Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Foot in Mouth Disease
or, It Goes Down Like Buttah

Only a few days ago, Reed Cowan's new documentary, 8: The Mormon Proposition, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. It has been in the news recently, and has––as you might expect––stirred up a real rumpus in Utah. (Though, strictly speaking, the film doesn't really drop any bombshells. Does anyone really believe that the Church didn't play the major role in that campaign? Does anyone really believe that the Church hadn't been planning for initiatives like this since the mid 90's, beginning in Hawaii? Honestly, you'd have to be living under a rock.)

In any case, one of the most talked-about issues in conjunction with this movie is an interview with Utah senator Chris Buttars. The interview was quite inflammatory (as we will see in a moment) and Buttars seems a little confused that people are so worked up.* He has recently stated that Cowan et al deceived him during the interview, explaining why he would make such impolitic comments on record and on camera. And what, you may ask, was the nature of this damnable lie? What were the subtle machinations that so ensnared the good senator? Well, Gentle Reader, I'll tell you: a crew-member mentioned serving a mission at some point in their conversation, and another crew-member, the cameraman actually, was wearing a BYU jacket. I know––the mind reels at such demonic cunning! Indeed, so subtly planned was this trickery that it required its perpetrators to lay the groundwork years earlier. Their commitment to their dark scheme was total, the cameraman actually going so far as to enroll at BYU, study there, and claim his degree at the end of his studies. Wheels within wheels, my friends! However, even that will not prepare you for the utter, satanic dedication with which the other crew-member crafted his own back-story. Would you, could you believe it if I told you––and I swear that I lie not––the crew-member in question had actually served an LDS MISSION!?! Like the Gadiantons of old, the methods given them by their dark masters are nothing less than "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

But enough about that. Let's take a gander at the text of the interview itself, and see if we can understand why it has become so infamous...

I believe in the Constitution being something that was inspired of God and the way these people are destroying the Constitution is they’re saying the Constitution is a living document, that means it’s subject to change. [Also they're saying that punctuation is unimportant and run-on sentences are not a bad thing to use when you are an elected official even though they make the fact that you get to vote on state educational policy a kind of cruel irony and sounding like a mongoloid in a public setting won't really affect your political career negatively because you live in Utah and having an "R" after your name in campaign materials essentially guarantees your reelection.] But truth don’t change [No it do not––though apparently proper subject-verb agreement do], it does not change, and I won’t accept any of that. So they say, well, marriage is between a man and a woman and that’s changed, [Whaaaa? Isn't that a contradiction? Either marriage is between a man and a woman OR it has been "changed." You can't have both. It makes about as much sense to say "The sun really does still rise in the east every morning, and that's changed." Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot?] look around, look at all these combinations. Combinations of abominations, [Homeboy is mixing up Ether 8:19 and Matthew 24:15] as far as I’m concerned. To me, homosexuality will always be a sexual perversion and you say that around here now and everybody goes nuts, but I don’t care. [Well, if by "perversion" you are referring to something "of an unnatural or abnormal kind," as per the dictionary, then you're on thin ice. The argument of the "crime against nature" just doesn't hold any water, scientifically speaking. In practically all species that reproduce sexually, homosexuality is observable, particularly when you're considering higher vertebrates. In species that have life-long, monogamous pairings, there are also life-long, monogamous, homosexual pairings. The incidence stays pretty stable at 5 to 8%, whatever group you consider. Now, remember, in animal populations these members do not usually reproduce... yet they don't die out. This is not to make any moral or ethical claim regarding homosexuality, but the "it's unnatural" argument just does not stand up to scrutiny in the light of current science.]

