Idaho individualists argue their way to common ground
Buhl, Idaho — `BETTER jaw, jaw than war, war.'' Winston Churchill said it. Bill Chisholm and Herb Deuel have, in their fashion, proved it. For some 10 years Bill and Herb, neighbors in this small, southern Idaho community, yelled taunts and arguments at each other across the road that separates their homes.
Only recently have the two representatives of political extremes in Idaho's Hagerman Valley discovered that they have more points of agreement than their mutual prejudices and hot rhetoric allowed them to admit.
Mr. Chisholm, a bare-chested, pony-tailed, bead-and-earring-adorned peace and environmental activist, is the stereotypical polar opposite of Mr. Deuel, a grizzled, work-clothes-clad member of the John Birch Society.
But the two have found common ground beyond the fact that they both take their livings from geothermal springs. Both seem to think smaller is better, that the best government is close to home where it is most accountable, and that it is best to deal with the owner of a small business rather than a hired manager of a large chain.
They share a belief that monopolistic capitalism is as evil and godless a force in the world as monopolistic communism.
They are both afraid of one-world government and one-world religion.
Mostly, they both say that individuals ought to look after themselves and one another as much as possible and with as little interference as possible from governments beyond the closest town.
``If the media mind-set of left and right had worked, Herb and I would never have talked,'' Chisholm said recently. ``On the specifics of our ideology, we still have differences. But the principles as they are shaking out are amazingly close.''
``We have discussions and we have enjoyable get-togethers,'' is the way Deuel describes it. To begin with, he explains, they had to learn to hear each other.
Chisholm calls it ``semantics.'' Deuel says they spend a lot of time defining words and phrases so they are more sure each understands what the other is saying.
It took time to move from calling each other ``Nazi'' and ``Commie'' and to stop taking seriously the multidecibelic histrionics (in more common terms, fist-shaking and epithet-hurling) that each is prone to. But when they did, they identified common ``enemies.''
Deuel, says Chisholm, ``calls 'em monopolistic capitalists. . . . I identify 'em as the national and international corporations that are going around destroying local cultures and environments in the name of profit.'' (It's a spring afternoon, and the two are talking on the lawn beside Deuel's commercial hot spring.)
Specifically, their common enemies are wealthy American and European industrialists who are among the ringleaders in the John Birch Society's complicated conspiracy theories and with whom Chisholm has battled in the antiwar and environmental movements.
``Initially, I didn't buy the conspiracy, but there certainly are a lot of connections,'' Chisholm says.
Whatever the connections mean, Chisholm and Deuel arrived at the same place by different routes. Chisholm went through what they both call the government schools, and he says he is still unlearning what he was taught and reeducating himself. Deuel is a school dropout who educated himself, and continues to do so, by reading a lot -- often in John Birch Society tracts.
But behind their readings are shared circumstances that have brought them to this meeting of minds.
They both like hot water: the kind they get into with their unpopular and loudly proclaimed views and the kind that flows from the geothermal wells from which they take their livings.
Chisholm is a native Idahoan, sprung from a pioneer family and now working as a maintenance man at Miracle Hot Springs, where he lives in a trailer that is partly heated with hot well water. He is one of the 149 protesters recently arrested in a demonstration at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site north of Las Vegas. He has twice run for the Idaho Legislature, unsuccessfully.
Deuel, who was reared as a Quaker, moved to Idaho from Pennsylvania with his entire family in the 1970s in four tractor trailers, four trucks, and four cars. He owns and operates Banbury Hot Springs across Idaho Route 30 from Miracle Hot Springs. He is the man sitting in the back row of local Republican candidate forums asking hapless congressional candidates to outline their stands on the Monroe Doctrine. (Some act as if they remember what it is, some admit they don't.) He has run once for the Idaho Legislature, also unsuccessfully.
The two men and their neighbors, who include an independent filmmaker, a small band of home schoolers, and some farmers and ranchers, are all pitching in on a community water project to bring spring water across the Snake River.
Chisholm has a strong back and is handy with tools; Deuel is a plumber by trade. They give according to their ability for the common need.
Though it sounds a little collectivist or socialist, Deuel and Chisholm say it is more tribal or familial -- impulses that drive Chisholm's pioneer blood and Deuel's Quaker blood.
``The problem with the socialists is they take on too many of the individual's responsibilities,'' Deuel says.
Though they don't share a common religion, both say a Christian ethic guides their thinking: a belief that people should do good for others. Both responsibility and individual rights are God-given, they say.
``If he gets a flood I go help him, and if I have one I expect him to help me,'' says Deuel. Whether that is less secular than simple rural neighborliness, Deuel says, responsibility goes with equality and makes America a Christian nation. ``God isn't religion, God is a basic premise under Americanism. . . . God is the basis for inalienable rights,'' says Deuel.
Chisholm, who considers himself a small ``c,'' or universal, catholic and is interested in native-American religions, quickly debates the point, agrees in concept and stakes out his position against a state religion of any sort, which Deuel says he didn't mean to imply anyhow.
Which somehow leads them to their next topic, the public schools. Chisholm is slower to blame the National Education Association for the woes of public schools, but both are in favor of the encouragement of myriad small-scale home schools, where they say free thought would flourish.
``How can we have fair, representative rule if the control of the development of the mind-set is in the control of those who control the power?'' asks Chisholm.
And as Deuel points out with glee, free general public education is the 10th step of the Communist Manifesto. Government schools, he says, are another attempt by the ``Pig Power Structure'' or ``Monopolistic Capitalistic Oligarchy'' to destroy the individuality of people. ``Maybe that's why Bill and I get along so well. We can just see how everyone has been rat-holed in a pigeonhole.''
As usual, Chisholm says the same thing a different way. ``We're both into self-sufficiency, we have an ethic of being involved in our own processes. I guess the common bond is we're both strong proponents of the individual and freedom and responsibility.''