Years ago, when I was carefree and broke and needed the money, I used to write a column for a local “alternative” newspaper. My assignment was to cover public lectures, discussions, and demonstrations and to illustrate the illogic of the participants simply by quoting them.
Editorializing was forbidden by the editor, but there was no need for it, since the easiest way to make certain people look foolish is to report their words accurately.
Most of the assignments I no longer remember, though I do recall taking notes at a talk given by Jane Fonda. Her topic was Cuba or the Sandinistas or some such thing. She had little to say but used many words to say it.
More interesting than her ideas was her fawning audience. I sat toward the back and paid more attention to her listeners than to her. Most of them no longer were young, but they reminded me of those screaming girls who greeted the Beatles when John, Paul, George, and Ringo first set foot in America.
Naturally enough, my article ended up focusing not so much on Fonda’s remarks as on those of her credulous fans. I was surprised (but should not have been) that even her most baseless comments received approval from the large contingent of well-dressed people from La Jolla.
She could have reported that she had just returned from speaking with Eleanor Roosevelt (by then long deceased), and everyone would have nodded in approval. The air in the auditorium reeked with credulity. She could have said anything and gotten away with it. In fact, she just about did.
Attending talks like Fonda’s was the exception. Such luminaries didn’t come to town too often. Anyway, I preferred local color.
Sometimes I found it at Balboa Park, far and away San Diego’s largest, a haven for people with opinions and soapboxes. Go there any balmy weekend, and you'll find the equivalent of Speaker’s Corner at London’s Hyde Park—maybe not as many speakers, and maybe none as colorful (Americans are blander than the English in such circumstances), but you won’t lack for entertainment.
But Balboa Park wasn’t a good stomping ground on cloudy days. Even during the least balmy weather I found more than enough for my column at the Unitarian church.
Instead of religious ceremonies, the Unitarians held sparsely attended lectures and small-group discussions, which made sense: why come together to worship when you’re not sure whether there is anybody to worship? The public events never featured big-name speakers, but I found them more instructive (and more amusing) than speeches by fading film stars.
The Unitarian church I visited seemed to be the last refuge for the socially eccentric. One fellow—he claimed that, as a boy, he survived the firebombing of Dresden—was known as “the U-Boat Captain” because that was the moniker he used when telephoning call-in radio programs, which he apparently spent most of his waking hours doing.
Another regular, an older man with a constantly furrowed brow, prided himself on his anticlericalism and spoke darkly in terms of the looming threat from “priestcraft,” meaning Catholicism. I never figured out what launched him on his crusade.
I had thought that “priestcraft” was a term used only by anti-Catholic Fundamentalists—as it would be used by my future debate opponent, the former priest Bartholomew Brewer, who ran a ministry designed to lure Catholics out of the Church and into real Christianity—but I learned that the term was popular with unbelievers of a certain stripe.
Perhaps the most entertaining of the bunch at the Unitarian church was a skinny young man who, a decade later, would come to head a nationally prominent organization of secular humanists.
To me, such men were living testaments to the futility of rejecting the Christian faith. They illustrated why nineteenth-century rationalism, prolonged through the twentieth century, had been a dead-end.
Like Ayn Rand’s Objectivists, they praised reason while hardly being able to wield it. They scoffed at the religious yet hardly could find their way through the simplest of syllogisms. (I learned that those who speak most loudly about being rational seldom are.)
However rich a mine the sessions at the Unitarian church were, my single favorite assignment happened out of doors at the University of California campus, where I covered a demonstration at the medical school.
Several dozen people were protesting the use of animals in medical research. After milling around the crowd for a while, I zeroed in on a clean-cut young couple carrying picket signs. Even from a distance they exuded naïveté.
“What are you objecting to?”
“We don’t think dogs and monkeys should be made to suffer in laboratories,” the young man replied. “Did you know that rabbits are killed just so cosmetics companies can test whether their new formulas are hypoallergenic?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” I said. “Do you oppose all forms of medical research on animals?”
“Yes, all forms. Animals are being killed in there,” he said, pointing toward the laboratories, “and that’s cruel. No one deserves to be treated that way.”
“But what if an experiment, performed on a dog, results in a new medicine or a new medical technique that saves the life of a child?”
“That wouldn’t make it right to kill the dog. A dog is just as valuable as a child and has the same right to live. There’s no essential difference between the two. You can’t go around killing one sentient creature for the benefit of another.”
The young couple turned out to be vegetarians, not surprisingly, but not for health reasons. For them, vegetarianism was a matter of ethics. (It didn’t occur to me to ask whether they thought it right to uproot plants, which also are sentient creatures.)
Seeing that I wasn’t making progress in talking about medical experiments, I turned closer to home.
“So you say you don’t believe in killing any animal, right?”
“But let’s say you discover cockroaches in your kitchen. Wouldn’t you kill them?”
“We don’t have cockroaches.”
“But let’s say you did. Wouldn’t you kill them?”
“You mean you’d just let them run around your house?”
“No. We’re not slobs.”
“What would you do about them?”
“We’d capture them and let them go at the house next door.”
This was said with a straight face. I marveled at the patience of their neighbors and at the blind alleys people end up in once they deny Christian anthropology.
Once you say a child is no more valuable than a dog, you can make no argument against sharing your table with bugs.