Please, Like Me

January 10, 2018

I’m told that there are “explosive” revelations in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, but so far I haven’t seen anything I didn’t already know. Leaving aside the book’s many inaccuracies and typos, we’ve heard this story before. Since even before Trump’s inauguration, his staff and advisers at all levels have been telling the same tale of an ignorant, undisciplined, narcissistic, petty, and easily bored man who is now arguably the most powerful man in the world. No one should be surprised that Trump has no coherent set of political beliefs, long-term strategies, or goals. It should also be obvious by now that he doesn’t understand government or his role in it, let alone the responsibility for governing the most heavily armed nation in the history of the world. He is, as my brother-in-law put it, a buffoon.

That said, one passage, quoted by Ezra Klein, reminded me of something I had noticed long ago:

“It was obvious to everyone that if [Trump] had a north star, it was just to be liked,” says Wolff. “He was ever uncomprehending about why everyone did not like him, or why it should be so difficult to get everyone to like him.”

Trump’s staffers confirm the characterization. “The president fundamentally wants to be liked,” Walsh says in the book. “He just fundamentally needs to be liked so badly.”

Either I’m projecting or I’ve just noticed this because of my struggles with this same issue, which I have described in the past as a “pathological need to be liked.” I used to believe that everything would be OK if I could just make everyone my friend, which led me to some rather disastrous interactions with people who clearly were not and were never going to be my friends.

One of the ways people like me try to get everyone to like them involves self-denial and self-sacrifice. I was taught, as Mormon scripture says,

And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God (Mosiah 2:17).

Service is a good thing, and people serve others for a lot of different reasons. For me, a primary motivation was that I just wanted to be liked, maybe even loved.

People who need desperately to be liked will do and say just about anything for that impossible goal. When you’re with someone, your immediate goal is approval and acceptance, so you change your attitude and opinion to fit the moment. Even your most deeply held beliefs can be sacrificed to the god of approbation. My wife told me many years ago that, when we were missionaries, one of her companions told her, “I don’t like Elder Williams. He seems to be a different person depending on who he’s around.” I was horrified, first to know that she didn’t like me, but second because I knew she was right. The scary thing is that it wasn’t conscious. Like Zelig or one of those reptilians who live in the tunnels under Salt Lake City, I was a shape-shifter mentally, if not physically (full disclosure: I’ve been in the tunnels, and they are, literally and figuratively, quite pedestrian). We see some of this self-malleability in White House staff observations that Mr. Trump tends to make decisions based on the last person who talked to him.

In a strange but real way, such constant recalibration of the psyche is a profoundly narcissistic behavior, even if it manifests itself as extreme self-abnegation. Nothing is as important as being liked, so your focus is on satisfying your own ego even as you obliterate it. One predictable consequence of such a morphing self is that, eventually, you can’t remember what is actually you and what is just a tactic for being liked. In the drive to build up your ego, you end up whittling away at it until there’s not much left.

I lived that way for far too long in this pattern of narcissistic self-effacement until I encountered people who not only took advantage of my imagined generosity and returned scorn and hatred. I’m not being facetious when I say that I’m grateful for a few people who treated me with disdain and cruelty. I think I’d already begun to come out of these patterns of narcissism, albeit slowly, when I became aware that people I’d tried to help or befriend considered me beneath contempt. I’ll give one example.

At the encouragement of a couple of friends (real ones, mind you), I wrote a series of posts on postmodernism and how it had been appropriated by some defenders Mormonism. I spent a lot of time discussing what I meant by postmodernism and exactly how and why it had been applied to the religion of my birth. Going into it, my goal wasn’t to argue for or against anything but simply to review the interesting ways people had merged seemingly incompatible ideas about truth and religion. One person began asking me questions in an online forum, and I tried my best to explain the concepts I was discussing, but it was slow going because my correspondent didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about and instead wanted to talk about Pragmatism and William James, which were outside of the topic I had covered. I tried my best to be patient and kind, but the discussion never seemed to get anywhere. As I had so many times before, I had perhaps unconsciously started to make my primary goal not to explain my arguments but for this person to like me. As frustrating as the direction of the conversation was, I felt like I was making a friend.

Then another friend shared with me a private discussion the Pragmatist was having with his friends elsewhere, boasting of how much fun he was having in exposing my stupidity and “mopping the floor” with me in the debate we were having. And here I never thought we were having a debate at all. I reacted with hurt and anger and vented both at this guy and his beliefs. I suppose I wanted him to understand how hurt I was, which again was quite narcissistic. It was all about me, wasn’t it? For quite a while, I returned all the nastiness he sent to me (openly, at this point). Previously, when someone had treated me like that, I just walked away and licked my emotional wounds. But this time, I couldn’t let go, and I continued an acrimonious interaction with this guy for a few years. (Just writing years is kind of horrifying when I think of it.)

With one phrase he finally broke the cycle: he wrote, sarcastically, that we “love each other like brothers,” and brothers fight. I’m not sure why that struck me, but I finally realized I was the only one of us who cared at all about our relationship, such as it was. For me, the relationship produced nothing but hurt and anger, which I still longed to overcome; for him, it meant nothing at all.