They want to talk about being nice, but they’re the meanest buggers I’ve ever seen. [This is called "cherry picking." Of course they're the "meanest buggers" you've ever seen! How could they not be, when you've restricted your sample only to include "buggers"? Now, if you were to consider non-buggers, your evaluation might change. You cannot very well say, "Those straight folks are mean buggers," precisely because those straight folks are, by definition, not "buggers."] It’s just like the Muslims. Muslims are good people and their religion is anti-war, but it’s been taken over by the radical side and the gays are totally taken over by the radical side. You don’t see the gay ["...the gay..."? Presumably "the gay" has a name, yes? "Have you talked to the gay this morning?" "What, you mean Bob?" "Yeah, like I said, the gay."] out there saying “let’s not do this gang.” [Ah, punctuation, thou art a fickle mistress! Suffice it to say there is a world of difference between "[L]et's not do this gang," and "[L]et's not do this, gang." Those commas are important, kids!] You see them marching around with signs and everything else. [Yes, just like those darn Muslims. Marching their signs right into the Pentagon, or really tall buildings in New York. You can hardly turn on the news these days without hearing about someone picketing a nightclub or an embassy in the middle east. Those Taliban rebels hiding in caves with their poster-board and magic markers, lobbing pithy slogans at US troops. The horror.]

I believe the whole thing is immoral and I believe you're moving towards... You see, [But wait! What am I moving towards? Don't leave us hanging!] if you say to me “Quit shoving your morals down my throat, Buttars,” my answer back is “You know my morals. What’s yours?” What is the morals of a gay person? [Yes, senator, what is they?] You can’t answer that, [No, you can't, because it sure as hell isn't English!] because anything goes. So now you’re moving towards a society that has no morals and there’s never been a nation that survived that’s done that. [I can't even think of anything funny to say to this, the implication is so incredibly offensive. Today dressing in drag, tomorrow smashing babies with shovels––it's a slippery slope. How long has it been since this man was last on the home planet?]

There’s a lot of dollar costs. [Yes, there is... there is a lot of costs. And, please note, they're of the "dollar" variety... as opposed to... I dunno, rupees?] You take their trying to have insurance rights the same as a man and a woman. Now, when you’re married, insurance companies can quantify, we got this many married people so they run their underwriting. You have no way to do that with gay people [Really? It would be impossible to register domestic partnerships and know their total number? Is this like some kind of gay Schrödinger's cat paradox? Once you put the homos in the filing cabinet you cannot know how many there are?] and you’re going to take on paying for all the extra, most often, diseases, and that’s huge. [Pause with me a moment. Let us revel in the glory of that statement. Repeat with me: "And you're going to take on paying for all the extra, most often, diseases, and that's huge." I don't know what that means, but could you puree it so I can smear it all over my body? Please. Luxuriate in the nutcase-ness.] And now you, as a straight, get to share that cost. That’s what I’m talking about. Those kinds of diseases are not exclusive with gays, but they represent the huge majority. [Evidently, he is unaware of the continent of Africa. More to the point, do gays currently get some special tax break or lowered insurance rate? Do they not currently pay for some of the benefits heterosexuals enjoy? Wouldn't a stable gay partnership represent the same kinds of economic benefits as a stable straight partnership?]

I believe that you will destroy the foundation of American society because I believe the cornerstone of it is a man and a woman and a family. It is, in my mind, the beginning of the end. Oh, it's worse than that. Sure, Sodom and Gomorrah was localized, this is world-wide. You can’t tell me that something was going on in Sodom and Gomorrah** is not going on wholesale right now and to a large degree among the gay community... [That's right. If there's one thing you know about gay people, it's that they all like gang rape! Oh, wait. That's not quite right is it, particularly when you consider that most sexual assault perpetrated against males is committed by... wait for it... straight men. Sexual assault, ironically, is not an uncommon form of anti-gay crime. See here for more information.] The underbelly is they do not want equality, they want superiority. [And gang rape! Don't forget that!]

The man is a wonder. He has his foot so far in his mouth, he could use his toes to wipe his backside. Honestly, people took the trouble to go to a voting booth and cast a ballot for this guy? What is wrong with you, Utah? It's like some kind of horrible dream.

