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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Not Fade Away"

I had a couple of chances to head down to Las Vegas from Provo, Utah, when I was an undergraduate at BYU two decades ago, just to see the Grateful Dead. Never went, because I'm an idiot that way, I guess.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cleansing the Altar, and the Anvil Too

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Some interrelated thoughts for today, which is Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that I kind of wish every year was one of my own. First of all, the text:

Okay, so that's not the actual text; as Noah Millman helpfully reminded us in his post today, the real textual basis for the holiday Yom Kippur is Leviticus 16:18-22. And the meaning he takes from that text is very different from the one which Northern Exposure provided me with when I first saw the above episode (titled "Shofar, So Good") nearly twenty years ago. But I love the show's portrayal of the Day of Atonement nonetheless, and not just because I'm a huge fan of A Christmas Carol. No, I love it also because it's just a wonderful combination of whimsy, misanthropy, ordinary realism, religious respect, and moral seriousness. (The above clip, while it conveys the main message of the episode, actually leaves out the entire best subplot, which is Holling's feelings of guilt and shame over a child he'd never known, and the way Ed becomes a scapegoat for him.) I've never pretended to be anything other than a holiday enthusiast, happily borrowing them wherever I can, and finding in them whatever meaning I may; Yom Kippur is a holiday that, for me at least, invites just such an appropriation. I want to be reminded, viscerally, ritually, of the need I have for atonement, for resolution, for forgiveness. Mormons get reminded of it every week as we take the sacrament, and I love that ritual, but perhaps because of its very ordinariness it often--for me, anyway--lacks real weight. The call of the Shofar and the recitation of the Shema Yisrael...well, that's not something one can easily elide.

But back to Noah's interpretation of the scriptural text, which departs slightly from Northern Exposure's more traditional focus on prayer and personal atonement. He asks, intriguingly, just what the atonement, the scapegoat, is for. His answer is, it's not for the person, or the people. It's for the altar:

If you look closely at the text, what you’ll see is that the scapegoat ritual isn’t about atoning for the people, and taking away their sin from them, but about atoning for the altar. That’s what it says: the priest “shall go out unto the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it”....What on earth does that mean?

When someone transgresses, and performs a sin offering to atone, the offering is not a penance, something the person gives up to make up for the sin, nor is it a bribe to the judge, something God finds pleasing and that will encourage His mercy. Rather, the blood of the offering is a kind of spiritual cleanser, which takes the residue of sin off the sinner. So where does it go? It goes, with the blood, onto the altar.

Which is why, once a year, the priest needs to make atonement for the altar, to cleanse it of the sins of the people that have accumulated over the year. It’s like cleaning the filter. The scapegoat ritual transfers these accumulated sins to the goat, so that the altar can continue to do its job of receiving the residue of sin for another year.....

We moderns...don’t think we can cleanse ourselves by pouring blood on an altar. But we do recognize that the need to make restitution and the need for spiritual “cleansing” are not identical processes. The one is social; the other is psychological. And we do make use of intermediaries of various sorts for that process of cleansing, whether clergy or therapists or friends and family or even objects that we imbue with the kind of spiritual power once attributed to the altar.

And those intermediaries, who have taken on the residues of our sins, also need a cleansing.

So that’s what I’m going into this Yom Kippur thinking about. Who have I been using as an altar for the past year, making them the receptacles of my guilt and frustration and anger and all the rest of it, and what can I do to help them get clean of all that...so I can go on using them for another year.

I read this post this morning, before the holiday began, and it made me think of an old line attributed to George MacDonald--that in this life, we are not always the already-tempered and helpful hammer which is shaping and pounding another, nor yet the heated and shapeless iron, in desperate need of some honing, receiving our necessary though much regretted pounding. No, sometimes we are only the anvil. I first encountered that thought when I read an old sermon by Neal A. Maxwell, an apostle in my church. I found that sermon--which is simply titled "Patience"--in a missionary apartment in South Korea close to 25 years ago, and it struck me as one of the truest things I'd ever read:

Paul, speaking to the Hebrews, brings us up short by writing that even after faithful disciples have “done the will of God...ye have need of patience” (Heb. 10:36). How many times have good individuals done the right thing only to break, or wear away, under the subsequent stress, canceling out much of the value of what they have already so painstakingly done?

