The Proclamation on the Family: A Closer Look

I recently had a conversation with someone who had missed an LDS Woman’s Conference back in 1995, but she ended up at a reception later that evening with Marjorie Hinckley, wife of then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

“Did I miss anything at conference today?” she asked.

“Oh, no – same old, same old,” Sister Hinckley replied.

Yet that was the conference in which the Church presented the Proclamation on the Family, which has become near-canonized scripture and the bedrock of much of the opposition to greater acceptance of LGBT+ individuals in the Church. To hear many speak of it now, it’s the equivalent of the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai, but at the time, it wasn’t enough to merit a shrug of the shoulders from the prophet’s wife on the very day it was announced.

There is much consternation about whether or not the Proclamation should be treated as a revelation, and whether or not that distinction matters. In practical terms, the Proclamation was the product of lengthy discussion and committee processes, unlike the vast majority of the revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, which Joseph dictated as the came, often in front of others. He would occasionally edit them after the fact, but they were generally received in toto, which is quite different from how the Proclamation came to be.

That’s not to preclude the possibility of inspiration and spiritual guidance in the creation of the Proclamation, but rather to say that if you’re thinking it was delivered out of whole cloth from heaven in the same way that most of the canonized revelations were received, you’re incorrect. In his recent talk on the Proclamation, Elder Oaks – now President Oaks – described how he “went to work” to craft a document that would effectively state the Church’s position, and that it required lengthy revision and considerable effort.

“Subjects were identified and discussed by members of the Quorum of the Twelve for nearly a year,” he said. “Language was proposed, reviewed, and revised. Prayerfully we continually pleaded with the Lord for His inspiration on what we should say and how we should say it.”

That’s not the case, with, say, Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is considerably longer, more intricate, and substantive than the Proclamation, yet it was written in a single sitting with no major revision afterward.

The issue of whether or not the Proclamation constitutes a revelation was the source of considerable controversy back in 2010, when President Boyd K. Packer gave a controversial talk where he insisted, contrary to the Church’s position, that nobody was born gay.

From Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune:

Perhaps the most controversial paragraph in Packer’s text that he read Sunday said, “Some suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember he is our father.”

Now the word “temptations” has replaced “tendencies” and the question about God’s motives has been removed entirely.

But there was another revision to his talk, too. Again from the Tribune:

In his original talk, Packer said the church’s 1995 statement, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” “qualifies according to scriptural definition as a revelation.” That descriptive phrase has now been omitted, leaving the proclamation simply described as “a guide that members of the church would do well to read and to follow.”

Make of that what you will, but it’s pretty significant that the Church felt it important enough to correct the President of the Quorum of the Twelve on this subject. I think this incident suggests that it’s probably a mistake to say that the Proclamation is, indeed, a revelation on par with scripture.

But okay, fine. Whatever it is, it matters enough for Elder Oaks to say that it “has been the basis of Church teaching and practice for the last 22 years and will continue so for the future.” And as such, the Proclamation is constantly held up as an insurmountable obstacle against greater inclusion of LGBT+ individuals in the Church.

But is it?

In reality, much of the opposition to LGBT+ issues attributed to the Proclamation comes largely by way of inference and is not actually present in the text of the document itself. Homosexuality, for instance, is not mentioned at all, nor is same-sex marriage. The Proclamation begins by announcing “that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God,” which is a statement that ought to be unobjectionable to everyone. At no point does it say marriage between two men or two women is condemned of God. Most people, including those who wrote the document, draw that conclusion, but the explicit condemnation is simply not there.

Gender identity does get a mention, as gender itself is described as “an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose,” which is something gay individuals seldom dispute. A gay man, for instance, is still a man, and his gender is not in question. True, this phrase may pose problems for transgender people, although they could argue that they’re attempting to align with an eternal gender that is inconsistent with their biological one. In any case, a gay married couple is not likely to be confused about their gender, and the Proclamation’s reference to same presents no obstacle to acceptance of their union.

