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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On Being a Liberal Mormon: Two Defenses and an Attack

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

One week before election day here in the United States, let’s consider, both politically and philosophically, a couple of recent, superb, highly thoughtful books which ask Mormons to embrace–in one case explicitly (Richard Davis's The Liberal Soul), in the other case only implicitly and probably unintentionally (Terryl and Fiona Givens's The Crucible of Doubt)–a highly contested label: “liberalism.” And while we're at it, let's also consider one relatively prominent voice of opposition to that embrace, and see if it makes its case. (Preview: I don't think it does.)

Of course, the label/identity/accusation “liberal” isn’t just contested amongst members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It's been a long time since President Herbert Hoover and his challenger, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, argued during the presidential election of 1932 over which them advocated "true," and not "false," liberalism. Ever since the civil rights movement a half-century ago, and especially since the rise of the culture wars of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, a term which once connoted merely the desire to defend and expand individual rights, liberties, and tolerance has gotten tied up with claims about religion, sexual morality, welfare, the size and scope of government, race and gender, social norms, citizen duties and obligations, and much more. It makes, to say the least, for a pretty complicated package of ideas.

This complication, though, is maybe even more fraught for Mormons--particularly American Mormons--since for those of us who presumably, at the very least, feel it important to pay special attention to the statements of general authorities, attending church involves having to negotiate a social landscape where past leaders like Harold B. Lee and Ezra Taft Benson made it pretty clear that they didn't see any possible overlap between being a faithful member of the church and holding to "liberal" ideas. Those statements, and many others like them, are mostly 30 or more years old, and it might be easy to attribute them to a generation of leaders that were speaking to conditions that, with the 1978 revelation of the priesthood and the end of the Cold War threat of communism in the early 1990s, don't apply any longer. But any lifelong member of the church knows better than that, I think. The reformist impulse which modern liberalism carries with it means that those who agree with that impulse face serious challenge when the church officially adopts, as it has in most (though not all!) recent political debates, a stance in defense of "tradition," "authority," and other positions easily interpreted to be anti-liberal. And, given the aforementioned tangle of ideas, it becomes very easy for those positions to be tied to claims about minimal tax rates, strong property rights, and a host of other nominally "conservative" positions which may actually have next to nothing to do with the contemporary teachings of the Mormon church, but which have a long history of scriptural proof-texts and Utah-centric unofficial general authority statements to back them up.

It is that history which Richard Davis's book is most directly attempting to push back against. The Liberal Soul is not a deep work of political theology or theory, nor a nuanced discussion of political ideology or interpretation; it is not a book written to definitively advance a new Mormon political philosophy. On the contrary, its claims are modest (and its implied audience is also; while Davis frequently makes national or international connections in his arguments, it's pretty obvious that his primary hope it simply to convince his fellow Utah Mormons that a legitimately faithful "liberal" alternative to the locally dominating right-wing Republican or libertarian readings of Mormonism actually exists). For Davis, the "liberal soul" spoken of in the King James Version translation of Proverbs 11:25 presents to us all a divine ideal of generosity, open-mindedness, and collective concern (an ideal similarly invoked in Isaiah 32:5, James 1:5, and Alma 1:30 and 6:5); he does not claim that such scriptural language mandates any specific set of public policies. But by the same token, he wants to help his readers see that the reverse is also true. As he writes near his conclusion: "The marriage of LDS faith and right-wing or libertarian politics is not the sole perspective for understanding the relationship between the gospel and the role of government....There are multiple interpretations of the gospel's intersection with government, not just one" (p. 162). Thus The Liberal Soul is an attempt to put forward a reading of Christianity's call to generosity which suggests that collective political action towards greater economic and social equality and welfare is as legitimate a response as any other.

How persuasive is the reading Davis puts forward? I would say "very much so," but then I am already mostly--though not entirely--in Davis's ideological camp. The first and, I think, most important chapter in the book, "Government is Ordained of God," which carefully makes the point that there is no non-disputable reason why people cannot or should not democratically organize themselves around the governmental provision of public--as opposed to merely personal or familial--goods, and even more carefully criticizes the embarrassing anti-communist obsessions of Benson and other Mormon general authorities who tended to see any defense of public resources as gospel-threatening socialism, is one I strongly agreed with. As Davis continues his analysis through the book, his bone-deep moderate liberalism is demonstrated again and again, thus lessening my agreement with him somewhat, though never my admiration for what he was doing. He shows little interest in making direct use of Mormonism's legacy of consecration (which he at one point clumsily refers to as "communitarianism"); while he speaks highly of economic equality as a goal closely tied to the Christian respect for persons, and at one point subtly snarks that this goal "may not be possible today given the broad acceptability of seeking personal gain over community good," he mostly strikes a distinctly Rawlsian note, using redistributive taxes and minimum wage laws as examples of government actions which can reflect the generosity and public concerns of citizens (pgs. 29-39). Rather than contemplating the collective or class responsibility of oppressors to the oppressed in the form of reparations, he presents Joseph Smith's appeal to the federal government for restitution from the mobs in Missouri as an early ancestor of affirmative action (pgs. 45-50). Rather than proposing radical alternatives to the welfare state, he defends entitlement benefits, noting in response to criticism about waste and fraud that the LDS church's welfare program, like any "large bureaucratic organization," suffers from waste and fraud as well, only since "the Church's system is not transparent to the public or even to the Church's membership," almost no one knows about it (pgs. 67-68). Ultimately, there are almost no traces of social democracy or socialism in Davis's arguments; his liberal Zion is a pluralistic one of generosity and charity, where arguments against capitalism are rare, and entrenched inequalities are to be addressed through humane appeals, church assistance, and government amelioration. In that sense, Davis is staying true (for better or worse) to one of the dominant streams of political reflection in Mormon scholarship: that "Mormon theological views...follow the tradition of radical Protestantism, track quite closely the tenets of philosophical liberalism, and are supportive of American constitutionalism," as R. Collin Mangrum put it over 25 years ago.

There are multiple ways in which this stream of thought can be challenged, of course; Ralph Hancock, while expressing admiration for much of Davis's book, poses one of them by claiming that the liberal generosity at the heart of The Liberal Soul is a basically an "amoral view of humanity," a "secular ideology" of physical physical and social succor which should be contrasted to a true Christian charity that "seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification." Hancock's concern about liberalism taking the our eyes off where our treasure ought to be is a well-grounded one--and yet, what I think is most interesting about his particular line of criticism of Davis's thesis is that it, too, exists within (and thus implicitly supports) the essentials of the liberal worldview.

