Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about collectivist and individualist trends in America and the modern health of the nation.
*Interview conducted on March 30, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, we may be entering a once in a century issue. A pandemic that has been compared to, maybe not with the same severity but certainly compared to, the Spanish Flu in 1918/19. In the United States, New York state is where the pandemic disease is leading. What are some of the preliminary thoughts on that fact? That New York state in the United States is leading the pack in cases of coronavirus?
Jonathan Engel: New York City is the center of the world. As I sit here in New York City, in my apartment with nowhere to go, it is not surprising to me in a lot of ways. Because it makes some sense. Not trying to sound too arrogant about it, but we get a lot of visitors. We get a lot of visitors. People came here to work, people for meetings, people for conferences and, of course, millions upon millions of tourists. Of course, the other thing is we live on top of each other. I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in South California, near San Diego yesterday. I was thinking. Then he goes out to do something. He gets to his car. He has bought himself. He goes there. I go out to do something. I get into the subway. I am packed like a sardine.
Engel: Because we live on top of each other, in terms of our homes, of course, we have apartment buildings. My sister the other day, she lives in a house in the suburbs. I said, “Do you want to go out and take a walk? You don’t have to go down the elevator and share with the other people going into the lobby, where there might be other people.” It is harder. Because we have so many visitors, and so many people coming out of the city, and because we live so right on top of each other. It is not surprising that New York would be the epicenter, with New York City, generally. It’s not at all surprising. Whenever that may happen or does not happen, or whatever it is, I am not surprised by it. I do not think this is God trying to punish the evil New Yorkers who live for being liberals, for not hating homosexuals. I think there is a more rational explanation for why New York is the epicenter. That is what I said because we have so many visitors coming in and out of the city.
Jacobsen: How is this pandemic being exploited by some religious leaders in the United States?
Engel: It’s an interesting question because I think every time there’s some disaster; there’s always some religious leaders saying, especially the orange conservative’s ones, saying, “Oh! This is all punishment because we allowed gay marriage, we allowed abortion,” or whatever else it may be. So, there’s always that case. It happens again, plenty of preachers are out there saying, “This is God punishing us for this or that or whatever.” Then, it occurs to them, and then it crosses their mind that this may be God’s punishment for us putting little 5-year-old South American kids in cages. They are Mexican born. I mean, maybe, God is punishing us for that or utterly ridiculous things, but there’s people out there and will always be out there. The danger is some of these people believe this stuff and that become even dangerous because there are pastors holding churches. I think it’s going down the number because they’re starting to see what’s going on but there are still some out there that are, “Oh, come on in. Everyone, come on in. We are not going to let these people tell us. We are not going to let government tell us that we can’t pray.”
Of course, you can pray. You can pray anytime and anywhere you want. You cannot gather, but there are still some saying that and that is a tremendous danger in this country. I mean, it’s not only religions. We have thousands of 20-year-old knuckleheads found on the beaches of Miami saying, “Oh, it’s Spring break. We’re going to party and we’re not afraid of that coronavirus.” So, it is not all religions, but it is a big factor. Jerry Falwell Jr., who is the president of Liberty University in Virginia, the son of the evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Sr., he reopened the school. There are universities across the country. I mean, all schools but also universities that closed. My older brother’s a professor at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. He is teaching via video, a video link, etc. That is how he is doing his lectures and that is how pretty much everybody is doing it, but Jerry Falwell Jr. decided, ‘President Trump wants us open; I’m going to be open.’ So, Liberty University is open and now. People at Liberty University are starting to test positive.
So, yes, there are definitely people who are looking to take advantage. Not to mention, there are religious people. It’s a better, nicer phrase than nut jobs, but they’re not “nut jobs” because they’re businessmen who are selling, handling fake cures. Jim Bakker, the famous Jim Bakker from the PTL network, he was involved in scandalous stuff. He is making a comeback with some crap that he saw on TV that he says will cure the coronavirus. So, there is another way that there are some. It is always holy water, words, whatever. Again, not all those conmen are religious in nature, but a lot of them are. Why? If you want to get people to believe in something that’s not real, religious people tend to be susceptible for that. So, that is another aspect of “you can do this” or “you can do that,” or “you can send me a hundred dollars” types of evangelists, whatever. It will protect you from the coronavirus. Some guy is saying in Florida, ‘I want my community coming on Sunday. It’s not killing my church. I will destroy the coronavirus. I destroyed it.’ It’s like, “Oh! That was you who did it? I should know that.” So, you got that thing going on. It’s extremely dangerous.
Jacobsen: Is this scummy, snake oil salesmanship simply more naked during the pandemic?