Perhaps the strongest language in the Proclamation that would condemn LGBT+ sexual expression is the sentence that declares that “God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.” Except the euphemism employed here – “powers of procreation” – provides an interpretation that would not necessarily bar intimate relations between gay married couples.

Spencer W. Kimball once wrote that “[w]e know of no directive from the Lord that proper sexual experience between husbands and wives need be limited totally to the procreation of children.” In a gay marriage, procreation is biologically impossible. One could then credibly argue that gay or lesbian individuals who are intimate with their spouses are therefore not exercising “powers of procreation,” and that this phrase in the Proclamation simply warns against conceiving children out of wedlock.

There are several other phrases consistent with the ones above, such as: “Marriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan.” Yes, absolutely it is. Were same-sex marriage to replace or cancel out marriage between a man and a woman, that would be a serious problem. But that isn’t happening, nor is it going to happen. Surely celebrating and sustaining traditional marriage does not require condemnation of nontraditional marriages.

“Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.” Yes. This, as I’ve written many times before, is the one compelling secular argument against same-sex marriage – that, all things being equal, the best environment for raising children is with a married mother and a father. But all things are never equal, and the Proclamation allows for that reality when, after outlining the ideal, it then concedes that “[d]isability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.”

What qualifies as “other circumstances?” Why can’t the non-hetero sexual orientation of the parents fit into that category?

Speaking of individual adaptation, I’ve spent the weekend on my Facebook newsfeed discussing the latest post from Josh Weed, who was the subject of one of my previous blog posts when, five years ago, he announced that he was a gay man happily married to a woman in what he described as “Club Unicorn,” a fantasy world where gay people can pretend to be straight and live happily ever after.

In a heartbreaking post, Josh Weed announces that he and his wife are divorcing, and that he has come to the conclusion that “unicorns don’t actually exist. The idea of our marriage as successful and healthy, we have finally realized, is just that: mythical. Impossible. Not real.”

I really think every Mormon ought to read his post. He was held up for so many years as the ideal of how to reconcile homosexuality with Mormonism that the reality of his struggle and the ultimate collapse of the “mixed orientation marriage” model needs to get as much attention as his initial announcement did.

He discusses the fact that he and his wife are trying to figure out an individual adaptation that would allow them both to participate in the raising of their children – they want to purchase a “homestead” that would allow them to live near each other on a large property that would also allow them each to find new partners. (Personally, I think that’s a very problematic solution, but that’s another discussion.) They both want to stay active in the Church and be present in their children’s lives, so more power to them as they try to adapt to imperfect, non-ideal circumstances.

The bottom line is that our fellowship with our LGBT+ members is woefully inadequate at present, and we ought to be looking for ways to be more inclusive. How we do that is another lengthy discussion, but we should stop hiding behind the Family Proclamation or using it as an excuse to ignore and cast aside our brothers and sisters in need.

Some more “Last Jedi” thoughts

Enough time has passed that I’ve allowed my “Last Jedi” experience to simmer and given me some added perspective on the whole thing.

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

I’ve mentioned My Esteemed Colleague many times on this site, and given that he’s probably the biggest Star Wars geek I know, I texted him not long after I had seen the movie.

“Have you seen the Last Jedi yet?” I asked.

“I won’t be seeing it,” he texted back.

His reasoning was that Star Wars is the chronicle of Anakin Skywalker, and he didn’t want to ruin that story by polluting it with these new movies that essentially undo everything that happened up until “Return of the Jedi” by pulling a new Empire out of the ether and just hitting the reset button.

At the time, I thought his reaction was rather extreme, but as I’ve thought about it, I realized that I have absolutely no desire to Episode IX, and for similar reasons. What more is there to see? What mysteries await? None to speak of. Last Jedi has not only wiped away all progress made in the Original Trilogy; it has also wiped away any characters I care about. Han and Luke are dead, and Leia is going to die offscreen between movies, so all that’s left are these ciphers who have already demonstrated what their ultimate fate is going to be.

Is there any question as to who is going to prevail in the final confrontation between Rey and Kylo Ren? Is there anyone who gives a rip about what will happen to Poe or Finn? Are we really supposed to be invested in some weak love triangle between Rey, Finn, and Rose? Honestly, who cares?

