Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Welcome to the USAF

No, I’m not welcoming you to the flying branch of the military. I’m referring to the United States of Alternative Facts. Yes, folks, that’s where we are. Many people wondered whether the sobering reality of actually becoming president might engender a fundamental change in Donald Trump. The answer is a very loud “No.” Of course I am referring to the initial press conference of Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer, in which he offered five false statements in five minutes. When NBC’s Chuck Todd confronted Trump’s minister of propaganda, Kellyanne Conway, about why they would send Spicer out to lie about trivial things, she explained that Spicer was giving “alternative facts.” Todd wasn’t having any of that nonsense. “Alternative facts aren’t facts,” he said. “They are falsehoods.”
In his next appearance, Spicer played nice and tried to walk back some of the falsehoods, but it wasn’t long before Trump was again offering “alternative facts,” this time claiming once again that he would have won the popular vote if 3 to 5 million illegal aliens hadn’t voted. Of course he has no evidence to back this up, but Spicer cited nonexistent “studies.” This lie was thoroughly debunked when it was first floated, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham took Trump to task over it and the dangerous ramifications it might create.
These episodes are not significant of themselves; in fact, they are rather trivial. But they are significant on a much larger scale because they are perfectly symbolic of who Trump is and what we can expect in the future in, unfortunately, far more significant matters. Donald Trump is perhaps the most insecure bully to ever gain fame and fortune. His skin is so thin and his ego so easily bruised that he reacts immediately to any slight, real or perceived, and any facts that do not portray him as the biggest, the best, the most popular, the most capable, or the most intelligent. Unfortunately for him, he is none of those things, so the facts are going to be against him almost always. And since he is too intellectually lazy to understand the issues he will be facing and the real facts that surround them, he resorts to conspiracy theories, fake news, accusations, and “alternative facts,” a euphemism for fantasy.
In addition to being insecure, Trump is also hyper-impulsive, exhibiting absolutely no impulse control. This is endearing to his devotees, because it makes him look tough and decisive. But when you are constantly attacking anyone who says anything against you, either verbally or, as is often the case with Trump, with early-morning tweets, it not only distracts you from more pressing matters (like getting educated on the intricacies of the many issues facing the president), but it also leaves you open to making impulsive decisions on far weightier matters. What can we expect, for instance, when the Chinese or the North Koreans or perhaps any of our allies do or say something to push the Donald’s buttons? What sort of international crises might we be facing because of a president with a hair trigger?
Another casualty of Trump’s ego is honesty, for which he shows a total disregard. In order to make himself look good or smart or popular, he must live in a universe of alternative facts. The truth is brutal, and he simply cannot abide it, so he makes up facts to fit his vision of himself. This is where the claims about election fraud and crowd size come from. Because it is the press’s responsibility to call out politicians who lie and prevaricate and deceive—that is the duty of a free press—it is inevitable that Trump will be at constant war with the media. Two grave dangers present themselves in this confrontation. One is that people are gullible, especially those who believe Trump is some sort of savior for a dystopian society that they have been told exists in America. These people would rather believe outrageous lies than carefully fact-checked representations by the press. This creates a real danger for the suppression of the free press, not through force, but through ignorance. Propaganda, as Joseph Goebbels so expertly proved, is a powerful opiate. We are already seeing journalists being threatened by rabid Trumpeters. What happens when some of those threats are followed up by violence? Notice I did not say “if.” A second grave danger stems from the sheer quantity of lies Trump can produce. We saw this during the campaign. He says so many totally absurd things that the media is inundated. They can’t keep up, and so many dishonest statements simply get a pass. Or they all blend together in one massive dump of dishonesty. The media and the public simply lose focus from exhaustion.
Another way in which Trump has used alternative facts is to paint a dystopian picture of America. This was his strategy from the beginning, particularly with his slogan, which proclaimed in an underhanded way that America is not great. We have fallen from our high ideals. Our cities are war zones. Our economy is in ruins. Foreign countries are taking advantage of us. Terrorism is tearing us apart. Of course we have problems, but this view of America does not represent reality. It is an alternate universe in which we need a strongman to set things right again. Unfortunately, too many Americans bought into this dark view of their own country.
