Why Democrats lose

I’ve been reading a lot of polls lately. Presidential polls suggest that President Trump is historically unpopular; that doesn’t surprise me. They also suggest that his base still loves him. And I genuinely don’t get it.

I’m circling around an answer in my mind, and yet it’s one I’m uncomfortable with. I’m a liberal Democrat, but I live in possibly the most conservative state in the country, and I get along just fine with my neighbors. I don’t want to give a typical, Democratic-talking-point hyperpartisan answer. But, what the heck, let me toss this on the porch and see if the cat laps it up.

Democrats are good at policy, but pretty bad at winning elections. Republicans are good at winning elections, but lousy at policy. Democrats want to govern, and are generally pretty good about it. Republicans awful at governing. But they are great at messaging. Because Republicans are much less reluctant to lie.

I don’t mean to imply that all Democrats are uniformly pillars of integrity and rectitude, and Republicans are all lying hounds. Of course, both parties spin. Both parties shade the truth. Both parties’ politicians market pretty sketchy ideas aggressively, emphasizing the positive, downplaying negatives. That’s just politics.

But I do say that Republicans are more likely to say untrue things to win elections.

Let’s look at both parties’ ideas about the economy. Republicans had a lot of success in the last election by talking about the loss of jobs in mining and in manufacturing. “I’m going to bring those jobs back,” promised candidate Trump. Small towns across America are losing their job bases. The one factory that kept the town going shut down, and folks lost everything. Republicans are going to fix all that.

What was the Democratic response? As far as I can tell, it was this: “we have a program for that.” Job retraining programs, with targeted welfare to tide people over. That’s a lousy message for proud Americans, folks who want to stand on their own two feet, folks who aren’t looking for a handout.

But it’s honest. Those factory jobs are, for the most part, not coming back. Corporations have moved them overseas, because big corporations survive by staying profitable. Sure, politicians could enact some protectionist legislation, but that’s bad economics, bad foreign policy, and likely to, at best, delay the inevitable by a few years. Sadly, a good way to become unpopular is to be upfront with people.

Donald Trump won by telling people what they want to hear. But he’s not bringing those jobs back. And the best thing we could say to people who worked at those shuttered factories is the truth. “Sorry, but that job is gone. Figure out something else to do. Here’s some help while you retool.”

Mining is another example of the same dynamic. Trump promises to be the ‘coal President.’ The coal industry will revive, and all those Kentucky/West Virginia/Pennsylvania/Wyoming coal mines will reopen, and, like their fathers/grandfathers/great-grandfathers before them, men of courage and character will venture back down the mine shafts and wring a tough life out of hardscrabble circumstances. And what could prevent it? Pointy-headed environmentalists. So cut environmental regulations, and we’ll dig ourselves out of poverty and energy dependence.

Every single part of that previous paragraph is wrong. Mining is not a noble profession. It’s not ignoble, but it’s crippling work, with a short life span, an good chance of dying from black lung disease; with horrible working conditions. Meanwhile, the most vibrant sector of the American economy is in alternative energy. That’s where the jobs are, that’s where the future will be found.

There’s a tremendous mythology surrounding coal mining, I know. That mythology is part of what Trump plugged into. But it’s nonsense. Coal is increasing economically unviable. Not to mention how much burning fossil fuels hurts our planet and increases climate change.

And the biggest job losses in our economy, as it happens, are in retail. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman had a recent column (which I don’t seem to be able to link to, sorry), in which he pointed out how many jobs have been lost in malls and big box department stores. Walmart survives, but Sears is in big trouble, as is Target, Shopko, K-Mart and other retailers. And when one of those stores closes, the job losses are massive, and as devastating to those workers and their families as the loss of a GE plant, or local mine would be. Why is this happening? Because it’s easier and more convenient to shop on the internet. Is that likely to change? No, I don’t think it is.

So why is less attention paid when a small-town mall closes than when a factory closes. Could it possibly be because retail jobs are often held by women, and factory jobs, by white men?

And what can be done about those job losses. Very little. Change is hard, economic dislocations are always damaging, short-term. But we can tell people the truth about economics. And, as Krugman says:

While we can’t stop job losses from happening, we can limit the human damage when they do happen. We can guarantee health care and adequate retirement income for all. We can provide aid to the newly unemployed. And we can act to keep the overall economy strong — which means doing things like investing in infrastructure and education, not cutting taxes on rich people and hoping the benefits trickle down.

Above all, we can tell the truth to the American people. There are things government can do and things government can’t do. Bringing back factory jobs happens to be something government is kind of bad at. But helping people with their community college tuition? That’s easier.

Also, tax cuts for rich people won’t help at all. That money’s never going to trickle down. But that’s a topic for another day.

Jason Chaffetz

Jason Chaffetz is my congressman. That is to say, he represents the Utah Third Congressional District, which happens to be the one I live in. I’m not proud of that fact. I have never voted for him, and can’t imagine a circumstance in which I would.

I think he’s kind of a weasel. I mean, look at him; he looks like a rodent. I fully admit, though, that my reasons for disliking him are entirely political and partisan. I am a liberal Democrat. If he were a Democrat, I would undoubtedly find him quite good looking.

Other reasons for me to like him. He’s a former BYU football player; I mean, a kicker, but still. He and I both graduated from BYU. His wife works with women with breast cancer, an admirable avocation. We’re both LDS. When he was elected to Congress, he decided to save money by sleeping in a cot in his office, Washington apartments being insanely expensive. When Stephen Colbert did his ‘Better Know a District’ routine (on his old show), Chaffetz not only agreed to be featured, but even leg wrestled Colbert. Chaffetz even agreed to appear on the Rachel Maddow show. Oh, he opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy. For about ten minutes. Then fell in line. And that about does it for positives.