That’s when I realized just how stupid it was to care what someone like him thought of me (he’s not a bad person, but I magnified everything in my quest to nurse my bruised ego). Or anyone else, for that matter. I have friends who like me because of who I am, not because I’m desperate for them to like me. If you have to work hard to get someone to like you, chances are they don’t like you. And the truth beneath the need to be liked by others is that we don’t like ourselves. Perhaps the whittling away of the self is intentional in that there will be nothing left to dislike when it’s gone.

I had to get to a place where I wasn’t consumed by what other people thought of me. Obviously, I’m not advocating living a life with no regard for the feelings of others, in which case I’d be a sociopath. What I have learned is to live so that I like myself and what I do. If I do something good or kind, it’s because I want to be good and kind, not because I’m looking for approval.

I’m not entirely free of this disabling neediness (exhibit A being this rather self-absorbed post), but I’m working on it.

But getting back to Trump:

Trump doesn’t care about policy or politics or ideology or coalitions. He cares about Trump. His dream was to put his name on buildings and in tabloids, and now he has put his name on the most important building on the planet and on the front page of most every newspaper in the world. Yet the coverage he gets, outside of a few conservative outlets, is horrible, the worst of any president in memory. He cannot perform his job well enough to be liked or respected, but he only wanted the job in the first place because it would force the whole world to like and respect him — and he is being driven to rage and paranoia by the resulting dissonance, disappointment, and hurt.

Imagine being Donald Trump. Imagine reading about yourself every day and knowing these awful things are being said by your friends, your aides, your allies, perhaps even your family. Imagine knowing you can’t trust anyone around you, suspecting they’re badmouthing you constantly, raising their social status by diminishing yours.

Imagine seeing your stability questioned, your patriotism impugned, your intellect dismissed. Imagine doing the impossible — winning the presidency! — only to be treated as a national embarrassment.

This isn’t what Trump wanted. And it’s not clear it’s something he can bear. A more capable, competent, and stable person would, by now, have either changed their behavior to receive more of the response they crave or given up on getting the response they crave. But Trump appears to exist in an unhappy middle ground, rage-tweeting through his mornings, retreating to his golf club on weekends, searching for the validation he craves in his Twitter feed and on Fox & Friends but never getting it from the elite tastemakers he’s always sought to impress.

It took me a long time to get over it, but I have “given up on getting the response [I] crave.” I can’t imagine being 71 and still feeling and behaving that way, much less being the President of the United States.

Why This Election is Rigged

October 17, 2016

It’s been interesting watching the Trump campaign in the last couple of weeks. The Access Hollywood tape has caused the candidates and his surrogates to flail wildly to find something to distract attention from what probably was a mortal wound.

But really, this campaign has been over for weeks, and I’m certain the Trump campaign folks know it, but I really can’t tell if the reality of the situation has permeated Donald Trump thicket of carbon-fiber hair and into his brain. One hint that he does understand what’s going on is the resurrection of one word: rigged.

Trump began talking about a “rigged” system in April, calling it a “a rigged, disgusting, dirty system,” after Ted Cruz won some GOP delegates with superior organizing and planning.

We didn’t hear much about a rigged system until August, when Trump was again languishing in the polls after a poorly staged convention (and a much better-presented Democratic convention): “And I’m afraid the election’s gonna be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said.  Another spike in his use of “rigged” came, unsurprisingly, after the first presidential debate, which pretty much everyone agrees did not go well for Mr. Trump. Publicly, Trump tried to put the best face on it, retweeting online polls showing an overwhelming victory, but that one word, “rigged,” once again showed he knew he had lost.

The pattern is pretty obvious: when Trump is doing well, it’s his own doing. No one should be surprised that in a disastrous couple of weeks of casting about for someone to blame–SNL? seriously?–Trump’s speeches have been peppered with that word again and with dark suggestions that there will be massive and widespread voter fraud, particularly in precincts with high African-American demographics.

Could there be some attempts at voter fraud? Sure, but it would require a massive conspiracy in both parties and across multiple states, making it highly unlikely. And even if there were such a massive conspiracy, it would matter only in a close election–and require millions of fake votes.

But this election isn’t close. Trump had one task only in this election: win the states that Romney won and pick up a number of swing states that had voted for Obama. The way to do this, of course, was to attempt to appeal to moderate and undecided voters. That shouldn’t have been a difficult task, as Hillary Clinton is perhaps the second-most disliked major-party candidate in memory–second only to Mr. Trump.

What he needed to do was try to attract college-educated whites, women, and persuadable minorities.And indeed, his campaign kept telling us that was what he was going to do. But what we got instead was classic Trump: an appeal to African-Americans that traded in racist stereotypes (they all live in poor, violent, inner cities, and they need help from the government (him, actually) because they can’t take care of themselves). His appeal to women consisted of trotting out women who accused Bill Clinton sexual assault and then denying he’d ever done what he had bragged about to Billy Bush. Of course, the denials just opened the floodgates, and women are rushing forward to tell the same story about Trump. At this point, no one gives a damn about Bill Clinton’s past because Trump’s behavior just makes him look hypocritical.