Consequently, we are in uncharted waters in the United States of Alternative Facts. We have seen now for almost two years how Trump behaves. He has shown that he is incapable of change. Unfortunately, America’s voters have reified his inability to change. Success has led him to believe that he can always behave this way and still win. But the world will not bend to his whims. Conflict with both enemies and allies is inevitable. When Trump treats other countries with threats, lies, fraud, insults, ignorance, and impulsivity, they will not view America as the shining light on the hill we have always aspired to be. They will view us as a black hole of self-centered America-firstism. Instead of America being first, we will fade in our international influence, and when that happens, Trump will feel compelled to force the world to accept us as their superior. Who knows what wars might result from a megalomaniac whose ego knows no bounds?
And what will happen at home when the important facts start turning against Trump? What happens when his tax cuts produce greater inequality and stifle the economy? What happens when unemployment creeps upward, as it inevitably will (since we’re near full employment now)? What happens when the manufacturing sector can’t reclaim jobs lost to technology? What happens when trade wars turn the world against us? What happens when millions lose their health insurance and the Republican “replacement” falls far short of the ACA’s success rate? What happens when Trump’s promise to end inner-city violence and acts of terror is shown to be nothing more than boasting? I’m sure we will see a flood of alternative facts. How else can you explain failure away? In fact, we’re already seeing Trump’s nominee for Labor secretary suggesting that he will scrap the method of computing unemployment that economists claim is one of the most reliable and useful statistics the government generates. Why? So that when things turn south, the administration will be able to use its own statistics. More alternative facts.
All through the primaries, Republican candidate after Republican candidate warned the voters in earnest tones how dangerous, how incompetent, and how dishonest a Trump presidency would be. But the voters ignored them. And now his former opponents are falling in line behind him. Trump owns the Republican Party, and now they must own him. But they cannot control him or even deflect him from the ruinous course he is bound to pursue. As Trump presents his staggering array of alternative facts, the Republican establishment is virtually silent. Only Lindsey Graham and John McCain dare speak up. What do we hear form the likes of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Utah’s own self-styled Grand Inquisitor, Jason Chaffetz? Crickets.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Church Magazines (Not the Ones You Think)

Exactly eighteen years ago today, I started working as an associate editor at the Liahona. About three and a half years later, a rogue organizational reshuffling sent me down the hall to the Ensign. It was an interesting transition, in more ways than one. I’ve delved into some of that in a previous post, but today I want to focus on periodicals. The Liahona was its own entity, with its own managing editor, its own editorial staff, its own art director, designers, and production staff (who converted the basic English design into a number of other languages). As far as I can remember, just about the only periodical the Liahona subscribed to was BYU Studies (where I now work). When it came in the mail, it was circulated among the editorial staff (I guess someone figured the designers and production staffers either didn’t read or couldn’t). If my memory serves me correctly, I was the only one who spent much time reading BYU Studies.
When I was shuffled over to the Ensign, I experienced a bit of culture shock. The Ensign subscribed to a rather impressive array of periodicals: BYU Studies (of course), Dialogue, Sunstone, Journal of Mormon History, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Utah Historical Quarterly, FARMS Review of Books, Pioneer (published by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers), and Desert Saints (a little pulp magazine out of Las Vegas). These might all be expected, since they all deal with Mormonism. But the Ensign also subscribed to the Salt Lake Tribune (not the Deseret News), Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Reader’s Digest, and Biblical Archaeology Review. This is not all, and this is actually where I’m heading today. The Ensign also subscribed to the Herald (Community of Christ), Vision (a magazine published by Richard Price, aimed at the Restoration branches that broke off from the RLDS Church), Decision Magazine (Billy Graham), and Insight (Seventh-day Adventist). There may have been others, but you get the idea.