True, both Hancock and Davis eschew the hyper-individualism of mainstream American libertarianism, insisting instead that individual rights (to political expression, to guns, to property, or whatever) need to be expressed in connection with a sense of the common good. Moreover, Hancock's claim that what might be called contemporary liberalism's reformist and egalitarian impulses have transformed that worldview into a "liberationist" movement, especially in regard to sexual matters, might be understood as a criticism of liberalism overall--but if it is, I can't help but think it's a rather odd one. Through Hancock's many online writings on this topic (see here, here, here, here, and here for a start), the huge majority of which have focused on his conviction that same-sex unions cannot and should not be accepted as socially or morally respectable "marriages" in light of either the dictates of the gospel or the requirements of civilization, he has nonetheless, so far as I have seen, never denied that the individual (the unit which does the choosing to marry, after all) has a fundamental, ontological claim of worth in that gospel and to that civilization. He does distinguish between what he labels "practical" and "theoretical" liberalism (though sometimes he prefers to refer to them as "classical" and "new"), arguing that the latter ideology has freed individuals from the "moral discipline" which enabled them to exercise their choices via the genuinely workable political liberalisms of the past. But for all that, he does not dispute the position of the individual, that being who possess some kind of genuine independent agency--or in other words, some real "liberty"--as the category through which these moral baselines are to be expressed. He does not, in short, make firm arguments in behalf of natural law or economic superstructures or any other politically salient worldview, whether socialistic or actually traditional, that would suggest that we need to build our applications of the Christian gospel through something other than pretty much exactly what Davis calls for: namely, a generosity towards and respect for all individuals.

(In fairness, I should note that some of Hancock's arguments suggest a kind of anti-individualistic familolatry, in which what he takes to be the authoritative revelation/definition of the family, via Christian sacraments and ordinances, is conceived as holding paramount political value, above that of the person, the community, or--on my quite possibly flawed understanding of his speculations, anyway--the law. That is, I think, a genuinely fascinating anti-liberal framing of the political question. But given that, aside from his losing fight to stop same-sex marriage, I'm unaware of any suggestions of Hancock's regarding how this notion might be operationalized, economically or socially speaking (fathers acting as pater familias over the property of their wives or the marriages of their children, perhaps?), I can only conclude that his disagreement with Davis, practically speaking, actually just comes down to one--very conservative, in the mainstream American political sense--liberal Mormon challenging another--in this case somewhat more progressive, again in the mainstream American political sense--liberal Mormon over how he understands his faith.)

All of which leads us, believe it or not, to The Crucible of Doubt. The connection between The Liberal Soul and this book isn't obvious or direct, but it is, I think--at least when one looks at the this graceful, thoughtful, and profoundly rewarding book with a certain set of interpretive lenses--undeniable: the Givenses, whatever their intentions, have in fact written the finest defense of being and choosing to be a faithful liberal Mormon since the days of Richard Poll, Hugh B. Brown, Eugene England, or Lowell Bennion.

The "faithful liberal Mormon" perspective which their book lays out is by no means necessarily a political one (though, in practice, it is often difficult to keep those implications out of one's exploration of the idea--Gene England certainly didn't). There isn't an ounce of politics in The Crucible of Doubt, and on my reading the word "liberal" barely makes so much as a single appearance. The connection with liberalism is sufficiently subtle that smart, serious readers of the book can bypass it entirely, focusing quite reasonably instead on processing the ideas and suggestions which the book makes for addressing the problem of doubt in the contemporary Mormon church. But notice the tenor of those ideas and suggestions! Again and again, Terryl and Fiona Givens want to suggest that the doctrinal notions that Mormon believers may have thought themselves to have received could be wrong, or at least incomplete, and that the only way to resolve--or even just to achieve a degree of peace in regards to--any doubts they have about those notions is to develop greater "openness." Openness in regard to what? Well, to the moral incompleteness of tidy cultural explanations for suffering (chp. 2), or to the lack of spiritual reward which too often characterizes church attendance (chp. 3), or to the genuine inconsistencies the faithful will encounter in trying to reconcile contradictory scriptures (chp. 4), or to the frustrating reality that Mormon leaders are chosen for anything but genuinely meritocratic reasons (chp. 5), or to the plain fact that popular Mormonism's too casual claims to holding a monopoly on truth are simply incoherent (chp. 7). What is the point of all that openness? The point is, the Givenses make clear, is that it is exactly in conditions of "incertitude, when we are open to the "indeterminacy of it all," that we become, as individuals empowered to make choices, able to "act most authentically, calling upon intuition, spiritual intimations, or simply yearning" (pg. 32).

Now let me make a rather controversial--but, again, I think strongly defensible--leap into the political: exactly how much distance is there between that above statement, and the bête noire of religious conservatives and their supporters (including Ralph Hancock!--see here and here) everywhere, the statement made by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his opinion in the abortion-rights-defending case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life"? Now the Givenses might not care for this comparison, and might respond, for example, by claiming that any truly "authentic" choice will be one which responds to those "spiritual intimations" which will, of course, because they come from the same God who stands as the center of the doctrinal claims of the restored church, greatly limit just what kind of "self-definitions" any particular person might be able to righteously--and therefore legitimately--be able to come up with. Which is a good--and arguably anti-liberal--response! Except, of course, for the problem that, if taken too far, such a response would complicate, and perhaps even undermine, one of basic themes of their beautiful, poetic, evocative book: that of the individual chooser who must work out what they believe for themselves.

The Givenses fall back constantly on either an implied or an explicit assumption of individualism and diversity in the search for belief, and the Christian need to respond to such--as a church, as family members, and as individual Mormons ourselves--with generosity and open-mindedness (see pgs.79-80, 106-107, and 138 for a start). Nowhere do they do so more persuasively than in what I consider to be the pastoral heart of the book, chp. 8, "Spirituality and Self-Sufficiency," which begins (like Davis's book!) with a quote from Proverbs, this one 5:15: "Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well." That chapter is a ringing defense of seeking for truth and solace wherever we can find it, and of "drink[ing] liberally" when we do. It acknowledges the importance of "shared discipleship...with a larger community," but also insists that we are ultimately "responsible for...finding spiritual nourishment in our own sacred spaces" (pgs. 101-102). It uses what, I think, we have to recognize as deeply liberal--in the sense of placing a priority on the relationships we choose to make--stories to make its point: Bishop Edwin D. Woolley being rebuked by President Brigham Young, and responding with quiet defiance, "[T]his is just as much my church as it is yours"; and an unnamed and doubting young women who finds the courage to speak in church about her lack of belief and her bare longings for her family, and as a result "feel[s] free" (pgs. 103-106). Obviously, there is nothing at all about government or civil rights or economic justice in any of that...but to the extent which Terryl and Fiona Givens want us to fully respect and enlist into the common project of building Zion all baptized individuals in their diverse paths towards God's grace, their arguments are not just fully compatible with Richard Davis's call for American Mormons to take seriously the possibility of exhibiting in our choices the qualities of a "liberal soul"; they are, in fact, direct complements to each other.

In looking at both these works together, one might be tempted to make use of the aforementioned analytical terms of Hancock's: Davis, we could say, is presenting a connection between Mormonism and theoretical liberalism (a connection which enlists a reformist, egalitarian sensibility to advance certain causes), while the Givenses are presenting a connection between Mormonism and practical liberalism (a connection which limits itself, in light of background moral assumptions, to emphasizing the centrality of individual conscience in any common project). But that's not really a fair schematic, though, for two reasons. First, Hancock presents the liberal ideology as invariably liberationist, which leads him to "question whether it is worth the trouble" for Mormons to attempt to maintain their own moral integrity and faith in the midst of such a progressive phenomenon--but as Davis's elaboration of a liberal Mormon political ethic manages to stay mostly far away from any discussion of progressive culture war issues like same-sex marriage, Hancock's claim is mostly inapposite to Davis's project. Second, Hancock presents the fundamentals of the liberal worldview as a valid expression of individual rights insofar as a context of moral discipline remains, and he frequently emphasizes that such discipline is manifest through the "evidence of reason"--but the Givenses' project depicts certain liberal verities not through any kind of disciplined rationality, but through a language and methodology which is romantic, intuitive, eclectic, and questing to the core.