Other than that, he’s pretty awful. For one thing, he’s a climate change denier. He’s an anti-vaxxer; wants to hold hearings on whether vaccinations cause autism. (Not really necessary, Jason, on account of this thing called peer reviewed, double blind scientific research). He opposed the Affordable Care Act, opposes net neutrality, hates Planned Parenthood, opposed marriage equality. As chair of the House Oversight committee, he wasted hundreds of hours and millions of dollars in a long, pointless, endless investigation of Hillary Clinton and Benghazi.

He’s an ambitious guy. He toyed with the idea of running for Speaker of the House, when John Boehner stepped down. He backed down when Paul Ryan threw his hat in the ring. (Or, more accurately, when Paul Ryan’s hat was ripped off his head and thrown in the ring for him).

Which is why it was such a shocker when Chaffetz announced that he would not run for re-election in 2018. And then, the next day, announced that he might even quit now, and not serve out the rest of his term.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled. I don’t like him, don’t like being represented by him, and am delighted to be quit of him.

On the other hand: what? Why? I mean, my gosh. What on earth?

I love real-life mysteries. Most people do, I think. And this is a corker. What’s going on? What’s the scoop? Why would this reasonably young, extremely ambitious politician just up and quit? In his statement, he offered the usual malarkey about wanting to spend more time with his family, which no one believes. He also tweeted, which didn’t help at all. It was a link to a puff-piece article about his wife, and how wonderful she is. My first reaction to that is to think that he must have done something really bad.

Anyway, the inter-tubes have been full of speculation about the whole thing, to which I thought I’d toss in my two cents. So here are the leading rumors.

He’s planning to run for governor of Utah, in 2020. Our governor, Gary Herbert, has already announced he won’t run for re-election. Chaffetz may be angling for the job, maybe as a prelude for a run for President in 2024. Could be, though why quit? He could run for governor while still a Congressman.

He really, genuinely, wants to make some serious dough. He’s got a lobbyist job lined up, and this is his chance to cash in big-time. That makes some sense.

He likes the investigative power of his House chairmanship. He was really looking forward to spending the next four years going after Hillary. But she lost, and suddenly he’s being pressured (by constituents, no less), to go after Trump’s many and varied conflicts of interest. That doesn’t sound like it’d be any fun at all. So he wants out.

He’s done something really really naughty. Woman troubles, or Russian blackmail, or something equally egregious, and he’s trying to get out from under it. The ‘my wife’s so wonderful’ tweet would suggest this. Maybe he thinks investigators won’t go after him so hard if he’s out of Congress.

He’s got a gig waiting for him at Faux News. That one seems kind of nuts, but the timing works. After all, it felt like Christmas in April when both Bill O’Reilly AND Jason Chaffetz left on the same day. O’Reilly’s replacement is Tucker Carlson, but he already had a Fox show. Chaffetz would be replacing the guy who replaces O’Reilly. A lot more money, and exposure, for a possible Presidential run.

Or (and I’m going to feel terrible if this turns out to be it), there really is some serious problem with his family. He genuinely needs to be home, to help deal with his son/daughter/wife. If so, I’m completely wrong about the guy. Which isn’t at all unlikely.

What I do not believe is that he just decided to quit. There’s something going on. There’s more to this story. Can’t wait to see what it is.

 

 

Multi-level marketing (scams)

You know that thing where you’re talking to someone about something, and it’s a thing you have a strong feeling about, and you express that strong opinion, strongly? And it turns out you probably expressed yourself more strongly than you should have? I did that recently.

Utah is home to many many multi-level marketing companies. Just in Utah County, I can think of several. NuSkin sells, like, dietary supplements. DōTERRA sells essential oils; I think they call their salespeople ‘wellness advocates.’  Morinda sells various products derived from a morinda citrafolia, a Tahitian tree that produces the noni plant, juice from which is supposed to be good for you. There’s also Neways; they also sell nutritional supplements. There’s Young Living–they sell essential oils–and Nature’s Sunshine–natural health supplements. There are many others.

And they all work the same way. Ordinary folks sign up for this stuff, and sell the product, but are also trying to get their friends involved in selling it too. You make your money via a pyramid. You get a cut out of your sales, but you also get a cut from the sales of the people beneath you on the pyramid. The basic model is Amway. Also Bernie Madoff.

Here’s the strong opinion I expressed that got me in trouble. I think multi-level marketing companies are all crooks. I think they should all be illegal. I think they’re scams, ripoffs, hoaxes, frauds. I think their CEOs should be in jail. I think the normalization of con artists is a bad idea, and that businesses built on a pyramid model are nothing but Ponzi schemes, pure and simple. And I tend to think their products are all, without exception, worthless crap.

I come by these views honestly. I have family members who have been ripped off in Ponzi schemes. I have seen how devastating they can be. I know people whose lives were ruined by Amway. I think the world would be a happier place if Amway was shut down, and its business leaders thrown in the slammer. And that would include Dick DeVos, former Amway CEO and husband of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. And that includes Jason Chaffetz, my Congressman, a former NuSkin exec.

In China, MLMs are illegal. Good for them. If you want to know why they’re not illegal in the US, check the previous paragraph: they’re well-connected. The Federal Trade Commission has been trying to shut down Herbalife for years. Herbalife has responded in the usual way; by buying Congressmen, and by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on high-powered legal representation. So does Amway; so does Mary Kay. These are rich, powerful companies. They aren’t going to be easy to stop.

And they’re big in Utah. And that bothers me. Why are Utah Mormons susceptible to these kinds of scams? Because we’re naive, gullible, trusting? That’s surely part of it. But it’s also Church connections. Our lives tend to center around wards. And our fellow ward members are also our friends. If a person you think of as a friend comes to you and says, ‘hey, I know about this great opportunity, a way for you to make a little extra money, and also enjoy better health. It’s worked for me, and it can work for you.’ Well, that’s a powerful inducement.