Ironically, the final shot of “Last Jedi” is the appropriate way to end this particular story. A lonely kid in a horse stable wields the power of the Force as he looks to the stars in support of the Resistance. It’s a promise that Empire 2.0 won’t last, and that the grass roots efforts of billions will eventually triumph. Do we really need to see a “1-2-3-Kick” movie where that happens in entirely predictable ways?

But it’s not just that. It’s that what we actually did learn in Last Jedi didn’t defy expectations so much as spit on them.

What, you expected Rey’s parentage to be significant, mainly because of the multiple cues in “The Force Awakens” suggesting that it was? Well, ha ha on you – it isn’t. You thought it was necessary to explain how an ancient, heretofore unseen Sith Lord could have built a bigger, better Empire out of nowhere when he wasn’t even mentioned in the Original Trilogy, and when his existence was explicitly ruled out by the “Rule of Two” established in the prequels? Well, guess what, stupid – you’ll never know who Snoke was. Just shut up and watch our endless casino planet subplot that goes absolutely nowhere.

It’s not that it’s a bad movie so much as that it’s a contemptuous one.

You get this sense right away the minute you see Luke toss the lightsaber over his shoulder. I laughed right along with everybody else, but it’s an almost spiteful gesture. Think of how much emphasis “The Force Awakens” put on that lightsaber. It fell into Maz’s hands and then called to Rey, triggering a vision that included Obi-Wan Kenobi saying “Rey, these are your first steps.” So the saber is kind of significant, no?

“Where did you get that?” Han asks.

“A story for another time,” Maz answers.

Except no. Ha ha! It’s a story that will never be told, and you’re a chump for thinking it matters. It goes over the shoulder along with everything else.

Rian Johnson and his defenders act as if the dismissal of these story threads is some kind of act of genius, which piles insult on injury. It’s cruel to yank an audience around like that, and it’s not surprising that so many audience members weren’t willing to applaud their own abuse.

Including me. I’m not going to vow not to see Episode IX, but I’m not making any real effort to see it. At the very least, don’t expect me to be first in line on opening weekend.

The Road Not Taken: Poetry’s Greatest Prank

This post is inspired by a Facebook flame war – one in which I did not participate, so the object of this discussion won’t know I’m talking about him. The subject of the war is unimportant. What matters is that it concluded when a particularly sanctimonious dude tried to salvage his decimated argument by quoting Robert Frost. In an attempt to justify reliance on his own facts, he insisted that his unconventional position was a result of his being brave enough to carve out a unique path.

“Two roads diverged in a wood,” he quoted, “and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

So there.

I can understand the appeal, certainly. It’s short, pithy, and eminently meme-able.

He is not the first to employ Frost to virtue signal his bold, rugged individualism, nor will he be the last. It’s always ironic to see rugged individualists rigidly conforming to the same poetic justification for their uniqueness, but that’s not the point. The point is that just about everyone who reads this poem gets it hopelessly, miserably wrong, and those lines are quoted to mean precisely the opposite of what Frost intended them to mean.

People often refer to this poem as “The Road Less Traveled,” but that is not the poem’s title, because there isn’t a road less traveled in the verse. It’s actually called “The Road Not Taken,” and, when the narrator arrives at the place where two roads diverge, he observes that both roads were essentially indistinguishable.

The first two stanzas:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

So which one is the road less traveled? One was “just as fair” as the other. He says that “perhaps” one had the better claim because it was grassier, but, really, both were “really about the same” in terms of how much they had been worn down by travelers. In the first line of the next stanza, he says that “both that morning equally lay,” again emphasizing that there was nothing significant to differentiate one from the other.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

The focus here is not on which road is better, but rather on the fact that the narrator will never know, because it’s unlikely they will ever come back to travel the other path.