Sometimes that which we are doing is correct enough but simply needs to be persisted in--patiently--not for a minute or a moment but sometimes for years. Paul speaks of the marathon of life and how we must “run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Paul did not select the hundred-yard dash for his analogy!

My mother-in-law had a saying, which was in due course passed on to my wife, Melissa, and now has become second-nature to me as well: "The problem with life is that it's so daily." Not an original insight, to be sure; millions have noted, in all sorts of ways, the real burden that comes from the repetition of ordinary responsibilities, the constant need to attend to the same, whether with family or work or anything else. I know that I often struggle with that dailiness. I actually think that I'm not doing too badly insofar as basic spiritual matters are concerned, but I also know that I get worn down by it all. And when I do, I can see that I make anvils of my wife, my children, my friends. I don't treat them badly, or at least I hope I don't...but I do dump on them, let loose my sarcasm and annoyances on them, use them as a break from needing to be, from even wanting to be, a decent person. Because I know--or at least hope--that they'll forgive me, and let me get away with being a jerk sometimes. I hammer on them, in other words; maybe what I'm hammering is me, or some unresolved issue I have at work or church or somewhere else. But I'm not doing it for them; I'm doing it for me. And that, itself, is a sin that I need forgiveness for.

So I thank Noah, and Neal Maxwell, and Northern Exposure, this Yom Kippur. The occasion of the holiday has provided me with a needed insight: that in trying to be honest and repentant of my sins, I take for granted some of those on whom I spill (metaphorical) blood, and employ (I hope at least mostly unintentionally) as anvils as I hammer out my own issues and the issues of those my church responsibilities put before me. I hope God's grace is sufficient to cleanse these anvils and altars in my life, because I love them so. I hope I can be someone else's altar and anvil as well...because that means that I'll also get some reprieve sometimes (at least once a year, if the Jews are right!) from all that hammering and blood-letting which, in this mortal coil, we probably can't ever fully avoid.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Diamond in the Rough"

Early Shawn Colvin. Melissa and I saw her do a great show at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC sometime in the late 90s; I wish I could find a recording of that, or any good recording for her cover of the Talking Heads' "This Must Be the Place." But this is an awesome song, one of her best, and absolutely worth a listen.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Superstition"

I think we can all agree that Sesame Street just ain't what it used to be. (Nor is Stevie Wonder, but that's a different issue.)

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "Learning to Fly"

Sometimes, I crank this Pink Floyd song WAY up and just dance around the office to it. No, I'm not at all embarrassed to admit that.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

How Mitt Romney Deflated the Mormon Moment

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Before we get too far into this week's Democratic National Convention, let me get off my chest something about last week's, something that I've alluded to in other places before, but now, having watched and read up on all the Mormon-centric stuff that came out of Tampa last week, I'm more certain of than ever. The speeches given last Thursday, culminating in Mitt Romney's speech accepting the presidential nomination of the Republican Party wasn't just a "climax" for the Mormon Moment--it was the effective sublimation and emptying of it as well.

Of course, my friend McKay Cobbins was surely correct when he observed in a Buzzfeed story that "a survey of 100 Mormons would likely yield 100 different interpretations of what Romney's nomination will mean for their religion." After all, the whole idea of a "moment" for something as broad and as personal as a religion is itself kind of weird, and its meaning certainly difficult to nail down. If one wishes to speak only historically, than a "moment" for a religion would presumably be any point of crisis or change or expansion, any time when the religion in question encounters the public (or multiple publics) differently than before. From that perspective, as historians like Philip Barlow and Laurie Maffly-Kipp have observed, there have been multiple "Mormon moments" over the years, as my faith has gone from being small and persecuted, to defiant and oppositional, to corporatized and mainstream, and now to global and perhaps something else. But for all that historical and subjective variety, this particular moment--the one which really began in 2011, as the formal start of Romney's presidential campaign coalesced along with a host of references to Mormonism in popular culture into something larger than the sum of its parts--has nonetheless, I think, had at least one constant theme: just where does Mormonism fit into, or intersect with, America's political culture? (Yes, it's a question about the United States; for a truly international Mormon moment, we'll probably need to wait a few more decades at least.) The answer which one cultural observer after another, both smart and stupid ones, tended to touch on was consistent: one way or another, it all came down to dollars and cents. And Romney--no doubt unintentionally, but with genuinely sincere belief too, I warrant--really didn't prove them at all wrong.