Engel: You would think so, but there’s always money to be made. I think it was P.T. Barnum who said this, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Maybe, there was H.L. Mencken. I think he is the one who said, “You would never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” So, there is always going to be somebody out there. It is sad in so many ways because you are going to give people hope and what you’re peddling is not going to help.
Jacobsen: In the United States, after the Second World War, there was the Healing Revival Movement. It has been called this in retrospect by historians. This was a collective movement of several prominent, eventually men, fundamentalist Christian men, who led large numbers of people. Often, they based themselves on fear. Others, they based themselves on the presentation as God’s main modern-day prophet. William Branham in The Message (Branhamite theology) portrayed himself as some last prophet of God, basically, the last prophet. With a lot of these cases of religious fundamentalism tied to snake oil salesmanship in the United States in the midst of the pandemic, is there a possibility, a real possibility, of something like a revivalist movement, as there has been a large number of religious revivals in the United States through its history at turbulent points when people are looking for answers?
Engel: Sure, it is possible. Of course, I hope not, but, of course, it is possible because when many people get overwhelmed with things that are difficult to understand, etc. They want some answers when it is a complicated world. During a tragedy, you said, after World War II, or now, sure, there are some people who will be more drawn. “Give me a simple answer. This is horrible. I lost a loved one. I have lost whatever, and I feel loveless. Please, give me something that I do not have to think for myself. I do not have to work things out to myself. Somebody or some institution that will tell me how to live, what to do and promise me heaven because right now, Earth looks hell. So, promise me that I’ll be in heaven someday.” There is an appeal to that. I understand that, but I do not know. I am pessimistic, but I am wondering. Hoping, that maybe, it will flip the other direction. I mean, listen, look at it this way, a couple of things that are the right wing’s way of looking at things. Both religious and nonreligious, certainly, question to people who are willing to view a possibility that is not supernatural.
For example, obviously, there has been a lot of praying going on that does not seem to be working. There was no effect. It was 2 weeks ago that Trump called for a day of prayer in the United States to fight coronavirus. A couple of days later, I read in a magazine, Patheos, a headline that said, “Prayer vs. Coronavirus. We have a winner.” And it was not prayer. So, people see that that is not the way out. That is not going to work. Do people say, “Hmm, maybe, that doesn’t work”? But also, in this country, it has been an anti-government. The right wing has been anti-government since the days of Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan used to say things, ‘The scariest things in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,’’ or something like, ‘Government is not the solution, it’s the problem.’ So, there has been a desire among the right in this country to dismantle the federal government. What they do is, when they are in power, they enact people in the country. So, when democrats are in power and say, “Okay, I want to propose the Affordable Care Act or Medicare,” the response is, “We do not have the money. We’re going to run out of money.”
“You passed a trillion dollars for the richest people in the country. That is why we don’t have the money.” “I don’t know, but we don’t have the money.” Maybe people are starting to realize, I hope, that there are some things requiring not only the government as a solution, but a federal government’s solution. This one of them. I mean, we have states right now, out there competing, driving up the price of ventilators, which are desperately needed to save people’s lives because there is no federal coordination of it. I mean, the federal government could. This is an emergency. The federal government could say, “Okay, states, we are going to buy all the ventilators. There will be no competition and we will allocate them to the states. We will have expected that if we give ventilators to say, New York City, right now, then they start coming down while other areas of the country are going up. Then New York City will then pass the ventilators along to other places that needs them more when New York City doesn’t need them. Federal government is going to do that.” I mean, there is no private enterprise that is going to ensure that each day gets a fair proportion of the supplies etc. They are not going to do that, and in states where government can’t do that by themselves. So, I’m hoping that people will see that sometimes; we need a federal government response or something that only the federal government can do and then you bridge over to health care. I am hoping that people get a look and say, “Listen, we have to have every person covered in this country.”
We can’t have a situation where people are like, ‘Oh, I can’t go to the hospital. I do not feel good. I have got a fever. I have been coughing. But if I go to the hospital, they may admit me and then I am going to get a bill for a hundred thousand dollars. Then, I ain’t got it. I ain’t going to the bank. I ain’t losing any penny I have. I’ll try to wait it out.” That will pass the infection further. I’m hoping that, at least, some people realize, who have been against the federal government and against ObamaCare. Because they didn’t like Obama and were against Medicare for All because of the perception of socialism. It is seen as socialism. Give me a freakin’ break. I’m hopeful that people will look at this at the least and say, “Okay, we got to have a system where everybody’s got covered, where everybody’s got access to health care that’s not going to bankrupt me.” I do not know; I always think of myself as a pessimist. I am not optimistic about that, but I do hope. I do hope that people will come to that light and, at least, look back even if they do not give up their religion, which would be nice too. But we have to get off this nonsense about socialism, medicine, and all the rest of that nonsense and realize, “It’s 21st-century America. We must have, must have, must have a health care system that is for everyone. Every person in the country. You get sick. You will get covered. You will not go bankrupt. We are all going to pay to that together.” Do you have something like that in Canada?
