Thirty years ago, I thought I had all the answers. At 21, life seemed simple in some ways. Economically, things sucked—I was working at a job that paid 25 cents above minimum wage and I had a newborn son and wife to take care of. I was 1,500 miles from my family and support system in a post-industrial part of the country where the unemployment rate was hovering around 15 percent. But I was okay because I was in the center of God’s will.
It’s interesting when you believe that the answers to life’s questions are contained in a book that was written by men who lived 2,000 years ago. Whenever things didn’t go right for Mary and me, the solution offered by our spiritual leaders was to pray, give more money to Jack Hyles, and drag a few more converts down the aisle to get baptized at First Baptist Church of Hammond.
When I reflect back on those years in Indiana, I wonder, “what the heck was I thinking?” Actually, I wasn’t. I was relying on a prescriptive way of living my life, letting others decide for me what was wrong and right, dictating to me about how I should order my existence. To do otherwise was to self-identify as a follower of the Devil.
A black and white worldview provides comfort. In my case, it also put me under the power and sway of a demagogue, and it made life difficult for my young family.
Eventually, lights began going on for me. It’s likely that one of the catalysts that launched my questioning of the order of Jack Hyles was when me and my friend, as well as bus visitation partner, Doug, were told we couldn’t bring the 10 black children back to church with us the following week by our bus captain—this was definitely a red flag for me. These flags continued popping up and eventually, I mustered the courage to say to the powers that be at Hyles-Anderson College and First Baptist Church that this was racist and wrong. Later, I’d have to give an answer to many students that I’d see almost daily in my job at Westville Correctional Center. At first, I tried to be polite and accommodating. Finally, I started telling these Holy Joes not to talk about Hyles-Anderson ever again in my med room.
Just an aside; back in 1983, when I began making my way free of fundamentalist Xianity, I had to deal with people face-to-face. I had to stand up for what I believed, even though it was extremely tough for me as a young man in my early 20s. I couldn’t hide behind my cell phone, or social media moniker, either.
If you would like to know more about the detail of that period in my life and how I’ve gotten to this place, from there, I devote an entire essay to that subject in my new book, The Perfect Number: Essays & Stories Vol. 1. For the purposes of brevity, I will tell you that it was a particularly difficult thing to do, when you are young, and those in power are gifted at manipulation. It also isn’t reassuring when you are struggling to make ends meet, and you realize that you probably can’t go back home, at least in the near future.
Another thing I learned during my time in fundamentalist Xianity, was how much fear and even hatred was fueling this aberrant brand of theology. Sadly, at least from my current perspective, my friend Doug, never made it out. He’s now a pastor in Fort Wayne, perpetuating a religion that devalues women, people of color, Democrats, and anyone else that aren’t God’s “chosen people.”
Perhaps because of this experience during a formative time in my life, my antennae go up whenever I come within a few yards of similar ideologies riven with anger and that depersonalize other human beings. I’m also pretty sure my quest to educate myself in my own, DIY way, has a lot to do with eventually breaking free from following demagogues and false prophets.
Curing my propensity for seeking simple answers to complex questions came to me in the summer of 1997. I had walked away from a dead-end job that required me to work 70 hours a week, while being paid for 40. I often began my day at 2:00 or 2:30 in the morning and didn’t return home until after dinner and Mark and Mary’s day was winding down. I’d often be so exhausted that I couldn’t appreciate being at home. This period of wage slavery nearly destroyed what’s become a really great marriage.
For three months, I took up gardening and re-educating myself. In some ways, I was deprogramming myself through the books I found in the public library by writers like Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and other thinkers and intellectuals. I dug out books that I had packed away (and fortunately didn’t get rid of) during the dark years of fundamentalism from my high school period of rebellion—these were by radicals like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
No matter how hard you work at learning, unlearning, and relearning, the crap that gets forced into your head at the family dinner table and through other avenues designed to enforce conformity aren’t easy to completely rid yourself of. Sometimes, even when you think you are on your way to the intellectual promised land, some weird synaptic abnormality causes you to succumb to fear and the rule of the mob.
For me, 9-11 was when I rid myself of that last vestige of intellectual baggage from my past and familial training. One last brief foray through another branch of the American, evangelical tree, this time with the Vineyard denomination—they with their contemporary music and casual church vibe—couldn’t mask the American exceptionalism residing just beneath the spiritual veneer. When the pastor got up one Sunday morning and preached a sermon about the war in Iraq being a just war, offering that bombing civilians in Iraq as the will of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I looked at Mary and knew we were done with this kind of bullshit once and for all. I haven’t looked back over the past 12 years.