The list of speculations from the past year about what the Mormons think of money--speculations both from those of us within the Mormon church and from those outside of it--is too long to thoroughly document. But consider: we've heard from Adam Gopnik and Ross Douthat. There's been cover stories in Business Weekly and Harpers (which was atrocious, by the way). Even the much praised essay by Walter Kirn (the author of the original "Mormons Rock!" Newsweek piece), which was a long personal reflection and defense of the religion that he once called his own, couldn't avoid making as its climax an extended anecdote that revealed us Mormons (admittedly, to our own pleasure....but I would also unapologetically say quite honestly) as much given to cooperation and collective help--in other words, it presented a consideration of how Mormonism creates its own small communities and economies amongst the faithful. We just haven't seemed to be able to get away from it. You could argue that Romney is the primary reason for this--as, with the sole exception of Ross Perot, the wealthiest man in post-Industrial Revolution times to make a plausible run for the presidency, perhaps it is inevitable that the questions turn in this direction. Or perhaps it is simply the times: in a time of economic recession and frustration, my church's long history of  providing welfare to its poorer members--extensively reported on in major news outlets--again make make understanding Mormonism's relationship with money seem crucial. Either way, it's pervasive; when a group of ten faithful and scholarly Mormons put together a collection of concerns and questions about Romney's candidacy, lots of stuff came up, from same-sex marriage to Romney's likelihood of being guided by the Holy Ghost. But the most frequent comment, if you go through and count the lines, was simply: where do, or how do, Mormon beliefs fit into the economic choices which would face a president today?

There are many ways in which Romney could have dodged all of this, and frankly that's what I expected him to do, when I commented a couple of weeks ago, in reference to his then-upcoming convention speech, that I assumed "his experience as a leader in the Church for the last 40 years will be totally ignored." Clearly I was wrong there; Romney and his campaign instead surprised me and many others, by finding a politically palatable way to tell the story of his (and my) faith. But neither did he challenge or rebut the pre-occupations of those who see the Mormon story today as just another tale of a once-utopian, communitarian and egalitarian faith accepting mainstream economic norms. On the contrary, if Romney's acceptance speech, coming at the end of a day in which speakers made repeated references to his long history of compassionate church service and administrative experience, was meant to climax an argument--even if just an implicit one--about how this huge part of his life ought to add to his value as a presidential candidate, then we Mormons should be sad, not ecstatic. Because in the end, as I read his speech, Romney's triumphant stand at the top of the Mormon moment saw him pointing towards a narrative which sublimates all that economic speculation to as ordinary and as ideological a message as one can imagine a Republican politician in America today giving: that his religious faith was part of what makes him American, and as a good American he embraces business, because business growth is what all God-fearing, authentic America's truly want and deserve.

Let's break this down:

First, there was his constant invocations of "America" (it or its cognates were mentioned more than 90 times in the speech, meaning he referenced it on average nearly three times a minute). America is a country of people of faith--particularly, faith in the future. The freedom of religion which plays such a huge role in our civil religion is put on the same level with the freedom to build a business. This is the "essence of the American experience": to experience, and to expect, a faith in the wide-open opportunities which the future presumably holds. Both the "riches of this world" as well as the "richness of this life" are identified with a freedom to grasp the future:

We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better. They came not just in pursuit of the riches of this world but for the richness of this life. Freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom to speak their mind. Freedom to build a life. And yes, freedom to build a business. With their own hands. This is the essence of the American experience.

