Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Those Misogynist Nephites

Some readers have accused the Book of Mormon of being misogynistic. I mean, what else can you conclude about a narrative of over 500 pages that mentions only six women by name? And three of them are biblical figures—Eve, Sarah, and Mary—who aren’t even in the story. So really only three women among the Lehites merit having their names mentioned by the Nephite chroniclers: mother Sariah, the Lamanite servant woman Abish, and the harlot Isabel. That’s it. Nephi mentions his wife and sisters, but they are not important enough to identify by name, which makes them even less significant than his brother Sam, a perfectly inconsequential character in the story. And so it goes throughout the chronicle. Women are sometimes identified, but almost never by name.
Maybe misogynist is the wrong word, though. The Book of Mormon chroniclers aren’t hostile toward women. They just dismiss them as largely irrelevant. Some modern women apologists have come to the defense of Nephi and his fellow scribes by pointing out how many times women are actually mentioned in the history. And there are indeed a few instances where they play a supporting role in the drama, but if you look for their names in the playbill, you won’t find them.
Never is a woman the main character in any subplot in the larger story. Perhaps the closest a woman comes to headlining a scene is the wife of King Lamoni. She is a strong woman, a woman with power, but still a woman without a name. For some odd reason, her servant, Abish, gets her name in the record. But the queen herself? Not so lucky.
I would like to suggest, though, that although women appear to be neglected in the Book of Mormon narrative, this may be largely a Nephite thing. Think about it. Almost all the prominent women in the chronicle are Lamanite women, especially if they are positive figures. Reading between the lines, it’s fairly easy to see not only that Nephite society was overly patriarchal, but also that Lamanite society was much less so.
The distinction comes early. Jacob points out that the Lamanite men have avoided the sin of seeking after plural wives and concubines, a sin for which he castigates the Nephite men. So even at that early date the Lamanites apparently regarded their women more highly than the Nephites did. This becomes even more obvious later in the record. Lamoni’s wife is not just a central character; she is a woman who holds power and influence. This high status of the Lamanite queens can be seen again in the story of Amalickiah. When the Nephite traitor schemes to usurp power among the Lamanites, he first kills the king, but he apparently cannot assume the kingship himself until he wins over the queen and marries her.
By contrast, consider the queens of the Nephites. Um, what queens? It is never mentioned in the record that Benjamin or Mosiah had a wife. We only assume this information because we are told that they had sons. No daughters are mentioned, but that does not mean they did not exist. Just like their mothers, they are invisible. And this pattern holds true for the chief judges and the high priests and military leaders. Alma apparently had a wife, and so did Helaman and Pahoran and Captain Moroni and the younger Helaman and Nephi and his son Nephi, but we only assume this because we are told that these men had sons. Their wives are never mentioned.
Now consider the other story in the book1 where women play a crucial role—the account of the stripling warriors and their mothers, who taught them great faith. Guess what? These women were Lamanites. Of course they were. All the strong women in the Book of Mormon are Lamanites. The only Nephite woman who plays a prominent role in the story from the death of Sariah to the destruction of the Nephites is a whore. Mosiah never consults his wife when their sons ask permission to go on a seventeen-year mission to the Lamanites. We don’t read about Alma’s wife when he went off on his travels to set the church in order. Same with Helaman’s sons, Nephi and Lehi, when they set off to convert the Lamanites. When the younger Helaman occupies the judgment seat, there is no mention of Mrs. Helaman. The only woman who gets any airtime is the harlot Isabel. Apparently marrying a prophet doesn’t get you in the news, but seducing a prophet’s son sure does.
All this makes me wonder what the Book of Mormon story would be like if it had been written by the Lamanites. Undoubtedly it would be a fascinating tale with a far different spin than we get in the Nephite version. And undoubtedly more women would have names. Oddly, this may be the only known case where the victors didn’t get to write the history.
1. Of course I am ignoring the Jaredites here, because their society and history were totally separate from the Nephites and Lamanites.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

If You Haven't Seen These Two Documentaries . . .