It’s also why these things are so insidious. A friendship shouldn’t be about some outside agenda. We’re friends because we genuinely like each other. We’re friends because we decided to make a commitment to someone, to maintain and nurture a relationship with another person, for its own sake, not because you can make something from it. MLMs take the idea of friendship, that personal connection we feel towards other people, and profane it. It’s fundamentally sociopathic. It’s like doing your home teaching solely to get good numbers, without making any effort to actually make friends.

Pyramid scams take basic, honest human feelings and turn them into sales opportunities. I want to believe that my friends like me because they like me. Not because they think they can sell me some kind of weirdo goop. Frankly, I think MLMs are worse than Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Madoff ran an investment firm; his clients may have thought of him as a friend, but that friendship began as a business relationship.

I remember when my wife and I moved to Utah. I was a new BYU faculty member, and we hardly knew a soul. Some old friends of my parents, BYU veterans, invited us over for dinner, and we were thrilled. We knew these people a little, and it was nice to think that they wanted to be friends, maybe introduce us around to this new university subculture.

And then they pulled out their selling materials, and told us all about what a great deal Amway was.

We weren’t just offended. We were hurt. We were angry. We hid it pretty well, and are still able to greet these folks, when we run into them, with polite cordiality. But what an opportunity wasted! Of course, any possibility of actual friendship was completely gone. And that’s a shame.

So, sorry, but it’s time for these rip-offs to end. China got this one right. MLMs serve no legitimate role in any healthy economy. Or in any health-promoting friendship.

 

Beauty and the Beast: Movie Review

It’s fairly easy to dismiss the new Disney Beauty and the Beast as the conscience-less money grab it frankly kind of is. I mean, it’s a remake of a ‘beloved Disney classic,’ which is to say, one of the good animated Disney musicals. I loved the original movie, despite having to see it (or parts of it) many many times, and was wary of this one. But the value in cultivating a both/and aesthetic is realizing there are many ways to understand any cultural phenomenon. My wife and I went to Applebee’s for dinner before the movie, and our waiter waxed rhapsodic when we told him what movie we were going to see. He’d seen B&B twice, was considering taking his girls to see it again. Loved loved loved it. Which helped put us in a receptive state of mind.

My initial response to this Beauty and the Beast was to think that the weak link in the cast was Emma Watson. This really bothered me, because I like Emma Watson. My wife loved her in this; she thought the weakest cast member was Dan Stevens, who played the Beast, who I thought was one of the movie’s strengths.

Emma Watson strikes me as an exemplary young woman, courageous and intrepid and bright as hell. Hermione Granger is all that too, plus aces at magic, but I really don’t think I’m conflating the actress with her best known character, except to the extent that they’re actually similar. Hermione is a bookworm; Emma has a degree from Brown in English literature. Hermione is an activist for the ethical treatment of magical creatures; Emma is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and a fervent feminist. They seem alike because they are alike.

Not to go all sexist, but what Emma Watson is not is a great beauty. She’s certainly an conventionally attractive young woman, and she has a modeling contract. But in Beauty and the Beast, she’s nothing special, and she flat isn’t the prettiest girl in the village. We see a trio of prettier village girls. So why is Gaston so besotted?

Because she’s all the rest of it; bright and intrepid and level-headed. He’s none of those things; he’s a spectacular narcissist. But as played by Luke Evans, he may be half-witted, but no one else in the village is even half. He has a tiny, pin-headed inkling that she’s special, that she’s unusual. And he wants to possess her. She’s a challenge. She dares turn him down. He’s a soldier and he’s strong and he’s so very good-looking; why she would turn him down?

Evans’ Gaston is a spectacular comic creation. He’s so good, it threw me off. Obviously, this insatiable mirror-gazer wants a shiny object on his arm; I was led to think that ‘beauty’ should be more beautiful. But Gaston wants to dominate. He wants to be adored, by more than his not-all-that-closeted friend LeFou (Josh Gad). I wanted a more movie-star-charismatic Belle. Emma Watson wasn’t interested. She got it, and I didn’t, initially. What distinguishes Belle from the rest of the village is precisely her independence and intelligence. That’s what constitutes her beauty, much more than an accident of bone structure.

And so, when she’s confined to Beast’s castle, what attracts her is not the Beast’s library, but the fact that he’s read all the books in it. They argue about Shakespeare. He is a former Gaston, a reformed Gaston; a spoiled rich brat who everyone adored, until cursed by a witch. He’s had to read, study, think, meditate. And at times, the Beast part of him takes over, and he rages. But the servant/furniture pieces all understand him better. They know he’s capable of kindness and gentleness. So when he orders them not to feed her, they respond by throwing her a feast. (And are so excited about it, she doesn’t get a bite to eat). And Belle comes to see it too, his essential goodness.

Granted, it’s still the Disney musical. We know all the songs; half the fun was anticipating what they’d do with them. (Hey, “Be our Guest” is coming up!) I’ve heard complaints about Watson’s singing voice. I thought she was fine. (Bear in mind, I also liked Russell Crowe’s singing in Les Mis). I wouldn’t want them to dub her voice; her singing fit her approach to the role. This is a more nuanced Belle, a quieter, smarter Belle. She didn’t need to be a Broadway diva anymore than she needed to be a movie star icon. She’s an actress; she thought her way through this character. And it works.

Of course, the movie looks great. The Disney Cinderella and Jungle Book both looked great. They’ve got the money to make these things look terrific. (If this is a corporate money grab, at least they make sure we get our money’s worth). And a who’s who of great British actors provide the voice work for the servants: Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor.

