After that kerfuffle on Twitter the other night, I started wondering about where I find myself right now on the political spectrum. When I was in my early 20s, I listened a lot to Rush Limbaugh, and I even found myself nodding to some of the opinions he threw out there. Yet I remember the exact moment I lost interest in him. (It was before his drug abuse scandal.) Today, I listen to sports radio or network news, maybe the BBC. But not only have my interests in political speak have changed. My views have changed on social issues, and it’s no doubt because of my career in public health, my marriage, and from maturing as an adult.
Believe it or not, there was a time when I wondered why LGBT people would want to get married. It didn’t seem “normal” so it didn’t seem “right.” During the 2004 Presidential Election, a lot of states enacted amendments to their constitutions forbidding gay marriage. In my mind, if a lot of states did that, there’s no way that they could be wrong. Right? As time went by, however, I came to understand what “gay marriage” was all about. It wasn’t just about the ability to say “this is my husband” or “this is my wife.” It was about the equal protection of the law. Two adults in a loving relationship should be able to care for each other at the hospital, make decisions about each other’s care. They should have their property protected just like any other couple. Again, equality. After looking into the Civil Rights struggles of the past and present, and seeing other decisions on civil rights being left to the electorate with tragic results, I changed my mind. I support gay marriage. Does that make me a leftist? A Liberal?
When we first arrived in the United States permanently, my family received assistance from the government. Even when I was in college, I received food stamps. That made it very, very easy for me to focus on school and not worry about how to pay for food. It was really a “safety net” that kept me out of trouble. I was able to say no to some very bad influences. But, even with that experience, I don’t think that government assistance is the best/only way to lift people out of financial distress or out of poverty. That comes from hard work. It comes from saving money and living within your means. My bad credit from college — from making bad financial decisions — didn’t go away through government assistance. It didn’t go away with that $300 check from the government that the Bush administration sent out. It all went away with saving, scaling back on “toys”, working a full-time job and a per diem, and putting in the work to get more money and pay my bills. (Of course, getting married made it even easier. Two good incomes meant halving the monthly bills, essentially.) Today, I don’t approve of policies that have people permanently or semi-permanently on financial assistance or food stamps. I really don’t think that able-bodied adults should be paid indefinitely for not finding/getting a job, not when I see plenty of fruit orchards that need to be picked or “for hire” signs at restaurants. Does that make me a Conservative?
As I’ve been studying and working in public health, I’ve come to understand that being Liberal or Conservative is not something to aim for. You don’t want either of those labels next to your name. As soon as that happens, you might as well call it quits. Public health workers need to be in the middle. They need to work for social justice but work in a real world where resources are limited and there will be real people who will be left out. Being a “bleeding heart” in that situation does nothing to help those left out. It will only frustrate you. Likewise, not wanting to help a group of people because they’re “not normal” and thus “not right” is also misguided. We could have very possibly avoided a pandemic if Conservatives didn’t influence the public health response to HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s to the point that it was even named “gay-related immunodeficiency” when even the earliest surveillance showed it wasn’t just gay men coming down with it, and when biology dictates that viruses can’t tell if you fancy your own gender.
Then there is the fact that many of us will work within government agencies (or with them) that are subject to leadership changes based on the latest election. Your state health department may be run by a conservative administration one year and then a liberal administration the next. You will have to work under their direction, and you will have to work with people on the entire political spectrum in your work (public health or not).
So keep an open mind and don’t stick too much to one line of thinking. When presented with evidence, analyze it and don’t be afraid to change your mind about something if the evidence takes you there. And, most of all, don’t label yourself as a liberal, conservative, or even an independent. Someone is bound to label you as something else if you do.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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