Monday, February 6, 2017
The Stories We Believe
On Groundhog Day this year, The New Yorker ran an article by Jiayang Fan1 that recounted her experience as a second-grader growing up in China. Despite the many things that were not reliable in 1980s China, one that was “as constant as the sunrise” was “the voice of the loudspeaker broadcasts in our Army hospital compound (my mother was a military doctor), which woke me every morning before I could witness the dawn.” When she was eight, her family came to America, not as political refugees, but so her father could pursue graduate studies.
“The first time I read ‘1984,’ George Orwell’s classic dystopia,” she explains, “I was an eleventh grader in America, and its portrayal of a world rife with loudspeaker announcements and an omnipotent Party did not strike me as related to the world we had left behind when I was eight years old. . . . In my early childhood, at least as I remembered it, everyone I knew lived ordinary, unmolested lives. An impassioned teacher, given to rhetorical drama, once tried to convince me otherwise: ‘Don’t you see? The Chinese government hurt its own people, and you were a helpless victim.’ But I’m not hurt, I insisted.”
A few years later, armed with facts about what the Chinese government had really done, she tried to convince her mother of the truth as she now perceived it, but her mother “recoiled with such violence that I understood instantly that my catalogue of facts was irrelevant.” To her mother, a rejection of the Communist Party would have been a rejection of most of her adult life. Facts and rationality had nothing to do with it.
As I read Fan’s account, I couldn’t help thinking about the good Germans I came to know in the 1970s, many of whom had lived under Hitler’s Nazi regime and had been subjected to a view of reality that only fell apart for most when the Allied conquerors opened the doors to the concentration camps and let the light in. This was an absolutely devastating revelation to people who had believed in the glorious promises of the Third Reich. Some Germans, like Helmuth Hübener, found access to outside information and tried to spread it. They were generally viewed as troublemakers—indeed, they were the ones listening to “false” propaganda from the BBC—and so the government quickly rooted them out and silenced them. Hübuener, of course, was both excommunicated by local LDS leaders and executed by the Nazis. The point, though, is that we should not be astonished at what people are capable of believing, given the right circumstances and a flood of misinformation.
Fan makes a connection between her childhood, “1984,” and the present:
Rational reasoning and truth have been much on my mind as we enter a world of alternative facts and crypto-fascist edicts from the White House, less than two weeks into Donald Trump’s Administration. Last week, when “1984” rose toward the top of Amazon’s best-seller list, I dug out my dog-eared paperback copy and reread a quotation that I had underlined a decade and a half earlier: “For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”
In recent days, as Trump and his cohorts have peddled blatant falsehoods—that his Inauguration attracted the largest crowd in history, or that he lost the popular vote owing to millions of votes by illegal aliens—I have wondered about the extent to which minds can be controlled, or, rather, commandeered, by the relentless deluge of misinformation.
This has been on my mind a lot recently, too, and not just because of the rise of a mendacious “crypto-fascist” to the most powerful office on earth. I spend my days, and often my evenings too, reading, studying, and examining Mormon history, doctrine, culture, and organization. Among other things, I read a lot of history, and a statement I came across several years ago is always in the front of my mind. It always frames what I read. For years I couldn’t find the source for this statement, but a recent Google search suggested that it was probably Henry L. Miles in a 2007 Dialogue essay.2 In the essay, he credits this wisdom to Hayden White. It’s a simple statement, really, but incredibly profound: “Events do not tell their own stories.”
Events do not have meaning on their own. Events are just events, the facts of what happened. Meaning always comes in the selecting, ordering, analyzing, and retelling of the facts. We call this interpretation. And historians aren’t the only ones who infuse meaning into events through interpretation. Politicians do it constantly. So do government and religious leaders. So do teachers. In fact, so do we all. For example, I have told one particular experience from my life in at least three different ways. All accounts, I believe, are “true.” But by leaving out certain elements of the story, emphasizing others, providing a particular context, and drawing certain conclusions, I use the experience to provide meaning—indeed, different meanings—for the different audiences I am addressing. Is this dishonest? No. Not if I don’t introduce untruthful elements to the story or twist the details in order to deceive. And there’s the catch. Where do we draw the line between leaving out or including information to make a valid point and doing so to give a false impression or to achieve questionable ends? Life is complicated, and so are human motives. I would argue, though, that with Donald Trump this task is quite easy. He is generally so far from this somewhat hazy line that only the truly gullible or indoctrinated are blind to his real motives. This explains his historically unrivaled low approval ratings as a new president.