Obviously, there are more possible expressions of a Mormon liberalism than is contained in these two books. But, taking them as our starting point, it makes one wonder if the liberalism which Hancock warns his fellow Mormons against--a kind of absolutist demand for sexual self-definition--might not, in fact, be an essential feature of that ethos, but rather be merely epiphenomenal to--or an atomistic perversion of, perhaps--the very distinct, and distinctly grounded (in the call to individual and collective generosity in the first case, and in the respect for and openness to individual seeking in the second) liberal Mormonisms that Davis and the Givenses either plainly or implicitly want to see emerge. He condemns liberalism as a worldview which threatens both the Mormon faith and Christian civilization entirely, but as he himself does not (or not yet, anyway) present a persuasive root-and-branch extrication of his own Mormon and Christian claims from the individualistic premises of the liberal order, it's hard--for me, anyway--to avoid concluding that, after all the sound and fury, Hancock is basically just unhappy with some of the stuff which some liberals choose to believe, and is trying to come up with some way, without denying their shared premises, to philosophically head them off at the pass.

These are wise books. They make a strong case for liberal virtues like tolerance and diversity and generosity (both individually and collectively, both politically and personally) in terms that any curious Mormon can understand and relate to. And on a more abstract level, they remind all of us (even wanna-be radical leftist communitarians like myself) that liberality and individuality really is deeply entwined in the Christian message, and that even if the Law of Consecration or Christian socialism triumph someday, the responsibility of--and the need to show respect for--the individual chooser must abide. Like Hancock, I'm not a fan of the (I think false) sovereignty which this moral fact implies, but unlike him, perhaps, I want to approach faith and politics in terms of different--perhaps conflicting, but also perhaps parallel--non-liberal constructs of our social and historical existence, rather than fighting on the inside against those whom I happen to believe are getting the default worldview of modernity all wrong. Rather than some historical "moral discipline," I would argue that the real beating heart at the core of liberal Mormon or liberal Christian belief is a trust in God's grace: that He really does love us, and really will unfold Himself to us, and really is attending to us as we seek and we share, as individuals and, ultimately, together. If that smells to some like "progressivism," well, then I can only conclude that I'm grateful to know, after reading these two books, that there are good and faithful people, both knowingly (Davis) and perhaps unknowingly (the Givenses), on my side.

Monday, October 27, 2014


OK Go has taken the music video to another whole level more than a few times in their career, but this...this is a quantum leap like nothing I've seen before. What with the occasional speed-up and slow-down of the video I there has to have been some animating and editing in there somewhere, but still...wow.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Caravan"

Not gospel, at least not really--more of a classic bit of English proletarian uplift. The Housemartins were the best.

Kansas: 10-Day Predictions

Taping an episode of This Week in Kansas last Thursday, our host Tim Brown asked us assembled commentators: what do we predict for November 4, only a week and a half away? Well, I hauled up my predictions from 10 days ago--but with one alteration. So here's my latest on the three big state-wide races here in Kansas, again going from, in my view, the least likely to flip to the most:

Incumbent Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach vs. Republican-turned-Democrat Jean Schodorf. There's a serious lack of polling available for public consumption for this race; the most recent serious poll to include the race for Kansas Secretary of State showed Schodorf down by six points, which showed little change from what other occasional polls have suggested ever since the end of September. And the "debates" (more like opportunities for the candidates to stand and recite their talking points, but you know what I mean) which these two have held haven't helped Schodorf much: Kobach is a real political animal, a superb and utterly unhesitant communicator, confidently throwing out highly questionable claims about voter fraud and red-meat-for-the-base insinuations about Schodorf being soft on illegal immigration, all of which makes his opponent seem, it unfortunately must be said, old and unfocused and a little whinny by comparison. I remain deeply impressed by the ground game which Hispanic groups, African-American churches, and other social organizations in Kansas's major cities have put together, registering and informing and motivating voters against Kobach's policies, but I can't deny any longer that this race is looks increasingly unlikely to result in an upset.

Independent newcomer Greg Orman vs. incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts. Since I last wrote, various facts have become clear to me about this race. First, the number of Tea Party conservatives and others who backed Milton Wolf during the Republican primary, and were incensed at Roberts's lazy dismissal of his challenger, and as a result can't see themselves voting for Roberts in 10 days time, does not appear to be shrinking. Second, Orman's strategic choice to not directly engage the tremendous amounts of negative advertising being directed against him--at rates of, depending on how you count the money and television ads, anywhere from 4 to 1 to as much as 8 to 1--is paying off. Orman obviously couldn't really directly challenge many of these accusations without undermining his own determination not to be placed on the political map (which of course would only play directly into Roberts's hands), and as a result his public presentations have kept themselves focused on the distasteful dysfunction of Congress and the pragmatic appeal of a genuinely independent candidate. And there is evidence that's working for him, being able to hold his own despite an onslaught of Republican opposition. Roberts still obviously still has all the advantage of incumbency, of a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats and others by almost 2 to 1, and most of all of a narrative which puts the highly-unpopular-in-Kansas President Obama at the center, but I have to move this one up, with a greater chance of the incumbent losing than I'd long thought likely. It's definitely not "likely," but it strikes me as much more possible than it did previously.

(Incidentally, my predictions for the Senate overall? Well, 10 days out, I'd say that I think Nunn will win in Georgia outright, and Landrieu will pull out a win in the December 6th run-off in Louisiana. I can't bet on Udall in Colorado, as much as I'd like too, nor Pryor in Arkansas, nor Weiland in South Dakota. Shaheen will hold on to her seat in New Hampshire, and McConnell will hold on to his in Kentucky. And then, on top of all that, let's say Orman wins here in Kansas. That means, for whatever it's worth, that I'm imagining, come November 5th, the Republicans holding 50 seats in the Senate and the Democrats (with two Independents) holding 48, and looking forward to the run-off in Louisiana. The pressure on Orman to declare he'll caucus with the Republicans--whatever their party flunkies may say--and, by thus giving the Republicans 51 in their caucus, simply end the waiting over who will be in the majority will be immense. But by the same token, I could imagine the Democrats, assuming they similarly smell a Landrieu win awaiting them in a month's time, moving heaven and earth--perhaps Reid offering to step down as majority leader?--to capture Orman's vote, thus giving them a Biden-tie-breaking 50-50 breakdown in the Senate. Hey, it's possible.)

