Words and Pictures by Ken Billett
March 15, 2022 — You old radical you, Mike responded via text message.
I’d just sent Mike a photo of my new t-shirt with Read Banned Books printed in block letters across the front. Early spring 2022 appeared to be the initial height of book banning across the U.S., particularly in rural Southern enclaves, which, unfortunately, included Tennessee, where some locales actually burned books.
Just like the Nazis in the early 1930s.
Little did we know that the stifling of freedoms and the attempted coercion of acceptable viewpoints by an angry, ugly minority would get worse before it got better. The spring and summer of 2022 were some of the darkest moments in American cultural history. And, in the summer of 2023, we’re still paying the price . . . albeit with a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
While I don’t consider myself to have radical views, I do identify as an independent thinker who takes a centrist view of government control versus individual freedom of choice. An online definition of a centrist states that, depending upon the issue, a centrist sometimes favors government intervention and, at other times, supports those individual freedoms. Middle ground and middle-of-the-road describe my political views. I tend to keep an open mind and emphasize practical solutions to problems or issues.
And I don’t blindly pledge my support to any political party or candidate.
I’m a regular guy, and, as I once wrote, I’m not hip, I’m not cool, and I am certainly not “with it.” I’m a middle-aged suburbanite who lives in Far East Memphis, (on) the western edge of Germantown. Therefore, I don’t look or dress like a radical, whatever a stereotypical radical supposedly looks like. Instead, I’m just an average, ordinary kind of guy — think plain vanilla, or buttoned-down — who’s tired of crazies and extremists controlling the political and cultural narrative.
As I’ve grown older, I find myself frustrated by status quo politicians, angered by conspiracy theorists, and saddened by our society’s complete disregard for compassion and empathy.
Frustrated and angry. Searching for hope in an ocean of stupidity.
America . . . what a country!
Maybe it is time to be a bit more radical . . . a button-downed radical.
Blinded Me With Science
After twelve years of dealing with cancer, I’ve grown to better understand and appreciate the dedication and hard work that researchers, scientists, and drug companies put into finding new treatment alternatives and potential cures.
While our overall health care system isn’t broken, as some pundits suggest, it definitely needs fine-tuning, and, perhaps, a major over-haul. Although I’m a product of our current system, as a patient advocate, I work with researchers, health care providers, and drug companies to find solutions and to, hopefully, make patient care better and more affordable. Working towards improving the system and bringing about positive change, which a progressive or extremist might not find radical enough.
But I’m low-key. Plain vanilla. I find other ways to stir the pot.
In the spring of 2021, during the post-election craziness of mask-wearing compliance, along with the long lines for COVID-19 vaccinations and the predictable ramping up of vaccine conspiracies, I proudly wore a “Life is Good” t-shirt bearing the message SCIENCE Because Making Stuff Up is Not Ok! every time I went to the cancer clinic for an infusion treatment.
I wanted everyone at the cancer clinic, even those folks wearing red ball caps, to know that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t question mask mandates, pandemic-related vaccine protocols, and life-saving medical treatments, all the while seated in a padded leather recliner receiving (intravenously) a potentially cancer-curing concoction that several years earlier was some scientist’s brainstormed theory.
Hypocrisy makes me crazy, whether in religion, politics, or everyday life. And I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge that science and medicine are not perfect, but when dealing with an international health crisis, I’ll take science and medicine over thinking out loud during a nationally televised news conference.
Leave science to the scientists.
As a buttoned-down radical, I don’t get in people’s faces, and, frankly, I don’t like people who get in my face, even if I agree with their position. I’m not confrontational. Shouting matches never end well.
So, I’ll let my shirts do the talking — even when the message supports a worthy cause, like melanoma prevention.
Or, like right now, as I let my writing speak for how I feel.
Back in 2021 and 2022, I wrote extensively about traveling during the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, I talked about heading to the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. As I said back then, polarization, characterized by endless shouting matches, never addresses our country’s core problems.
Not being able to see the forest for the trees symbolizes our current political and social climate in which we argue, we protest, we cancel, and we complain. Caught up in being right, and making sure everyone else is wrong, feeds an endless cycle of anger and blame. There’s no consideration of another person’s perspective or feelings.
Unfortunately, we’re even more entrenched in 2023.
And, unfortunately, no one ever truly wins a culture war.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of fighting the Civil War. And I’m a Southerner.
We lost. Get over it. Move on.
Sadly, nowadays, it’s not just the Civil War but all of early American history that’s been whitewashed and glossed over to hide the truth . . . an ugly, uncomfortable truth.
Slavery was horrible. Jim Crow was terrible. Segregation was a reality.
Many Southerners, including some former colleagues of mine, want to champion the South and being a Southerner without acknowledging our past sins and, in some instances, regrettably, our present problems. These folks miss an important point: while you can be proud of where you’re from, you must admit that the South has a sad legacy and that all of us must continue to work hard for a brighter future.
Or, as Scarlett O’Hara famously said, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
We’re banning books, rewriting history to fit our narrow agendas, refusing to acknowledge our sins and our differences, and marginalizing entire groups of Americans, all because of hate and ignorance.
Have we really progressed much from the America of the 1940s or 1950s?
This summer, while violent storms caused power outages, flooding, and other problems, I spent time reflecting on the past couple of years and how our country’s constant bickering continues to shape my radical views.
And if radical means loving, caring, compassionate, and tolerant, then that’s who I am.
In my back yard garden, I proudly display a small flag with the phrase Good Trouble Better South. The phrase is based on a quote attributed to John Lewis, the late great Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Ordinary people . . . that would be me, the buttoned-down radical.
I’m a-gonna raise a fuss
I’m a-gonna raise a holler
“Buttoned-down Radical” is the second installment in Ken’s summertime reflections series titled ‘Summertime Blues,’ based on the 1959 Eddie Cochran song, most notably covered by The Who in the Sixties and later on by Country Music star Alan Jackson. Read the first installment, “Summertime Blues: Hurricane Elvis Remembered.”
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.