Then there’s the final stanza that has the money quote. Most people only quote the final three lines to illustrate their indomitable spirit. But it’s the first two lines that frame the verse in its proper setting.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I think it’s the sigh that’s most telling here. Why would he sigh if choosing “the road less traveled” made him a hero? The narrator is not announcing his triumph; he’s rather lamenting the self-delusion he knows he’s going to be peddling in “ages and ages hence.”

In the time and place where he has to make a decision, he doesn’t know if the road he picks is better or worse. He doesn’t even know which one is truly less traveled – both roads “equally lay” and had been “worn… about the same.” But when called upon to justify his choice, he knows he will reframe the memory to make one of the equal roads a road “less traveled by” and insist that his choice “made all the difference,” even though he actually has no idea whether or not that’s true.

This isn’t a paean to individuality; it’s a verse of sardonic mockery aimed at those who misread it. Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to pull this out as your social media signature.

“Last Jedi” grumblings

First off, yes, there will be oodles of spoilers. Do not read this until after you see the film, or if you don’t care if you see the film. Or if you don’t mind spoilers, which I don’t, under most circumstances. With this movie, for the first time in a very long time, I actually went in spoiler free. Had I know what happened in advance, however, I probably wouldn’t be as disappointed as I was leaving when I left the theatre.

I didn’t hate it. I actually enjoyed it while I was watching it, although it was too long, and the casino subplot could have been completely excised without doing any damage to the narrative. The problem is that I really wanted to love “The Last Jedi.” Probably too much, as I think about it now. Expectations can make or break a movie, and it never occurred to me to tamp them down for this one. All the reviews were stellar; writer/director Rian Johnson has a reputation as something of a wunderkind, and everything I had seen in the previews had led me to believe this was going to be something special. Mark Hamill has said in interviews that his line about how “this is not going to go the way you think” is indicative of the movie, which supposedly pushes these characters in new, exciting, unexplored directions.

But that’s the problem. It doesn’t.

Sure, there are beats in this movie where you think it could take an unexpected turn. Could Kylo Ren actually be redeemed? Could Rey, perhaps, be lured to turn to the dark side? Could Luke himself be a villain? There are short teases that each of these things is a possibility, but in the end, each of these scenarios predictably resolves in entirely conventional ways.

No, Kylo is essentially just a weak Vader retread who may get his moment of deathbed repentance in the next film just like his grandpa did. No, Rey is the pure, unspotted Mary Sue who will never demonstrate a hint of complexity going forward. And good ol’ Luke is just good ol’ Luke, although that’s not to diminish Mark Hamill’s outstanding performance in the film, or the genuinely intriguing final act rescue he performs by remote control.

I didn’t quite understand that, though. Why was this interstellar projection solid and then not solid at different times? I understand why the plot required it to be that way, but that didn’t make it any less inconsistent. Was Yoda’s Force ghost solid, too? He seems to be when he hits Luke in the head with a cane. If a Force ghost can be solid, then what’s to stop Yoda from coming in and saving the day? Why doesn’t he hit Kylo Ren in the head with a cane? Anyway, these are quibbles. Luke’s final sacrifice was the only truly interesting thing about this movie. Everything else was just sort of by-the-numbers.

What’s even more frustrating is that this didn’t answer any of the questions from “The Force Awakens.” Are we really supposed to believe Rey’s parents are nobodies? If so, then why did she hear Obi-Wan’s voice telling her “these are your first steps” in Episode VII? And who or what is Snoke? Now that he’s dead – in a moment that’s clumsily telegraphed so that it loses its impact when it finally happens – there’s no real reason for the narrative to return to tell his story. He’s just a cookie-cutter bad guy who’s job was to look scary for a movie and a half and then get out of the way.

There are so many opportunities to be interesting that go wasted here. Rey is drawn to a very dark place on the island, so dark that it frightens Luke. And she goes there and – what? Sees herself in a weird mirror? It’s visually intriguing, surely, but neither she nor the audience learn anything. It’s just cool for the sake of being cool.

Maybe this will all be revisited in Episode IX, but I doubt it. This franchise no longer wants to get bogged down in complications; it just wants to have a credible backdrop on which to stage increasingly generic action set pieces. The underlying mythology behind it is only interesting to us geeks, and Star Wars has outgrown the geeks.