There's no place like home... There's no place like home... There's no place like home...

*Do remember that this is the same man who, when a colleague on the senate floor referred to a bill as an "unwanted baby," chimed in to say that "...this baby is black. It's a dark, ugly thing..." and was then shocked when people took issue with his choice of words!

**See here, and here for some interesting discussions on the subject.

There is only one canonized description of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. It comes from Ezekiel:
As I live, saith the Lord God, Sodom thy sister hath not done, she nor her daughters, as thou [speaking of Jerusalem] hast done, thou and thy daughters.

Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.

Ezra Taft Benson, April 1989 general conference:
The scriptures abound with evidences of the severe consequences of the sin of pride to individuals, groups, cities, and nations... It destroyed the Nephite nation and the city of Sodom.

Neal A. Maxwell, April 1999 general conference:
When love waxes cold, let the poor and the needy beware too, for they will be neglected, as happened in ancient Sodom.

Selfishness likewise causes us to be discourteous, disdainful, and self-centered while withholding from others needed goods, praise, and recognition as we selfishly pass them by and notice them not.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Seamus Heaney, again...

This is another favorite of mine, Gentle Reader, by our incomparable Irish friend.


I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brain's exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles' webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

This piece, like many of Heaney's poems from this period, draws on the bog, both for material and metaphor. The body of his "little adulteress" was pulled from the peat bed in 1951. The author's musing on the details of her body and her history leads him to dredge up memories from the swamp of his own experience of Ireland's conflict with Great(er) Britain.

In the first stanza he begins by reliving part of the young woman's execution. Significantly, he is not a simple observer––this is first-person experience: "I can feel the tug of the halter..." His language is highly intimate, erotic even, as he segues to an exterior perspective. From "the nape of her neck" he moves to "her naked front," then with greater detail to "her nipples." He begins to use seafaring jargon, referring to the "frail rigging of her ribs." The third stanza moves into the present––she is a corpse now––but continues to echo the sailing imagery with an anchor ("weighing stone") and buoyant "rods and boughs."

The fourth stanza begins to be less personal. The victim is viewed as organic material, a "sapling." Time spent under ground has turned her bones to "oak" and her skull into a "brain-firkin" (a kind of small barrel). Shaved hair has become the stubble of a harvested field. Heaney continues to use enjambment, creating a rhythmic awkwardness to match his discomfort with coming subject matter. Simultaneously, we see a kind of enjambment of imagery––consider the "rods and boughs" that are part of both the sailing metaphor and the notion of her having bones of "oak." The "stubble or corn" comes from the world of agriculture, and colors our understanding of "her noose" (earlier called a "halter") as a "ring," perhaps like the ring in the nose of an animal. The next stanza then changes the meaning of this "ring"; it stores "memories of love," like a wedding ring, but the next line––referring to her as a "little adulteress"––reveals that the "love" was illicit.

Heaney's words become yet more sympathetic, describing her as "beautiful" and "undernourished"; a "poor scapegoat"––for where is the man who shared in her sin? And now we begin to see the author's own sin, we become privy to an equally intimate "moral nudity." (Does he hope we will see his soul with the same understanding and kindness with which he has viewed her body?) His understanding has enabled him to "almost love" her, yet he confesses that he would have acceded to her death, at least by the consent of "silence." (The notion of casting "stones" here is ambiguous: is this a reference to death by lapidation, or are these light and dark stones cast as votes?) The author describes himself in terms yet more damning: he is a "voyeur." His consideration of her is not unsullied by personal interest; she is material for him to craft. Yet he sees her in ways more intimate even than her lover, who never viewed the honeycomb of her exposed brain, her "muscles' webbing," or––a beautiful line––"all [her] numbered bones."