Second, there was his conviction that this freedom to grasp the best that the future offers is "deserved." It is something inextricably entwined with being American, and with having faith in America. In what was--on the basis of my repeat viewings, anyway--his most earnest and impassioned state of the night, Romney insisted:

I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed. But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn’t something we have to accept. Now is the moment when we can do something. With your help we will do something. Now is the moment when we can stand up and say, “I’m an American. I make my destiny. And we deserve better! My children deserve better! My family deserves better! My country deserves better!”

Third, his way of talking about what he and his wife Ann built as their lives in Massachusetts unfolded--with its touching and no-doubt heartfelt words about congregations growing and helping each other, and the civic strength which such mutual service imparts to us all--moved easily, and almost without a beat, talking about how that same strength was most obviously revealed through the construction of businesses and the creation of jobs:

That is the bedrock of what makes America, America. In our best days, we can feel the vibrancy of America’s communities, large and small. It’s when we see that new business opening up downtown. It’s when we go to work in the morning and see everybody else on our block doing the same.

Which finally, and fourth, leads to his primary claim against President Obama: that he doesn't understand business, which presumably means he doesn't understand the real religious faith in the future which animates this country, which therefore also presumably means that he doesn't really understand America itself either:

The President hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to. The President has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction. He took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business.

Let me give credit to the defenders of how my church has grown to become one of the wealthiest religious bodies in the United States. In the face of all the (I think often entirely legitimate) criticism of the ways the Mormon church has institutionally embraced a growth-and-investment-oriented mentality in regards to how it deals with its financial holdings, it remains the case that all this economic activity, however much of departure all this is from the communitarian and egalitarian Zion which my and Mitt Romney's church once tried to build, nonetheless is still about maintaining and extending the influence and mission of the church. In short, it may just be capital, but its consecrated capital. Obviously you almost certainly won't ever see such a perspective endorsed by any major political candidate in our pluralistic political society. And yet, someone coming from that perspective could still talk about money in connection with service, as something secondary to self-justifying economic goals could they not?

I'm going to assume that Romney most certainly could--he just chose not to, and by so doing, extinguished one of narrative lights which the Mormon moment kept lit. On the basis of Romney's speech, the preferred mode of economic activity is entrepreneurial and individual, rather than collective; it is grounded not in a vision of congregational stewardship, but is part of the fabric of America itself; and its clearest distillation is to be found in an expected promise of profit and growth, not in providing succor to others. That's taking much of all that has been speculated about Mormonism in the mass media over the past year and aligning it with America's civil religion of progress, its individualistic and capitalistic culture, and its moralization of business as the purest sort of financial activity. Some of those things I like, and some I dislike....but like it or dislike it, the one thing it most surely did is take the political distinctiveness out of our moment, and it's probably not going to come back.

Assuming he loses, that is. Obviously if Romney wins the presidency, then the slate (the Etch-a-Sketch?) is mostly wiped clean as far as the media is concerned, and a new political narrative will be spun, one in which Romney's own shaping of the message from the White House could result in tensions, questions, and insights which would make what has appeared to me to be the relentless--and frankly kind of banal--pre-occupation with economic questions that we've seen this election season seem silly by comparison. But the latest polls suggest that my old prediction is going to be wrong, and Romney will go down to defeat in November. So here, as a reward for anyone who has read all the way to the end, is one of the few reasons I wouldn't be too unhappy if Romney wins: because it would mean that events would force Romney to continue to speak out, and hence at least occasionally make use of his background of faith, as an influential political leader. And that would mean our moment, in the public imagination, wouldn't be nearly so stranded as Romney left it in Tampa.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Kansas GOP has Thought Itself Out of Another Good Politician

[This is a submission to the Wichita Eagle; we'll see if they take it. Update, 9/7/2012, 1:00pm CST: a shortened version of the article was printed in the Eagle here.]

When state Senator Jean Schodorf read the article in Sunday’s Wichita Eagle about her announcement that she’s leaving the Kansas Republican Party, and saw herself quoted as saying “There’s no room [in the party] for people who actually think in moderation,” she probably shrugged her shoulders, figuring that informed readers will understand what she meant.

