Monday, October 17, 2016

Some Thoughts from New York City

This past week, my wife and I were in New York City visiting our oldest son, who is in a graduate program at Columbia University. We decided to go in October so that we could also drive up into New England to take in the autumn colors. It was a fantastic trip. And some of it is relevant to what is going on in the country politically. Let me see if I can try to tie a few competing thoughts together using our trip to the Big Apple as a vehicle.
Before we flew home Wednesday, we had a few hours to burn, so we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue at about 51st Street and then walked north to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On the way, we happened to pass Trump Tower. We didn’t stop. I have no interest in getting any closer to anything related to The Donald, but it did remind me of the news story that broke while we were in New York City—the sordid hot-mic conversation Trump had with Billy Bush that sent Donald’s numbers spinning downward and his campaign spinning off into the bizarre irreality that he and his faithful followers inhabit. Of course, the very real damage he could cause to our democratic republic is something he simply cannot comprehend. His hunger for power, his massive ego, and his crippling narcissism prevent him from actually understanding the implications of what he says and does. Which is another reason why he should get nowhere near the White House.
The Trump phenomenon, however, has been a wake-up call for all Americans who want to preserve our nation. His campaign has shined a bright light on a large segment of the Republican movement that party leaders have not wanted to openly acknowledge. But it is now there for everyone to see. A vast number of American citizens harbor racist sentiments, ungrounded fears, and a paranoia that gravitates toward utterly crazy conspiracy theories. They are Trump’s army, and they believe his dark and distorted view of our great nation.
If you look at America with any degree of objectivity, you know that we have problems, but we are also in a much better place than we were when Barack Obama assumed the presidency. The economy, while still a bit stagnant and ever more tilted toward the wealthy, is healthy and growing. Unemployment is low. Interest rates are almost nonexistent. Millions of jobs have been created. But in order for a Republican, any Republican, to win the race for president, the GOP has had to paint the country in dark tones. And Trump’s version of America is the darkest, and it is getting darker.
Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist, had this to say this week:
On the right, . . . you increasingly find prominent figures describing our society as a nightmarish dystopia.
This is obviously true for Donald Trump, who views the world through blood-colored glasses. In his vision of America—clearly derived largely from white supremacist and neo-Nazi sources—crime is running wild, inner cities are war zones, and hordes of violent immigrants are pouring across our open border. In reality, murder is at a historic low, we’re seeing a major urban revival and net immigration from Mexico is negative. But I’m only saying that because I’m part of the conspiracy.
Meanwhile, you find almost equally dark visions, just as much at odds with reality, among establishment Republicans, people like Paul Ryan, speaker of the House.
I’m sure you’ve all heard Trump’s claims that our big cities are violent war zones. Well, I visited one of those war zones last week, and I was wondering what on earth Donald was talking about. I found New York City to be a vibrant, safe, and welcoming place. Big and busy and dirty, yes. But dangerous? No. Unless you step out in front of a taxi. Our son lives in Harlem. He has lived there for over a year. He often comes home late at night, alone. He says he’s never felt unsafe. The city really never does sleep. He says there are lots of people riding the subways at all hours. We were on the subway late. It was very busy. Sure, there’s crime in New York, but violent crime is down significantly and continues to drop, as it does across the country.
But it’s not just the violence that the Republican dystopia emphasizes. If Obama’s legacy continues with a Clinton presidency, the whole country will be a gloomy and depressing place. Krugman refers to a recent speech by Paul Ryan, the Republican Anti-Trump, who nevertheless paints the same dismal picture of America’s future under Hillary.
According to [Ryan, the future is] very grim. There will, he said, be “a gloom and grayness to things,” ruled by a “cold and unfeeling bureaucracy.” We will become a place “where passion—the very stuff of life itself—is extinguished.” And this is the kind of America Mrs. Clinton “will stop at nothing to have.”
Does today’s America look anything like that? No. We have many problems, but we’re hardly living in a miasma of despair. Leave government statistics (which almost half of Trump supporters completely distrust) on one side; Gallup finds that 80 percent of Americans are satisfied with their standard of living, up from 73 percent in 2008, and that 55 percent consider themselves to be “thriving,” up from 49 percent in 2008. And there are good reasons for those good feelings: recovery from the financial crisis was slower than it should have been, but unemployment is low, incomes surged last year, and thanks to Obamacare more Americans have health insurance than ever before.
The United States that I know in Orem, Utah, under the Obama administration, is nothing like what the Republicans are describing. The New York City I just visited is far different from this vision. And so is New England.
Let me shift gears here, though, to Trump’s racist rants against Mexicans, his threats to bar any Muslim from entering the country, and the whole Republican paranoia about allowing refugees to find a home here. What can I say except that Trump and his fellow Republicans are telling enormous lies and spreading massive amounts of misinformation in order to rile up the know-nothings who believe their ridiculous rhetoric. If you haven’t seen John Oliver’s piece on screening refugees and the actual danger they represent, you should. Here’s the link.
The truth is that paranoia is preventing us from being Americans. And it is all coming from one of our two major political parties. Two of the most moving experiences I had during our trip to New York City were the time we spent at the 9/11 Memorial Museum and our visit to Liberty Island. This was my first visit to the 9/11 Memorial, and it was a sobering experience. But it was also inspiring to see the resilience of the people of New York City and how they have rebuilt and healed from that terrible attack. The Memorial is a reminder that we need to be vigilant. But vigilant does not mean paranoid or hard-hearted.
I had been to Liberty Island twice before, but this time we took the audio tour, and I must admit, I was moved to tears as I sat there staring up at the Mother of Exiles, with these words from Emma Lazarus ringing in my ears:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That is the door Donald Trump and other Republicans would slam shut. Is there anything more un-American than this?

