Sunday, October 28, 2012

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Matters: Part Three -- The Deseret Ideal and the 47%

Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Matters:
Part Three – The Deseret Ideal and the 47%

I’ve always considered ‘Deseret’ a lovely, melodious word.  I’ve also not known what it means until recently.  A very small desert?  The name of one of Brigham Young’s wives?  A lizard that exists on salt and cactus dew?  Something vaguely connected with Utah, in any event, because it was the first name proposed for the state, and it’s frequently used as part of business and institutional names in that region.

Finally, I looked up the word.  A few stabs at the Google machine and voilĂ :  it means ‘honeybee.’  Its first earthly occurrence appears to be in the Book of Mormon:  “And they did also carry with them Deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honeybee, and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees” (Ether 2:3), the ‘they’ referring to an otherwise unrecorded people called the Jaredites. 

Mormon linguists have created ingenious, if not very convincing, etymologies for Deseret, tracing it to Ancient Egyptian or to Ancient Hebrew, whereas non-Mormon scholars tend to see it as a neologism coined by Joseph Smith, discoverer and translator of the Book of Mormon.  ‘Deseret’ is also the name of an unsuccessful alphabet concocted in the mid 19th-century as a hybrid product of universal phonetics schemes, LDS impulses toward ‘ancient’ mystification, and cultural exclusionism (although contemporary proponents claimed that it might help immigrants learn English).  [Note:  The glyphs surmounting the honeybee on the illustration introducing this essay are in the ‘Deseret’ writing system.]

More interesting, however, is the symbolic heft that the word has accrued in Mormon culture.  In its broader sense, ‘Deseret’ means the state of being like a honeybee.  In its happily buzzing metaphorical sense, ‘Deseret’ means being constantly industrious, obedient to the hive, and productive of good results sweet to the spiritual and material tongues.  ‘Deseret’ suggests an entire way of living that encompasses upright personal conduct, meeting family and community obligations, and garnering satisfactory rewards.  It’s quite clear that Mitt Romney, to the best of his ability, has led his life according to what we might call the ‘Deseret Ideal.”

The LDS Church is not the only faith tradition that values hard work and sees it – particularly when it pays off – as a mark of divine favor.  In the United States, we need but look at the earliest European settlers and the varieties of Calvinism they imported (the famous ‘Puritan Work Ethic’).  But whereas people like Benjamin Franklin, under the persona of ‘Poor Richard,’ produced aphorisms promoting well-ordered personal busy-ness (“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise”), both early American Puritans and contemporary Mormons make an extra connection:  success on a material level is an outward and visible sign of interior worth and, therefore, of God’s approval. 

Calvinist attitudes toward work and success, however, are complicated by the doctrine of Predestination (God has already selected the sheep and the goats, so your success is a sign of whether you have already been slated for Heaven or Hell).  Present-day Mormons, as far as I can tell, do not suffer from this anxiety-producing belief.  Living in accordance with the ‘Deseret Ideal,’ as well as faithfully following the tenets of the LDS Church, can secure salvation.  It thus also promotes the illusion of absolute self-reliance. 

Self-reliance is a key part of the Romney family mythology, as attested by the family’s pride in their ancestors’ facility in successfully reinventing themselves in Mexico and in the United States, and by the Governor’s frequent assertions that he earned every penny he possesses rather than having relied on his father’s wealth (he evidently gave his inheritance to charity, about which more later).  It is also a recurring theme in Mormon history and, if this term can be used, Mormon hagiography.

Self-reliance may seem to be a paradoxical part of the ‘Deseret Ideal,’ grounded as it is in assiduous activity that contributes to the wellbeing of the community.  The bridge, it seems to me, between the self-reliant, individually successful bee and the welfare of the hive is the Mormon emphasis on tithing.  Congregants are obligated to tithe ten percent of their income, so the more money they make, the more they can enrich the Church (and rise in its hierarchy).   Over the years, Mitt Romney has given many, many millions of dollars to the LDS Church as well as to charities and causes (such as anti-gay legislative measures in California) that it supports.  His contributions to ‘independent’ charities and institutions are vastly more modest ($1000 here, $500 there . . . and many of these to private schools that his sons attended). 

The ‘Deseret Ideal’ also can account for certain personal traits disclosed by Governor Romney’s family and friends’ reminiscences, such as his tendency to load up his sons with chores, motor straight through to a destination without stopping, and generally occupy his time with a whole lot of work.   Nothing wrong with being driven, with being a hard taskmaster on others and on yourself – most ambitious people are.  What can be problematic is expecting everyone else to be as constantly busy and productive – and thus successful – as you are.  And, in a sort of inverse reasoning, to brand those who are not materially successful as not-busy and not-productive, as not-self-reliant . . . in other words, as irresponsible deadbeats who think of themselves as victims and expect others to support them. 

That would be:  the infamous ‘non-tax-paying’ 47% about whom Candidate Romney complained during a private fundraiser a few months ago.  Everything in his life history and his religious beliefs suggest that he meant exactly what he said. 