And now finally, incumbent Republican Governor Sam Brownback vs. Democrat state representative Paul Davis. It's really not looking good for our governor. Not in absolute terms, to be sure: on paper, Brownback still has all the advantages of incumbency, all the advantages of being the flag-bearer for the state Republican party, not to mention enjoying tremendous levels of support from dozens of conservative groups outside Kansas. But maybe you can have too much of a good thing; among other concerns, there is real reason to believe that some of the more outrageous ads flooding airwaves and filling mailboxes aren't so much reminding wavering Republicans of reasons to stick with their party as just increasing their dislike for the incumbent. The very latest polls show Davis leading by five points (and, perhaps even more crucially, shows Brownback as having the support of less than 40%  of female Kansas voters and only 77% of his own party). Some tracking polls suggest that Brownback still maintains a tiny lead over Davis, but others disagree. Either way, though, I can only reiterate what I wrote before: while this is still (as with both of the above races) the Republican incumbent's race to lose, it seems pretty clear that, if there is any place where your typical disappointed Kansas Republican voter is likely to switch their allegiance, it's going to be in choosing their next governor. I trust Sam Brownback has some back-up plans in mind for his post-governorship, because that is by no means a merely intellectual possibility any longer. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Cone of Shame Just Took On an Entirely New Meaning

(Via Accordion Guy, taken from this collection of rejected New Yorker cartoons.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Better Than a Hallelujah"

I've listened to Amy Grant on and off ever since my church to mission to South Korea a quarter-century ago. Christian pop never penetrated American Mormonism the way it did Protestant churches, but I somehow came across a tape of her stuff in a missionary apartment way back when, and that was one of the best discoveries I made in my whole two years there. Here's a sharp, spare performance of a recent, and very wise ballad of her.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"I Just Started the Paleo Diet Yesterday, and I’m Wondering If There’s a Way to Make This Without The Ingredients.”

Via Samuel Brown, via The Toast, comes "All The Comments on Every Recipe Blog." Enjoy.

“I didn’t have any eggs, so I replaced them with a banana-chia-flaxseed pulse. It turned out terrible; this recipe is terrible.”

“I don’t have any of these ingredients at home. Could you rewrite this based on the food I do have in my house? I’m not going to tell you what food I have. You have to guess.”

“I don’t eat white flour, so I tried making it with raw almonds that I’d activated by chewing them with my mouth open to receive direct sunlight, and it turned out terrible. This recipe is terrible.”

“Could you please give the metric weight measurements, and sometime in the next twenty minutes; I’m making this for a dinner party and my guests are already here.”

“i dont have an oven, can i still make this? please reply immediately”

“Does anyone know if you can make this ahead of time and freeze it?”

“Have you thought about making a sugar-free version of this?”

“Can you give us a calorie breakdown for this?”

“I followed this to the letter, except I substituted walnuts and tofu for the skirt steak, ditched the cheese entirely, and replaced the starch with a turnip salad. Turned out great. My seven-year-old boys have never seen a dessert and I’ve convinced them that walnut-and-turnip salad is 'cake.' Thanks for the recipe!”

“I’m having a lot of trouble signing up for your newsletter. Can you please assist?”

“a warning that if you cook this at 275°F for three hours instead of at 400°F for twenty-five minutes its completely ruined. do you have any suggestions?”

“I didn’t have buttermilk, so I just poured baking soda into a container of raspberry yogurt. It tasted terrible.”

“I love this recipe! I added garlic powder, Italian seasoning, a few flakes of nutritional yeast, half a bottle of kombucha, za’atar, dried onion, and biscuit mix to mine. Great idea!”

“Due to dietary restrictions, I am only able to eat Yatzhee dice. I made the necessary substitutions, and it turned out great.”

“If you use olive oil for any recipe that’s cooked over 450°F, the oil will denature and you will get cancer. This post is irresponsible. You should only use grapeseed oil you’ve pressed yourself in a very cold room.”

“[600-word description of what they ate today] so this will make a great addition!”

“I just started Paleo yesterday, and I’m wondering if there’s a way to make this without the ingredients.”

“I was all out of cake flour, so I transfigured my hands into puffer fish, which worked pretty well.”

“Have you considered making a version of this margherita pizza for your readers who are trying to avoid gluten, dairy and nightshades? What if I shoved a roll of basil leaves in my mouth, do you think that would taste good?”

“this was a very good post for your recipe you made, i made a similar recipe over at my blog last month, please consider linking back.”

“I’m actually a supertaster, so I can’t eat anything that isn’t licking the salt off the top of saltines; will this recipe work for me?”

heal your body through food

“If you don’t soak the seeds for at least fourteen hours before using, the phytic acid will give you cancer. Just thought you should know.”

Kansas: 20-Day Predictions

Walking out from a Wal-Mart this morning, someone approached me, and asked if he'd seen me before. Since I've been doing quite a bit of television work on local stations in connection with the current election here in Kansas, I told him that he'd probably seen me giving commentary for one or another news story. Then he asked me the big question: who did I think was going to win?

Well, I told him my answers, and now I'm telling you. We're exactly 20 days out from Election Day, so this seems like as good as time as any to put my thoughts out there. Maybe I'll revisit these predictions when we're down to 10 days, or 5. But for now, here's what I think about the three main statewide races taking place in Kansas. (Note: obviously I'm leaving lot out here, but honestly there is almost no point in talking about, for example, any of the House district contests, since there is essentially no indication that any of our four Republican incumbents are at all threatened, nor any local Kansas legislative races, since there is similarly almost no indication that the discontent with the Republicans at the top of the ballot will translate into changes in voting habits--registered Republicans in Kansas outnumber Democrats by almost 2-to-1--further on down. Also, I'm ignoring the Libertarian party candidates. Sorry.)

Independent newcomer Greg Orman vs. incumbent Republican Senator Pat Roberts. This is the race that, with all the sound and fury which has surrounded it over the past month or so, is to my mind the least likely to change hands. I've thought this from the beginning, and the ups and downs of the polls haven't changed my mind. Roberts has all the advantages of incumbency, of a partisan playing field which favors him, and--most important to my mind, given the high "unfavorable" ratings which leading state Republicans are currently operating under--the ability to tap into a national narrative (STOP HARRY REID AND BARACK OBAMA) which a great many of Republicans, even those of a moderate bent who are deeply frustrated with the direction their party has taken both nationally and here in Kansas, will have a very hard time resisting. Also, don't forget that, as wealthy as Orman is, he can't compete with the funds rolling into Kansas from Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Republican National Committee--Roberts has been all over the television and the internet of late, while Orman hasn't been nearly as visible. A month ago, the obviously unpopular and basically unimpressive Roberts was 10 points down in the polls against Orman, but now that has closed to within the margin of error, and most (though not all) of the latest polls have him pulling slightly ahead, and I think it's clear that change is almost entirely due to his ability to flood the airwaves with ads that associate Orman, who rates as still unfamiliar with most voters, with the "Obama agenda." Of these three races, the senate race, while it may well be very close, is the one where I'd say, three weeks out, that the Republican incumbent is safest.

