December 4, 2014

Should fire chiefs self-publish homophobic books with terrible covers? A MobyLives investigation

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Yes, the content is offensive. But the cover! Oof.

Yes, the content is offensive. But the cover! Oof.

Until his experiment wish self-publishing, things were going great for Kelvin J. Cochran, whose career as a firefighter has been a long and fruitful one. In 1999, he began his tenure as the fire chief of the Shreveport, LA fire department where he had worked since 1981. In 2008, he moved to Atlanta and became that city’s fire chief until, the following year, President Obama appointed him as U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration. (This sounds like the kind of job that would have allowed Cochran to put out any fire he wanted to, anywhere in America, at any time, but he probably didn’t allow himself such excesses.) In 2010, Cochran resumed his previous gig in Atlanta, where he has been fire chief ever since.

Everything was coming up Cochran, until it wasn’t. The culprit? Self-publishing.

What went wrong? It certainly wasn’t Cochran’s lack of writerly experience. In 2005, he had contributed two chapters (Chapter 1: Management and Leadership, and Chapter 25: The Fire Chief of the Future) to the Chief Fire Officer’s Desk Reference, edited by John M. Buckman III and published by Jones & Bartlett. This was a solid venture. But for his next foray into publishing, Cochran didn’t want to discuss matters fire chief-related. Instead, he wanted to write about scripture.

The book that emerged was called Who Told You That You Were Naked?, after Genesis 3:11, and it was about the essential wisdom of obeying god—and the consequences of failing to do so. Which sounds, in the words of one Amazon reviewer, “relatively unobjectionable.” And perhaps it was, except for the part about . . . well, here are two excerpts:

Uncleanness—whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, all other forms of sexual perversion.

and

Naked men refuse to give in, so they pursue sexual fulfillment through multiple partners, with the opposite sex, the same sex and sex outside of marriage and many other vile, vulgar and inappropriate ways which defile their body-temple and dishonor God.

Oh.

Many books with this kind of rhetoric—self-published and otherwise—appear every year. But not many of those books are written by fire chiefs in major cities. And of those, even fewer are distributed by their author to his colleagues, in likely violation of anti-discrimination laws. And of those, fewer still have indefensibly awful covers like the one that graces Who Told You That You Were Naked?.

Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, did not voice any objections to the cover, but he was unambiguous when it came to the content of the book: he suspended Cochran for a month without pay, required him to complete sensitivity training, and barred him from distributing the book on public property. The Atlanta Professional Firefighters union endorsed Reed’s decision:

Atlanta Professional Firefighters was disappointed to discover how the Fire Chief chose to represent Atlanta Fire Rescue in his book. We want the citizens of Atlanta and our Firefighters to know that we do not endorse nor tolerate discrimination of any kind. We applaud Mayor Reed for his quick decisive decision and look forward to working with the Mayor’s of LBGT services to develop strategies to ensure equal treatment and rights for all.

The condemnation was not universal, of course. Red State’s Erick Erickson—pundit, blogger, former John King, USA contributor, overall very vile person—naturally came out in defense of Cochran, in a piece titled “Atlanta’s Fire Chief Suspended For Publicly Professing Christian Beliefs,” which, okay. And the five-star Amazon reviews have of course flowed in, though fewer than one would expect, given Erickson’s visibility.

Which leads us to the question asked by the title of this blog post: should fire chiefs self-publish homophobic books with terrible covers? It’s true that the uproar has likely brought Cochran new readers—readers like Amazon commenter Douglas Buchanan “dougEMS” of Modesto, CA, who said of the book “Right on! Excellent, relevant for today!! Thank you!!!” Still, when you weigh dougEMS against suspension, negative national attention, criticism by your fellow union members, and calls for your resignation, the answer is unambiguous: fire chiefs should not self-publish homophobic books with terrible covers.

This has been a MobyLives investigation. Please join us next time.

 

Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.

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