Mitt Romney’s remarks reflect not just a general Conservative ideology but also a specific religious belief. To someone who sincerely holds this belief, people who receive government assistance (which includes social security and veteran’s benefit payments, as well as food stamps and Medicaid) are basically parasites.  Not to be rich, or at least well off, means that you are a drain on the system and that your ‘dependency’ is fundamentally your fault.  You are the antithesis of the ‘Deseret Ideal.’  Thus there appears to be every likelyiood that, if elected President, Candidate Romney will have no compunctions about gutting services to the poor as well as ‘entitlements.’  Indeed, he may even see such actions as a moral duty.

Many commentators have discussed the factual misstatements in Governor Romney’s remarks about the 47%, plus his blindness about how ‘privilege’ works in myriad ways (as in having parents wealthy enough to pay for your college education and help you with a buying your first house, not to mention well-connected enough that your patronymic alone will open important professional doors).  I’m interested here in how voters might best determine what he actually thinks about issues and how he would govern. 

The one constant position Mitt Romney has held is complete allegiance to the LDS Church.  He may not want to talk much about his religion, but he has never waivered in his belief, according to the public statements he has made as well as to his lifelong service to the Church.  Therefore, in light of his dizzying reversals on everything else, from abortion to Palestine to ‘caring about’ 100% of his fellow citizens, it seems reasonable to look to his Mormon faith – both its doctrines and its history – for insight into his genuine convictions. 

To do so is not coequal with playing a ‘religious bigotry card.’  We should be able to discuss religion fairly and accurately, as well as respectfully.  That political analysts have been too squeamish to do so is, to me, one of the press’s biggest failures during its coverage of the 2012 election.  

Selected References

[Note:  During this blogatravagaza, I’ve accessed a host of on-line sites.  Here I list ones that seem to me most reliable, in terms of actual Mormon doctrine and in terms of accurate reporting about Mitt Romney and how his religion has shaped his life.  This means I haven’t listed obviously slanted articles, such as the impassioned, interesting, yet clearly biased ones by Andrew Sullivan published in The Daily Beast or by former Mormons who have serious scores to settle, no matter how compelling (well, maybe the Matt Taibbi article has an agendum, but it’s also full of useful information).]

Allen, Bob.  “Romney Defends Mormon View of Christ’s Second Coming.”  Ethics Daily.  August 8, 2007.

Barney, Kevin L.  “On the Etymology of Deseret.”  BBC Papers 1 – 2.  November 6, 2006.

Brown, S. Kent.  “When Did Jesus Visit the Americas?”  Religious Studies Center.  Brigham Young University.  2011.

Corn, David.  “SECRET VIDEO:  Romney Tells Millionaire Voters What He REALLY Thinks of Obama.”  Mother Jones.  September 19, 2012. 

Davison, Amy.  “Mitt’s Forty-Seven-Per-Cent Problem.”  The New Yorker.  September 12, 2012.

The Doctrine and Covenants.  First published 1835.

Horowitz, Jason. “In Boston, Mitt Romney ‘evolved’ in Mormon leadership, some churchwomen say.”  The Washington Post.  November 20, 2011,

Meacham, Jon.  “The Mormon in Mitt.”  Time.  October 8, 2012.

The Mormons.  PBS.  April 30, 2007.

The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.  First published 1830.

Sheiber, Noam.  “Growing Up Romney:  Mitt, Tagg, and the Romney family’s myth of self-reliance.”  The New Republic.  October 19, 2012.

Stone, Andrea.  “Mitt Romney Gives Millions to Charity, Most to Mormon Church.”  The Huffington Post.  August 11, 2011.

Swidey, Neil, Michael Paulsen, et al.  “The Making of Mitt Romney.”  In Seven Parts.  The Boston Globe.  2008.

Taibbi, Matt.  “Greed and Debt:  The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital.”  The Rolling Stone.  August 29, 2012.

Wells, Gary B.  “Adam-ondi-Ahman.”  1996.

Winer, Laurie.  “The Mormon Candidate.”  Los Angeles Review of Books.  August 26, 2012.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Matters: Part Two -- American Exceptionalism

Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Matters:
Part Two – American Exceptionalism

We’re accustomed to hearing flag-pinned political candidates of all parties spout patriotic pabulum:  greatest country and/or democracy ever, shining city on a hill (a misquote from John Winthrop), God bless the United States of America.  Perhaps it’s unfair to call this ‘pabulum,’ as one would hope that people running for political office do believe that serving the country is a noble calling precisely because the country is a noble – even exceptional – nation.  For most politicians, ‘American Exceptionalism’ is a concept based on the history of democratic governments and the history of the United States as ‘good guy’ (more often than not) in international affairs as well as the recognition and/or mythologizing of our path towards a more perfect union. 

For faithful Mormons like Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, American Exceptionalism means all that – and more.  The ‘more’ centers on the belief that God and Jesus Christ had, have, and will have a unique relationship with the United States.  According to the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants (another foundational LDS scripture):

--The Garden of Eden was located in the vicinity of Independence, Missouri; after expulsion, Adam and Eve relocated to Daviess Country, Missouri.  Thus, God selected a site near the geographical center of what would become the continental United States as the perfect place to create mankind. 

