the fine people of Orange County should do about their airport name.

I suggest they not pick a person.

Who could live up to the scrutiny?

We’re all sinners and these days there’s a concentrated effort to make sure every sin is paid even posthumously.

Thank God the Duke didn’t have Twitter.

I wondered if the flap over the airport would affect the John Wayne Birthplace and Museum in Winterset. I called Brian Downes, the former Chicago Tribune reporter who is executive director of the attraction.

“We’ve been packed lately,” Downes said. “I don’t know how many for sure we had, but they were backed up out the door.”

Wayne has kept his drawing power in ways other Iowa legends haven’t. Cleveland Indians legend Bob Feller died in 2010 and the museum in his native Van Meter soon followed.

The museum is now Van Meter’s city hall with a large exhibit honoring “the heater from Van Meter.”

Wayne, however, died 41 years ago. People still keep coming to see the screen legend’s birthplace.

What to do with the legacy of Wayne provides an interesting challenge for Iowans.

I grew up in Winterset. The main street through town was named in his honor when I was a kid. I watched Wayne Westerns with my dad.

“The Quiet Man” is my favorite romantic movie. “True Grit” and “Rio Bravo” are as good a way to winnow away a lazy Saturday afternoon as I can muster.

Wayne made good art.

Well, sort of.

As fiction, they’re harmless, but I worry too many people think John Wayne Westerns are in any way a historically accurate portrayal of how the Western United States was “settled.”

They’re not. And one could make a strong argument that so many movies, both by Wayne and scores of other Westerns, have badly mislead Americans about the history of this nation, especially atrocities against natives.

Wayne certainly held no empathy for Native Americans.

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from the Indians,” Wayne said in the infamous Playboy interview. “Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

Phew. It gets harder and harder to like this guy every quote I read.

The dictum of this era is that I should renounce Wayne, maybe burn a photo of him and post the video to Instagram to prove how sensitive I am.

But I never watched a John Wayne movie because of what the Duke thought about politics, race or history. I did not take my idea of what it is to be a man from his characters, either.

I watched them to be entertained. That I am entertained by those movies may rankle some people, but I generally believe what I do with my own time is my own damn business.

As for Wayne, don’t look for Winterset to burn down his birthplace and topple the nice bronze statue out front of the museum.

The birthplace is a private not-for-profit outfit. They’re not a public entity and as such not subject to the whims of cultural waves. Wayne’s association with Winterset will be preserved.

Some people will think this is a bad idea, that Wayne should be loathed rather than adored.

But that is the short-sighted nature of things these days. Everything is a dichotomy. Sinners and saints. Good or evil. Hero or villain.

But that all-or-nothing approach is not human nature.

Wayne once said, “Each of us is a mixture of some good and some not so good qualities. In considering one’s fellow man it’s important to remember the good things…

We should refrain from making judgments just because a fella happens to be a dirty, rotten son of a bitch.”

I condemn Wayne’s comments in the Playboy article. They’re indefensible.

But I believe people are more than one thing. I believe a person can create art and say terrible things. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves, yet without their guiding hands, we would not be here to debate the propriety of honoring them.

Like most things, it’s all a matter of perspective. The Bible offers some stern guidance on the matter of idolatry.

Maybe we should look at Wayne less as a cultural hero or icon of manliness and simply see him as a man.

All men have the capacity to be good and rotten SOBs.

Cut loose and cashiered by corporate media, lone paragraph stacker Daniel P. Finney makes his way telling stories about his city, state and nation. No more metrics or Google trends, he writes stories about people and life ignored by the oligarchy.

ParagraphStacker.com is free, reader-supported media. Please consider donating to help me cover personal expenses as I launch this new venture continuing the journalism you’ve demanded. Visit paypal.me/paragraphstacker.