Mormon history is a different matter altogether. In the not-so-distant past, Mormon history was published primarily by two groups: LDS Church employees and leaders, whose goal was to present the Church in a completely positive light, and critics of the Church, whose purpose was to make the Church look bad, either through the publishing of embarrassing episodes in Mormon history or through an interpretation of events that cast doubt on the Church’s truth claims. For decades, the Church tried to control its own story by restricting access to crucial records that might lead to different interpretations than the Church’s official historians and leaders wanted people to embrace. In 2007, Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen gave a presentation at the Mormon History Association’s annual conference in which he showed a picture of a sign that had hung outside the old library in the Church Administration Building. Elder Jensen’s point was to show how much things have changed in recent years. The sign read: “Library, No Admittance.”3 Funny until you start thinking about it.
This sign has direct relevance to Jiayang Fan’s story, and to Nazi Germany, and to what we are seeing today with the chaotic unfolding of the Trump regime. The common thread here is authoritarianism. Authoritarian institutions want to control the narrative. In other words, they seek to control the interpretation of facts and events. In the past, they did this largely by restricting the dissemination of information. China controlled the media. Hitler and Goebbels created a massive propaganda machine. The LDS Church restricted access to its historical documents and disseminated only those parts of its story that were “faith-promoting.” Trump faces a different challenge. Because of the long tradition of a free and inquiring press and because of the information explosion that accompanied the rise of the Internet, Trump and his ilk have used different tactics, although we are nonetheless seeing the first steps by the new administration to close down certain channels through which information from the government has freely flowed in the past. These new tactics include:
(1) producing so much misinformation that the press can hardly keep up and the public suffers from sheer exhaustion;
(2) using the Internet (primarily social media) to bypass the mainstream media and reach a targeted audience that is already inclined to believe the lies;
(3) directly attacking credible media outlets and their credibility, so as to undermine trust in traditional reporting;
(4) repeatedly painting the country in dark tones so that people believe our situation is far worse than it actually is, thus creating the illusion that we need an authoritarian figure to “fix” things;
(5) boldly attacking and insulting anyone who dares to disagree with the “alternative facts” and dark vision spewed out by Trump and his puppets; and
(6) offering rewards to political or business allies if they will turn a blind eye to improprieties (think Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Jason Chaffetz, and Wall Street bankers).
Trump is an anomaly, of course—not in world history, because he is following in the footsteps of many, many dictators and autocrats, including Putin—but certainly an anomaly in U.S. history. We have never really had an authoritarian figure like this to contend with, and it is discouraging to see how many Americans are fooled by his cheap act. But authoritarian individuals and institutions always seek to control the stories people believe, and the LDS Church, in its history and its present, has dabbled in this strategy.
One of the most disappointing incidents involves historian D. Michael Quinn, who, with the self-professed intent of educating Latter-day Saints about a portion of their history he felt they needed to know, published details about post-Manifesto polygamy, a taboo topic at the time. For daring to challenge the narrative the Church had carefully created and disseminated, Quinn was excommunicated. This for publishing information that is now acknowledged on the Church’s own website.4
But the effort to control the narrative is not just a past phenomenon. I mentioned the present above, because even though circumstances have indeed changed, the Church is still an authoritarian institution in significant ways and still seeks to shape the stories its members believe. For a variety of reasons—most importantly the rise of the Internet and the accompanying easy access to information—the Church has had to become more open. Needless to say, this has been a struggle and has happened in fits and starts. Mormon studies, as a field of research and writing, is exploding. Mormon history, as part of this larger field, has changed radically in the past couple of decades. No longer is Mormon history a polemical debate revolving around the question of whether or not the Church is “true.” Many scholars, both LDS and non-LDS, are performing quality research with the apparent purpose of simply trying to understand the Church and shed light on its history rather than trying to prove anything one way or the other. And while objectivity is always an unreachable goal, it appears to be a goal nonetheless and thus shapes the final product.
This drastic change in Mormon history has created multiple problems for the Church. First, the Church can no longer just refer to its “enemies” or “anti-Mormons” and thus discredit any information they produce. Many of these scholars have no ax to grind, are friends to (or members of) the Church, and are not overtly interested in questions of “true or not true.” Second, the institution is no longer able to control its own narrative to the degree it had become accustomed to. This means that members who are aware of even some of the material being published are going to read things that Church leaders may not be thrilled about. Third, the complexities of real life, as reflected in this new Mormon history, tend to quietly undermine the story the Church has been telling for decades; they also undermine the illusion it has maintained for so long that our past is filled with only inspired decisions, heroic sacrifices, and never-failing direction from heaven. Unfortunately, this is still the illusion that is taught in most Sunday classes. On Sunday, there are no contradictions in our doctrine, no uninspired prophetic statements or decisions, and no questions that cannot be answered.