Incumbent Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach vs. Republican-turned-Democrat Jean Schodorf. This down-ticket race doesn't receive nearly the attention which the higher profile races do, nor has it really ever been nearly as close or attracted nearly as much outside money (which frankly has been a bit of surprise to many of us watching Kansas politics from the inside), but it is by far, amongst those who pay attention to politics, the most polarizing race in the state. There is essentially no middle ground when it comes to Kobach; either you're not interested enough in political affairs to know what the Kansas Secretary of State has been up to, or you're a huge fan, or you detest the man. (The latter feeling was expressed unprompted by the shopper I spoke to this morning; when mentioned Kobach's name he blurted out "I can't stand that guy.") One might assume that the discontent so many moderate Republicans throughout the state feel for the ideological purity and uncompromising conservative experimentation in Topeka that the past four years has brought us would crystallize around Kobach, but in fact, while some polls have suggested better news, Schodorf has mostly lagged behind. The enormous disparity in their ability to campaign statewide is obviously a factor there (Schodorf is a former state senator who lost in a primary contest to a young Brownback-backed Republican challenger, and thus has never had a state-wide base before); I suspect, though, that the passionate ground game which opponents of Kobach have put together amongst minority and poorer voters is going to make this even closer than the Orman-Roberts race. Still, Kobach is probably going to pull it out, if only because the moderate Republicans which the Democrats need to win this race show little evidence of switching their votes down the ballot, harnessing the courage it takes to change for the big enchilada:

Incumbent Republican Governor Sam Brownback vs. Democrat state representative Paul Davis. For Kansas voters, and particularly for dissatisfied moderate Kansas Republicans and desperate Kansas Democrats, this is the big one. The polls have shown it to be a tight race ever since Davis announced last year, and Brownback only held a lead in match-up polls during last summer, a lead which only lasted up until Brownback's comparatively embarrassing performance in the Republican party primaries, after which his support crashed, and only in the past week or so has seemed to recover. The very latest polls put it in the margin of error between the two candidates. So why do I think, of these three statewide races, that the governor's race is the one where a Republican incumbent really may actually lose in the state of Kansas? Two main reasons. First, because on the basis of the polls and many conversations with insiders it seems pretty clear to me that, however fair or unfair it may be, Governor Brownback is catching the ire of moderate Republicans in a way which Republicans in the state legislature and other state-wide Republican officials are not. Many moderate Republicans who won't switch for Orman, or for Schodorf, may still be tempted to switch to Davis, if only because the governor, as the chief executive of the state, gets held responsible for all the discontent voters feel for multiple other reasons. And second, because a race this close puts enormous pressure on the few remaining late October undecided voters--and while the traditional wisdom that says undecideds break for the challenger has itself been challenged, I think that in the case of Kansas in 2014, the very few genuine independent and undecided voters out there will see themselves as potentially having real race-deciding significance, and that will tip them into the challenger's basket.

So, my 20-day predictions: Roberts re-elected (narrowly), Kobach re-elected (very narrowly), and Brownback defeated (also narrowly, but not so much as either of the above). Check back in 10 days or so to see if I've changed my mind.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Rough Boys"

Scholars and sociologists and historians of sexuality can talk all they want about fluid gender orientations, the gay sub-culture of the 1960s and 70s, leather fetishisms and their overlap with punk and mod styles, and the unpredictable erotics of blue-collar English masculinity. Pete Townshend, by contrast, will just write a ripping pub rock song about all that, and more.

Friday, October 10, 2014

My Favorite Live (Single) Albums

My old friend David Jenkins challenged me to provide some Friday night discussion by listing my five favorite live albums. Well, I'm sorry Dave: I can't. I can't because I can't just choose five. I tried this once before, years ago; back then I restricted myself solely to live double albums, and I ended up listing fifteen anyway, and even with that I missed some (Eric Clapton's 24 Nights, Bob Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall" Concert, Joe Jackson's Big World, Rush's Different Stages, and now the recent addition of The Rolling Stones's Brussels Affair). Still, I'll do my best. So herewith, my top 15 live single albums. (Note: I'm excluding my jazz recordings, because if I threw in those it would just be impossible.) In alphabetical order, beginning with probably the best of them all:

1) Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison. Essential track: "Cocaine Blues."
2) Johnny Cash, At Sen Quentin. Essential track: "Starkville City Jail."
3) Shawn Colvin, Live. Essential track: her marvelous, haunting cover of David Byrne's "This Must Be the Place."
4) Bob Dylan, MTV Unplugged. Essential track: despite all the countless bootlegs and live recordings, I can't think of a better recording of his singing "With God On Our Side."
5) Joe Ely, Live at Liberty Lunch. Essential track: "Me and Billy the Kid."
6) Joe Ely, Live Shots. Essential track: the Buddy Holly classic "Not Fade Away" (which, despite the many long years he's been playing this song, he still makes absolutely his own).
7) Robyn Hitchcock, I Often Dream of Trains (in New York). Essential track: "That's Fantastic, Mother Church."
8) The Hollies, Greatest Hits...Live! Essential track: a barn-burning, 11-minute version of "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress," which I have forced my children to listen to all the way through far too many times to possibly justify.
9) Elton John, Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Essential track: "Burn Down the Mission."
10) The Red Clay Ramblers, Live. Bland Simpson was never more than just a part-time member of this little-known bluegrass-folk-comic outfit, but his charming piano composition "Pictures for You" is, for this son of Washington state, one of the most nostalgic and joyous songs I've ever heard.
11) The Rolling Stones, Some Girls: Live in Texas. Essential track: "Honky Tonk Women."
12) The Rolling Stones, Stripped. Essential track: their furious, rocking, and very nearly (but probably not quite) definitive take on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."
13) Sting, ...All This Time. Essential track: "If You Love Someone Set Them Free."
14) Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense. Essential track: good grief--"Life During Wartime," of course.
15) 10,000 Maniacs, MTV Unplugged. Essential track: "Hey Jack Kerouac."

All right Dave (and everyone else), tell me what I got wrong.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

"This Bald Chick; What's With Her Head?"

The news of the death of Jan Hooks, a delightfully funny woman whose tenure on Saturday Night Live and Primetime Glick gave me many a laugh, put me in mind of this skit, which I think has to be one of the SNL's best. It's obviously mostly a Phil Hartman routine, but Hook's slow burn as Sinead O'Connor is delightful. RIP.

The Settled and the Strange: Seven Thoughts for Sukkot

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Today is the first full day of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, one of several Jewish holidays that I have long felt a certain amount of holy envy for. I love it for several reasons: because it is, at heart, a harvest festival, associated with the "ingathering" of crops and taking comfort in the bounties of the land; because it focuses our attention on the element of "place" in those rituals (both divine and mundane) that attend our building of our own homes and lives; but mostly, I think, because it conveys a permanent sense of the transitional in those very same bounties and that same sense of hominess and belonging. All Israel was commanded, during the days of the feast, to build booths or temporary shelters for themselves out in the fields, to leave their homes and beds and sleep and eat their meals inside them for seven days, to remind them of their special--but also always perilous--dependent relationship with God, who led them out of Egypt and made possible everything they were or had. Anyway, herewith, seven thoughts:

1) I embarked on a reading of the Old Testament some months ago, using the Revised English Bible and Robert Alter's translations. I've worked my way through Genesis, which fascinated me as I became reacquainted with myths and miracles and folklore that, centuries after they were first recorded, would become the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity; and through Exodus, which fascinated me even more as an ancient narrative which depicted a people who recorded through their lives the slow, inconsistent realization of a monotheistic and genuinely moral God. Right now I'm in Leviticus--amazing enough, right around the announcement of the Feast of Tabernacles--and the concept that rings through the words of the Pentateuch most strongly, as God is presented as revealing to Moses in exhausting detail the proper way to slaughter animal sacrifices and perform rituals of purification and expiation, is just how important it is for God's people to understand themselves as divided from the rest of the world. Sometimes it seems that all of creation which is not under God's covenant is subject to His judgment and condemnation, whereas other times God appears wholly unconcerned with, even basically accepting of, the actions and practices of the non-Jewish world--but either way, always Israel is to remain apart, keeping themselves clean and separate and distinct.