He then shows us that his hypothetical assent to her death was not mere sentiment, because he has already committed an equivalent sin of omission. When Irish women were punished by being shorn and smeared with tar, then handcuffed in public––their own adultery was political: having relationships with British enemies of Irish independence––he too "stood dumb." His disapproval is weakened by being alloyed with insincerity. Yes, he would later speak of his "outrage," but this was "conniv[ing]," a nod to the "civilized" establishment. (Is this poem itself an example of that disingenuous impulse? After all what could be more "civilized" than turning his condemnation into literature?) Bone deep, he understands (and therefore––to some degree––sympathizes) with this "tribal, intimate revenge." He is a collaborateur, yet who among us could say different?

[Note: the body pictured above is not the body described in this poem. (You might have noticed that the head isn't shaved; besides which, the body in the image is male.) Unfortunately, there are no pictures available of the "little adulteress." For those who are interested, Heaney did write a different poem about the body in the photo: see here.]

Monday, January 18, 2010

Screwtape: "I ♥ Pat"

Pat Robertson, on the 700 Club, said the following regarding the Hatian earthquake:

They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, "We will serve you if you will get us free from the French." True story. And so, the devil said, "OK, it's a deal." And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.

Forget physics and plate tectonics, it's just Satan! And remember, if Haiti weighs as much as two ducks... SHE'S A WITCH!

Well, it appears that the prince of darkness himself has just responded in a letter to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action.

But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished.

Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth––glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"?

If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox––that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it––I'm just saying: Not how I roll.

You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings––just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.



In any case, raise your glasses, folks. Here's to Pat and to his dear old uncle Screwtape!

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Why am I so afraid?"
or, The Scientology Test

First, watch this:

Comedy Central PresentsFriday 10pm / 9c
Maria Bamford - Cult
Joke of the DayStand-Up ComedyFree Online Games

I was surprised this week to read this article.

You ought to read the whole thing, but let's just start with the little story that opens the piece:

A woman sat at her dining room table, buried in dozens of books and magazines. She looked discouraged. Her daughter asked if she could help.

The woman said she was preparing a Relief Society lesson. She told her daughter she didn't know how she could possibly "boil down all the information" she had collected for the lesson. The process, the woman acknowledged, was both time consuming and frustrating.

The daughter looked surprised.

"Why," she asked, "are you trying to boil down information? An inspired* Church-writing** committee has already done that for you."

The committee's work, the daughter continued, has been approved by the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency. It has been translated into dozens of languages and sent around the world. It corresponds with the lessons and information taught at the same time to other auxiliaries and quorums in the Church.

Now the woman looked confused.

"Everything you need––and more––is in your manual," the daughter said. "Now, here––drink this kool-aid. I made it specially."
(Okay, so that last little bit I made up, but seriously...)

The story concludes later:

Following the advice of her daughter, the woman above turned off her computer, shut the dozens of books open on her dining room table and picked up her manual and scriptures. The frustration she had previously experienced disappeared. She knew the material was doctrinally accurate. She knew its source was valid. It was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. She had won the victory over herself. She loved Big Brother.
(That last bit I did NOT make up... George Orwell did.)

Mormon blogger, Ronan James Head, invented a little examination that would prove extremely useful if more LDS folk employed it. It is called "The Scientology Test." It is safe and easy to use, plus it's absolutely free. Here's how you perform it:

1. Select a statement or text to examine.
2. Read and/or listen to it carefully.
3. Pretend that this statement/text actually came out of The Church of Scientology.
4. In that context (i.e. Scientology), does the statement make you think, "Wow. What a creepy cult..."?
5. If your answer is "Yes," the text in question has just failed the Scientology Test.

Brothers and Sisters, that article just failed the Scientology test... BIG TIME.