And of course, they will. After losing her place in the party in last month’s primary election to the strongly conservative Michael O'Donnell, essentially for failing–at least in the eyes of many riled-up, activist voters–to be sufficiently committed to the hard-right, pseudo-libertarian-constitutionalist ideology which Governor Sam Brownback has helped to triumph over Kansas’s long-standing moderate conservative faction, her frustration with the lack of respect in today’s Republican party for “moderation” in government is obvious.

Those happy about Schodorf’s defeat will chuckle over her word choice, which suggests that the party doesn’t welcome those people (presumably like her!) who don’t think too much. And those frustrated with a Republican party now cleansed of many of Kansas’s traditionally moderate voices will point to her departure from the GOP as evidence of the reality of her meaning.

But before the news cycle moves entirely beyond this misquote, let me make an observation on its behalf. I think that Schodorf unintentionally made an important point about the role of “think[ing] in moderation” in our political system.

Our national government, and our state governments, follow a separation-of-powers model of democracy, not a parliamentary one. That is, we have different branches of government, filled with representatives who are elected on different cycles. Strong party unity, an essential feature of successful parliamentary democracies (where the whole legislature and executive is elected at one time), has been only an occasional feature of our system; the incentives which motivate politicians rarely point in the direction of strong ideological uniformity.

Recognizing this fact, generations of political leaders in the U.S., on both the national and the state level, have developed practices to make the “checks and balances” of our system into an invitation to compromise. Real statesmen and women, throughout our history, have almost invariably been pragmatic deal-makers, who borrowed ideas as appropriate to craft legislation that could both address real political problems and minimally satisfy all the different politicians needed to pass the bill. Almost never has any elected party governed effectively over real political problems while also pushing forward a unified ideological agenda.

The Republican Party today, nationally as well as here in Kansas, has become a vehicle for a small group of wealthy, determined people who are enamored of just such a unified ideological agenda. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney may not represent that movement terribly well, but his VP pick, Rep. Paul Ryan, a self-described intellectual and devotee of Ayn Rand, certainly does. Brownback, with his embrace of the supply-side economics of Arthur Laffer, does as well. And those high-paying interest groups which rolled out all sorts of ads to convince Kansas voters that Schodorf was on the wrong side of a desperate ideological struggle against impending socialism–they don’t just reflect that movement, they embody it.

Whether one likes or hates this anti-government agenda, one can’t deny that it is simply besotted with ideas. It is a movement which insists that one must get one’s thoughts right: get them in line with the Founding Fathers (or a small select portion of them, at least), in line with Ronald Reagan (the popular myth of him, that is, not the actual historical record), in line with a certain understanding of the purported anti-Americanism of the Obama administration.

The problem with all this high-end ideological thinking, however captivating it may to those engaged in it, is that it doesn’t match the structure of our system. Our form of democratic government almost never works properly if those elected to power see themselves as intellectual revolutionaries. The separation-of-powers, if it works at all, works best when elected representatives are willing to “moderate” their thinking at times, and get pragmatic, practical, solution-oriented, and compromise for the sake of getting things done.

It is possible that this particular intellectual crusade, unlike almost every other previous one, will actually be good at solving real-world problems, at negotiating differences and finding effective compromises. I have my doubts, though. When Schodorf talked about the need to “think in moderation,” she wasn’t just making a point about the need for sensible, balancing voices in government, she was also unintentionally pointing out that, under our system, ideological pre-occupations and litmus tests rarely keep the gears of government–the paychecks for soldiers, the refunds of taxes, the parks and schools and roads–in working order. For that, you need practical people, not Constitution-waving fanatics. Schodorf, a smart and experienced political leader, understood that. I strongly suspect that relatively few of this new bunch of Republican winners here in Kansas who identify with this latest purifying movement do as well.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Saturday Night Live Music: "I Hung My Head"

Melissa and I may never have seen The Police in action (and considering that they came to both Kansas City and Dallas during their reunion tour a few years back, we have no one to blame except ourselves), but we did see Sting in the summer of 1996, during his Mercury Falling tour. A tremendous show. Melissa was eight months pregnant with Megan at the time, but when this song started to get funky, she couldn't stay in her seat, and neither could anyone else.