Sunday, March 3, 2019

Tara Westover's Educated: Questions re: the Anti-Government, Anti-Schools, Anti-Science, Anti-Medicine Lifestyle of Many Americans Today

Sorry to have been silent the past week. As I mentioned previously, I have had an onerous textual revision process on my hands, and I was also asked last week to do a media event on behalf of SNAP, which is calling on the Catholic bishop of Little Rock to explain why several names of credibly accused priests on other lists have been left off his diocesan list of credibly accused priests with ties to Arkansas, and to add those names to his list.

I am a writer person and not a t.v. person, and these kinds of things leave me feeling totally drained. I find myself bone-tired at the end of this week — and it's that growing sense of fatigue as the week went on that's my primary reason for not having posted here.

I have been mulling something over, though, and want to share my thoughts with you. Recently someone on Twitter whose recommendations I take seriously recommended Tara Westover's 2018 book Educated. I then went to Goodreads intending to add it to my want-to-read list and found I had already placed it in that list, though I have not yet had a chance to read Educated.

To refresh my memory about why I had wanted to read this book (and the Twitter recommendation makes me all the more eager to do so), I did a quick googling around to find resources about Educated and Westover. I am struck by these passages in her Wikipedia biography:* 

Westover was born in a small Idaho farming town (population 234). Her parents were Mormons following a self-sufficient lifestyle who were skeptical of public schools, doctors and hospitals, and the Federal government. As a result, Westover was born at home, delivered by a midwife, and she never visited a doctor or nurse. Her father’s ideology forbade all pharmaceutical interventions, which meant that Westover and her siblings were not taken to the doctor even for injuries sustained while working in their father’s junkyard. Instead, the children were treated at home by their mother who had studied herbalism and other methods of alternative healing. Because of the way her family lived, Westover was not registered for a birth certificate until she was nine years old, and by that time neither she nor her parents were certain of her exact birth date. ... 
In 2009, while a graduate student at Cambridge, Westover confided in her parents that for many years (since age 15) an older brother had been violent toward her. Her parents responded by denying the violence, suggesting that Westover might be possessed, and a schism occurred. The estrangement, and her unusual path to and through a university education, is the subject of her 2018 memoir, Educated

Here's why this biography of Westover strikes me forcibly: I know these people. But the iteration I know is not Mormon: it's hard-right Catholic. I am closely connected to a Catholic family some of whose members live exactly the cut-off, cultic, defensively suspicious, anti-science and anti-government lifestyle described here as a particular cultic version of Mormonism. You could create a checklist of points made in this biography of Westover about her upbringing in a cultlike Mormon family in Idaho, and start ticking off points that apply to the Catholic family I know, and you'd find that the checklists are almost completely synced with each other:

1. Skeptical of public schools, doctors, hospitals and the federal government: ✔︎
2. Children home-schooled (see #1 and "skeptical of"): ✔︎
3. Children born at home with widwifes but no doctors: ✔︎
4. Extreme hesitancy to have medical treatment for children: ✔︎
5. Refusal to vaccinate children: ✔︎
6. Use of herbs and poultices and "alternative" medical treatments by preference: ✔︎
7. Refusal to accept any critique of these norms by family members: ✔︎
8. Insistence that family members who critique these norms are demon-possessed: ✔︎

I know these people. But the version of them that I know is Catholic and not Mormon. Another item on their Catholic checklist, which is perhaps also on the Mormon checklist but not discussed in the Westover biography above, is raging resistance to abortion and insistence that a demon-possessed baby-killing Democratic party wants to legitimate infanticide. This raging resistance to abortion goes hand in hand with Rosary crusades, throwing oneself on the floor at Mass before receiving communion, spending nights in a private chapel set up in the parish church just for one's own sort to engage in perpetual eucharistic adoration, and lecturing around the countryside to women about ways to measure their vaginal mucus and take their vaginal temperatures to determine when they are or are not fertile, since contraception is evil.

My question: If I know these folks, but in a Catholic iteration, then how many other iterations of this very same "self-sufficient," anti-government, anti-schools, anti-science, anti-medicine, anti-women versions of this very same lifestyle are out there in the broad North American continent? And what is making people choose such "lifestyles"?

Where does the very obvious fear that produces such reaction (and, let's be honest, ignorance) come from? How did it get started? Who is massaging it and for what reasons? And what can the rest of us do about it, when a whole generation of Americans have been raised in such cultic versions of Christianity, and are now being overtly courted by the man in the White House and the party that stands behind him?

If, as Dave Eggers suggests, that man in the White House appears poised to win re-election in 2020 because so many Americans are furious (about the wrong things), increasingly willing to believe in nonsense (Ted Cruz told the man's followers in El Paso recently that they need to support the man in the White House so that he can "finish" a wall that is non-existent and has not been started, and they cheered him), ignorant and unwilling to learn, hostile to government except when my benefits and entitlements are at stake, gorging themselves on guns, what can the rest of us do about any of this?

In the Catholic context, if you're waiting for the U.S. Catholic bishops to address the toxic nonsense, to exercise pastoral and moral leadership to counter it, to expose the deep racism that is the Ur-root of all of this fear and hate, you'll be waiting for a very long time. They do not intend to oppose it, and how could they, having helped seed it, above all with their inflammatory lies about abortion and contraception (and same-sex marriage)? Why would they now try to rein it in?

These are some thoughts and questions I've been mulling over in a very exhausting week. Perhaps some of you have some ideas to throw into the hopper here, as we discuss these matters.

* I am not inserting links that you can see if you click and read the Wikipedia entry. None of them is, as far as I can see, documentation of something the article says. All point you to definitions of words or terms most of you will know like Idaho, Mormons, midwife, public schools, etc.

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