Where I’ve Come From, and Where I’m Going

2017-in-roman-numeralsAs we start the new year I would like to share some of my thoughts and plans for both writing and activism in 2017, as well as some personal history that I have only briefly discussed on this blog before.

As readers of Κέλσος will know, I have a passion for ancient history and Greek and Latin literature, which inspired me to pursue a career in Classics in 2009. Before that major event in my life, however, I once had a career in politics.

It all started when I first went to college in 2005. I had been the debate captain at my high school, and I had a huge passion for politics. The 2004 election was very disappointing for me, when George W. Bush was reelected to a second term, with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. Bush had launched an unjustified (and expensive) invasion into Iraq during my sophomore year of high school, which I opposed from the beginning, and yet now even most Republicans agree was a mistake.

karin-uhlichWhen I attended the University of Arizona in 2005, I felt that I had to do something, and so I became an intern for the Democratic Party in Tucson. There was an election for multiple city council seats that year, and we were working to flip the majority of wards back to the Democratic Party. We succeeded. I worked particularly hard campaigning for Karin Uhlich (whom I have great respect for), and she became the new council member for ward 3, and still holds the seat to this day.

I kept working in politics in 2006, and became a staff member for the Patty Weiss campaign, during the Democratic primary for the Arizona 8th congressional district election. We didn’t win the primary, and lost to Gabrielle Giffords, who later went on to win the general election. This was a disappointment for me, but tragically, Giffords herself was shot during an assassination attempt in 2011. The event affected me quite personally, since I had met Giffords previously. I’ve sometimes wondered whether Weiss would have been shot, if she had won the election. Sometimes losing, I guess, turns out not to be so bad…

democratic-donkeyThe good news for 2006, however, was that the Democratic Party retook both the House and the Senate in Congress, impeding Bush during his last two years, under the leadership of Howard Dean as the new DNC chair. I personally had the chance to meet Dean earlier that year, as well as (then senator) Barack Obama. When I saw Obama at an event at Arizona State University, I was amazed at how much enthusiasm he generated among young people. I made a prediction then that he would one day become president of the United States (I thought it would be decades later, and had no idea it would happen in 2008!).

I became a bit disillusioned with campaign politics, after the primary defeat in 2006, and so in 2007 I took up some new jobs, working as a resident assistant in my dorm, while also holding jobs at the campus library, a university IT office (my worst job ever), and a local cemetery (my best job except teaching), all at different points during the year. It was quite a year for my resume!

arizona-supreme-court-sealIn 2008 I became involved in politics again, particularly judicial politics this time (which I always liked more than campaign politics). First, I served as an intern for the Pima County jail, doing work with the pretrial services department, which interviewed people in custody to see who we could release without bail. (For a discussion of how there is a huge bail crisis in this country, see this John Oliver episode.) Then, at the end of year, I was amazingly hired for an internship at the Arizona Supreme Court (only 2 applicants got the job out of a pool of 50). It was a great opportunity, and I helped work with the court’s liaisons with the legislature. Our job was to communicate the court’s financial and legal needs to the state’s senators and house members.

When I started working for the AZ Supreme Court in 2009, I spent a lot of time following the state legislature, and was assigned specifically to monitor the AZ State Senate. It was a bad year for state politics. We were right in the midst of the Great Recession, which had affected Arizona particularly hard with the housing bubble, and had caused a massive decrease in state revenues. A major cause for the budget crisis was the fact that a bunch of ad hoc tax policies had been implemented over the years, taxing luxury goods that tend to be purchased less during times of recession. I sat in endless meetings of the finance committee, where it was explained that state budgets have to operate on a three-pronged system, relying on income, sales, and property taxes, so that if any one source fails during a recession year, the other two can pick up the slack. This wisdom had not been headed in the past, and so the budget was hit even worse by the recession than the economy.

