There’s this burning question in the minds of many people who are fans of superhero comics and their associated movies, television shows, etcetera: Why does Superman not wear a mask? Doesn’t he want to hide his true identity so as to protect those he cares about? I mean, Lex Luthor and company could go after Lois or Jimmy, or Martha. And that outfit? Can he stand out any more?
The problem with those questions is that they assume that Superman should hide his true identity and that the true identity of Superman is Clark Kent. Au contraire… Clark Kent is the secret identity of Superman. Clark Kent is the costume, the mask. Superman is so powerful that he willingly wants to give his enemies a chance to stop their evil ways and walk away before someone gets hurt.
For a very long time now, people have been asking me why I’m so open on social media, and why I confront anti-vaccine and anti-science (and other weird people) online knowing that they could always come back at me or my family or my job, or something. Well, it’s for the same reasons that Superman doesn’t wear a mask. I am the Epi Ren. I am the person you see and read and hear online. That’s not my secret identity. I’m not trying to hide anything.
Back in 2011, some anti-vaccine dude decided that it would be a good idea to go to the state health department where I worked and launch a series of very weird emails to my bosses claiming that he was going to sue me and the department for things I wrote about him online. You can read all about it here, here and here. It was a really weird time because this guy, someone who was a stranger for all intents and purposes, threatened to take away my livelihood over me making fun of his business practices.
Before that incident, in 2009 and 2010, I wrote a series of blog posts about a young woman from Virginia who claimed that she could no longer walk forwards — only run backwards — because of the influenza vaccine. I questioned her claims though I didn’t doubt that the symptoms were real to her. Well, her legal representatives contacted the health department and claimed, among other things, that I had accessed her private medical information. I had done no such thing. I went to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System website and looked for a case of dystonia that matched her demographics, and I did it at the behest of a well-known anti-vaccine group that claimed her report was there among with others. Once I showed the people from the inspector general’s office that I had gotten all my information on her via public sources, including her own interviews with media, they pretty much told her lawyers to take a walk (or something).
More recently, there was a complaint filed with the dean of student affairs at my school by a person claiming that I had made fun of them and their “vaccine injured” child. In their complaint, they included the web address of this blog and the blog post that I had written about them. The dean read the blog post and the complaint, and the two didn’t match up very well. I was told that I did nothing wrong, nothing to violate the code of conduct of the school or to violate a law. Nothing.
In that last incident, several people on a Facebook group also Googled me and found my home address and phone number. One of them, from Texas (big surprise!), called me and threatened me with violence by firearm (big surprise!) if I ever went to Texas. Then they all threatened to write the school and get me kicked out.
I’m still there… About to finish.
And that’s the thing about Superman, too. He doesn’t break the law. He pushes the envelope, yes, but he’s not a vigilante like Batman. He’s doesn’t go looking for trouble like Spider-Man. He doesn’t have issues he needs to resolve by fighting crime like countless other heroes. He’s just a guy who finds himself in a position to uphold and defend truth, justice and the American way.
Me? I’m just a dude who finds himself in a position to speak truth to power, to defend science, and to counter the many lies and misinformation out there that could hurt someone. And I’m not hiding my face from anyone.
So the other night, I blocked a dude on Facebook who posted some rant from the National Rifle Association about how the children protesting guns should be met with the “fist of truth” or some such. I replied to his post with a question about it and he… Well, he had an allergic reaction. He called me stupid and went off on some rant about me not reading him properly and blah, blah, blah. Not wishing to engage further, I blocked him. Apparently that really incensed him. He jumped on Google and found out as much as he could about me, including about this blog, and then sent me a message via my public FB page:
“Hi stupid. I’m [REDACTED]. I used to be [REDACTED]’s roommate. I’m a liberal white male who formerly worked for the Obama campaign.”
Ah, the old “Audience, Perspective, Stance, Issue” approach to a message. Notice that he has to let me know his political affiliation because, after all, the discussion was political. Lest I confuse him with someone who supported Trump given that he posted an angry NRA video, I guess? He continued:
“I’m a political scientist so I spend my day reading about American politics and political behavior. Most of my opinions are liberal but not left (if that means anything to you) but I have conservative family and so some views run moderate. I don’t say any of this to imply that I know more about anything than you, but I do know to do my homework before attacking people.”
He doesn’t know more than I do, but then he goes on to tell me how “stupid” I am:
“My point being that before you go around attacking people, make sure that what you say isn’t going to make you look stupid. Because stupidity like yours gives conservatives ammunition to attack all liberals as hacks and idiots. Also, if you’re going to block someone on Facebook, learn to block them from all of your pages and platforms. That means your website epidemiological.net. That means your Instagram epiren. And your Twitter @epiren.”
Like I have the time to Google him and find out all his social media accounts and block each one individually? Who has that kind of time? Oh, wait… He continues:
“Oooh maybe if I wanted to I could reach out to some people at John Hopkins to let them know how smart you are. A doctoral student? I hope you’re better at that than you are at the internet. You look pretty professional on your webpage, so I’m guessing you’re a good student. https://www.jhsph.edu/admissions/scholarships/institutional-scholarships/brown-scholars/scholars/rene-najera.html. I wonder what I could find on the rest of your family if I dug a little deeper.”
Well, you could find out that we immigrated to the United States when I was ten years old. We lived in El Paso, Texas. I graduated from UT El Paso in 1995 with a degree in Medical Technology, then I moved to Pennsylvania. In 2003… Wait. Why am I wasting my time? Here’s my LinkedIn profile, and the rest about me is in the rest of the blog.
“Let me be clear, I mean you no harm.”
But you’re going to Google me, send me all the information you’ve compiled on me, tell me how stupid I am, and warn me about what people could do? Okay, I trust you. He continues:
“But I hope I’ve illustrated a point that the internet isn’t anonymous. When you do stupid things, people can find out a lot about you. So it’s better to know who you’re dealing with before you go doing stupid things. You got lucky it was me, but in the future it could be someone who would actually use the information available to harass you, especially if you think you’re going after right wing trolls. Have a nice night!”
Golly! I guess he taught me. Those previous entanglements with anti-vaccine activists did nothing to discourage me from engaging in public discourse about a very important issue. No, no, no… I learned my lesson now by cybernetically running into some dude who posts NRA propaganda but not because he’s supportive of said propaganda. After all, he worked for the Obama campaign, how bad could he be? He’s a “liberal white male,” too. What’s not to trust?
Look, I know that I may come off a bit standoffish at times on things that I am passionate about. I know that people often confuse “there is no scientific evidence of what you’re saying” with “go eff yourself” or some other insult. Or challenging an NRA video with a simple question of what is being meant by “the clenched fist of truth” is just asking for an insulting reply in return along with the message above. I get it.
But this is who I am. I’ve made no attempt to hide in the crowd and throw stones. There are no masks (and also no tights and no capes) in my wardrobe. It’s just me making comments and observations. Look at the entirety of my work and then tell me I’m mean, then tell me I don’t care, then tell me I’m a bully or a troll or an a**hole.
But what if someone tries to do something to you or your family? Well, that’s on them. As long as I present the truth, whatever happens outside of my control will happen. There is no use in being scared. Plenty of very brave people are on the front lines of wars and violence doing far more dangerous things than I ever will. Tangoing (or is it tangling?) with angry white liberal males online is the least of my concerns.
Have a nice night! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
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.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.