Is it any wonder that the operative word this week–in almost all of Trump’s tweets and speeches–is “rigged.” Others have written about how irresponsible and, frankly, unpatriotric and un-American it is for Trump to call into question the sanctity of our electoral process, and I won’t go into that other than to say that, if violence does result from unhappy Trumpistas after the election, we know whom to blame.

As for me, I’m content to know that, finally, inevitably, Trump knows he’s lost. Roland Barthes once wrote that expressing love to another is an “affirmation of extreme solitude.” We tell other people we love them because we understand we are alone, and we hope that they will love us in return and rid us of our loneliness. In the same way, Trump’s assertions that he would be winning, save for a “rigged” system, is a pathetic acknowledgement that he’s lost, and he knows it.

Expect to hear “rigged” even more often over the new few weeks, as the scope of Trump’s loss sinks in. I’ll smile every time I hear it.



Who Is Captain Moroni?

January 4, 2016

Two days ago, on January 2, a group of well-armed, self-described “patriots” broke into the headquarters/visitors center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, saying they will not move until their nebulous and unspecified demands are met. I wasn’t surprised that, among the leaders of the takeover, was Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, whose refusal to pay federal grazing fees led to an armed confrontation in Nevada in April 2015. The elder Bundy had cited his Mormon beliefs in support of his defiance of federal law. Fortunately, the month-long standoff did not result in bloodshed, but it certainly looked as if it might.

In an article for Oregon Public Broadcasting, John Sepulvado tries to explain the Mormon connection to the current standoff. I think he did a fair job of it, but I wanted to explore a little bit more of what is behind the peculiar mix of right-wing insurrection and Mormon theology.

As Mr. Sepulvado correctly explains, these armed groups take their cues from Mormon symbolism, particularly the episode in the Book of Mormon involving a man called Captain Moroni gathering the free and righteous under the “Title of Liberty.” This explains why one armed man at the Malheur refuge identified himself as “Captain Moroni, from Utah.”


As Mr. Sepulvado explains, the story is basically that, at a time when the free government of the Nephites (the protagonists of the Book of Mormon) is under attack by evil dissenters (known as “king-men”), the righteous warrior, Captain Moroni, is outraged at the government’s refusal to come to his aid and therefore threatens to take up arms against the government–ironically to preserve the government. Here’s Sepulvado’s summary:

According to LDS scripture, Captain Moroni took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. Moroni innovated weaponry, strategy and tactics to help secure the safety of the Nephites, and allow them to worship and govern as they saw fit.

In LDS texts, Moroni prepares to confront a corrupt king by tearing off part of his coat and turning it into a flag, hoisting it as a “title of liberty.” This simple call to arms inspired a great patriotism in the Nephites, helping to raise a formidable army. Vastly outnumbered, the corrupt king fled. According to the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni continued to push for liberty among his people.

“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.”

This is only partially correct. There was no king at the time described, but a “chief governor,” elected more or less by the voice of the people. The chief governor was a man named Pahoran, who, according to the Book of Mormon, was not corrupt and did not flee. Rather, Pahoran supported Captain Moroni but explained that he had been driven out of his capital by the king-men:

I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul.

But behold, there are those who do joy in your afflictions, yea, insomuch that they have risen up inrebellion against me, and also those of my people who are freemen, yea, and those who have risen up are exceedingly numerous.

And it is those who have sought to take away the judgment-seat from me that have been the cause of this great iniquity; for they have used great flattery, and they have led away the hearts of many people, which will be the cause of sore affliction among us; they have withheld our provisions, and have daunted our freemen that they have not come unto you.

And behold, they have driven me out before them, and I have fled to the land of Gideon, with as many men as it were possible that I could get.

And behold, I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs. (Alma 61:2-6)

Subsequent chapters in the Book of Mormon describe how Captain Moroni and Pahoran work together to drive out the king-men and reestablish government control over the land. It’s a bit strange that Bundy and his friends see themselves as latter-day Captain Moronis, given that they clearly oppose the elected government of the people. If anything, the actions of Bundy and his friends more closely resemble the actions of the king-men described in the Book of Mormon. Unlike Pahoran and Captain Moroni, they have no legitimate claim to represent the government or the people. They are, in fact, guilty of sedition at best, treason at worst.

So, how did the symbolism of Mormonism become so tightly entwined with right-wing, anti-government ideology?

First, as most Americans understand, early Mormons experienced violent opposition from their non-Mormon neighbors in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in the 19th century. Their attempts at redress from the federal government fell on deaf ears. Finally, after a mob murdered church founder Joseph Smith and his brother, the Latter-day Saints were compelled to flee the United States and establish an isolated homeland in what was then part of Mexico. Within a couple of years of their settling Utah, the Mexican-American War resulted in Utah Territory coming under United States jurisdiction. The Mormons in Utah resented being governed by Washington, and they more or less used church ecclesiastical structure for day-to-day business and law. By 1857, federal appointees in Utah, tired of having their powers “usurped” or ignored by the Mormons, asked Present James Buchanan for help in putting down a “rebellion” in Utah. Buchanan sent 2,500 armed soldiers to install a new federally appointed governor and enforce federal law. The resulting Utah War ended with few casualties but a healthy suspicion of the federal government among Mormons. Anti-polygamy laws that disenfranchised Mormons, criminalized their religious practices, and seized church assets further ingrained a culture of suspicion toward the government.