russell-pearceTo make matters worse, the Senate finance committee was chaired at the time by none other than Russell Pearce (one politician whom I can say that I have had the displeasure of meeting). Pearce was later ousted in a 2011 recall election (the first legislator in AZ history to be so removed from office), but at the time he was in control of one of the most vital committees in the Senate. Ron Gould was another member of the same committee, whose rants about taxes and Obama I had to listen to on several occasions. Gould assured us that we were heading toward “national socialism” in the next 4-8 years (sadly, he wasn’t that far off the mark, but for completely different reasons than he anticipated). The truth was that we needed to moderately raise state taxes that year, but thanks to men like these, several vital state agencies had their budgets gutted. They even tried to go after the AZ Supreme Court, but we had to explain to them that you can’t exactly shut down the third branch of government.

I also got to learn more about criminal justice during my time as an intern. I took a tour of several state agencies, including the probation department, the crime lab, and the Maricopa County jail. Having previously worked at the Pima County jail, I was appalled at the living conditions in Maricopa County. It was like the difference between East and West Europe! What had been a spacious, cool building in in Pima (lower temperatures were used to reduce fights between inmates) was instead a crowded, sweaty, and filthy building in Maricopa. At the time, Joe Arpaio was the country sheriff. Perhaps the only good thing about the 2016 election (aside from several states legalizing marijuana) was the fact that Arpaio was finally elected out office, after criminally managing the sheriff’s department for decades and committing several human rights violations. Strangely, I never once saw Arpaio while working at the legislature. There would be sheriffs from other counties that would spend hours driving down to the capital for meetings of the Senate judiciary committee, and yet Arpaio would always send one of his goons in his place. I guess, even working right next to the state capital, Arpaio had better uses for his time (such as wasting the tax payers’ money on more PR campaigns).

When visiting the probation department, I took tours with the officers, meeting both juvenile and adult sex offenders. It was certainly a learning experience. I met teenagers who had committed a single sexual offense when they were as young as 13 years old, and were now required to be on sexual probation for the rest of their life. There were also adult sex offenders who had committed crimes over 50 years ago, but still were required to be met with on a regular basis (even without any subsequent offenses), until they died. Of course, I know what they did was wrong and for some offenders it is necessary to monitor them that long, but it was also difficult to see how inefficient the system was. We really need to give judges more control over probation in circumstances like that, but instead their hands are tied by mandatory sentencing.

I learned a lot from the experiences above. I met the grieving parents of suicide victims working at the cemetery, I met couples that had been simultaneously arrested for domestic violence (and were kept in separate custody) at the county jail, and I met teenagers on probation, who were molested as kids and then committed sexual offenses against others a few years later, while taking tours with probation officers.

roy-spears

Roy Spears at an anti-reproductive rights demonstration

What amazes me is that, after all of these experiences, a street preacher at UofA, named Roy Spears, once arrogantly told me that I was only an atheist because I was “sheltered in college” and had “yet to see the real world.” Spears himself spends his time harassing women in front of Tucson abortion clinics, while celebrating the higher ratio of AIDS victims who are male homosexuals. Spears himself is also divorced, but when he found out that my partner Camille, who was a Christian when we first met (and whom I attended church with for some months), had deconverted and become an atheist, he predicted that our relationship was heading for disaster. We just recently had our 7th year anniversary, our relationship is strong, and we love each other now more than ever! 🙂

Although I learned a lot from the experiences above, I was actually quite unhappy in politics. Seeing just how dysfunctional and sleazy the government was in the AZ legislature, I started to wonder whether I could really stomach working in that kind of environment. Plus, at the same time, I had been cultivating another passion. I had been listening to ancient literature on audio book for a couple years now (which I started while shelving books at the campus library). Among the works I read were Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, the Iliad and Odyssey, Tacitus’ Annals, and Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars. (I especially liked Suetonius with all of his political gossip, which I could relate to.) I wondered more and more whether I had chosen the wrong career in life. I was originally planning, after my graduation, to apply to law school. But I imagined a life where I had become a scholar of ancient history and pursued my passion. And then I realized, at age 21, that it was not too late. So once my internship ended at the AZ Supreme Court, I left politics and law for good, and subsequently took my first course in Latin that summer. I also met my partner Camille later that year (2009 was a good year for me!).