--Jesus visited America after His resurrection in order to teach and bring peace to the inhabitants – then-warring descendants of a Lost Tribe of Israel who had migrated from the Near East to the New World around 600 B.C.E.  The peace lasted only a few generations.  (See the Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi.)

--During the Millennium (inaugurated by the Second Coming), Jesus will set up His Kingdom in two places, Jerusalem and Missouri, a belief that Governor Romney affirmed explicitly during a 2007 radio interview in Iowa, in the early stages of his first run for the Presidency. "Christ appears in Jerusalem, splits the Mount of Olives to stop the war that's coming in to kill all the Jews--our church believes that," he explained. "That's where the coming in glory of Christ occurs. We also believe that over the thousand years that follows, in the Millennium, he will reign from two places. The law will come forward from one place—from Missouri--and the other will be in Jerusalem."

--Precisely because of the United States’ privileged position in Mormon eschatology, the ‘Founding Fathers’ were specific vessels of Divine Will, rather like Old Testament prophets, like Joseph Smith [note:  Joseph Smith was the founder of the Mormon religion, the discoverer and translator of the Book of Mormon.], or like Jesus Himself.  Therefore, the United States Constitution is divinely inspired – almost akin to Holy Scripture – and needs militant protection.  Joseph Smith’s “White Horse Prophecy” predicts that the U.S. Constitution will one day be ‘hanging by a thread’ and will need to be rescued by American Mormons. Although this prophecy has not been adopted as official LDS Doctrine, Mormon leaders and commentators from Brigham Young to Glenn Beck have discussed it with approval.

These doctrines are not secret.  They form the core of the distinctive amalgam of patriotism, secular history, and sacred narrative that characterizes the Mormon vision of American Exceptionalism.  The real-life story of Mormonism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as its adherents moved from New York to the Midwest and finally to the new Zion of Utah, restaged the pre-historical travails and triumphs recounted in the Book of Mormon.

It’s easy to speculate in general terms how the distinctive LDS view of American Exceptionalism might impact a Romney Presidency.  Given the sacralized view of the Constitution, the most obvious impact point in the domestic sphere is judicial appointments. Certainly, Candidate Romney has been straightforward about his commitment to appoint conservative judges and Supreme Court justices.  But if one believes that the Constitution is a quasi-religious document, the need to appoint jurists who espouse ‘originalism’ – that the Constitution has a fixed and knowable meaning, coordinate with its authors’ original intent – becomes paramount. 

Already, the Supreme Court contains four Federalist Society members (Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Alito) who almost always apply originalism to their decisions. [Note:  the Federalist Society is a ‘conservative’ association of lawyers and judges dedicated to promoting originalist legal ideology and grooming future jurists who will put it into practice.]  Mormon convictions about the nature of the United States Constitution and its exegesis make it doubly certain that, under a President Romney, any new appointments to the Federal Judiciary will be the strictest of strict constructionists . . . which could threaten existing civil rights for Blacks, Latinos, women, and the LGBT community. After all, the Founding Fathers – no matter how progressive they may have been in their era – were all white, well-off, straight (as far as we know), and  (duh) male.  Their ‘original intent’ was shaped by these factors (as the exclusion of women and non-whites from full participatory citizenship demonstrates). 

Yet Mormon concepts of American Exceptionalism may be particularly felt in the realm of foreign policy.  If the United States is not only favored by God but also specifically selected to be both the cradle of humanity and the platform for its ultimate redemption, it cannot just be primus inter pares, one country (albeit richer and stronger) among other countries (which may account for widespread Mormon dislike of the United Nations).  The LDS Church holds that the U.S. has a divine mandate to remain absolutely sovereign and, in multi-national situations, to lead with uncompromising conviction.  Therefore, a President Romney might be expected to eschew diplomacy for decisive action, as also indicated by Candidate Romney’s often bellicose and hasty pronouncements about foreign affairs . . . and to ‘going it alone’ rather than building coalitions.

As mentioned above, Mormon eschatology charts two seats of power for the kingdom of Jesus Christ during the Millennium:  Israel (Jerusalem) and the United States (Northern Missouri).  This belief puts a new spin on America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel.  No longer is Israel our strong Middle Eastern ally primarily because of shared democratic and cultural ideals, not to mention the necessity of having a strong partner in a volatile area crucial to our national interest.  Now Israel is also the staging ground for the ultimate reign of Christ upon Earth, a reign that evidently will be controlled from the United States (from whence, according to Governor Romney, will issue ‘the law’).  New Zion needs to protect Old Zion in the present to preserve it for its future role. 

Such belief has important potential consequences for today’s geopolitics:  commitment (or lack of such) to a two-state solution; willingness (or lack of such) to take a nuanced view of Palestinian claims, complaints, and factional differences; support (or lack of such) for moving Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and – maybe most urgently – willingness  (or lack of such) to sanction and/or participate in preemptive military strikes against Iran. 

I’ve delayed finishing and posting this blog until seeing the last Presidential Debate, which was focused on foreign policy.  Candidate Romney’s odd decision to agree with President Obama on just about everything frankly surprised me.  But after taking a day or two to think about it, his tactics began to make sense . . . not in light of American Exceptionalism per se, but in light of Mormon history in this country.