But that’s only half the story. By the time of the Great Depression, Utah would follow most of the country in supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which rested on strong federal government action to lift the country out of economic catastrophe. Indeed, more than 60% of Utah voters supported Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944, with support at 70% in 1936. It seemed that Mormons had made their peace with strong central government.

Then the Cold War came.

After World War II, America became gripped by a fear of Communist takeover. Most of us are familiar with the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklists, and Joseph McCarthy. Out of the “Red Scare” came an extreme right-wing ideology that saw a Communist conspiracy in most efforts at international cooperation (such as the United Nations) and “big government” policies. Most prominent among proponents of this ideology was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. He stated, “Both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government'” (The Blue Book of the John Birch Society).

As we’ve seen with the Bundy folks, the idea that there are secret, treasonous forces at work within the government resonates with Mormon beliefs. Throughout the Book of Mormon are warnings against “secret combinations,” or secret organizations dedicated to the destruction of freedom and righteousness.

And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever. (2 Nephi 26:22).

One prominent adherent of the Birch Society was well-known Mormon W. Cleon Skousen. His book, The Naked Communist, became an important part of the Birch Society canon, and was followed by The Naked Capitalist. The latter book draws mainly on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (a history of modern European imperialism and multinational organizations) to suggest that, behind the lofty rhetoric of these international bodies lies an insidious effort to control the world through a single socialist government. Most serious students of history rightly dismiss Skousen’s theories, though such luminaries as Glenn Beck wholeheartedly endorse them.

But the link to Mormonism wasn’t cemented until apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave outspoken support to Skousen’s ideas and the Birch Society. Benson grounded his attacks on the United Nation, the Civil Rights movement, and other alleged instruments of Communism in his defense of the U.S. Constitution, which he referred to as “miraculous,” “a heavenly banner,” and “divinely inspired.” Indeed, LDS scripture has God saying, “I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).

In this way, Benson not only linked the principles of republican democracy and freedom to belief in God, but he specifically called out anything beyond a strict-constructionist reading of the Constitution as being inspired of the devil. Seen in this light, the following statements from a Bundy rally in Utah are completely understandable:

“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” Bundy asked.

“Yes,” a chorus of voices replied.

“Isn’t it the same as the Book of Mormon and the Bible?” Bundy asked.

“Absolutely,” the audience answered.

In my experience, the folks who most loudly proclaim their love for the Constitution know the least about it, its history, and its development. A few years ago, I heard from a longtime friend who had somehow immersed himself in this right-wing ideology. After a few minutes talking with him, I realized he had only a superficial understanding of the Constitution and how it works. I asked him if he had ever read the Federalist Papers, a must for anyone wanting to understand the “heavenly banner.” I wasn’t surprised when he said he hadn’t. But, he said, “I understand Constitutional principles.”

In his response, my friend told me everything I need to know about these supposed freedom fighters: they have somehow mixed their political beliefs (and fears) with a particular reading of Mormon scripture. To them, it makes perfect sense that one would take up arms against the government in order to preserve our system of government. It seems to me that what they are really saying is that they refuse to be ruled by the voice of people who disagree with them.

I have just learned that the LDS church has issued a statement:

While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.

Some might wonder if these armed men will listen to the church and reconsider their actions. If I were a betting man, I would say they will ignore the church’s clear condemnation, perhaps even believing that the church itself has been infiltrated by the enemies of God.

Top Ten Reasons I Support Trump

December 15, 2015

Many of my friends have expressed shock and dismay when I’ve told them I plan to vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries and (God willing) the general election. To clear up some confusion, I thought I would just give a list of the excellent reasons I support this great man.

10. He’s going to “make America great again.” Who could argue with such a simple yet detailed plan? Some people say it can’t be done, but the Donald knows better. America won’t be great until he says so.

9. When Trump is president, those hedge fund guys won’t be robbing us blind anymore. Instead of paying 23.8% in capital gains taxes, they’ll be paying 25% in income tax. That’ll show ’em.

8. This country used to be a peaceful place where people of all races were treated equally and prospered. But then 11 million murderers and rapists showed up. We need to get rid of them and put up a big wall to keep them from coming back. It may take 20 years and $600 billion to do the job, but dammit, it’s worth it.

7. Two words: weaponized hairpiece.

6. Trump is our adversaries’ worst nightmare. Putin, the ayatollahs, the Chinese–they’d all be quaking in their boots if they had to face him across the table instead of some idiot diplomats who know what they’re doing.

5. Our budget deficit is out of control, and the best way to deal with it is to cut taxes by $11 trillion over the next 10 years.

4. Just admit it: Muslims are scary. We’ll never have peace and security as long as there are people in our country who make us afraid.