Of course, this is the point in my story where we pick up with a portion of my life that most readers are familiar with–my work in Classics. And some may wonder: Why have I mentioned my earlier experiences above? Well, because 2016 was a royally crappy year, politically speaking…

When Obama was elected, I thought the country was heading in a good direction. It took a few years to get out of the recession, but since then there have been advances in civil rights (particularly with the national legalization of gay marriage), a steady growth in jobs, and improvements in national healthcare. I’ll admit, I haven’t always been a fan of Obama’s foreign policy, but out of all the presidents that I have lived under (Reagan, G.H.W.B, Clinton, G.W.B., and Obama), our most recent president has been the best. Now that he is about to leave office, I am almost certain that the incoming president will be the worst.

trumpWhen Donald Trump announced announced his bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2015, I thought that it was a complete joke. When he then preceded to deny John McCain’s heroism in war, to call Mexicans “rapists,” and to mock the handicapped, I thought he was done for. Then when it was Hillary Clinton versus Trump, I thought that the nation could not possibly be stupid enough to choose Trump (technically, the people of this nation didn’t, since the popular vote was in Clinton’s favor by almost 3 million). When he won the general election, however, one thing I was certain of is that he would not be able to keep his campaign promises. He’s already backed down on prosecuting Clinton, he will never build the wall on the Mexican border that his supporters shouted for (and Mexico will never pay for it), he won’t be able to deport millions of undocumented immigrants (totaling a number almost equal to the Holocaust), and he certainly won’t “drain the swamp” of special interest in Washington.

sign-guyLast year, the electoral college elected the least qualified president in US history, who has ties with foreign Russian politics, and who has used hatred and demagoguery to come to power. (I thought that George W. Bush had been a bad president, but geez.) I won’t bother listing all of Trump’s sins here. Most of my readers will already know many of them. What scares me most is his denial of climate change. The last two years have been the hottest on record, and the future doesn’t look much better. If you want to see what a world without the polar ice caps could become, see this disturbing video. I’m also worried about the Supreme Court. Working for a state judicial branch, I know how important good judges are. I consider it to be almost criminal and certainly unconstitutional what Mitch McConnell did in blocking the American people’s right to have Obama appoint the next SCOTUS justice. What’s worse is that the electoral college has now rewarded this unconstitutional behavior by making his obstruction work.

This has already been a long blog post, and listing all of my concerns could go on much longer. So, I’ll wrap up by instead talking about my plans. I originally left politics for a career in academia in 2009, and now 8 years later, I will have to consider what I can do to become involved again…

I’m not going to lie, when the November election results came in, I considered more seriously than ever before leaving the country. (If I am lucky to get an academic job overseas, I definitely will.) But if the education divide in this election has taught anything, this country needs more and better teachers. For that reason, I plan to stay in academia, and to teach people as much as I can about history and philosophy. I’m already scheduled to teach my own course on the Fall of the Roman Empire next summer (a fitting topic for 2017), and I plan to tie in the course material with some of the dangers that America could face in the upcoming centuries (particularly with climate change).

job-marketI’m planning to make my bid on the academic job market in 2017-2018, even though the market has been tough for some years now. To do that, I’ll need to make major progress on writing my dissertation, as well as publishing some articles. Once I overcome those steps, I think I will have a strong CV and application. But it will be busy work, and it will reduce the amount of time that I can spend blogging. Still, I am planning to do some book reviews over the next year, which I will discuss below.

