Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Contagion and Demagoguery

A study estimates that half of the young people in America and other developed nations who became teenagers this year will live to be 100 years old.  Quite an accomplishment considering only a third of Romans made it past their fifth birthday at the pinnacle of their empire.

By contrast, in her latest book, author Lesley Hazleton notes that even by the 1700s, as America began lurching toward independence from England, “well over half of those born in London were dead by age sixteen.”

On a hill rising steeply just behind the Idaho ranch house where I was born and spent my early years is a tiny cemetery carved into ancestral ranchland with 67 graves, including 16 for people who share my last name, Bowman.

With its view of the Tetons rising across the Henry’s Fork to the east from where the Yellowstone Plateau gives way to Idaho’s Cascade Corner of the Park, it is a vantage point that commands reflection whenever I visit.

Some of the dates on the headstones reflect a time of fear and contagion when two epidemics followed one another across the nation, one the second and third waves of The Great Influenza, the other the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan.

If the second coming of the KKK was washed away by the Great Flood of 1927, it began its spread to 1 in 5 Americans  nationwide on the heels of The Great Influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919.  Fear and demagoguery are equally contagious.

The Klan was resurrected in Atlanta in 1915.  Beginning in 1920 on the heels of The Great Influenza, the KKK spread even more rapidly across the nation through an ingenious business model relying on commissioned sales people to tap into 40,000 Baptist and Methodist ministers and their congregations.

The Klan also tapped into fraternal and civic membership lists including the Rotary Club which was founded in 1905 but by 1915 had already organized in small towns such as my now-adopted home of Durham, North Carolina at the time.

The Klan was reaching into Oklahoma and Kansas by 1918 months after the first cases of the world’s most deadly epidemic took effect there in late January and early February, 1918 in the southeast corner of Kansas, according to a book by John M. Barry, entitled The Great Influenza.

From Haskell County west of Dodge City and just 40-60 miles from the state lines of both Oklahoma and Colorado the flu epidemic raged throughout the world killing as many as 100 million people.

First it moved east, then jumped the Atlantic with troops to ravage the armies in Europe, influencing the outcome of WW I.  Soon it was on the west coast of the United States before moving into my ancestral Rockies that fall.

One of the graves in that cemetery on our Idaho ranch is my paternal great-grandmothers, Margaret Rite Kent Bowman who died on October 29, 1918 from the epidemic’s second wave, a month after the first reported case in that state.

A passage in my grandmother’s personal history documents the flu’s impact on that side of my family including the death of another maternal great-grandmother Mary Amanda Shumway on January 3, 1919 during the third wave of The Great Epidemic:

“During the flue [sic] epidemic of 1918 and 1919 all our family was down with flue.  My brother Elmer came and stayed two months with us, cared for livestock, feeding, milking, fed and nursed 5 of us; Mel and I and our three children [my father wasn’t born until 1922.]

Mel’s mother died in October.  In January I lost my mother, my brother Parley and mother’s brother Uncle Jim Shumway, all in two months time with the dreadful disease.

We were wed to wear masks which we made for ourselves…”

Mortality rates from the Great Influenza reached 50% in some areas of Idaho.

The memories among grandparents were still raw 39 years later when I fell sick as a 9 year old from another epidemic in 1957.  With my ears throbbing, I lay listening on the radio to the Detroit Lions led by backup quarterback Tobin Rote as they defeated football legend Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns in the NFL Championship game.

I was rooting for the Lions, despite the fact they had beaten my favorite team in the playoffs, the San Francisco 49ers led by Y.A. Tittle.  Detroit’s national championship was the fourth for the Lions and the last title game in which the team has ever appeared.

My grandmother, Adah Rae Neeley Bowman, also notes in her historical sketch that she survived a case of diphtheria when she was twelve and then later, she and seven members of her immediate family had Smallpox.  Barry’s book is as much about these diseases and the transition to modern medicine as it is about the epidemic.

The Great Influenza alone lowered the life expectancy for both men and women by 11.8 years in 1918.  Different than most influenza breakouts, this epidemic claimed most of its victims in the prime of life.  Bookending with the Great Flood of 1927, these events severely damaged the fundamentals of the US economy which received a knock-out punch in the financial crises of 1929.

Less than a decade before the Great Influenza, most medical schools did not even require a college degree or work in labs or actual patients.  That all began to change with the founding of the medical school at Johns Hopkins.

The epidemic may have inspired a Durham native, James Buchanan Duke, to endow and greatly expand what would become a namesake university here in the 1920s.  His vision and philanthropy included a medical school that within five years of opening had risen into the top 25% in the nation and by my arrival in Durham has become one of the very best in the world.

My native Rocky Mountain West was also not immune to the KKK, especially Colorado where by the 1920s the Klan had its largest presence west of the Mississippi.

However, because of the vehement anti-KKK stance of the Mormon Church dating back to the Klan’s first coming in the 1860s and even more so in the 1920s, it isn’t likely there were many members back then along the Upper nook of the Snake River near Yellowstone and Tetons nook where my family ranched.

Across the nation in the 1920s the Klan controlled five or more state legislatures, several governorships and many local governments.  It also infected Congress and the Judiciary.

Today, white supremacist groups including Klan are found in every state.  Vocal members are once again returning to Northern Idaho including to a 17-acre compound in the Hoo Doo Mountains near the Canadian border, an hour north of where they had been centered in the 1990s.

With the exception of those in Northern Idaho, white supremacists today are much more covert and sophisticated.  But as the Klan did with Prohibition (bootleggers were stereotyped as Catholics, Jews and Immigrants,) for cover, white supremacists today align themselves with around issues such as immigration and voting rights.

Investigative reporting by the news media helped unmask and disrobe the white supremacist movements in the 1920s and valiant politicians in both parties aligned to marginalize, if not extinguish it.  Ironically, the failure by news media during the Great Influenza and the Great Flood to cover those events as the unfolded, led to even greater numbers of deaths.

Back then they were mute or falsely reassuring because they feared creating panic or upsetting boosters.  Reeling today from transformation by technology, overall the media shows little interest in or capacity for investigative journalism.

As governments at all levels today seem infiltrated and gridlocked - if not controlled - by narrow interests far less pervasive but far more sophisticated and subtle than the Klan was in the 1920s, the public cannot rely on a a flood of investigative journalism from a news media that now seems worldwide but “an inch deep.”

Once again, it may be a flood of biblical proportions that cleanses us back into reality but this time brought about by global climate change.

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