2) There is, predictably, a complication with that maintenance of ritual distance. Unless you are a self-sufficient farmer (and honestly, I think it's quite arguable that we all should be) then you will necessarily have to interact with others in pursuit of ones livelihood--and for all of those of us who live in a social and economic world which has been historically defined by the way Christianity appropriated and transformed the implications of God's revelations in the Old Testament, that interaction will be a commercial and secular one, in which attempting to abide entirely by the terms of God's separation is basically impossible.

3) It is for that reason, I suppose, that for some groups and individuals, traditions and rituals and conventions become so important. Dressing in a particular way, consuming (or not consuming) a particular food or drink, honoring a particular holiday, building a sukkah in one's backyard or one's living room and living in it for a week every year--these become ways of being in the world but not of the world, of remembering that which makes one distinct even as one lives a life which is, otherwise, entirely

4) I've long believed that God wants us to be settled, in and through our families and communities, because it is through membership that we are most likely to obtain the kind of local knowledge and trust which enables us to truly love and serve one another as we (selfishly, instinctively) do for ourselves. Real gratitude, and thus real charity, comes with a feeling of familiarity and dependence, I think. When we live lives that are transient, self-motivated, and essentially independent, it is easier to forget or set aside traditions, and harder to experience that feeling of obligation and connection which lies at the heart of God's commandments--the greatest of any such sense of obligation and connection being with God Himself, of course.

5) But another complication: God Himself frequently upsets our experience of being settled, forcing us to make due with change in the midst of multiple abiding responsibilities. God in the Old Testament argues with Abraham and Moses, putting them on the spot, obliging them to engage in (or at least tolerate) human actions and sometimes even divine responses that seem tragic and strange. (In Leviticus 10, God announces Himself glorified through the ritual deaths of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, because they brought coals rather than a proper fire before God's altar, and Moses and Aaron have to work out how to properly mourn but also provide atonement for these two unthinking men.)

6) But that strangeness has its uses. The perplexity of the Old Testament record of God's actions and the responses of those who covenanted with Him, I've come to realize, is one important contributor to the way in which God's call for His people to become separate and holy became, over the centuries, especially as the world that Jews and Christians moved through became individualized and cosmopolitan and commercial, characterized by an irony, a rueful openness, a contradictory kind of mournful joy. We are strangers and exiles, says Paul, as he paradoxically (yet confidently!) traveled the world, presenting himself and his message to courts and priests throughout Roman empire. The Gospels themselves demonstrate, again and again, the value of being estranged, confused, and frightened by what God may do.

7) And so it seems that we are localize and settle ourselves, but also be conscious of--and perhaps even always be ready to engage with--the multitude of ways in God and the bountiful, but also tragic, and perhaps fundamentally strange, world He made can alienate us from (that is, make us see our separation as something which sets us as individuals against) our own traditions, our conventions, our communities, and our homes...which might include both literal and ideological ones. The distance from God's commands to ancient Israel to a recital in St. Louis last Sunday is immense, but in another one of her wonderfully careful and thoughtful essays, Rosalynde Welch demonstrated exactly the kind of ambivalent celebration that I think lays at the heart of this powerful holiday. Reflecting on a protest which interrupted a concert she attended, she wrote:

The next morning, naturally, I looked for coverage of the event online. Second-hand reactions crossed the gamut, from those who found the protest to be a powerful and moving indictment of injustice to those who found it a pointless or disrespectful intrusion.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I did not find the protest rude or inappropriate. On the contrary, it seemed tailored to match the nature of the event: it was organized, peaceful, musical in nature and indeed related specifically to the theme of the program, death and remembrance. There was something undeniably beautiful about the moment, about inviting the death and loss that shadows the neighborhoods surrounding Powell Hall inside its exclusive walls to make meaning in duet with the most beautiful Requiem ever written.

Nevertheless, the experience ultimately left me unsatisfied, and I’ve spent some time trying to understand why. An insightful friend of mine made the observation that peaceful public actions share much in common with religious ritual: both are cooperative, choreographed symbolic behaviors that use the human body to represent a larger meaning. Ideally, both ritual and public actions invite our souls to commit to a shared moral vision of justice and compassion. This struck me as both true and profound.

But there’s one important difference, and it made all the difference for me. Religious ritual is inherently participatory: the individual is ceremonially invited to partake, to immerse, to covenant, to pray....By contrast, public actions are, it seems to me, primarily meant to be observed by onlookers. Why else stage them in public settings?

In the best of circumstances, public actions meant to be visually consumed by the public can indeed change hearts and minds. But...[the] element of surprise and shock, of deep social rupture of convention--perhaps necessary to jolt the audience out of its complacency--made it impossible for us to join in, precisely because we did not know the governing conventions of the action.

Again, the distance between Rosalynde's experience and that of a 21st-century Jewish family moving temporarily into a plywood booth in their living is huge, materially speaking. Symbolically speaking, though, perhaps they're both capturing something of the same ambivalence which I read in Leviticus. God has graced us with this wonderful (though also violent and unjust and often simply strange) world, in which we are called to act in accordance with His commands; we are to build understandings and communities, to engage in rituals that settle us in our duties and joys...but we are also in a public world, and there we find our acts of settlement always challenged, potentially disrupted, perhaps turned against it, sometimes even by those who themselves are acting in accordance with God's commands as well.

In the end, I think, every act of making a home and bringing in the harvest must be understood as an act of celebration, if we are to take God's words seriously. He wants us to be at home. But every such act reminds us how perilous, how demanding, how abiding, how ungovernable and unsettling God's call to separation, even in our contented, conventional homemaking, always remains. God wants us to join Him, but that joining may never be complete. It took Israel 40 years, of course--but ultimately, even those four decades were only a start.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Three Ways Sam Brownback Could Keep Gay Marriage Illegal in Kansas: Some Free Advice

In the few days since the Supreme Court declined to review the decision of the 10th Circuit Court that Utah’s same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional, there has been a great deal of talk about how Kansas’s own same-sex marriage ban must fall, since we are under the 10th Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Governor Brownback is, at present, resisting that talk. Referencing the popular vote back in 2005 which defined marriage in the Kansas state constitution so as to exclude gay and lesbian couples, the governor said: “I don't know how much more you can bolster it than to have a vote of the people to put in the constitution that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.”

Well, I’m here to help. I know of three strategies that could bolster Brownback’s insistence on standing metaphorically before county clerks’ offices across the state, refusing entrance to both the interpretations of the federal judiciary, and the gay and lesbians citizens of Kansas who hope their way of life, or at least the domestic side of it, has finally achieved some legal recognition.

1) Invoke the 10th Amendment! This would be the constitutionalist/Tea Party approach. The 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Many legal scholars argue that, with a few notable exceptions, this amendment is mostly a dead letter, especially ever since the American people supported legislation during the Civil Rights movement that empowered the national government to stop individual states from discriminating in education, public accommodations, housing, voting, and–yes–marriage.