There aren’t any details to point to and say ‘see, they got that wrong, that isn’t as good as the animated film.’ It is forty-five minutes longer than the cartoon, and I didn’t think the extra time was padding. They used it to explore Belle’s family history; the death of her mother, and her close relationship to her father (a wonderful Kevin Kline). I liked that extra detail.

Ultimately, I thought the movie gave good value. One of my favorite actresses gives a fine, nuanced performance in a classic role. What’s not like about that?

 

 

 

The Circle: Book Review

Dave Eggers’ The Circle would have to be described as a dystopic sci-fi novel, though the future it describes is likely no more than five years or so off. It’s the story of an extremely nice, hard working, basically decent young woman named Mae Holland, and the great job she gets at the best company on the planet. She’s healthy and bright; she kayaks for relaxation. She has long since put her cynical sad-sack boyfriend behind her. She’s moving up.

The company she works for is called The Circle, and it combines the best features of working for, say, Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and any five other forward-thinking tech companies. Her best friend, Annie, has risen to a top executive position there, and gets Mae an entry-level job at CE, which stands for Customer Experience.

And Mae loves it. She loves her job, loves the company. Her father is very ill with MS, and dealing with insurance companies and arranging every aspect of his care has become her mother’s full-time occupation. The Circle puts him on Mae’s insurance, and suddenly, he’s getting the best health care on the planet. (Though he is expected to show some gratitude for it). The Circle is as interested in Mae’s social life, in what she does for relaxation and fun as it is in her work product, and opportunities for recreation abound. She’s making good money, and doesn’t have much to spend it on, so completely does The Circle see to her every need. And she rises in the company, eased along by her boss, the pleasant, genial, forward-thinker progressive Eamon Bailey, one of the Three Wise Men who run the place.

Eamon, in fact, believes in the possibility of human perfectability, and thinks it can be hastened along through technology. He thinks it can be accomplished through a kind of hyper-transparency. He wants cameras everywhere. He gets politicians to wear cameras 24/7. What do they have to hide? After all, Secrets are Lies, Privacy is Theft, Sharing is Caring. Don’t people behave better when they’re being watched? Isn’t it, therefore, in the best interests of all mankind if we’re all watched, everywhere, all the time? And can’t small, plantable, easily transportable cameras, with excellent sound and HD pictures, monitored on the ‘net, be put everywhere? Who could possibly object?

Eamon’s goal isn’t a totalitarian state. It’s a kind of totalizing democracy. The democratization of ubiquity. And so, so achievable. And Mae loses herself in his vision.

Really, The Circle is the story of a nice girl, a deserving young woman, who gets a great job, loves it, is great at it, and advances. It’s the story of a great company, that takes terrific care of its employees, and is genuinely committed to doing good in the world. It’s the story of technological whizzes re-inventing mankind.

And so, you think, there’s got to be a plot twist somewhere. It’s going to turn out like, I don’t know, Soylent Green. This utopia can’t be what it seems to be. There’s a catch. But there isn’t. At the end of Brave New World, everyone really is happy. At the end of The Circle, Mae and Eamon and the other Wise Men really are exactly what they seem to be.

And if we readers find ourselves completely terrified by it, that’s our fault, of course.

Kong: Skull Island Movie Review

I would have given anything to be in the meetings where they greenlighted Kong: Skull Island. I mean, I haven’t ever worked at a studio or been in those meetings, but I have a fertile imagination and have seen lots of movies about Hollywood. All these guys–not in suits, they don’t wear suits–in skinny jeans and mismatched shirt/tie combinations listening to some writer going “cross King Kong with Apocalypse Now, with an environmentalist twist. Plus, Tom Hiddleston’s interested!” And the head of the studio’s going ‘I love it!’

In other words, this movie is nuts. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it; I liked it a lot. But it’s a big budget, major CGI, cast-of-thousands movie. And it literally is a cross between King Kong and Apocalypse Now. A King Kong movie that stays on the island and never takes its act to New York. It’s also the kind of movie where the main characters do completely insane things for utterly nonsensical reasons. Nothing in the movie makes the least sense, and our powers of disbelief-suspension are pushed to the breaking point, but it’s generally well acted, and the monsters are freaking awesome and the whole movie looks great. I was willing to go along with the ride.

Plot: wow, where to start. It’s 1973. The US is pulling out of Vietnam. So, okay, a “scientist” named Bill Randa (John Goodman) is obsessed with monsters. He thinks there may well be gargantuan super predators out there in nature somewhere, and he thinks the US government should find them before the Russkis do. And persuades a US Senator (Richard Jenkins) to fund an expedition, and also to provide him and his team with a military escort. His team includes a scientist named Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who has what he calls his ‘hollow earth’ theory, namely that the earth has massive subterranean caverns where ginormous critters could live. And Randa and Brooks have seen satellite footage of Skull Island, which they think might prove both their theories. They also bring a Chinese scientist, San (Tian Jing), because movies like this need more than one female character. But Randa’s worried about security, so he hires a British Special Forces mercenary, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). And a photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).

And they get a military escort. Like, ten helicopters (I lost count), under the command of Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is spoilin’ for a fight, Vietnam having gone so swimmingly. And lots and lots of soldiers, most of them pretty anonymous, but a few played by minor stars like Toby Kebbel and Shea Whigham and John Ortiz and Jason Mitchell. (We already know that they’re the ones who are going to survive). (Kudos to Kebbel, BTW; he also wore the motion-capture suit and played Kong).