One final note. The elephant in the room going forward is what to do about Leia now that Carrie Fisher is no longer with us. It was heartbreaking to watch her in this film, if only because she looked sick and frail throughout, which made her Super Leia moment painfully ridiculous, and not in a good way.

There was an obvious way to shift the “Last Jedi” plot to give the character a heroic and meaningful exit – they could have had Leia be the one to do the kamikaze run on Snoke’s ship instead of Laura Dern’s purple-haired cipher. That would have required a minimum of digital trickery to paste her into Dern’s place, but it would mostly involve finding shots of Carrie Fisher standing still and looking wistfully out a window, which wouldn’t have been that hard to do. Then they reshoot the scenes in the bunker and have Dern be the one to follow Rey to safety.

Of course, that would have deprived us of Luke and Leia’s reunion, which was one of the most touching moments of the film. And also the most confusing. Why would he give her fake dice, and why wouldn’t she take them with her? He was solid here and not solid outside? But the stuff he brought was solid? What are the rules?

Anyway, there’s really no choice the producers have left but to recast Leia. Carrie Fisher is gone, yes, but Leia is not, and the character’s story is not yet finished. There’s clearly an arc that requires her to confront her son and give him one last shot at redemption. Just wiping her out of the narrative offscreen would be far more disrespectful than letting someone else pick up the role. When Richard Harris died, they recast Dumbledore, because the story required a Dumbledore. Episode IX requires a Leia in a meaty and substantive role, and the technology does not exist to credibly create that performance with the late Carrie Fisher’s image. Recasting is the best of a number of bad options.

That’s sort of how I feel about “The Last Jedi.” It’s no prequel-level disaster, certainly, but it’s not really very good. Or maybe it’s not that Star Wars has outgrown the geeks, but that I’ve outgrown Star Wars. Which makes me very sad indeed. 

No excuse for “Justice League”

See these?

These are old school Mego-brand toys that pre-date “action figures” by quite a few years. Young boys couldn’t hide behind euphemisms to pretend they weren’t playing with dolls. I had all of these, as well as a few more. I played with them until their costumes were frayed and various body parts were lost in action.

I wasn’t alone. Thousands, if not millions, of kids have spent countless hours with various plastic-and-felt versions of these characters, and they’ve made up countless stories about them that have never appeared in any medium. And you know what? Just about every story those kids made up would have been better than what was on the screen in the latest “Justice League” movie.

Honestly, how dense do you have to be to screw this one up?

Yes, it could have been worse. (And, yes, “Batman vs. Superman” actually was.) “Justice League” was watchable; it was mildly diverting, and, at just under two hours, it was short enough that you didn’t have enough time to truly hate it. But seldom has so much effort and talent been wasted on such a paltry and generic product.

“Generic” is probably the best term to describe this film. There have been so many iterations of each of these characters, and this movie just cobbled together the greatest hits from each of them. As I listened to Danny Elfman reprise his Batman theme from the far-superior 1989 movie, I found it depressing to hear it used in the service of a Batman with no sharp edges, unlike the menacing Keaton/Burton Dark Knight it originally accompanied.

There were even a few notes of the John Williams Superman theme played during the segment where Superman comes back to life for some reason and then starts arbitrarily beating up the other heroes to kill time. And all it did was remind me that Christopher Reeve played an iconic character, while Henry Cavill is just caretaking the brand. It also made me wonder whatever happened to Hans Zimmer’s “Man of Steel” theme, which was really quite good – probably too good for a franchise that plods on joylessly into complete irrelevance.

Which brings us to the whole Snyder/Whedon disparity, given that Joss Whedon had to finish the film after Zack Snyder had to tend to his family. This probably made the film more pleasant, as Snyder’s preceding DC movies were unrelentingly grim. But what it also did was abandon any sense of continuity in this cinematic universe.