Well, you ought to.
Which documentaries?
First, Inequality for All. This film features former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who is now Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. The first thing that becomes apparent in this film is that Reich is delightful. He is humorous and passionate and very bright. The second thing that becomes apparent is the sobering reality Reich is passionate about—not just that we are experiencing historic levels of inequality in this country, but the economic ramifications of that inequality.
The largest ramification is the assault on America’s middle class. At one point in the film, Reich lays out the three sequential strategies middle-class families have employed to maintain their standard of living in the face of shrinking pay. The first strategy was for women to enter the workforce. When this was insufficient, middle class couples started working either extra jobs or overtime. When this strategy also fell short, families started going into debt to pay their bills. The financial crash of 2008 and the Great Recession have now rendered that strategy unviable, and a growing number of middle-class families are now in deep trouble.
Inequality for All moves back and forth between the auditorium where Reich teaches a popular class at Berkeley and his visits to the homes and workplaces of those who are affected by the squeeze on the middle class. Some of the graphics he uses in his class to illustrate how insane things have become in America are simply mind-boggling. And the people he visits, including one Mormon family, put real faces on the numbers and show how devastating today’s trends can be.
In stark contrast to the struggling families, the film also includes a few conversations with Nick Hanauer, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist and self-proclaimed 0.01 percenter, who simply eviscerates the logic of trickle-down economics. He is the rare billionaire who gets it. He has written an open letter to his “fellow zillionaires,” in which he says, among other things:
But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.
And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.
If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.1
Back to the documentary, though. Two more things are apparent in this film. First, that a large portion of America does not see how serious this problem is. But Hanauer is right. That day will come. And if we don’t reverse the trend, the pitchforks will come too. Second, that Reich has fought these trends for decades, and yet he has been fighting a losing battle. At the end of the film, the sadness of this funny, optimistic, passionate (and diminutive) man is poignant.
As Mormons, this theme ought to resonate loudly with us. Joseph Smith spent his entire tenure as prophet trying to create a society that eliminated inequality. But I fear we have become more died-in-the-wool capitalists than followers of the principles Joseph taught. We keep voting for politicians whose policies exacerbate rather than alleviate the problem. Yes, I’m talking about Republicans, who are dead set on giving more tax breaks to the filthy rich and opposing policies that would ease the burden of the middle and lower classes.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen the documentary, watch it. It’s available on Amazon Prime, Netflix, iTunes, and probably other venues I’m not aware of. Or, if you don’t subscribe to any of these platforms, do as we did the first time we watched it—pick it up at your local library. It’s well worth the time.
The second documentary is Merchants of Doubt. This film is primarily (but not completely) about climate science and how the fossil-fuel industry is now using the same sort of disinformation campaign that the tobacco companies used for fifty years to throw up a smokescreen about the health effects of cigarettes. I can only describe this documentary is disgustingly fascinating.
The Merchants of Doubt website describes the film’s message thus: “The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on public health, environmental science, and other issues affecting the quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers.” This film investigates the source of these denials. Unsurprisingly, they can be traced back to the corporations whose profits rely on products that create serious human health concerns or, in the case of global warming, that create serious risk to the very existence of millions of species of plants and animals and have the potential to irreversibly alter the nature of human existence on this planet.
It took us fifty years to sweep away the arguments of these merchants of doubt in the tobacco arena. We don’t have that much time to accept the truth and deal aggressively with global warming. But where one major political party has swallowed the disinformation hook, line, and sinker, America is far behind other advanced societies in addressing this crucial issue.
Like Inequality for All, Merchants of Doubt is a sobering look at a divisive but serious problem that many Mormons have dismissed as irrelevant. If you are in the dismissive crowd, you need to watch both films. If you are already concerned about these issues, you still need to watch these films.
1. Nick Hanauer, “The Pitchforks Are Coming . . . for Us Plutocrats,” Politico Magazine, July/August 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014.