One thing that documented Mormon history shows is a survivalist instinct. Persecuted and thrown out from one place?  Move to another.  Lose a religious-freedom-argument case in the Supreme Court?  Change doctrine from endorsing polygamy to outlawing it (and in the process, establish the State of Utah).  Undergo increasing criticism about doctrine that prohibits non-whites from assuming positions of authority?  Revise the doctrine.

In other words, do what you have to in order to preserve the essential mission:  to maintain and strengthen the Church of the Latter Day Saints in the exceptional United States so that it can play its pivotal role in the End Times.  Then it’s hardly surprising that a Mormon candidate for President will easily change positions in pursuit of the perceived greater good – in this case, to be elected.  I’m not suggesting that Mitt Romney sees himself as the potential central player in the drama outlined in the White Horse Prophecy (in fact, he has downplayed its importance).  I am suggesting that the Mormon history of shedding inconvenient skins, presumably to keep the essential body intact, may partially underlie Governor Romney’s stunning ability to reverse and abandon positions he has fervently embraced previously.

Here’s a final thought about how the Mormon concept of American Exceptionalism showed itself during the last debate.  Mitt Romney’s only real ‘gaffe’ was asserting that Iran needed Syria as a route to the sea, a comment revealing abysmal geographic ignorance, as Iran has its own seaports.  As far as debate gaffes go, this was middle-level, I guess, not on par with, say, Gerald Ford’s about the absence of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe in the 1970s.  Nonetheless . . .

What Governor Romney’s cluelessness about how Iran occupies a map suggests is a basic disinterest in the brute and incontrovertible facts about our world.  Countries have borders (which sometimes bump up against bodies of water).  These borders have histories.  These histories influence how a country thinks of itself and its sovereignty.  Nothing in Mitt Romney’s on-the-record statements or writings indicates that he has any knowledge of or interest in world history whatsoever.

No one would argue that the Governor is a stupid man.  But he seems to be a profoundly incurious one when it comes to the world outside the United States or outside business deals and financial transactions.  The singular Mormon view of world history, one that may be supported by faith but is not supported by any sort of objective evidence (scientific, archeological, medical, linguistic, etc., etc.) puts America as the alpha and omega of historical process.  If someone believes this, it makes sense that he would not be interested in the histories of other parts of the globe.

And it might make for a U.S. President incapable of clear-eyed assessment of this country’s place in and responsibilities to the global community of which we’re so inextricably a part, no matter how exceptional we may be.

Part One, published earlier this month:  Women
Part Three, coming up:  The Deseret Ideal and the 47%
(plus selected bibliography)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Mitt Romney's Mormonism Matters: Part One -- Women

Why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism Matters:
Part One – Women

[I’ve been mulling over this entry for months.  It’s dangerous to attempt to write seriously, and potentially critically, about religion.  In attempt to be accurate and non-polemical, I’ve expanded this blog entry into an article much longer than anyone could be expected to read at one sitting.  Thus I’ve broken it into three parts, with this being the longest as it deals with background and caveats.  The Third Part will have a ‘References’ Section citing key sources.]

Last night (October 9, 2012), PBS aired a documentary about the U.S. candidates for President.  The documentary aimed to interrogate the deep strata of beliefs and experiences that make these men who they are.  Mitt Romney’s Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, or LDS for short) was one focus.

Barack Obama’s faith had been an issue during the 2008 election – particularly in regard to his membership in the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s activist church.  Thus the current PBS documentary paid less attention to the President’s religion than to the Governor’s, which has not been as publically debated.  Even more important, Mitt Romney’s religion seems both to be a core component of his being and a component he is quite uncomfortable addressing. Somewhat surficially, I believe, the PBS documentary attributed Governor Romney’s reticence about discussing his faith to the fact that his great-grandfather’s relocation to Mexico, although seen as pioneering and inspiring by Mormons in general and by the Romney family in specific, was motivated in large part by the need to escape prosecution for polygamy and illegal land deals.

No one disputes that Mitt Romney is an observant and dutiful member of the LDS Church, that his missionary experience deepened his faith, that he carried out his duties as Bishop [a temporary but highly important lay office, akin in responsibility to a Diocesan Bishop in Roman Catholicism, designated by the most senior Mormon leaders], that he honors his family’s history, and that he tries to live according to his religious convictions.  But his reluctance to talk about these things – at least until now, when his campaign is taking a more ‘personal and open’ turn – is due to more factors than the specter of polygamy (which has been renounced by the Mormon Church for over a century).

The Mormon faith is shrouded in mystery, myth, and misunderstanding, to a significant degree because the religion itself does not invite exploration by outsiders (for example, no non-Mormon can enter a Mormon temple) and has propagated an aura of secrecy.  Its history involves fleeing U.S. laws, enduring violent attempts at suppression, and being considered a ‘cult’ by the more mainstream Christian denominations whose members have largely controlled government and industry in the United States (barring in the heavily Mormon state of Utah).  Some idiosyncratic Mormon beliefs strike non-Mormons as peculiar at best, as they are part and parcel of a very new religion that doesn’t have centuries of tradition to ‘naturalize’ it. 