3. Diplomacy is overrated. Let’s just bomb the shit out of everyone.

2. Someone has to close up the Internet. Only foolish people value freedom of speech.

1. He’s the perfect man for our times: ignorant, greedy, narcissistic, and afraid.

Thriving in Mormonism

February 9, 2015

A friend sent me a link to Mormon apologist Daniel Peterson’s latest blog entry:

Active Latter-day Saints are manifestly inferior specimens of humanity

Heck, I’ll just repost the whole thing.


I readily acknowledge I haven’t read Kate Kelly’s essay in The Guardian (a left-leaning British paper), as I haven’t been following LDS news regularly. So, I have no idea whether the quote is out of context or not. But ever since I read the quote and Dr. Peterson’s response, I’ve been thinking about whether this is a fair characterization of the Mormons I know who “thrive” in the church. I don’t think it is. At least I don’t think that people who thrive in Mormonism are the “least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous” of its membership.

I have known many brilliant, thoughtful, articulate, talented people in the LDS church, and they are thriving. I’ve known leaders of immense talent and intellect. As Dan Peterson’s sarcasm makes clear, Mormons are not a monolithic group of unthinking automatons akin to North Koreans at a party rally.

What I see is that thoughtful, intelligent people who thrive in the church are those who can, when push comes to shove, subordinate their own beliefs and desires to the goals of the organization. I’ve mentioned before that I know an LDS man who was a bishop in California during the church’s efforts to pass Proposition 8. This man opposed the proposition and supported the right of same-sex couples to marry. But the church not only asked its bishops to organize members in actively supporting Proposition 8, but had bishops call in members and encourage them to donate money and time to the cause. This man was asked, as bishop, to set an example to his ward members by donating generously to the campaign, so he donated $5,000 to a proposition that he voted against in the election. When asked whether his obedience meant he was “weak,” he responded:

A libertarian’s view of things is not some sort of “ethical” opposition. Libertarians believe in a lot of things people would otherwise find offensive. But, just like a Catholic might oppose capital punishment merely because the Pope asks him to do so, so did I oppose gay marriage because my Prophet asked me to do so. I know enough about politics to know that my libertarian views might not be right for policy reasons important to the Church which would otherwise not be apparent to me. By voluntarily joining a group which engages in politicking, I surrender some of my libertarian notions. Libertarian philosophy teaches, for instance, that labor may organize into unions and should do so without restriction, even though their objectives may lead to reduced competition.

This is as good an explanation of what I mean as any. Voluntary membership in an organization like the church requires members to “surrender” their personal beliefs and desires in favor of the organization. It’s fine, even encouraged, to be thoughtful, articulate, and so on, as long as those personal attributes are used to further the kingdom.

I am not saying this to be critical of the church. Many times I did things as a Mormon that I did not want to do, whether it was keeping a commandment that conflicted with my “carnal” desires or was simply an administrative duty I didn’t feel right about. I can remember only one time when I told the church “no,” and that was when I was asked to assign as home teachers a couple of mentally ill, potentially violent ex-convicts.

In general, then, I believe that what leads people to “thrive” in the church is their willingness to subordinate themselves to the needs of the church. I suspect that a lot of Mormons would agree with me. Gordon B. Hinckley once said that members could think freely and critically before joining the church, but once they had joined, they were expected to conform and “find happiness in that conformity.”

So, does that willingness to conform make Mormons inferior people? Does it mean that the leadership of the LDS church is populated with untalented, cowardly yes-men? I don’t think so. I understand Ms. Kelly’s point, but I think it’s overstated. Perhaps a little more nuance is required.



Something to Think about from Dr. King

January 20, 2015

I heard Senator Cory Booker paraphrase this and looked up the original:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. — Martin Luther King

All violence has an underlying cause. Ideally, we would recognize and try to correct these underlying causes, but sometimes violence causes us to react solely to the violence and may even make us more resistant to addressing its roots (see my reaction to the violence in France). This is not to say that we should justify or reward violence but rather that we must not let ourselves lose sight of our ultimate goal: a free and just and equal society. The conditions Dr. King mentions are not intolerable because they spawn violence; they are intolerable because they promote oppression and despair.

The other day someone asked the question, If you had been an adult during the Civil Rights movement, would you have marched? Shortly after I returned home from my mission, my late brother and I were watching a news program with my mother. The program discussed the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was being celebrated as a federal holiday for the first time. My brother said, “If I had been alive then, I would have marched with them.” I said I would have, as well. My mother was horrified, her view being that Dr. King was a Communist rabble-rouser. “Why would you do something like that?” she asked. My brother said, “They were in the right. Their rights were being denied, and someone needed to stand up for them.” I agreed. My mother said something like, “Well, things were already changing on their own accord, so there wasn’t any need to cause all the trouble.” My brother smiled and said, “It’s because they caused trouble that things started changed.”