Skull Island, it turns out, is in the Pacific (and not the Indian Ocean as in previous movies), and is surrounded by a permanent storm system. (The science in this movie is wonderful, what with the hollow earth and perma-storms and apex predators thirty stories tall). But the Pacific makes it closer to Vietnam, see. Anyway, they show up, and Sam Jackson pilots all those helicopters in past the storm system, and they see this tropic paradise (which really was cool looking). And Randa and his merry band of idiot scientists start dropping explosive probes onto Skull Island. And this pisses King Kong off. And he destroys all their helicopters, and kills a bunch of men. So the survivors are scattered to hither and yon. Eventually, they form two parties, one under the command of Colonel Packard (who’s getting increasingly nutty), looking for a way to kill Kong, and the other under the command of Conrad, because Tom Hiddleston. All the women are on that team, as is Randa and his scientist team. They just want off the island, and so are trying to reach a rendezvous spot.

Let’s pause for a sec and think about this. Randa and his team are looking for really big predatory animals. Which they think are on this island, or underground, in a hollow-earth-underworld. They find a new tropical island. A brand-new, extremely delicate ecosystem. Which they want to study. So they start by blowing a lot of it up.

Who does that? Who on earth thought this was a good idea? But, see, I think that’s the point of the movie. The movie has its scientist characters do wildly insane, incredibly destructive, pointlessly dangerous things, because it was the cold war and we did stupid stuff like that. I mean, is it stupider to drop explosive probes on King Kong, or drop atomic bombs on the Bikini Atoll? Or the Nevada desert? Or oceans of napalm in the jungles of Southeast Asia? Or all foolish things human beings do in the oceans and atmosphere and mountains and rivers and lakes of our poor mother Earth, searching for oil or coal or gold or whatever. Really, I think this movie, dumb as it is, has an environmentalist agenda front and center. John Goodman plays a scientist who is also kind of a moron (and whose lines are really quite absurd). And who sets off a chain reaction of events that kill dozens of US soldiers.

The ecology of Skull Island is fascinating. Insects are huge. A spider is twenty feet across. King Kong himself is maybe 200 feet tall. And he’s not the island’s scariest critter. Those would be these skull-headed dinosaur things, bigger than Kong, and with horrifying prehensile tongues. Which, of course, leads to this question: what do all these apex predators eat? Kong, we see, has a taste for octopus (if you can imagine an octopus 60 feet long). So, that’s one meal. But if skull-o-saurs do live in subterranean caverns, what else is down there?  Really big predators require really big prey. (They do seem to be able to eat American soldiers pretty well, but they end up urping them up afterwards).

John C. Reilly is in the movie, playing an American airman who crashed down on the island during WWII, nigh on thirty years earlier. He has been protected and saved by the island’s homo sapiens natives. Yes, there are native tribesman, mud-daubed and silent (though why they’re not 30 feet tall escapes me, given the relative sizes of other Skull Island fauna). Anyway, the natives all like Kong. He’s their protector.

In other words, King Kong is an apex predator essential to preserving the delicate ecosystem of this island. Tom Hiddleston’s character recognizes it; Samuel L. Jackson’s does not, and want Kong dead. (Though how he intends to bring that about is one of the many issues this screenplay doesn’t really address. I think napalm has a lot to do with it.)

Anyway, Kong, after some initial helicopter-bashing, turns out to be sensitive and courageous, with a soft spot for the ladies, like all Kongs before him. He and Brie Larson have a nice scene together, though on a high cliff and not the Empire State Building. And ultimately, insane Samuel Jackson and addle-pated John Goodman are appropriately eaten by monsters. And this preposterous (though wildly entertaining) movie marches off to its inevitable happy-ish ending.

I will say this; seeing a gas-masked Tom Hiddleston take on hundreds of flying menaces with a kitana in a field of poison gas was absolutely worth the price of admission. Do I recommend Kong: Skull Island?  It was very entertaining, the story and situation made no sense whatsoever, it got real preachy (though on subjects where I agree with it), and the action sequences were pretty well executed. What does that add up to for you? For me, it was two hours well-spent in a movie theater.

In times like these, what should we hope for?

I intend to continue my series on LDS doctrines we don’t believe anymore next week. But while researching those posts, my attention was yanked back to the present. You know that ancient Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times?” It’s not actually either ancient or Chinese–I believe it was invented by a British foreign minister, a typical piece of faux Orientalism–but it’s still potent enough. Our ‘interesting times’ include the impossible-to-wrap-our-heads-around fact that someone somehow elected a thin-skinned blustering whining lying infant as President of the United States.

His continued residence in the White House is, at best, an affront to civilized values, and at worst, apocalyptic, given his role as caretaker of America’s nuclear arsenal. (If you want to be good and terrified, may I suggest a recent article in the New Yorker, that details Trump’s friendship with billionaire Robert Mercer, who apparently believes that a thermo-nuclear holocaust would be survivable, possibly ecologically beneficial, and in any event, no big deal. I don’t seem to be able to link to it, but it shouldn’t be hard to find.) Anyway, I can’t help but think that nuking, I don’t know, maybe North Korea without sufficient cause would be bad for Trump’s re-election prospects. Is that what I should be hoping for? Obviously not.

This is the problem. What should we be hoping for here? We want Trump gone; does that mean we long for the Presidency of Mike Pence? We want Trump out; does that mean we want some catastrophe?

To illustrate, Ezra Klein has a good piece in Vox.com today. He talks about the Republican health care bill that was supposed to come up for a vote today and didn’t. Let’s suppose that at some point Paul Ryan is able to get enough votes to send the bill to the Senate, where it also passes. Let’s further assume that the CBO scoring on that bill is reasonably accurate, and 24 million Americans lose their health insurance. Klein believes, with good reason, that the Republicans will be blamed for everything that goes wrong with health care in this country. If a hospital closes, it’ll be the fault of Republicare. If employers raise premiums on the health coverage they offer, it’ll be blamed on the Republicans in the House. There will wrenching, powerful stories about human suffering and needless deaths; all that will be considered the fault of this misguided bill. With justification.