For these and additional reasons, Mormons (like other formerly persecuted groups) have found it wise, and profitable, to nurture extremely close-knit communities that depend on Mormon-dominated businesses, academic institutions, and civic polities:  ‘us’ and ‘them’ writ large.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that Governor Romney – nurtured within and living as an adult as part of such communities – prefers not to discuss his religion with non-Mormons (who would be most citizens of the country he wants to lead).

I do not want to debate Mormon theology here.  The very nature of faith presupposes a commitment that exceeds, or circumvents, or exists in an alternate reality to, provable fact.   This is as true of Christianity in its many forms (or Judaism, or Islam) as it is of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.  That said, some aspects of being a believing Mormon – now, in the early 21st century – seem to me important to consider when thinking about a potential U.S. President.  And they might be important for such a candidate to confront directly.  So far, Governor Romney has not done so.  John F. Kennedy (first major-party Roman Catholic nominee for President) and Barack Obama (first major-party African American [allied with an activist, U.S. Protestant version of ‘Liberation Theology’] nominee for President) did.

Part One:  Women

I’m NOT referring to polygamy-as-practice here.  That’s old history, except for fringe LDS groups and icky TV programs like Sister Wives.  I am referring to the reason why polygamy was embraced by the Mormon founding fathers:  to produce Godly progeny to populate this land (remember that the LDS Church is a 19th-century American phenomenon) and the next land, the ‘next’ land being both the United States, as transformed by the Second Coming of Jesus to His favored place (here), and the celestial realms existing beyond the material earth.  Women are vessels for progeny propagation.  Men are the prime movers. 

To this day, the Mormon religion remains uncompromisingly patriarchal.  Not only is the Church hierarchy exclusively male, the LDS Church has no particular veneration of the Mother of God . . . no institutionally sanctioned, respected organizations of female believers . . . no flotilla of female saints and martyrs (as in Roman Catholicism), whose existence in fact and/or in ecclesiastical teaching testifies to the ability of women to effect their own beatification . . . and certainly, as in many but not all Protestant Christian denominations, no female priests or pastors.  When Mormon women marry, they are ‘sealed’ to their husbands for eternity; it’s only when a righteous husband ‘calls’ them to the highest heaven (after his death) that a woman can enjoy the afterlife (and her role and duties remain more or less the same in the celestial as in the terrestrial realm).  Unmarried or divorced women, as far as I can tell from reading Mormon Scriptures, are consigned to a sort of purgatory.  There they await an exaltation that can be effectuated by the community of believers, along the lines of efforts to ‘baptize’ and therefore save non-Mormons.

Why is any of this relevant to the upcoming United States Presidential election? 

As a voter, I would like to know whether Governor Romney thinks that women are truly equal human beings, and equal U.S. citizens.  Would they have significant roles in his administration and in his inner council (family members do not count)?  Would single or divorced women be considered as ‘worthy’ of official responsibility ad regard as married women?  How would female heads-of-state from other countries be treated, apart from with politeness?  Would Mitt Romney’s religion’s views about women as, basically, subservient to men influence his own views and actions about issues such as equal pay and women’s health and aid to single-parent families and public education? 

I have no doubt that Mitt Romney loves his wife with all his heart and genuinely believes that he honors and respects women. I do have questions about whether he can love, honor, and respect . . . whether he can really even conceive of . . . adult female citizens who are not sealed into eternal heterosexual marriage, who may face all sorts of challenges that most people in his fairly insulated community have not confronted, and/or who have talents and ambitions outside of raising a family.  And if he can conceive of such fellow female citizens, so different from the female paragon set forth by his religion, what does he think governmental obligations to them are? 

Mitt Romney began his tenure as Bishop as an ‘iron-rodder’ – an inflexible proponent of his religion’s rules and dogma.  Most reports suggest that, partially in response to female Mormon activists demanding more agency and more theological adaptability, and partially in response to repeated contact with women in crisis, the Governor became less rigid.  He began to listen to his female parishioners’ grievances and recommended some adjustments.  How far this went, and to what extent it represented a permanent change in attitude rather than an expedient swerve to avoid worse problems, is not at all clear.  But if I were a debate moderator . . .

Well, I’m not a debate moderator.  All I can do is raise some questions that I honestly think deserve to be raised.  My purpose is not to bash the LDS (indeed, members of my extended family are Mormons).  But because the United States is unique among Western Democracies in pushing religion to the forefront of political debate, I’m bemused at the silence of U.S. political commentators and analysts about the impact of Governor Romney’s religious beliefs on his political beliefs and potential political practice. 

Part Two, coming up:  American Exceptionalism
Part Three, coming up:  The Deseret Ideal and the 47%
(plus selected bibliography)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Rope-A-Dope in the Briar Patch with the Tar Baby: Presidential Debate Analysis Redux

Rope-A-Dope in the Briar Patch with the Tar Baby:
  Presidential Debate Analysis Redux

Honestly, I’ve tried.  I did the dishes and a load of wash.  I took out the trash.  I read a book (Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, which is fascinating but not as compelling [to me] as Foucault’s Pendulum or The Name of the Rose).  I tuned the television to crime drama reruns. 