But I’ve thought about it. Would I have marched, really? I hope I’ve made it clear that I support equal treatment under the law for all people, and I also believe we must do everything possible to eradicate discrimination in all its forms. But would I have marched? I realized that marching requires commitment. You actually have to break out of your normal routine to do something like that. I live about 45 minutes from the White House, where there is always a demonstration of some kind going on. Heck, the White House Peace Vigil, just north of the White House fence in Lafayette Square, has been going on round the clock since 1981. That’s commitment! And yet I can’t be bothered to get in my car or take the Metro into town to speak up about something I believe in. I vote, but I haven’t been particularly politically active in years, not since I participated in party caucuses, a Senate campaign, and a state party convention several years ago. I guess I should feel good that I did that, but since then it’s been a lot of nothing for me. About the only thing I’ve had any passion about in the last few years is Mormonism and the pain of leaving it. I have tried to help people navigate that difficult transition, and I hope I have done some good. But I just don’t care about it much anymore. I wouldn’t cross the street to protest anything related to Mormonism. Heck, I can’t even bother enough to say much about the ridiculous “Je suis John Dehlin” meme. So, maybe it’s time to get involved with something bigger than a mildly snarky blog. I know, that doesn’t fit my negative elan, but so be it.

As I said earlier, I’ll keep you posted.


October 22, 2014

I’ll be turning 50 in a couple of weeks. Turning 30 wasn’t a big deal, and 40 came and went with little more than a shrug. 50 doesn’t seem that big a deal, but a couple of weeks ago, a dear friend suddenly passed away, and her death has caused me to reflect on life and where I am in it.

She was 79 years old and a delightful person. I didn’t realize she was that old because she was always so active and cheerful. She volunteered as an usher at her church up until the Sunday before she died of a sudden and massive stroke. My wife and I both agreed that she went the way we would like to go: mentally sharp and physically active until the end, with no long, lingering illness or loss of mental or physical capacity.

They say I’m middle-aged, but that would only be true if I were to live to 100, which I doubt I will do. The life I have left is shorter than the life I have already lived, and according to some people, that should cause me to worry about death and what comes after it. But I’m not afraid of death, and I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Life is to short, after all, to spend it worrying about its end. I don’t even fear getting old and losing my health, mental and physical. I’ll just deal with it as it comes.

This year people seem to want us to be afraid, and sometimes it does seem like there’s a perfect storm of trouble going on in the world today: Ebola, continuing global economic stagnation, DAESH (I refuse to call them “ISIS”), and a host of other problems have a lot of people in a bit of a lather.

Not me.

The likelihood that Ebola will break out in a worldwide pandemic is very small. The last time we saw anything like that was the influenza pandemic of 1918, which of course killed around 50 million people and infected one-fifth of the world’s population. But this is not 1918. In almost every part of the world, living conditions, sanitation, and medical care are much better than they were 100 years ago. And Ebola is not spread through the air, meaning that it’s much easier to contain, as long as one is careful. Even the mistakes made in Dallas not only haven’t resulted in a widespread outbreak but have been a much-needed wake-up call for better procedures. So, yeah, I may get Ebola at some point, but I’m not going to worry about it. I have a better chance of winning the lottery.

Yes, the economy still sucks. The unemployment rate is down, but much of that is due to people dropping out of the workforce and others taking jobs that pay less involve fewer hours. My company could disappear at any time,  but then I’ve been unemployed before and, given the nature of my industry, I may well be there again. I’ll survive.

A few years ago, if you’d told me that an armed death cult of thousands of religious sociopaths would take over large parts of two countries, I’d have thought you were pitching an idea for a horror film. People talk about dealing with “root causes” of such things, but I don’t believe any of the supposed factors (imperialism, poverty, alienation) explain a group that boasts of its desire to murder, rape, and enslave the rest of the world. Root causes or not, these are not the kind of folks you can negotiate with.

Do I worry about these Islamo-fascists killing me or my family? No, not really. I know, they say they want to kill Westerners where we live, and I suppose I can’t really stop that. They could show up at my house tonight, and that would be that for me. But I don’t worry about them, simply because, no matter how well-armed or powerful these folks become, the non-sociopaths will always outnumber the sociopaths. Right now a coalition of countries is doing a sort of half-assed job of containing these nutjobs, but if and when they become an existential threat to any of the regional powers, they will not be long for the world. They’re unlikely to ever hoist the black flag over the White House or Buckingham Palace if they can’t even manage to take a lightly defended Kurdish town. Perhaps on the plus side, they’re doing us a favor in concentrating the violent nutwads in one place.

So, I could be worrying about these things. There’s a lot I could worry about: race relations in the wake of Ferguson, climate change, same-sex marriage, health care, Vladimir Putin, Mexican drug cartels, who Alison Grimes voted for, the Export-Import Bank, “Meet the Mormons,” shingles, and  Canada, to name a few.

But I choose not to.


Marriage and Societal Benefit

September 18, 2013

Yesterday I had a conversation with an old friend about same-sex marriage. He posted a link to the following page, which he had compiled:

Leftist LUNC of the Week: Equality and Civil Rights–Same-Sex Marriage–Intro

In our subsequent conversation, he made a few statements I found interesting, so I’ll quote them here:

To clarify, let me reiterate that my blog posts weren’t intended as an argument against gay marriage, but rather as an explication of the negative results of legalizing gay marriage.