Jacobsen: By accident of history, we do not have national pharmacare. If we had national pharmacare, then we could have a national bargaining system, in other words, with large pharmaceutical companies. We do not have it. We are worse for it, in terms of a value in Canadian society around equity rather than autonomy. If you talk to a leading medical expert, in terms of what do nation’s value in their medical system, Canada and most other Western countries place the value on equity. Hence, they have national health care; and in other cases, they even have national pharmacare systems to help with the general health of the public. In other words, everyone gets a reasonably comprehensive package of medical care. This is part of something akin to a John Rawlsian social contract.
Jacobsen: In the United States, they have a value of autonomy, of freedom, of “my way or the highway,” and then ‘government ain’t going to tell me what to do.’ This is autonomy. So, if you take an objective evaluation of values, then the United States and its emphasis on the individual where people can be free to speak their minds, more or less, and write what they want more than any other country in the world, as per the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This bleeds in to values of freedom that influence things in terms of what people want in a health care system. Of course, this is probably going to change as values shift overtime, but in the short term, at least, Canadian society values equity over autonomy and the United States values autonomy over equity. This value difference is one of the big differences in the reasons for the types of health care systems. This came in through Tommy Douglas provincially, and then this was quickly seen as reasonable thing among Canadian province to province, and then it went to federal level with Lester B. Pearson. Now, since the 1970s, we have a national health care system for the better. At the same time, the Humanist Association of Canada, Humanist Canada, was formed 51 or so years ago with Henry Morgentaler, who almost singlehandedly brought about freedom for women in this country around reproductive rights. He was a medical doctor. So, that idea of a national health care system and Humanism; all these other things are intimately tied up with one another.
Engel: Yes, I think that is a good point. One of the things that I have said for a while is that, one of the things that troubles America is that Americans have seen too many John Wayne movies.
Engel: And they think that the answer to the problem is one guy coming into town and taking care of all the bad guys.
Jacobsen: Or the occasion of Uma Thurman Kill Bill.
Engel: Yes, [Laughing] okay, the American thinking is the guy sitting on a horse. New York City’s police department still has horses. So even though, I am a city guy. I think of the horse.
Jacobsen: That is not surprising to the Canadian police forces, to have horses. Some will wear the same costumes during parades and stuff. Those big red-and-brown costumes.
Engel: Yes, for parades and things, it is a good idea for the horse because they are both mobile, give a police officer of view of everything that is going on around them that they would not see if they’re staying on the ground. But I do think that is true, though. I think that there is such a history in this country. Of the rugged individualism, is what we call it, you can be drowned. That is the thing too. For a number of years now, you see happy stories about some guy who’s sick and couldn’t pay his $50,000 medical fees, so, maybe, a charity steps in or, maybe, they did a GoFundMe page for the guy. You see all these stories, or all of people who contributed to the GoFundMe to the help a person who was sick and didn’t have health insurance and didn’t have money to pay for it. It is all great on a micro basis. But now, we are seeing the whole damn country getting sick on a macro basis. We cannot set up a GoFundMe page to help everybody who’s going to need help in this situation. You can talk about charity. Charity is wonderful, but, sometimes, the response that needed in this situation is so huge and so overwhelming. Charity not going to do it; GoFundMe is not going to do it.
The only thing that can do it is a federal government. The only thing that can do it. It is the only thing that can address a problem like this. If an individual, what are you going to when a person shows up with symptoms of coronavirus who has no health insurance and no way to pay for care? So, when it was not coronavirus, what do you do with a person who shows up with cancer? What do you do with a person who shows up with a broken leg? You are going to turn them away? And there are people in this country who would say, “Yes,” to that, “That’s their problem. They didn’t do what they needed to do,” or whatever it is or etc. There is that rugged individualism, which can work into callousness easily and quickly. But this situation that we have now, if you could take that paper and show up at the hospital, and if they’re coughing and a high fever, you can’t say, “You are on your own. Go ahead! Sorry.” Because you are going to send them back out there. How many more people are they going to infect? This is a nationwide problem. They require us all to work together. Rugged individuals are not going to do it. Again, my hope, maybe, in there is that people look and say, “Yes, there are times that challenges to the United States of American require a collective response rather than the rugged individualism alone because the rugged individualism is not going to do it.” If we’re prepared to do things only for ideological reasons or whatever else it may be, we’re going to suffer for it.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jon.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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