My hope is to eventually land a tenure-track position in higher education (preferably in Religious Studies or Classics), but I know that is difficult. The truth is, I wouldn’t mind working as an adjunct (and I’ve even been given job offers in the past in the Cal State system, though my advisors cautioned me against accepting an adjunct position before I graduate). The only concern I have with adjuncting is money, but I’ve had excellent scholarships and fellowships over the years, so my debt is manageable, and my partner Camille has an excellent job as a science librarian, which would still be enough to support us. I’ll always be able to contribute to our household income by some form of teaching, but I’d also like to contribute a roughly equal amount. Either way, if we live cheaply, we can make ends meet. I’m also planning to open a Patreon account in the near future, for any readers who like to contribute to my work.

While having my hands tied with academic work, I still plan to be active in local politics. Camille and I have already attended some local anti-Trump demonstrations. Far more impressive is that fact that Camille is also running for election to be an assembly district delegate to the California Democratic Party. I’m so busy these days that I won’t be able to do too much for 2017, but I do plan to get involved in electoral politics again in 2018 (particularly for races and propositions where a real difference can be made), and I will definitely be working big time to help a progressive candidate getting elected in 2020.

“Growth of the Religiously Unaffiliated, 1972-2016.” Graphic courtesy of PRRI

But, if I can help anywhere, it is probably still in blogging and my Religious Studies work. There has been a great deal of progress in secularization in this country over the last several years, but Trump’s win still owed a large part of his support to evangelical voters. Fortunately, young people make up the demographic that is leaving religion most rapidly, and Christianity’s ties with Trump, I think, will only hasten its decline in this category. Through blogging over the years, I have already received emails from several Christians who have either left the religion, or modified their views. It was also encouraging, after I taught my first course on Religious Studies last academic quarter, to learn that a ton of my students were becoming interested in atheism and secularism. I never told them that I was an atheist until the end of class (I am very neutral when teaching courses on religion), and I worked to give arguments on both sides for every issue. But, without any prompting of my own, the students kept expressing atheistic opinions. I even had to make a special effort to call on Christian and Muslim students more often, to balance the perspective! I think that simple demographics alone will eventually diminish the votes that the GOP is getting from evangelicals.

But even more important than fighting religion, I also need to work to communicate better with believers, and to try to reach common ground. As I have discussed before, I was raised in a very religious Christian family, before I deconverted to atheism. I was taught from a young age to be vehemently opposed to abortion, even though my own research in later years made me definitively pro-choice. Originally, my parents (who were once both Republicans) taught me to embrace policies that eliminated welfare and social safety nets, but I was later able to help talk them out of these views (my mom is now a Democrat, and my dad seldom votes for Republican candidates, although he hasn’t left the party). I was also able to get my dad to stop supporting George W. Bush, due to the Iraq War. My parents likewise both no longer attend church, although they still identify as Christian.

I’ve spent many, many years talking to people who do not accept my religious and political views, partly out of necessity (I was always a minority in my family and community), but also through my political and social activism. One thing I have been complimented about by both Christians and former Christians on this blog is my ability to answer concerns that other secularist fail to answer. I’ll admit, I do not think that the New Atheist movement has been as effective as it could be, partly because it has failed to address concerns that believers have about philosophy and history (which I work to address in more detail on this blog). But, on the flip side, I also think that I have sometimes been too combative on this blog, particularly in the early years, even though I have worked since then to be more pro-secularism and less anti-religion.

climate-changeOne issue that I am going to work hard to communicate with conservative Christians on is climate change. My partner Camille is currently doing work, as a librarian, to document and combat climate change denial. One thing that I have always felt is very tragic is when Christians who oppose abortion, even if they do not support the GOP on other issues, vote down the ballot based on that issue alone. Some apologists, like William Lane Craig, have even encouraged them to do so. I think it is a terrible mistake. Partly because it gives a virtual blank check to candidates who are only using the issue of abortion to get votes (as they actually serve the agenda of special interest). But it’s also not just because I disagree with the anti-abortion movement’s philosophical position (as I discussed in my street-side debate with Ray Comfort). It’s a mistake, because the transcendent issue of our time is, in fact, human-driven climate change (which the GOP denies far more often than the Democratic Party). The fact is that miscarriages and abortions have existed in every period of human history, and will go on occurring until we improve reproductive health and birth control. The 21st century is no different than any other period when it comes to these issues (even if they are great concerns for you). But climate change is something very recent, and something that has the potential to threaten life as we know it.