Having said that, I also indicated at the bottom of the page in question: “This thought is made all the worse when realizing that for all the public and private money to be divvied out to gay marriages, there will be little if any social benefited in return.”

The point in bringing this up is to suggest that costs (social and economic), while very important, aren’t all that should be factored into the equation. It is helpful to balanced the cost against the benefits. If the benefits exceed the costs, then the costs make sense. Otherwise, they don’t.

And, if for heterosexual marriages the benefits outweigh the cost, whereas for homosexual marriages the costs outweigh the benefits, then, discriminating in favor of the one and against the other makes good social and economic sense. Treating them equally would be social and economic nonsense. Right?

And here’s part of our interaction:

Runtu wrote:
I’m not sure how giving people the same benefits that others are entitled to is a negative result.

Wade wrote:
So, if adults are entitled to drive cars, you don’t see the negative result of giving toddlers that same benefit?

Runtu wrote:
I’m not sure we can know at this point what benefits, if any, there will be, because except in a few places, the effect of legalized same-sex marriage is hypothetical.

Wade wrote:
We may not be able to establish all the benefits to an absolute certainty, but as with economic forecasts and environmental impact statements, we can offer useful, educated guesstimates.

Runtu wrote:
Hmmm. I worry about people who think freedoms and civil liberties should be dispensed by the government based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Wade wrote:
As explained previously, in this case the government isn’t dispensing freedom, per se. Rather, it is dispensing government sanctions–i.e. the states seal of approval and incentives (benefits).

And, presumably, the government doesn’t dispense its sanctions for no reason. Typically, as with other regulatory and licensing acts (like with doctors and lawyers and businesses and teachers and auto drivers), there is a rational basis (cost-benefit) for the dispensing.

For example, regarding state sanctions for driving cars, there is good reason that the government sanctions people who have lived beyond a certain age and who have demonstrated adequate driving competency. On balance, the benefits to society exceeds the costs. However, the government doesn’t dispense this sanction to toddlers because the financial and health and safety costs would far exceed the benefit to society.

The same, in principle, holds true for the state sanctioning of marriage. Governments got into the business of sanctioning traditional marriage, in part, because they rationally surmised that the social cost of illicit heterosexual relationships would be higher than the benefits of promoting licit heterosexual relationships, and so it was in the state’s interest to incentivize and regulate traditional marriage.

Inspired by Wade’s logic, I have realized the error of my ways and have decided that marriage is not a right but is a privilege granted by the state, much like a driver’s license or a concealed-weapons permit. As with these privileges, state sanction of marriage should be granted only to those who would realize a net benefit from marriage, based on cost-benefit analysis and, when necessary, scientific guesstimates.

One group that has persistently shown itself to do significant social and economic harm is the uneducated, specifically high-school dropouts. Therefore, it would be irresponsible and counterproductive to allow high-school dropouts (HSDs) to marry and perpetuate and spread these societal ills.

According to a study from Northeastern University, male HSDs are 63 times more likely to end up in jail or juvenile detention than are their peers who have high-school diplomas (less-slothful citizens, or LSCs). The situation is especially bleak among black HSDs, 25% of whom are incarcerated at any given time. On average, HSDs cost society $209,000 per person for incarceration, making them a significant burden on society.

HSDs are also likely to be chronically unemployed. The Northeastern study showed that 54% of HSDs aged 16-24 were unemployed, compared to 32% among LSCs and only 13% of those with college degrees (educationally responsible citizens, or ERCs). According to the Wall Street Journal (published by ERCs, of course, so it can’t be biased), over half of all HSDs over the age of 25 were chronically unemployed in 2010.

HSDs are also much more likely to live in poverty. According to the US Department of Education, 30.8% of HSDs age 16-24 live in poverty, compared to 24% for LSCs and 14% for ERCs. On average, incomes for all adult HSDs are more than $10,000 less per year than their LSC counterparts and $36,000 less per year than ERCs.

HSDs also contribute to the birth of children to unwed mothers, which can have catastrophic social and economic effects. According to the New York Times, “Young female dropouts were nine times more likely to have become single mothers than young women who went on to earn college degrees, the report said, citing census data for 2006 and 2007. The number of unmarried young women having children has increased sharply in some communities in part, [researchers] said, because large numbers of young men have dropped out of school and are jobless year round. As a result, young women do not view them as having the wherewithal to support a family.”

The costs, then, are staggering. According to the Northeastern University study, compared to LSCs, the average HSD costs taxpayers $292,000 in lost taxes, higher costs in cash and in-kind benefits, and incarceration costs. If society gives its seal of approval to marriages between such socially destructive individuals, things can only get worse. There is nothing fair or just about giving people an incentive to cause the net loss of nearly $600,000 per couple. Everyone loses.

Clearly, the uneducated have not demonstrated adequate competency to be entrusted with the responsibilities of marriage, and the risks associated with their “lifestyle” are significant and well-known. And, if for LSC marriages the benefits outweigh the cost, whereas for HSD marriages the costs outweigh the benefits, then, discriminating in favor of the one and against the other makes good social and economic sense. Treating them equally would be social and economic nonsense. Right?