But after my sister called mid-afternoon, still apoplectic about last night’s presidential debate, I could resist no longer.  I switched from an old (and previously watched, more than once) Law & Order to cable news, MSNBC-style.

It appears as if the left-wing-liberal-biased elite media (my viewing option of choice) is slowly recovering from its shock over President Obama’s tepid, at best, debate performance.  The spin seems to be whirling toward fact-checking and hypocrisy-unveiling.  Plus cameo performances by the future 47%-er, Big Bird.  Plus helpfully outrageous sound bites from Romney surrogate John Sununu, who characterized Obama as a lazy pizza delivery boy (Step-and-Fetchit gets hired by Domino’s). 

What hasn’t been discussed as much (in the approximately three hours I’ve reconnected to the political media universe, center-to-left version . . . sorry, but I will develop an ulcer if I have to monitor Fox News in the interest of ‘fairness’) is why the President offered himself up as a haggard sacrificial lamb to a mendacious butcher-of-truth. 

Actually, my sister and I discussed this.  Why was Barack Obama so . . . distracted and sad?  Has he contracted a serious illness?  Has someone in his immediate family contracted a serious illness?  Is there something globally portentous going on that we don’t yet know about, like Israel planning to bomb Iran tomorrow or a failed take-out of the terrorists who assassinated the U.S. Ambassador to Libya or Vladimir Putin (he of awesome sports achievements and superhero exploits) challenging our President to an Ultimate Fighting cage match? 

Maybe.  Tempus edax rerum.  But until then, the pro-Obama story seems to be that the debate non-performance was part of a deliberate strategy.  Don’t come across as ‘an angry Black man,’ don’t be condescending, don’t be aggressive in a way that could alienate the mystical 2% of the electorate that trumpets its indecisiveness.  Kind of a prevent-defense game plan.

The prevent-defense comparison started me thinking.  President Obama plays basketball, so he certainly should know that dicking around with the ball at the end of the game rarely works well.  The team loses synchronicity and momentum, allowing the rival to sneak back into contention. 

Another sports analogy occurred to me, one that might be more accurate in accounting for last night’s debate.  Rope-A-Dope: Muhammed Ali’s famous strategy to defeat the younger and more powerful George Foreman in the 1974 heavyweight championship fight held in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo).  Basically, Ali retreated to the ropes for seven rounds, allowing Foreman to wale away at will.  By the eighth round, Foreman was exhausted and Ali unleashed a furious combination that sent his opponent to the canvas.  Ali won “The Rumble in the Jungle” by playing possum, conserving his energy, then attacking when Foreman was all punched out.

Is this the real strategy behind President Obama’s passiveness last night?  One might think so after watching clips from his highly energetic and wonderfully scathing attacks on his opponent today, in a campaign rally in Wisconsin.  It’s as if the cruddy debate generated a vulnerable zombie army of falsehoods (including false Romneys). But the debate was seen by almost 60 million people, and any single rally is seen in toto by thousands and seen in snippets by a million or so.  As Bill Clinton would remind us, the arithmetic just doesn’t add up.

Let’s get more psy-opsy about this.  ‘Energy,’ when we’re talking about politics as opposed to boxing, refers to mental and emotional resources rather than to physical resources (particularly when ‘physical resources’ can be parsed as ‘money,’ which the Romney campaign is not in imminent danger of depleting).   So could the mental game plan have been to pump up Governor Romney’s ego by giving him an easy standing-eight-count debate ‘win’?  To be so silent about the massive fibs underlying the putative triumph that the media would jump into the breach, correcting the record and casting the ‘victory’ in doubt, rather like NFL fans did regarding the absolute incompetence of the Replacement Refs?  To make the Republican candidate think that President Obama is the Chuck Wepner of this campaign season, a laughable palooka-of the week?  To make Mitt Romney over-confident and thus more likely to step into a self-secreted steaming pile during the next debate (or sooner)? 

It’s a dicey strategy.  A boxing match lasts an hour or so; then it’s over.  The U.S. Presidential Campaign has more than a month to go, so the effects of even a successful strategic move can dissipate quickly, or be eclipsed by off-the-script events.  Yet one could argue that the Obama presidency has often been an exercise in rope-a-dopery, such as luring Republicans into making the first and very unpopular move regarding the 2011 budget.   Remember, though, that rope-a-doping Muhammed Ali won the bout, as did Manny Pacquiao, who also used the rope-a-dope maneuver successfully.

Maybe we should change fields of analogy.  What comes to mind immediately is Br’er Rabbit and the briar patch and the tar baby, mediated folkloristic previews of the rope-a-dope strategy. Although Joel Chandler Harris, the author of the Uncle Remus stories, was white, his tales were rooted in authentic 19th-century African American tales – tales that signified on the experience of being enslaved and disempowered, that explored ways to defeat oppression through trickery anchored in the oppressor’s own dreams of indisputable potency. 