Monday, October 3, 2016


I’ve been thinking recently about the modern Mormon usage of the term faith-promoting, and in my ruminating I’ve been reminded of one of my favorite essays that BYU Studies has ever published. It is a 2007 essay by Travis Anderson that appeared in our special issue on Mormon cinema. Anderson begins his essay, “Seeking after the Good in Art, Drama, Film, and Literature,” with the following story:
Not long ago, kids in tow, I burst in unannounced on my parents and found them absorbed in some ubiquitous TV sitcom. While we peeled off our coats and the kids started chasing each other around the house, I jokingly chided my mom for wasting her time on such mindless drivel. In reply, she playfully denounced my elitist taste and defended her show as “good, wholesome entertainment.” Well, it may indeed have been entertaining. And being a show that originally aired back in the early eighties and even then was aimed at an older demographic, it was rela­tively free of the profanity, sexuality, vulgarity, and similar material that almost routinely taints current TV programming. What caught my atten­tion, however, was my mom’s use of the word “wholesome,” which seemed oddly inappropriate with reference to such a program. Innocuous, maybe. But wholesome?
Anderson’s point in this essay is that wholesome, meaning “without objectionable content,” is probably the wrong goal for us when seeking benefit from art. He continues:
Rather obviously—as my mother would readily admit—movies, books, films, music, drama, dance, and other forms of art and entertain­ment that are without objectionable content are not in consequence of that fact spiritually or intellectually nourishing. And if something is free from objectionable content but is not nourishing, then it is the mental equivalent of diet soda—no unwanted calories, perhaps, but nothing very good for you either. All of this begs the question, then, how and why has the lack of objectionable content, in and of itself, become such a prevalent standard of goodness? Whatever the answer to that question, I believe that the con­sequences are bound to be far-reaching and potentially dangerous when decisions concerning the films and dramas we see, the visual artworks we contemplate, the music we listen to, and the literature we read are guided exclusively, or even primarily, by a negative standard. Why? Because judg­ments made primarily with reference to a lack of objectionable content implicitly require an eye focused precisely on that objectionable content, rather than on the good as such.
One unfortunate consequence of such a negative focus is an attitude characterized not merely by an inclination to throw out the baby with the bathwater but by a reluctance or incapacity to see the baby at all.
So, how does this apply to our frequent goal of seeking out media or experiences that are faith-promoting? Well, I believe that faith-promoting has come to occupy a similar position in Mormon culture as wholesome. Although it appears to be a very positive ideal, it is, in reality, a negative standard. If we are so concerned about the potential of knowledge or experience to be anything less than faith-promoting, we shun it without even considering whether that knowledge or experience might have other redeeming values that outweigh its inability to promote faith.
Let me blunt about this. There are many books, stories, blog posts, essays, films, firesides, and even scholarly articles that achieve their goal of promoting faith at the expense of either the truth or a nuanced view of a complex world. Reality is quite a messy affair. The Church itself is a complicated and not always faith-promoting enterprise. If we simply seek to promote faith in all places and at all costs, we may be setting ourselves and others up for an eventual fall. By focusing solely on faith-promoting material, we intentionally avoid material that might cause us to ask important but uncomfortable questions in our quest for truth; and not asking these questions would, of course, prevent us from finding truth.
I would suggest that perhaps a better goal than seeking that which is faith-promoting might be to pursue that which is truth-promoting. Seeking truth will not always be pleasant. In fact, sometimes it is depressing. It is certainly not always faith-promoting, in the common Mormon use of the term. But if we can’t handle truth, how are we to ever become like Jesus, who described himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)?
Seeking that which is truth-promoting is the equivalent of watching Schindler’s List, an important and unreservedly redeeming R-rated movie with some objectionable content, rather than restricting our viewing to innocuous films like The Home Teachers or Church Ball. Sometimes we want to protect others (and ourselves) from anything that might cause them (or us) to lose faith. But if our faith is grounded in inaccurate perceptions of the Church, its history, its leaders, or its doctrines, then can we really call it faith at all? The scriptures define faith as a “hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21, emphasis added).