Educated Fanatics

November 14, 2012

I’ve been reading a book about the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, when radical Islamist students stormed the US Embassy and took 66 Americans hostage, ostensibly to demand the return of the exiled Shah, who had been admitted into the US for cancer treatment. Later the hostage-takers acknowledged that the events had nothing to do with the Americans or the Shah but were about destabilizing the moderate Bazargan government and consolidating power for radical Islamists, both of which goals were accomplished. I am not making a statement about the justification for the assault but simply reporting what the main actors have said themselves.

The hostages all say pretty much the same things about their captors: these were educated young Iranians–at least in terms of having formal study–but who viewed the world through a hopelessly naive and dogmatic prism of religious extremism. Americans thought it was ridiculous for the captors to call the embassy a “den of spies,” but the students seemed genuinely to believe that every activity in the embassy was dedicated to destroying Iran and its new regime. Every embassy employee from secretaries to Marine guards to the cultural attache was accused of being a CIA operative, and many were beaten and threatened with execution unless they confessed. The rough treatment of the hostages, including solitary confinement, long periods of being bound and blindfolded, not being able to speak to each other can mostly be explained by their captors’ fervent belief that they were dealing with evil people who were torturing Iranians and plotting to make Iran part of their empire. They couldn’t fathom that most of the embassy staff was involved in mundane activities, such as processing visa applications and running the motor pool.

One Army warrant officer jokingly said he had been in charge of a “wheat mold” program to destroy Iranian crops, and later several hostages were beaten and interrogated about this insidious attempt to ruin Iran’s economy. Another was asked about his role in the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh government. He replied, “I don’t know anything about it. I was ten years old at the time.” The hostage-takers were sure that they had God on their side and that the rest of the world would soon embrace their radical Islamist vision of heaven on earth. One captor rapturously predicted, “The American people will revolute!”

As I read these things, I thought of the numerous politico-religious fanatics who have crawled out from the woodwork lately, who see everything in the world as some kind of Satanically inspired effort to destroy all that is good in the world. Thus, a call to stop bullying gay children becomes an insidious plot to recruit children by homosexual pedophiles; a modest attempt at healthcare reform is the first step towards a Stalinist system of repression; adoption of any moderate or liberal social or economic policies is worthy of execution; and sending children to a Labor-party summer camp is morally equivalent to mass murder. These are some examples of extremism a friend of mine shared from a Mormon message board where I used to post.

Yes, I know most of these folks are just trolls, but some of them actually believe the crap they spew. As much as I would prefer simply to mock these idiots, I recognize that there is a dangerous edge to them, as fanatics tend to sacrifice their values ostensibly in the service of those values. The hostage-takers, for example, espoused freedom, faith, and morality but engaged in theft, torture, kidnapping, and other crimes. They thought their behavior was entirely justified, even though it violated the tenets of Islam, as some of their hostages often reminded them. The same potential exists among some of our crazier Mormon-rightwing fanatics. I have no doubt that, in the service of liberty, they would be happy to deprive their enemies (liberals, feminists, gays, immigrants, and so on) of their liberty. For instance, we’ve seen efforts over the years not only to deny gay couples the right to work benefits but also the right to work in the military and in public service. In the effort to “protect the unborn,” these folks would force women to go through pregnancy but without the resources to care for their children; they have used humiliation, intimidation, and plain hatred in their quest to celebrate the dignity of human life.

But these people are just like the hostage-takers: they believe fervently in a reality created by talk radio and extremist Mormon rhetoric, and they reject any facts or information that conflicts with that reality. Unlike them, I am happy to let them vent their nonsense. As the recent election showed, their vision of America is not appealing to most Americans, even Republican voters. What worries me is that too many right-wingers are responding not by thinking about what changes they need to make to become politically relevant again but by talking about civil war and secession. One of my coworkers said he thinks the only solution is revolution: “I’m ready.” A more extreme example is the Mormon woman in Arizona who ran over her husband with her SUV because he hadn’t voted, thus dooming the world to four more years of Obama.

I know, most conservatives do not have such warped thought processes (I am a conservative Republican, by the way), but there are too many crazy people out there.

Bolivia’s Big Brother Is Watching

October 26, 2012

I admit that when Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia, I was hopeful. After centuries of being marginalized and disenfranchized, Bolivia’s indigenous population finally had some real representation in government, and at long last change could come.

Unfortunately, much of the change has been in the government’s consolidation of power at the expense of freedom and openness. Bolivia’s press has long been threatened by a hostile government, but now the government is going after social media.

“I am always going online, and I am writing down the first and last names of the people who insult him on Facebook and Twitter,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said in remarks widely reported in Bolivian media this week.

The message is clear: watch what you say because the government is watching you. Not so, says a government spokesperson:

Constructive criticism is fine, said Franklin Garvizu, a congressman from the president’s party. But officials have seen something more nefarious, he said.

“We are very worried because this is a case of systematically using communications mechanisms to plant hatred against the government, to harm the image of our president,” Garvizu said.

So, as long as you say nice things about the government, you have nothing to worry about.