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Fear of outsiders contributes to N.D. isolation

Last week's column brought a number of reactions, including an argument from a UND faculty member who said that the column itself underlined one of the attitudes that's holding North Dakota back.

The professor found evidence of xenophobia in the fact that I felt it necessary to point out that I'm a native North Dakotan facing my 53rd winter here.

Xenophobia, my dictionary says, is "an unreasonable fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of what is foreign or strange."

We're guilty, I think.

There is a natural tendency to cleave to the familiar, but North Dakotans have made being from here into one of the criteria for acceptance and success.

The last time a non-native was elected governor was in 1942, when John Moses won the office. Moses was born in Norway. Only eight years earlier, a governor was removed from office because he'd voted in Minnesota less than five years before he won office.

This might seem an anomaly -- but no one who wasn't born here has been elected to the U.S. Senate in an even longer time. Same with the U.S. House.

A look at political rhetoric suggests a strong strain of xenophobia, too. U.S. Sen. Milton Young used to talk about "eastern environmental extremists" who opposed the Garrison Diversion project. The project's most prominent critic throughout the '70s and '80s was born in southwestern Minnesota.

Similarly, the Herald dismissed Michigan Gov. George Romney, a Republican who was a presidential contender in 1968 as "an eastern liberal."

This kind of talk has a long history in the state. The Nonpartisan League, a major force in the state's political history for almost half a century (from 1915 until 1956), made "out-of-state interests" and especially "Big Biz" the targets of its criticism.

So North Dakota voters are bred to this kind of talk.

Sometimes nativism takes particularly ugly turns. The ugliest was the anti-semitic diatribes of Gordon Kahl, an activist in the Posse Comitatus who was involved in the shooting deaths of two federal marshals in 1984.

The Herald occasionally receives letters that attack specific groups of people. The latest example was an anti-Mormon screed sent after an interview with the new Grand Forks city administrator, a Mormon.

The streak of xenophobia in North Dakotans has a corollary. Newcomers feel threatened by it, often blaming it for the failure to support any number of programs, including funding for the university system.

Pretty clearly, we've gotten ourselves into a fix here. North Dakota can't make progress without attracting talented people from outside. At the same time, newcomers can't expect to be welcomed if they dismiss North Dakotans without attempting to appreciate what lies behind North Dakota attitudes.

This is a time of exceptional opportunity for North Dakota. The new global economy means the state can be connected as it has never been before.

It is also a time of extreme challenge. In order to take advantage of opportunities, we've got to be open to them. This means that we've got to be accepting of the people who bring the ideas, and the energy to act on them.

Too often, we aren't, and that's one of the attitudes that hold us back.

Jacobs is editor of the Herald.

Source: Grand Forks Herald August 20, 2000

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