Still, that doesn’t mean it can’t be tried. The preferred response by many to the Affordable Care Act–namely, to call for the creation of a multi-state “health care compact” that would operate without federal involvement–already borders on embracing state sovereignty, so it would be interesting to see the Brownback administration pursue that option fully.

2) Abolish marriage! This would be the libertarian approach. Complete the separation of church and state by ending all legal marriage entanglements with all religious bodies in Kansas. If churches want to offer something which they call “marriage” to their followers, they can do so, entirely on their own terms, without any state recognition whatsoever. On the other side of things, if the national or state constitution requires (or if individual legislatures decide) that some provision be made for recognizing any number of different types of couples for tax purposes or reasons of inheritance, custody, etc., the secretary of state’s office can issue a bunch of unceremonious licenses to that effect.

Given the rising influence of libertarian-inclined conservatives, I imagine this approach might result some surprising left-right alliances being formed here in Kansas. But unfortunately for the governor, embracing it would also probably scandalize the social conservatives upon which his re-election probably depends.

3) Secede from the union! This would be the ultimate combination of both the above two approaches. You would shrink the federal government’s influence–and thus the reach of the federal judiciary’s constitutional interpretations--by escaping it entirely, and follow through on the principle of state sovereignty be declaring independence–thus allowing Kansas to define citizenship and marriage as it sees fit. Texas would be so jealous of us getting there first.

I suppose I should note that, as a (late but now firm) supporter of the recognition of same-sex marriages, I am personally opposed to pursuing any of the above responses to the legal actions surely waiting in the wake of the 10th Circuit’s decision--and, more importantly, in the wake of United States v. Windsor. Also, I strongly doubt any of them would be successful anyway. But as a political scientist who enjoys a good argument, and--more importantly--as someone who overall thinks our increasing dysfunctional democratic system needs a serious constitutional challenge, I say: bring them on.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "I Want You to Want Me"

Quite possibly the greatest power pop single ever, off one of the greatest live albums of all time. Cheap Trick's backlog can't begin to compare with the piles of great songs by The Who, The Hollies, The Raspberries, or Badfinger, much less The Beatles, but still: you've got to acknowledge a masterful pop gem when you hear it.

Friday, October 03, 2014

G'mar Chatimah Tovah, My Friends

Mostly for David S., of course:

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Meeting the Ups

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Just so you know, there's probably no way that anyone who doesn't fit into the very narrow Venn overlap of "church-going Mormons" and "Up completists" will be able to understand this post. So that means just about everyone can now safely skip over it.

Just a week ago, I watched Seven Up!, the famous first installment (from 1964) of what eventually became the Up Series, a television documentary series which has followed the same English children for a half-century, revisiting the original (and now middle-aged) subjects every seven years and checking in on their lives. It is, without doubt, the most ambitious and comprehensive documentary film ever made; it's also one of the most compelling works of story-telling, in any medium, that I've ever been exposed to in my entire life. I found it utterly compelling, and over the past seven days I've binge-watched the following eight episodes, for 13 hours of television total.

Several friends have commented to me that while they love the movies, they find watching them difficult, and I can see where the difficulties lie, most immediately with the subjects themselves. Their feelings about periodically being put on display and becoming movies stars of a sort are deeply conflicted, to say the least. But whether appreciative or not, the fact that most of them have continued to participate over the decades is a testament to what they, however reluctantly, can see they have, through the camera, been able to build. As Nick Hitchon (far and away the most intellectually and critically minded of all the series' subjects, though not, in fact, one of the ones most critical of the project itself) kind of indicates in the most recent installment, 56 Up, these films are painful in that they regularly, like clockwork, give the subjects a sense that their whole lives are being unfairly reduced to 10 minutes of interviews and screen time--and yet, in capturing, however fleetingly or invasively or guardedly, the enormous range of accomplishments and failures and strategic elisions and forgotten moments and foreclosed options and lucky turns of event in all their lives, these films are telling everyone's story. The particular becomes the universal, like the greatest works of literature or stage or screen.

These people are around 12-13 years older than me; as the films progressed through time, I couldn't help but compare and think about where I was--professionally, emotionally, personally--when they were at those same points in their lives, and now, having finished the series, I wonder what the next ten years will bring me. Most particularly, I feel a deep affection for these people. Of course, I don't know them, which is actually one of  the recurring subthemes throughout the series--as they gained greater maturity over the years and began to interrogate how the camera perceived them and how they perceived themselves, one thing they all agreed upon is that the sense of familiarity viewers have with the films' subjects is pretty groundless. Which is, of course, true--but that doesn't take away from my feelings. I found myself rooting for Tony Walker's marriage, moved by Sue Davis's easy-going determination, surprised and fascinated by John Brisby's aristocratic self-awareness, hopeful for Bruce Balden's moral convictions, admiring of Lynn Johnson's furious, uncompromising compassion, and--of course--frightened for Neil Hughes's survival.

Certainly it would be easy to employ all sorts of sociological sorting in thinking about the series--over the years, economic class, parental decisions, spousal relationship, political changes, and even simply lookism have paid obvious roles in shaping these peoples' destinies. But as the hours went by, that analysis faded away, and instead I came to realize that I could see all of these people reflecting ordinary types of folks that I've known through the communities I've experienced the most over my own 45 years: Mormon wards. In fact, not just reflecting types, but in some sense--if only because my relationship with them is so mediated and selective--exemplifying them. These are people that I wish I could interact with on such a daily, personal basis. For those who are both familiar with how the lay congregations of Mormonism operate, as well as familiar with the Up films, the following designations should be obvious:

Bruce Balden, a child of expensive (and highly restrictive) boarding schools, now a math teacher at St. Albans, is someone we'd all like to be our kids' seminary and institute teacher. Someone whose orthodoxy and conventionality covers--but doesn't suppress--a deep passion for justice, opportunity, and education.

Jackie Bassett, a child of working class parents who had few educational opportunities and subsequently has made more than a few dubious choices and faced more than a few rough times in her life, is someone we'd like teaching in Relief Society, where her lack of pretension, her sarcasm, and her realism would be an often hilarious breath of fresh air.

Symon Basterfield, an illegitimate child who spent years living in a children's home after his father disappeared and his mother had to go to work full-time, and who has slowly overcome his own reserved personality and built a decent life for himself as a father and foster parent, is exactly the sort of straightforward, unpretentious man we'd expect to show up for every elder's quorum service project, and help out with every move.

Andrew Brackfield, one of those children whose upbringing and education followed a predictably elite track, and enjoys a rewarding and predictably upper-class professional (corporate lawyer) and family life, would, of course, be the ward's bishop, because leadership always follows reliable, good-hearted people like that. Nothing about him is particularly unpredictable, but do you actually want the leader of your congregation to be unpredictable? Probably not.

John Brisby, someone who by looks and dress and speech would seem an even more thoroughly predictable creature of the English upper-classes than Andrew, and whose profession as a barrister, whose social circles as a cosmopolitan raiser and dispenser of charity, and whose political beliefs as solidly (if traditionally and not ideologically) Conservative would seem to confirm that judgment, would be the surprisingly cool former stake president in your ward. Orthodox in every way, but with unpredictable streaks of independence, humor, and liberality. Plus, he can pinch-hit with the piano or organ whenever the need arises.