Brother Louis Midgley, a Mormon scholar, wrote the following about an LDS book of scriptural commentary, but it is quite germane to the subject at hand:

Such [approaches] also tend to close the door on the untapped possibilities within the scriptures. Our tendency is to rely upon presumably authoritative statements on matters that may seem urgent to us, but which may not have been of concern to those responsible for providing us with the [scriptures]. [We] seem to approach the text ... already knowing ... both the questions and the answers. Hence there are really no new insights, no discoveries on the teachings found in the text, that are not already accessible from sources already familiar to the Saints.
This injunction is somewhat like gun-control legislation: those who are going to use the guns illegally won't scruple at obtaining them illegally. Gun owners conscientious enough to be properly licensed probably aren't going to shoot anyone anyway, licensed or not. Similarly, teachers that are going to use crazy-go-nuts materials will likely use them regardless. Teachers who will fastidiously follow this counsel are probably responsible enough to be trusted to select and use outside materials in a way that does not detract from the lesson's intent.

If I were running the show (and we can all be thankful that I'm not), I would try to implement the following:

1. Focus the materials back on the scriptures. "Text, without context, is pretext." The manual should be designed to guide us through the canonical text––on its own terms! Currently, the approach is often the opposite: we use gobbets from the scriptures, stripped of their setting, and mix them willy-nilly in a kind of theological hobo stew. This approach is in many ways demeaning to the scriptures; we pull them apart, take just the bits we like, and then force those bits to fit into our molds. This is called "proof-texting," and it sucks.

2. Institute more Teacher-Improvement classes, and broaden their focus. These classes are currently a possibility, but they don't get used very frequently, which is a shame. It would be nice if these classes could also cover some basic skills of scriptural interpretation (helping class members to find and avail themselves of all the great material and resources that are out there), and preparing talks to help them practice public speaking skills.

3. Remember that memory is the residue of thought. (See here.) I don't know really how to implement this institutionally, other than saying we need to become comfortable with having questions, capable of accepting a certain degree of ambiguity. I think that we are supposed to have questions to wrestle with. Wresting can make you tired and dirty, but it was the closest Jacob ever got to an angel. We don't like the questions that cannot be answered neatly and wrapped up with a bow––consequently, much of our teaching feels... well... packaged. It's like Velveeta. Not that there's anything wrong with Velveeta, and I'm sure it delivers some basic nutrients, but wouldn't you rather have Stilton?

*Inspired? Sure! But let's not get carried away and suggest that "inspired" always means correct. For instance, read the following story from BYU Professor, Daniel Peterson, who has written lessons for Church manuals for years:

Having, some time back, served on the Gospel Doctrine writing committee of the Church for nearly ten years, I would never, ever, take a Gospel Doctrine manual to be an official and binding declaration of Church doctrine. We tried to get things right, we prayed about our work, and what we did was reviewed in Salt Lake before publication, but it scarcely constituted scripture.

A story:

Once, the scriptural selection about which I was assigned to write a lesson included, among other things, Acts 20:7-12, in which the apostle Paul drones on for so long in the course of a sermon that a young man (ironically named Eutychus or “Fortunate”) dozes off and falls from the rafters. Paul has to restore him to life. As a joke, I inserted a passage in my lesson manuscript that read somewhat along the following lines:

Have a class member read Acts 20:7-12. Have you ever killed anyone with a sacrament meeting speech? How did it make you feel? What steps can you take in the future to ensure that it does not happen again?

Members of the committee laughed, and the committee chairman sent my lesson on up, incorporating their suggested revisions but also still including my little joke, to Salt Lake City. Where it passed Correlation. (I can only assume that each member of the committee chuckled and then passed it on, expecting that somebody else would remove it.) When I received the galleys of the lesson back for final approval just before it went to press, the joke was still there. I faced one of the greatest moral crises of my life, but finally called Church headquarters and suggested that they probably didn’t really want the lesson to go out to Church members entirely as it stood. So the joke was removed.

The point being that Gospel Doctrine manuals are not to be confused with authoritative divine revelations.

**I have no idea why they hyphenated that; it makes no sense grammatically. A "brick-laying committee" is a committee that lays brick. Thus a "Church-writing committee" would be a committee that writes Church. But I digress...