While at both UofA and UCI, I have spent a great deal of time talking to pro-life advocates. I’ve been able to help some change or modify their views. But even if I can’t change someone’s beliefs on this issue, my goal will be to reach common ground on climate change and its political priority. The fact is that it makes no sense to try to have more people born in this world, when there is no world to be born into. Being pro-life must mean that one supports the sanctity of life at both ends of the spectrum. Electing politicians who deny climate change threatens to kill your children before they can reach old age. It must be our primary concern to preserve this planet’s ability to sustain life. And so, we must vote down the ballot on that issue.

When I entered college in 2005, the Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress. By 2008, the Democrats had flipped the scoreboard and retaken these branches of government. Now, entering 2017, the GOP controls them again. I’ll do what I can to help contribute to a major progressive victory in 2020. Even as an academic, I need to take an active role in politics.

In many ways I feel part of a lost generation. I entered high school in 2001, the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I graduated from college in 2010, during the aftermath of the Great Recession. Now, as I prepare to go on the academic job market in 2017, Donald Trump will be president of this country. The planet keeps warming year by year, and I have no idea what the world will look like by the time my generation reaches old age. I plan to keep fighting. I’ve always tried to help make a difference, from the first moment that I graduated from high school. I’m currently battling with insomnia (and have been for a couple years), which makes it hard to be as active as I once was, but I’m going to work hard with my health care providers to take care of myself, so that I can continue to fight.

keenerRight now I am working hard on my dissertation, but I am also planning to write reviews down the line on some recent books that have come out, particularly Craig Keener’s Biographies and Jesus: What Does It Mean for the Gospels to Be Biographies?, which I have been itching to write a review on since it came out, though it will have to wait until I get some other graduate work done. For 2017 in the blogsphere, I will probably be doing book reviews more than anything else. We’ll see. I’ll be blogging less about my dissertation from now on, mostly because I have entered the writing phase, and I don’t want to post too much of it online (lest I save too little new material for the publishers). That will free up time, however, to start doing more counter-apologetics again, which I think we will greatly need in 2017. Either way, I plan to do a great deal of work over this next year, both academically and personally. If my story has resonated with you at all, I hope that you too will feel motivated to take action. 

-Matthew Ferguson

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17 Responses to Where I’ve Come From, and Where I’m Going

  1. jdhomie says:

    “But if the education divide in this election has taught anything, this country needs more and better teachers. For that reason, I plan to stay in academia, and to teach people as much as I can about history and philosophy.”

    Matthew, I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. Part of my response to Trump winning is trying to ramp up my own efforts at creating understanding across religious lines, through leading studies on Bible and Qur’an at local churches. (I am Episcopalian in the SF Bay Area, so not too much antipathy against learning about Islam in my diocese.) Like you, I find it a thrill when I empower people with the tools to unlock complicated ancient texts, and then they come up with their own ideas!

    FWIW, I was a classics major as an undergrad, and when I started graduate school in Biblical Studies I noticed I had a distinct advantage over people who had only studied Bible in a theological way. I cannot begin to name the ways my classics major helped me: interdisciplinarity, language preparation, κτλ. So keep up the good work.

  2. Steve says:

    As a Republican with a differing viewpoint on many of the political issues brought up in this post, I just wanted to let you know that I enjoy and learn a lot about ancient history and literature reading your blog. As somebody who only graduated high school, learning about stuff like the Alexander Romance and the different types of literature transmission in the ancient world better help me to understand the time period. Good luck with your dissertation.