Sue Davis, a working class girl who put off marriage, then married late, then divorced, then raised two kids almost entirely on her own, all while building a successful career as an academic administrator and stable relationship with a loving man, would be perfect to serve in a Young Women's presidency. She can use her own life as examples both good and bad, and most importantly her life-embracing, upbeat attitude won't lay down any limits or judgements regarding things which don't really matter.

Nick Hitchon, the farmer's boy who made it from a one-room schoolhouse in rural England to earning a Ph.D. at Oxford and from there to teaching nuclear physics and electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is who we'd all want to be our adult gospel doctrine teacher. Articulate, critical-minded, demanding, but deeply grounded in the things which matter most.

Neil Hughes, a delightful Liverpool kid who grew up paranoid, disturbed, and for long stretches homeless, is the deeply pious but also relentless honest welfare case that every high priests group needs. He'll be difficult and provocative, but he knows things that the bourgeoisie around him don't, and ought to.

Lynn Johnson another working-class girl who got herself the best education she could, married early, fell in love with her children and determined to make the absolute best for them and everyone like them, is the uncompromising, ball-busting, old-school Labor-voting Primary president (or YW leader) that any ward would beg for. Someone who would take the bishop to task for unequal funding, who would make room for the disabled or struggling in her every children's program, who would push her charges and love them into always doing and learning and being more. (Lynn, I have to say, was perhaps my favorite of all those profiled in the films; her recent death, at the comparatively young age of 57, is very sad.)

Paul Kligerman, another product of a broken marriage and a stint in a children's home, who emigrated to Australia to be raised by extended family, and who has since become a handyman with a varying work history, would be the person we'd all want to be bishop, but knew he wouldn't be. He's not educated, organized, or forceful enough. But what he is, as his delightful marriage and family makes clear, is a man of profound and simple wisdom, open-mindedness, and compassion. He and his beloved Susan would be the heart of the ward.

Suzy Lusk, a girl who grew up privileged, but also scarred by her parents' divorce, would be our perfectly responsible and predictable Relief Society president. No great or surprising wisdom would likely be drawn from her life experiences, but her unflinching determination to not be shaped by her aimless and indulgent teen-age years shows real strength (and her training as a bereavement counselor will likely be of use too).

Tony Walker, a kid from London's East End who has been an incorrigible troublemaker and eternal optimist throughout the whole series might be the last person one could imagine in a Mormon ward: after all, he's been a gambler, a player, and as a married man a likely adulterer. But his honesty about his own weaknesses and limitations, his adoration of his wife and children (and now grandchildren), and his tremendous sense of hope is exactly the qualities that a young men's president needs to have. If the boy's need to be taken on a camp out or on service project or just get out and have some fun, he's your guy.

Anyone I'm leaving out? Well, I suppose we could make use of Peter Davies, a kid from Liverpool--and friend of Neil's--who dropped out of the series after 28 Up, but recently returned, primarily to promote his band; maybe he could be choir director. And of course there's Charles Furneaux, who hasn't had anything to do with the series since he was 21. He went on to become a journalist, so perhaps he could handle the church program. The folks who do that keep themselves invisible, anyway.

Predictable Predictions about Kansas

The Wichita Eagle ran another one of my columns this morning; this is a slightly expanded version of it:

Politics in Kansas today is suddenly big news. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Mother Jones, even The Guardian from the UK: all have lately been filing frequent stories from Kansas, all about the latest poll results and the latest legal moves in Kansas’s major statewide races. The national and international media are watching the calculations surrounding Pat Robert's anemic senatorial re-election run, watching Governor Sam Brownback's surprisingly difficult re-election run, and watching the impressive challenge which former Republican Jean Schodorf is making against conservative hero Kris Kobach as our secretary of state. We haven't gotten this kind of attention--certainly not during the November portion of the election cycle--in a long time.

And that's not surprising. After all, think about those aforementioned races. We have a solid but uninspiring long-time Republican senator being challenged by a popular independent, Greg Orman–who is now, with the absence of any Democrat from the ticket, seen as the favorite to win. Next we have our polarizing Republican Secretary of State controversially involved in that same Senate race, all while running for a very tight race himself. And finally we have the governor’s race against state representative Paul Davis, one in which more than a few conservative Republicans see the fate of a vital ideologically anti-government experiment hanging in the balance. All of that adds up, obviously, to some fascinating political news.

But for the national–and international–media, the tone of surprise is pretty constant. For so many, Kansas is assumed to be an easy place to explain, politically speaking. We’re deep red, we’re conservatives, we vote Republican: end of story. True, sometimes journalists will go back a century to our Populist past, or even beyond that to Kansas’s bloody birth before and during the Civil War, but failing that, usually they just present Kansas as a place where surprises like we’re seeing this election season don’t ever happen--the idea that, in a year which is looking to be a good one for Republicans, that Kansas of all places might be the place where conservatism and liberalism do ideological battle just seems weird.

All that proves, though, is how short many peoples’ memories--and how brief media-driven election narratives--really are.

Think back to 2004, when Thomas Frank published his blockbuster What’s the Matter with Kansas? That book (which, for the record, I never especially liked; other books made similar arguments in a much more careful way, and Frank himself has written better books) argued that the political mix of Christian piety and anti-tax rhetoric which has characterized many Republican claims over the past twenty years was mostly cooked up in places like Kansas. The Sunflower State became the ideal laboratory, Frank asserted, for perfecting populist resentment against liberalism, making Kansas the real heart of modern American conservatism. All that became part of the popular and national political narrative of our state.

But then, move forward four years. Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was well into her second term as Kansas’s governor. High profile Republicans like Mark Parkinson and Paul Morrison switched parties and maintained their seats of power (and the latter notoriously defeating social conservative hero Phill Kline to do so). The New Republic ran a cover story on “What’s Not the Matter with Kansas”--clearly, the Sunflower State was more complicated than they thought!

Move forward yet another four years. By then, the national story was the Brownback revolution, and the way the state Republican party–with the political and financial support of Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber–got more reliable conservatives elected to the state legislature, primarily by undermining some of their own long-timer members (one of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, was Jean Schodorf). This controversial effort was successful, granting Brownback enough legislative support to push through his anti-tax, state-shrinking, supposedly job-creating agenda. Clearly then, Kansas actually was red all the way!

Now move forward again yet one more four years, and we have today. Republicans in the legislature look quite safe, and there is no indication that there is shift taking place in overall party preference; the idea that Kansas might be turning blue, or even just purple, is ridiculous. But for all sorts of personal and ideological reasons--and when you have leaders that have explicitly connected themselves and their time on office to the triumph of various avowedly conservative policy agendas, the overlap between those reasons is large--the top of the Republican ticket is struggling, with potentially huge consequences for the conservative agenda and the national Republican party. How surprising, says these media voices, to see such an unexpected turn-around in such a predictable place as Kansas!

This is, to be sure, a fascinating political season in our state, with many unexpected events. But in my view, the single most unsurprising thing about it all is the fact that, when it comes to Kansas, many journalists who parachute in from far afield or even abroad keep getting surprised, again and again and again.