You broke it, you buy it. Republicans will own health care in this country. Klein then makes some fairly reasonable assumptions. 2018, Democrats take back the House. The Senate math is tough for Democrats in 2018; it may not be possible to impeach Trump. But any reasonable challenger in 2020 should take back the White House. And then we’ll see a Democratic health care bill that fixes all the problems with Obamacare, and pays for it with a tax increase on rich folks. And that is not the outcome Republicans want.

But for all that to happen requires the Ryan bill to fail to deliver even adequate health coverage for a lot of Americans. It increases human suffering. And people will die. Klein estimates that the AHCA, if it fails as badly as the CBO estimates, will result in around 24,000 people dying younger than they should.

So is it worth 24,000 needless deaths to get rid of Trump?

That’s my conundrum. If Trump fails as President, there will be real life consequences. Politics is important; policy is important. Bad policies can lead to serious problems. Lives could be ruined. People could die. Is that what we want?

If Trump fails, it will be bad for America. I’m a patriot; I love my country. Do I want Trump’s failed policies to harm America?

That’s why this Russia stuff is so intriguing. If the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the results of this election, that would be bad. It would constitute treason. And we absolutely have to find out if that’s true. There’s no shoving this under the carpet; we need to know. Well, that’s tantamount to treason; that would be really bad. And maybe people need to go to jail. That would be fine. But it’s in the past; any damage done has already happened.

In the final analysis, I suppose I want President Trump to succeed, because I want my country to do well. But since there’s essentially no possibility of Trump actually being a good President, given his temperment and policies, then I want his failures to not hurt too many people. And realistically, that’s probably too much to ask.

 

Mormon doctrines? Blood atonement.

Continuing this magical mystery tour of doctrines that were once believed by the LDS Church, and no longer are, I thought I ought to clarify what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m really not trying to destroy anyone’s faith. I just think that LDS doctrine is evolving, and mostly in healthy and productive ways. And I think there’s some value in charting doctrinal changes. Change is a human constant. Societies change, culture changes, ideas change. That’s why a central LDS doctrine is ‘continuing revelation.’ And sometimes, a theologically innovative Church gets it wrong.

In the old TV show, The West Wing, Toby Ziegler has a conversation with his rabbi about the death penalty.

You may say that this isn’t really what Mormons believe by continuing revelation. But I think it is, close enough. And especially when it comes to the idea of the death penalty. There may have been a time when it made sense to execute convicted murderers. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The constitutional standard prohibits ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments. And society’s standard for cruelty changes, and so does our understanding of what an ‘unusual’ punishment would be. The meanings of those words are ever shifting, like the meanings of all words, always. And the law can and should reflect that reality.

The doctrine I want to write about today is, blood atonement, is one the Church has genuinely repudiated. But it certainly was taught, by Brigham Young and others, especially during the Mormon Reformation period in the mid-1850s.  Let me reiterate; I am not an historian and I am not a theologian. I’m a playwright with wifi. I have no authority in these matters, and quite possibly don’t know what I’m talking about.

Here’s my best sense of things. At some point in the past, some Church leaders (including the President of the Church, from the pulpit, in General Conference), taught that Christ’s atonement may not actually be efficacious for some very serious sins, like murder and apostasy. Serious sinners could voluntarily ask to be executed, for the sake of their eternal souls. But Brigham’s rhetoric on the subject was over-the-top. And his oratory led to conspiracy-theory style accusations that Brigham Young sent out hit squads of Danites to murder apostates.

Here’s what Brigham Young actually said. It’s a long block quotation, and I edited it a bit for length; apologies:

Now take a person in this congregation . . . and suppose that he is overtaken in a gross fault, that he has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of exaltation that he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed, he will atone for that sin and be saved and exalted with the Gods. Is there a man or woman in this house but that will say “shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?”

Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant. He never told a man or woman to love their enemies in their wickedness, never.

I can refer to where the Lord had to slay every soul of the Israelites that went out of Egypt, except Caleb and Joshua. He slew them by the hands of their enemies, by the plague, and by the sword, why? Because He loved them, and promised Abraham that He would save them. And He could save them upon no other principle, for they had forfeited their right to the land of Canaan by transgressing the law of God, and they could not have atoned for the sin if they had lived. But if they were slain, the Lord could bring them up in the resurrection, and give them the land of Canaan, and He could not do it on any other principle.

I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain in order to atone for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance (in the last resurrection there will be), if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty. I have known a great many men who have left this Church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them. The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.

This is loving our neighbors as ourselves. If he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. . . . That is the way to love mankind.

Nobody talks like this anymore. Nobody anywhere, except the kookiest kooks in cuckoo-ville. Al Qaeda, maybe: Isis.

But this kind of rhetorical flourish was common in the 19th century. This talk of Brigham Young’s took place in 1857. The year before, 1856, John Brown was engaging in acts of violent terrorism in Kansas, and a US senator, Charles Sumner, was caned to within an inch of his life on the floor of the US Senate, by a fellow Senator, Preston Brooks. Within 3 years, the ferociously extreme language used by both sides in the slavery/abolition argument led to civil war. Here’s an example of that rhetoric: “Though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the Abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose.” And on and on.

Nineteenth century American society was violent and racist and sexist and . . . immoderate. We Americans were a muscular people, and we expressed ourselves vigorously. And the LDS church was theologically adventurous. I think it likely that Brigham Young genuinely believed that hundreds of sinners would welcome getting their throats slit, as an act of mercy. It goes without saying that essentially nobody thinks that anymore.

Were any apostate Mormons actually killed in this fashion? Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s book on the subject makes a case for it, and I don’t doubt that it’s possible. Quite possibly further research may validate claims of 19th century blood atonement homicides. I just don’t see what it has to do with Mormonism as it’s practiced today.