It’s interesting how “finding myself” and embracing reinvention began just after walking out of the Vineyard building off Route 196 in Lewiston. Free thinking and openness is a more fertile soil for perpetuating growth, not to mention the freedom that comes from throwing off the chains of control that demagogues always try to shackle you with.
On Wednesday night, I had the chance to see an old friend and have a few beers in Portland before heading back to the suburban hinterlands. We spent our time reflecting on the state of things politically, and the societal backlash against certain people, especially people who dare to stand up for themselves. I mentioned that the common thread in America uniting many seems to be fear and hate. He didn’t disagree.
When I read the comments on Facebook and see the irrational fear about Ebola, I’m reminded of that dark period in my life. Fear often emanates from ignorance. Ignorance gets perpetuated and acquires power from a lack of information. Often, this is willful. People choose to be willfully ignorant because if offers them false security. This security often engenders a smugness and a sense of moral superiority. Most demagogues, whether they’re religious or secular, try to control, or better—qualify information as either good or bad. If your leader is Paul LePage, then calling someone a liberal discredits whatever information they are offering.
Kaci Hickox is not a villain. While I don’t know her, her actions and courage speak loudly to me. You can only call her names and lob other vitriol at her because you lack the backbone and courage to make a difference in the lives of others. As I mentioned earlier—it’s so easy to demonize others behind the veil that technology affords all of us via the Internet. I admire Hickox. She left the safety of privilege here in America, to go to West Africa, where Ebola rages and is killing thousands. It’s an epidemic that warrants resources from the U.S. and other first world countries like ours. However, we would rather politicize the epidemic and demonize health care workers like Hickox. We hide behind our ideologies, ignorance, and yes, our keyboards. It’s easy being brave when you have anonymity, or at least, you don’t have to face those whom you are hating on.
It’s been nearly seven months since the Ebola outbreak was originally confirmed in Guinea. Doctors Without Borders—the organization that Hickox was working with—has been pleading for the world to act. They were the first and one of the only organizations on the ground in West Africa through the initial outbreak and subsequent epidemic. Until recently, their calls for help went largely unanswered by countries like the United States, and others.
On Thursday, Democracy Now had a segment on the Hickox story, as well as quarantining health care professionals like her. Amy Goodman had as one of her guest, Lawrence Gostin, university professor and faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. Gostin is also the director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law. He’s an expert on issues related to science, health, and what’s necessary concerning the Ebola virus. It was interesting to hear him citing liberty and confining individuals like Hickox, who’ve committed no crimes (except in the court of public opinion, on social media).
Gostin said that “the Supreme Court has said that if you confine somebody who has committed no crime, it’s, quote, ‘a massive deprivation of liberty.’ [It’s interesting that all the so-called libertarians seemed to have changed their tune. Why is this? Did Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh tell you that liberty doesn’t apply to outspoken women willing to stand for what’s right like Kaci Hickox?–jb]
Gostin went on to say that “It’s (confining individuals who haven’t committed a crime) not a trivial thing. We have to make sure that we balance civil liberties with public health. In this case, all the public health experts are telling us that it’s unnecessary—the CDC, the World Health Organization. There’s no organization that I know of that believes it’s right to quarantine for three weeks somebody that really is, as President Obama said, ‘is a hero.’ [But of course, for the deluded rubes who receive all their news and information from sources that aren’t motivated by journalism but ideology, you don’t consider Obama your president.–jb] They’ve sacrificed. They’ve done things that most of us wouldn’t do. They’ve put themselves at risk, gone in a compassionate way. And I do think we need to treat them better than we are. This is self-defeating. We think that we’re actually decreasing our risk by quarantining her, but actually we’re increasing it, because if we impede people from going to the region, then the epidemic there will spin out of control, and that is where our risk lies.” [Do you understand what Gostin just said? Quarantining Hickox and others is actually increasing the risk that Ebola could become a problem here in America. Again, this doesn’t jibe with your pet demagogue, whoever it is that’s leading you around by the ring through your nose.–jb]
Ebola continues raging and claiming lives, spreading to new countries. All most Americans can do is point fingers, engage in behavior reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, and leave us to wonder if Ebola could have been contained if it was addressed by heeding the warning of the medical professionals instead of the politicians.