I don’t know who thought the Ensign needed to subscribe to all of these periodicals, but I suspect it was Jay Todd, longtime managing editor, who retired a couple of years before I joined the staff. I wondered at the reason for all these periodicals. I just assumed somebody wanted the editorial staff to be informed. And I wanted to be informed, so I read them. Not cover to cover, but you’d be surprised at how much I did read. I made it a practice to read every day during lunch, and I also took these periodicals with me on the bus, so over midday meals and on the freeway between Salt Lake and Orem I became informed. The only two I didn’t read much of were Biblical Archaeology Review and Desert Saints. Sorry, you archaeologists and Las Vegans out there. I didn’t have time to read all three weekly news magazines cover to cover, but I did read everything that looked interesting or pertinent. I read the humor pages in Reader’s Digest and any articles that caught my attention. The rest, believe it or not, I read pretty much cover to cover, passing over an occasional dull article. And I believe I was the only editor who read much of this print smorgasbord.
I was very interested in the church magazines, especially those from our distant cousins in the RLDS galaxy. I found it fascinating to see how drastically the Reorganized LDS Church/Community of Christ had changed over the years. But my favorite had to be Richard Price’s attempt to provide a literary glue to hold the fractured traditionalists together. His mission in life, it appeared, was to prove that Joseph Smith DID NOT COMMIT POLYGAMY. That was all Brother Brigham’s doing. A tough row to hoe, but Richard wouldn’t yield an inch. In some ways, he reminds me now of Donald Trump supporters. No matter how many facts you send their way, they just dig their heels in deeper. At BYU Studies, we don’t get either the Herald or Vision (if it still exists). And I miss them.
At work, I do receive Dialogue, Sunstone, Journal of Mormon History, the Ensign, and Mormon Historical Studies (by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation). And that keeps me pretty busy because now I read a lot more books than I did when I was at Church Magazines, and there are gobs of Mormon blogs, The New Yorker, the Salt Lake Tribune, Paul Krugman, and other online material to keep up on. But this past year BYU Studies has received twice, out of the blue, a magazine titled Freedom. It is the magazine of the Church of Scientology International.  Now, I’m not a big fan of Scientology, but I’ve found their “church magazine” quite fascinating. The June/July 2016 issue featured a series of articles on the military-industrial complex and how it squanders billions (“The War on Taxpayers”). These seemed to represent pretty decent journalism. The October/November 2016 issue features a series of articles condemning the unregulated and resurgent practice of electroshock therapy.
I couldn’t help but contrast the Scientology magazine with the mind-numbing material that often clutters the pages of the Ensign. Now remember before you start lobbing virtual tomatoes my way that I worked there for over four years. I know what battles they face to get anything in print. I recall having to get fourteen approvals for one particular article. And it wasn’t even controversial. If Correlation didn’t kill or eviscerate a perfectly good article, then any number of middle managers or General Authorities just might. What survived was usually so safe that it was totally benign. Reading Freedom, I couldn’t help but wonder why the LDS Church can’t tackle some serious current moral (or, heaven forbid, political) issues head-on. Well, I suppose there are lots of answers. But I do yearn for a church that can be more relevant in today’s modern world and less frightened of either offending or surprising someone. I’ll be honest. I am much more inspired by Pope Francis than by any Mormon leader, local or superlocal. Maybe this has something to do with the gerontocracy. The Dialogue article in fall 2016 by Greg Prince and company does raise some really good questions.
I know I’m asking too much. I always do. But, heck, if the Catholics can do it, why can’t we?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Some Thoughts on Certainty and Belief

In my ward, whenever the bishop calls young men or women to the pulpit for the purpose of presenting them for advancement in the Aaronic Priesthood or to a new Young Women class, he invites these kids to bear their testimonies. This is not a stakewide practice. I believe it was started by my current bishop’s predecessor but has, like so many Church practices, become a sort of tradition now. And it has caused me to ponder the place of testimony in Mormonism.
Whenever the bishop puts one of the young men or women on the spot like this, I can’t help but think about my own experience as a youth. If my bishop, all those years ago, had asked me to bear my testimony, I don’t know what I would have said. I suppose I could have recited the standard “I’d like to bear my testimony and I know the Church is true,” but I have always preferred honesty, and this statement would not have been honest. I didn’t know. So I’m glad my bishop didn’t ask.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect that some of the youth in my ward know as little as I did. I’m guessing that they are probably as distracted as I was and haven’t really made a great effort to find out if the Church is true. It’s possible they are merely relying on the testimonies of others—parents, teachers, older siblings, friends. I don’t know if any of them see an ethical dilemma in saying something that isn’t quite true. If so, I feel for them. But what do you do when you’re put on the spot like that?