Things are changing gradually. The Gospel Topics Essays were written and then hidden in an obscure corner of the Church’s website in an obvious attempt to not draw attention to them. They were not announced to local Church leaders through official channels, which led to several ironic situations where teachers who knew about them and used them in class were reprimanded by their local leaders for teaching controversial material, even though they got it on lds.org. This is finally changing, but oh so slowly. Elder Ballard has been almost a solitary voice in drawing attention to the essays. They are now being used in seminary and institute, and this year, with Church history as the Gospel Doctrine curriculum, there are a few references and links to them in the online versions of the manuals—but not in the printed manuals, which many teachers still use exclusively.
So, what about the essays themselves? Yes, they are a huge step in the right direction, and they reference even more publications that people can examine to get better informed, including the Journal of Mormon History, Utah Historical Quarterly, and BYU Studies. But again, we must remember that “events do not tell their own stories.” All history is interpretation. And these essays are still the Church’s interpretation. What this means is that while the writers of the essays may have had the best of intentions and may have tried to be open and honest about a number of difficult topics, the essays were written with a specific purpose in mind and still had to be approved by Church leaders; they are intended to shape the story Church leaders want both members and nonmembers to believe. This means that, inevitably, certain facts, events, details, and perspectives will be left out of the essays. Of course every writer knows that he or she must select from a plethora of information on any subject, and that selection is always done with a deeper purpose in mind (perhaps even as deep as the subconscious). But everything the Church publishes must serve to support the notion that the Church is “true.” I’m not saying this is bad; I’m just saying this influences which details are included and which are left out. It also influences how the details are presented. In short, there is no such thing as perfect openness or perfect objectivity. All history, indeed all composing of narratives, is interpretation. We simply need to be aware of this as we read.
So, here’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: How are we to know which interpretations to trust? On any topic. How are we to know which stories to believe? The only advice I can give, and I am certainly not unbiased, is that more information is always better than less information. So don’t get all your input from Fox News or Deseret Book. Don’t get all your data from the Huffington Post or the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, either. Read and listen enough that you can begin to judge people’s motives and biases. Read and listen enough that you start to understand context and complexity in the real world. There’s hardly an issue, either political or religious, that isn’t a whole lot more complicated than you want it to be. If it’s any consolation, I really can’t think of any aspect of Mormonism that I don’t have questions about. Nothing is simple and straightforward when you dig into the details.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (both Junior and Senior) has been credited with saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That is the challenge we face. Too much of what we have been fed by the Church and by politicians is a “simplicity this side of complexity.” It is intended for people who want to be told what to believe. But if we are to arrive at “the simplicity on the other side of complexity,” we must wade into the mire and start sorting things out. I have discovered that one result of this venture is that I believe a lot fewer stories than I used to. I have had to put my judgment regarding the accuracy of many stories on the shelf while I dig into the messy details to determine which parts of these stories ring true and which don’t hold up to careful examination.
One thing I think we can be certain of, though, is that after making a diligent and honest effort to arrive at the truth of any question, religious or political, it is certain to be a more cluttered and complicated “truth” than the institutional Church or any political party is likely to be comfortable with.
1. Jiayang Fan, “Donald Trump through a Loudspeaker, Darkly,” The New Yorker, February 2, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/donald-trump-through-a-loudspeaker-darkly?mbid=nl_TNY%20Template%20-%20With%20Photo%20(129)&CNDID=33622727&spMailingID=10354252&spUserID=MTMzMTgzNzMxNzEyS0&spJobID=1100178277&spReportId=MTEwMDE3ODI3NwS2.
2. Henry L. Miles, “An Old Mormon Writes to Harold Bloom,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40, no. 4 (2007): 166.
3. See Marlin K. Jensen, “Church History: Past, Present, and Future,” Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 2 (2008): 42.
4. See D. Michael Quinn, “Background and Fallout of My 1985 Article ‘LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890–1904,’” Sunstone 179 (2015). See also “Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Gospel Topics Essays, https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-the-church-of-jesus-christ-of-latter-day-saints?lang=eng&old=true.