The Church today does not preach blood atonement, nor does it support the death penalty politically, nor does it require that the death penalty be administered via firing squad. Here is the official position of the Church:

In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives. However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.

This is as close as we’ll ever see to the Church repudiating public comments from a former President. Brigham Young engaged in ’emotional oratory.’ Boy, did he ever. And that’s really all that needs to be said. We don’t need to distort our theology to accommodate the publicly stated views of past leaders. We cannot, and shouldn’t try to correlate every syllable of the Journal of Discourses with current views. Brigham Young loved to engage in what we might call speculative theology. He floated ideas that probably made sense at the time, but which, in our time, our culture, seem pretty wacka-doodle.

Why can’t we just admit the obvious? Brigham Young’s views, if quoted accurately, can’t be reconciled with our understanding of Christian conduct.  To quote Toby Ziegler’s rabbi: “Maybe  his ideas reflected the best wisdom of his age. But it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard.”

 

Mormon Doctrines? House of Israel

People are naturally tribal. We evolved on the steppes and in the forests, chased by ill-disposed creatures of four and two legged varieties, in constant peril. But we could find safety in numbers. And so we gathered. And trusted our people, our friends and neighbors, and were darn suspicious of goldurn outsiders. And when we began to contemplate the possibility of transcendence, a life after this one, a higher power blessing or punishing us, a God, we assumed that S/He, whoever S/He was or however we imagined Him/Her, anyway, God, liked us best.

I’m not saying anything new here. We all acknowledge this, even as we gather ourselves into tribes. I’m a theatre person; they’re my people. I’m a Norwegian-American; that’s another grouping. Probably the most hysterically arbitrary tribal designations in our culture have to do with professional sports teams. I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, which means I am obligated to look askance at those misguided souls who root for the Los Angeles Dodgers, despite the fact that the best players from both teams are likely from The Dominican Republic or Venezuela, if not Georgia, and that I’m literally rooting for laundry. But I’m also a baseball fan, which means I make common cause with other baseball fans, including those odious kitten-torturers who root for the Dodgers.

Anyway, Mormons are a tribe. I tend to behave tribally in regards to my fellow Mormons. I pay more attention to Mormon politicians than I do politicians from other faith traditions. I root for Mormon athletes. I will buy an album by an LDS musician when I might not for other musicians.

And I love my ward. I go to church every Sunday, and enjoy it. I look forward to it. I try to listen intently to the talks, and I sing the hymns with enthusiasm (though I have been known to, ahem, improve the lyrics a bit).

And I am pretty well indifferent towards the ‘House of Israel’ bits of our theology. And I can’t help but notice that those doctrines hardly ever get mentioned in General Conference anymore.

When I was younger, talks about the Abrahamic covenant or our place in the House of Israel were fairly common. Preparing for this blog, I went back and re-read some of those older talks. It struck me that every one of those talks (and every lesson on this subject in Sunday School, as I now recall them), began by saying something like ‘this is an immensely important part of our doctrine.’ And I wondered then, and I wonder now, why is this important? What does this have to do with anything? What on earth does it have to do with trying to be a good person?

And I think I can say this with some confidence; those talks have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but vestiges. Nowadays, talks are far more likely to suggest a universal God, who loves all of His children equally. I mean, the Bible (especially the Old Testament) refers constantly to a ‘chosen people.’ That is to say, God’s chosen people; the people of Israel. But we can’t have it both ways. Either God has a chosen people, or He doesn’t. If He genuinely loves all His people equally, all over the world, everybody, all the people on Earth, then He can’t simultaneously promise special blessings to one group of them.

The official stance of the Church is, I think, that we Mormons, when we’re baptized, are thereby adopted into one of the tribes of Israel, so we can participate in the Abrahamic covenant. We can even find out, through revelation to a patriarch, which tribe we ‘belong’ to. Remember the Twelve Tribes?

So once upon a time, the Children of Israel had Twelve Tribes. Ten of them lived in the northern part of Canaan, and one (Judah), lived in the south. (Levites were priests, and lived wherever). Then the Assyrians invaded and carried off the Ten Tribes; they’re gone. From time to time, you’d hear something very sci-fi about how they’re still together, a discrete culture, living in a cave under the Arctic icecap or something. Nobody believes that anymore, but it was a fun folk doctrine back in the day. Anyway, the tribe of Joseph is sort of mysteriously described in the OT (“Joseph is a fruitful vine, whose branches climb over a wall”) and that’s where we come in. That’s us, it’s about us, we Mormons; we’re adopted into Joseph. That’s why Mormon kids, usually in their late teens, get a Patriarchal blessing; a special vision just for us, with guidance into our lives subsequently. And which tribe we belong to.

I did. I got a Patriarchal blessing when I was eighteen. I went to the home of this kindly elderly man, and he laid his hands on my head, started a tape recorder (so I could get an accurate typed transcript), and gave me a two page blessing. I loved it, and still do. It said that I would be able to successfully pursue a career in arts. And I have. It said I would be a teacher, and that I would make a difference in the lives of my students. I think that became at least partially true. And it said I would marry, have kids, and that my family would be a great joy to me. All true. It was a beautiful blessing.

The only thing it didn’t do is tell me my lineage.

See, for most Patriarchal Blessings, the main point is to tell you which of the twelve tribes you belong to. Literally, I suppose, it means which tribe you were adopted into–we believe that when we’re baptized, we’re adopted into one of the tribes. And for 99.99% of Mormons, the tribe is Ephraim. (One of the two sons of Joseph). We’re pretty much all of us Ephraim. I suppose, I probably am too. But the main point of the Patriarchal blessing is to tell you your tribal allegiance. The ‘here’s your future’ stuff is frosting. But for me, all I got was frosting. And I also don’t care. I love my Patriarchal blessing exactly as is. I’ve been told I could go and get a supplementary blessing. Have no interest; none. My blessing is awesome, as is.