As I have chronicled elsewhere (my 2007 Dialogue essay “Frau RĂ¼ster and the Cure for Cognitive Dissonance”), I went to Germany as a missionary without a testimony. After praying futilely for two months in the LTM (they told me this stood for Longest Two Months), I continued my struggle for a month and a half in Germany before receiving a rather remarkable spiritual confirmation of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. But as I have learned more about Mormonism and some of the difficult questions it really does not answer very well, the scope of that spiritual witness has narrowed a good deal. In essence, the more I learn, the less I know—or perhaps I should say, the less I am certain of. As a missionary, I assumed that if Joseph Smith really did see what he said he saw, then everything else about Mormonism had to be true. But today I know enough about LDS doctrine, history, institutional practice, and culture to be quite uncertain about an increasing slice of the Mormon pie. Awareness of inconsistencies tends to produce uncertainty.
But certainty is the coin Mormonism traffics in. Testimony is the most important possession a Mormon can acquire. In order to receive a temple recommend, for instance, you have to have a testimony of some fundamental notions. Certainty is certainly more important than belief in Mormondom. But in recent years, I’ve begun to question the usefulness of this particular priority. I don’t mean to be critical, but it seems to me that many Mormons are certain the Church is true and yet are not certain about what, specifically, they believe, especially if you ask them.
Let me be both blunt and personal. I don’t believe a lot of the things I did ten years ago. Why? Because I have learned a great deal about my religion and life generally in those ten years. And the more you learn, the more your beliefs evolve. It is inevitable. If you believe the same things you believed ten years ago, I would suggest that you haven’t really learned anything. New knowledge always causes a person to reassess his or her beliefs. The more knowledge you have, the broader your perspective is, and the more clearly you see contexts and relationships between truth and error.
Let me give a simple example to illustrate. In the past ten years, I have studied a good deal of Church history. I have seen instances of promises given by prophets in the name of the Lord that simply did not come to pass. So the question naturally arises, If a prophet was wrong about, say, the timing of the Second Coming, what else might he have been wrong about? And if one prophet was wrong about something significant, well, what about the other prophets? What about those declarations about the status of blacks in the premortal existence? Given the track record of fallibility, how certain can I be about declarations I hear from authority figures?
Because of numerous inconsistencies I am finding in Mormonism, because of the doctrinal shifts that have occurred over the years, and because of my increasing uncertainty, I have started examining my own beliefs, in serious detail. I find this a useful thing to do. How many Mormons, I wonder, have actually composed a personal document examining their beliefs in specifics, giving cogent arguments for why they believe what they do? What I am finding, so far, is that Joseph Smith produced some very appealing and sensible doctrines. But he was not consistent. He sometimes contradicted himself. Some of the doctrines, when viewed in light of other doctrines, don’t add up, so to speak. Other doctrines are inconsistent with themselves when viewed over time. So I am sorting through various fundamental tenets and asking myself what actually makes sense. In some ways, I am arriving at conclusions that surprise me. But I find this exercise to be highly beneficial, because it clarifies for me what I do believe and what I don’t, what makes sense and what doesn’t. Am I certain about these beliefs? Certainly not. I am not convinced that my beliefs will not continue to evolve as I learn more and obtain better information.
Let me now return to my bishop. I wish he would stop asking the kids to bear their testimonies. I wish instead that he would warn the young men and women in his interviews with them that he is going to ask them, when he presents them to the ward, to talk about something they believe. He should then invite them to examine their beliefs and select something they would feel comfortable sharing with the ward. I would find that much more useful than placing these kids in a tight spot where they feel pressured to offer up a trite assurance that they know something that maybe they do know but maybe they don’t. I would much rather hear what a fourteen-year-old believes than hear her simply state that she knows the Church is true. If she is asked to talk about something she believes, she will have to think about what she believes, and she might actually say something really important, to herself and to the congregation.