One could even go all nutso-exegetical, and posit that Obama’s uncharacteristic chin-tucking, stature-shrinking posture was orchestrated deliberately to make him look small and unthreatening in comparison to the stage-dominating Romney.  That the performance was orchestrated to entangle the former Governor in unfortunately sticky substances and/or to get him to chuck the present President into a thorny thicket from which he could escape easily.  That there’s a never-ending Manichean conflict:  Br’er Rabbit vs. Br’er Bear (tar-baby) and/or Br’er Fox (briar patch).  Uptroddation vs. Downpression.  Or that hundred-plus-year-old stories illustrate not only that times’ racial dynamics but also less time-bound economic dynamics.  Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox, power and insider stealthiness, vs. Br’er Rabbit, against-all-oddish agent of resistance, armed only with intelligence, wit, and patience.

The sought-for outcome, in Harris’s now-mind-numbng attempt at dialect transcription of the Briar Patch tale:

Co'se Brer Fox wnater hurt Brer Rabbit bad ez he kin, so he cotch 'im by de behime legs en slung 'im right in de middle er de brierpatch. dar wuz a considerbul flutter whar Brer Rabbit struck de bushes, en Brer Fox sorter hang 'roun' fer ter see w'at wuz gwinter happen. Bimeby he hear somebody call im, en way up de hill he see Brer Rabbit settin' crosslegged on a chinkapin log koamin' de pitch outen his har wid a chip. Den Brer Fox know dat he bin swop off mighty bad.

Maybe someone was thinking along these lines.  Or maybe not.  (After all, President Obama is neither a boxer nor an African American who fits the usual U.S. conception of such a category.)  Nonetheless, I’d like to believe that there was a deliberate rope-a-dope-briar-patch strategy, if only because this would have been a circuitously understandable plan, and a deviously clever one, even if it doesn’t work.  The alternative is that the previously highly regarded Obama team adopted either a proven-to-fail strategy (the prevent-defense) or . . . no strategy at all. 

[Note:  as I was cruising the internet for rope-a-dope images, I found (to my dismay) that a couple other articles (Huffington Post and Daily Kos, for example, had been written using this analogy.  I shouldn't have been surprised, as it's not a stretch, but even so I want to assert that I'd read or heard nothing vis-a-vis the debate beibg an Obama rope-a-dope strategy in (non-) action before I wrote this blog.  I think my perspective is somewhat different.  And so far, there are no competitive briar patches.]

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The 10/3/2012 U.S. Presidential Debate . . . Why it was so Cut-Your-Throat-With-A-Butter-Knife Awful

The 10/3/2012 U.S. Presidential Debate . . .
Why it was so Cut-Your-Throat-With-A-Butter-Knife Awful

I suppose if one is a Mitt Romney supporter it wasn’t awful at all.  The Republican candidate for President did what he needed to do:  look Presidential, not get rattled (except a little), squirt out squid-ink ‘specifics’, pretend that he agrees with most popular Democratic positions, and deep-six the ‘zinger’ strategy.

If one is a Barack Obama supporter, it was pretty damned awful.  And here are some reasons:

--The President looked ashy (yes, that’s a specific call-out to a portion of his constituency . . . where was the oil or lotion?).  He also looked old (honestly, if someone from Mars or Malawi tuned in randomly to this debate, which candidate would seem older?).  One easy thing a 50-year-old candidate has over a 65-year-old candidate is that the former should appear more vigorous, more open to new ideas, more in touch with the current world (not to mention the future), which should translate into an advantage for the younger person.  Uh, dial up Obama-McCain 2008 on the way-back machine.  However, this easy thing did not happen.

--The President spent most of his non-speaking time looking down (At his notes?  His hands?  His wedding ring [it’s his 20th anniversary]? His watch [unfortunately referencing Bush Uno)?).  Apart from giving the impression of being disengaged, this visual tick actually made President Obama look small, as his head was tucked into his chin and his eyes did not engage the camera.  Although Obama and Romney are more or less the same height, Romney (who has a little more beef on his bones, and who uncompromisingly stared into the camera throughout the debate) looked bigger.  This translates visually into more commanding.  More (dare I say it – but statistics bear this out) Presidential.

--Jim Lehrer, the moderator, was a complete pouf.  With the rather free-form debate format, it was up to the moderator to impose some sort of consistent protocol.  This Lehrer did not do, leaving Governor Romney able to horn in on President Obama’s time and change the subject at will.  To be fair, President Obama did little to nothing to counteract this.

--The questions (can one blame Jim Lehrer exclusively? – probably not) were skewed toward wonky economic issues, which are certainly important but which are also boring in the details and are whiffle balls for Governor Romney (not that his answers were all that convincing, but that his answers on economic issues were well prepared, and his comfort level addressing economics is pretty high).  Where were the questions about women’s health?  About the 47%?  About cutting Pell Grants and Head Start?  About immigration?  About funding for NASA and other science and technology initiatives?  [About, dare we say it, encouragement for the arts?]

--In other words, the debate was a dispirited back-and-forth about ill-defined economic goals and easy critiques about what’s wrong with the United States’ economy.  There was nothing about more comprehensive visions targeting what this country should be, can be, strives to be – not to mention how we might make such visions happen. 