I think that getting a Patriarchal blessing is a great exercise for teenagers. Gives the kid some direction in life at a time when he or she needs it. The lineage stuff is just vestigial. It doesn’t matter what tribe we’re from. We no longer need to believe in a tribal god, with a chosen people. We need to believe in God, a universal God, who loves everyone and wants us to treat each other with respect and dignity and compassion.

It’s been years since I heard a sermon on the Abrahamic Covenant, or the Twelve Tribes of Israel. And I honestly don’t miss those talks. It just isn’t a significant part of our faith anymore.

 

Mormon doctrines? Birth control

My wife and I were talking the other day about how different Church was when we were younger, and especially, about doctrines and cultural practices that seem to have gone away. I suppose most religious traditions change in significant ways; there’s often, perhaps always doctrinal instability and cultural evolution. Probably, I just notice the Mormon case because that’s where I live, spiritually.

Anyway, I thought, over the next few days, that I would explore the changes I’ve noticed, and try to winkle out a reason for them. For those of you who read this blog, but who aren’t Mormons, I apologize. Maybe you’ve noticed similar changes in your own faith traditions? Anyway, as always, I have no authority to speak for or about the Church. I’m just a playwright with wifi; I claim no expertise in theology or cultural anthropology.

Anyway, the first major change we noticed, and the issue that led to this conversation has to do with birth control. We got married in 1980, and before then, when we were growing up and later when we were dating, the idea of using birth control was, if not entirely forbidden, at least strongly discouraged. The purpose of sex was, primarily, procreation. Artificially restricting the size of one’s family was considered incompatible with God’s will.

If you want to look for anti-birth control quotations from General Authorities, there are certainly plenty to choose from, including quotations from men I have looked up to and admired.  “In most cases the desire not to have children has its birth in vanity, passion and selfishness. . . All such efforts . . . befoul the pure fountains of life with the slime of indulgence and sensuality.” (David O. McKay, 1919) Or this: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, and those who refuse the responsibility of bringing them into the world and caring for them are usually prompted by selfish motives, and the result is that they suffer the penalty of selfishness throughout eternity.” George Albert Smith. Or this: “As to sex in marriage, the necessary treatise on that for Latter-day Saints can be written in two sentences: Remember the prime purpose of sex desire is to beget children. Sex gratification must be had at that hazard.” J. Rueben Clark. Or this: I have told tens of thousands of young folks that when they marry they should not wait for children until they have finished their schooling and financial desires. They should live together normally and let the children come.” Spencer W. Kimball.

This was the normal, everyday rhetoric of Church leaders when I was growing up. It was preached from the pulpit in Church. It was what we all believed. If you had asked me, back in the late seventies, whether my wife and I would practice birth control, I would certainly have said no. I honestly didn’t think about it much. I’m a guy; I wasn’t the one who would be getting pregnant. Still, this is what everyone believed and taught.

And then I met Annette. And we became engaged. And talked about our lives together, our goals, our plans, our intentions. And she didn’t have any better information than I had; we both thought birth control was against the rules, and we both felt pretty uncomfortable with that idea, for reasons neither of us could really articulate. We were Mormon kids; we weren’t comfortable talking about sex at all, let alone the specifics of pregnancy protection.

But we were in a student stake, and one of the counselors in the stake Presidency was an OB/GYN. And he gave a series of firesides on sexuality and birth control. And we had to go; the SP said we had to attend these firesides in order to be given a marriage temple recommend. Not that we wouldn’t have gone anyway; the seminars were, to two nice Mormon kids without a clue about human sexuality, spectacularly informative and interesting and invaluable.

Best of all, this counselor talked about birth control. He talked about the various kinds of birth control available, and gave us his best sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each. (This is what he said about abstinence: “it’s a form of birth control, and like all forms of birth control, it can have unpleasant side effects.”)

What he said in those firesides has become official Church policy. Decisions about birth control and the consequences of those decisions rested solely with us. This was a decision we needed to make, mutually. This was something we needed to talk about and decide. It wasn’t anyone else’s business. Above all, this wasn’t something I got to decide, as the guy. And it was also not something I should just let her deal with. We needed to genuinely communicate. We needed to agree, completely and fully.

The policy today couldn’t be clearer. It’s official doctrine, right there on the Church website. Why the change? Why all this anti-birth control rhetoric, and then nothing. Because really isn’t something anyone talks about anymore. I couldn’t tell you when the last time was when I heard a talk on this subject in Church. It’s certainly never discussed in General Conference. Why?

I know it sounds absurd to say that it’s because the Church is becoming more feminist, or at least more open to feminist thinking. Surely, for most of you, that’s an absurd thing to say. But it’s nonetheless true, in a quiet, unacknowledged way. The Church is becoming more open to feminism, if only because society is growing much more open to women’s issues and the Church is part of society. Decisions about reproduction, about pregnancy and childbirth, these are women’s issues. And yes, there’s tremendous social pressure on young women to marry too soon, to have too many children too quickly, to put their health at risk so they can fulfill what they believe to be a commandment, to multiply and replenish the earth. I taught at BYU for twenty years; I saw it all the time. Mormon kids do marry too young; I think that’s absolutely true.

But things are changing, slowly and inexorably, and changing for the better. And the evolving stance on birth control is central to that change. And yes, Mormon culture is as annoyingly reliant on mansplaining and clueless patriarchy as any other conservative American subculture. But when I was first married, birth control was discouraged and now it’s no one’s business. That’s a good thing.