  3. Dana Zikas says:

    Hello Matthew,
    I know you haven’t blogged much in the last few years, but I’m signed up to receive notification when you do, and I go straight-away to do so!
    Our politics and worldview seem to be well aligned, and it was quite interesting to read about some of your prior experiences in politics and in various internships.
    Good luck with your dissertation! Don’t let blogging distract you TOO much!
    Thanks for sharing,
    DZ

  4. mcd says:

    You seem more partisan about politics than religion; I think you’ll have trouble changing minds about climate change because for the majority of people (on both sides) opinion is determined not by direct analysis of the data but by who else’s opinions you trust to be unbiased. It’s more like evolution than abortion that way, although even evolution is more accessible to amateurs than climate science.

    • I wouldn’t call myself “partisan” as much as progressive. I vote for the Democratic party, because (out of the two major political parties in my country) they tend to support more progressive policies. That said, I wasn’t very happy with Clinton as a candidate, and supported Sanders during the primary. Even still, I voted down the ballot for Democrats, during the general election, and will continue to do so for all subsequent state and federal elections, until the GOP makes some major changes to its leadership and platform.

  5. Mark says:

    Matthew, thanks for an interesting and informative post. I generally tend to share your environmental, political and secularist concerns, though we’re lucky that in my country what passes for mainstream political orthodoxy in the US, is treated with contempt by a large majority. We’re not, though, totally free from the authoritarian right, and it’s a fight that’s going to be tougher as the years go on.

    One quick question, though, and I’ll leave you alone: would you recommend the Keener book to an interested and moderately well-read follower of the “historical Jesus” issue?

    • The book is a bit more technical than some of his other works, so be prepared to engage a lot of Pagan biographical texts besides the Gospels. That said, I disagree strongly with the book’s focus. Keener and the other authors in the volume focus too heavily on elite, historiographical biographies, when the Gospels’ narratology, vocab, and syntax more closely resemble popular, novelistic biographies.

      • Mark says:

        Thanks Matthew. I understand what you’re saying from having read your posts on the issue, but I don’t have the knowledge (primarily, of course, ancient language skills) to make an informed judgement myself.

        I shall just continue to watch the experts battle it out. 🙂

  6. Arthur says:

    While I’m sad you wont be updating the blog as much, I know its because of good reasons. You’re doing good work, following it with your whole heart. I look forward to hearing from you when you do post something.

  7. ACHC says:

    I’d say I disagree with almost everything you believe politically, but your archive/textual/historical work here has been so great that I can’t help but wish you well and good luck. Thanks for all your hard work.

  8. Jason says:

    FYI,

    Don’t know if you have seen this blog post by David Marshall?

    http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2017/01/epic-rap-battle-jesus-vs-alexander.html?m=1

    • Hey Jason, yeah, I saw the post. When I first read it I didn’t think it was really worth responding to, not only because I have more important academic work to do, but also because of Marshall’s petulant behavior in the past. I can answer any questions about it, though I will be busy for the next little while, due both to an article that I am working on and a family crisis that has come up.

      • Jason says:

        Matthew,
        I just wanted to give you a heads up incase you may have missed it. I didn’t want David trying to pull a fast one on you..lol

        Thanks

        • I might write a response to Marshall again, critiquing his recent book, but it won’t be on this blog. I try to keep this blog focused on academic writing, and Marshall does not qualify as an actual scholar. But I might do a guest post on someone else’s blog about him. It wouldn’t be until a couple months from now, though, since I have dissertation work right now.

  9. tmkuster says:

    Thanks for this calm and reasoned statement, Matthew. I’ve appreciated your work here. I look forward to the book that I hope will grow from your dissertation!

  10. Steve Leonard says:

    Looking forward to seeing what you do in 2017!
    Cheers!

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