The way this debate played out was obviously to Mitt Romney’s advantage.  That he was able to seize this advantage is due, to some extent, to the moderator and the format (and, of course, to Governor Romney’s assiduous and effective debate preparation) . . . but just as much to President Obama, who seemed to me to be sleepwalking through this hour and a half.  Maybe he’d been told one too many times that he couldn’t afford to appear irritated or dismissive.  Maybe he shouldn’t have taken time off to visit the Hoover Dam.  Maybe he just wanted to celebrate his anniversary with his lovely wife.  Maybe he’s truly beaten down by a presidential term that has been stymied at every opportunity by a disgracefully recalcitrant opposition party.  Maybe he’s relying on Joe Biden to save the day next week.

That must be it!

Joementum (the current version, not the 2000 version)!  I’m all in!  Another debate party chez moi. Good friends and political chatter make life sweet.  I might not even need to move to Canada.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Bipartisan Non-Drinking Debate Game

A Bipartisan Non-Drinking Debate Game

To be honest, non-drinking is optional.  This game adapts easily to shots.  But here’s the dilemma that the game attempts to resolve:

On Wednesday, October 3rd, the first U.S. Presidential Debate of 2012 occurs.  Many of us (including me) are hosting debate-watching parties, excellent excuses for getting together with friends interested in politics.  The problem with debate-watching parties is that often attendees (and hosts) don’t pay much attention to the debates.  Instead, they drink, eat, and chat.  Which of course is the point of most parties.  But what if you, and most of your friends, actually want to watch the debate as well as enjoy conviviality?

I suggest having a contest . . . an easily played game that requires paying attention to what the nominees and the moderator are saying.  To persuade people to play, have a prize.  For example, I have an eight-year-old John Kerry Frisbee that would be a swell reward for winning.  I also have an extra Alben Barkley sunflower campaign button.  If these don’t move you (or you don’t have overflow campaign memorabilia), try a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Procedure:   In any event, invite your friends to come over at least an hour before the debate.  Have plenty of drinks (alcoholic and non-), plus some sweet and some savory snacks (reserve full dinner for election night).  Download this game sheet, and hand it out, along with pencils. Have people make their guesses/predictions, and sign their sheets. Collect the sheets, shuffle them, and hand them out randomly, so that people will score them relatively accurately.  Pour the second round of drinks and start to watch the actual debate. (Third and fourth rounds are permissible during ad breaks.) 

Rationale: Your guests should be paying attention because (1) they want to win and are trying to remember what answers they gave; because (2) they’re among friends, so they want to be fair; and because (3) for many questions, they must count the number of occurrences (of a phrase, of a mention, etc.).  Occasional disputes about whether an answer is true or false will happen, which is all to the good.  This is a party, after all.  Once the debate is over, calibrate the game sheet (every correct answer is awarded one point), name a winner, and award the snazzy prize.  More drinks can then be enjoyed.

Outcome:  Your debate-viewing party people will have really watched the debate, without sacrificing vocal interaction and friendly ribbing.  This strategy should work whether it is a mixed- (Republican and Democratic) or single-party group.

The following is a sample game sheet for the first upcoming debate, on domestic policy.  You certainly can adapt the questions to fit issues you think are most important, and in the future change the questions to mesh with debates that have different focuses.  Principals in the 10/3 debate are:  President Obama, Governor Romney, and Moderator Jim Lehrer.  The lack of honorifics in the questions below should not be read as a sign of disrespect but as a sign of saving printer ink.

Debate Game:  10/3/2012

_____Obama wears a blue tie; Romney wears a red tie.  [T]  [F]

_____Lehrer asks a question about voter suppression.  [T]  [F]

_____Romney says the word ‘abortion’ more than Obama uses the phrase ‘women’s health.’ [T]  [F]

_____Romney mentions Paul Ryan more than Obama mentions Joe Biden. [T]  [F]

_____Obama says ‘ummh’ more than Romney says ‘if you will.’ [T]  [F]

_____Romney laughs (ha-ha) more than Obama flashes a big smile. [T]  [F]

_____Lehrer asks about Republican support of Todd Akin. [T]  [F]

_____Obama uses the phrase ‘economic patriotism’ more than three times. [T]  [F]

_____Romney uses the phrase ‘tax cuts’ more than ten times. [T]  [F]

_____Lehrer asks about the auto bailout. [T]  [F]

_____Obama mentions his wife Michelle more times than Romney mentions his wife Ann. [T]  [F]

_____Romney uses the phrase ‘saving Medicare’ more than Obama does. [T]  [F]

_____Obama uses the phrase ‘saving Social Security’ more than Romney does. [T]  [F]

_____Lehrer asks about Wall Street regulation. [T]  [F]

_____Romney uses the phrase ‘Middle Class’ more than Obama does. [T]  [F]

_____Obama uses the phrase ‘1%’ more than five times. [T]  [F]

_____Romney gets more standing ovations than does Obama. [T]  [F]

_____Lehrer asks about infrastructure. [T]  [F]

_____Obama looks down and scribbles in a notebook or equivalent more than Romney does. [T]  [F]

_____Romney makes the three-point sprinkler turn (left-middle-right full-face-ahead) more than four times. [T]  [F]

May the best debate-viewing party participant win!