Remember Flash’s inexplicable appearance in Batman v. Superman, when he travels back in time to tell Batfleck that “Lois Lane is the key?” I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t, but it was so strange and out of place that you would assume it was a setup for something significant down the road. And, sure enough, Lois was the key to calming Superman down after an unmotivated tantrum, although the Flash didn’t travel back in time to tell anyone that. It was just a thing that happened.

At least the Flash looked like he might have been able to do something interesting, although he never did. Cyborg was a nonentity; Aquaman was Poochie. (He’s edgy, he’s in your face. You’ve heard the expression, “let’s get busy?” Well, this is an Aquaman who gets “biz-zay!” Consistently and thoroughly.) People are saying nice things about Wonder Woman in this, but I think most of that is leftover good will from her far-superior solo film. Gal Gadot is always a welcome presence, but the material doesn’t give her any opportunities to shine.

Rumor is that Ben Affleck wants out, and it shows. He shlumps through the picture like a guy who is dreading having to do the dishes and walk the dog when he gets home.

And don’t get me started on the villain. Because, really, this film didn’t have a villain.

Steppenwolf, the ostensible antagonist of this piece, is never actually in it. Yes, there’s a poor CGI rendition of some horned dude that looks like he was pasted into the frame from a 2002 video game, but his complete lack of physical presence makes him about as threatening as an Internet pop-up ad. You don’t buy that any of the flesh-and-blood actors are in the same room with him, because he’s not an actual thing, so never for a moment does he offer any peril to the proceedings. A fat guy in a Godzilla suit would have been more menacing.

This is now 15 years since Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis proved you can create a computer-generated character that can be taken seriously. Yet Steppenwolf wasn’t even as convincing as the LOTR cave troll. How did this happen?

It doesn’t help, either, that Steppenwolf’s objective is as much of a cipher as his physicality is. What is it he wants, exactly? Apparently, he’s been waiting thousands of years to get three boxes in order to turn Earth into a post-Burning Man Nevada. Why? Because, well, evil and stuff. Also he’s afraid that the Xbox he lives in might come unplugged.

Did you watch Amy Adams, a genuinely talented and charismatic actress, show up and just, you know, cry a lot? Or JK Simmons, one of the best working character actors in film, play Commissioner Gordon and do… absolutely nothing of interest? Or Willem Dafoe. a genuinely powerful and frightening screen presence, as some sort of Atlantean guy? (Oh, that’s right, his scene was cut. Never mind.)

So much talent; so much waste. And it’s going to lose a crapload of money.

So here’s an idea, DC. Go buy a bunch of old-school Mego dolls; give them to a room full of seven-year-olds, and film what they do for two hours. That’ll only cost you a few hundred bucks, and I guarantee that what those kids come up with will be more fun to watch than “Justice League” was.



A Pardoned Turkey’s Dumpy Fate

The surviving children of Abraham Lincoln are Robert and Thomas, the first of which is about twenty-three years old, a graduate of Harvard College, and is a young man of modest and agreeable manners, quiet, and with a very good share of his father’s sagacity and kindness.

So wrote Noah Brooks, a White House reporter during the Civil War, in his1865 book “Lincoln Observed” about life in Lincoln’s White House. Brooks’s glowing portrait of the elder Lincoln son is not matched by his dismissive description of his younger brother:

The youngest son is a little more than eleven years old, and was nicknamed “Tad” by his father when a small boy, which nickname was an abbreviation of “tadpole,” the youngster reminding his father of that creature in his short, dumpy shape.

That must have been quite a conversation.  “Hey, kid, I’m going to call you Tad, because you’re short and dumpy.” Honest Abe may have been a little too honest on this occasion.

But despite his dumpiness, Tad’s contribution to America’s Thanksgiving public traditions will not soon be forgotten.

From Brooks again:

The President was passionately attached to his boys, and seldom went anywhere without “Tad,” of whom he told me an amusing anecdote on the last election day. About a year before a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but “Tad” interceded in behalf of its life, and carried the case up to the Executive Chamber, securing a stay of proceedings until his father could be heard from. The argument was that the turkey had as good a right to live as anybody else, and his plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared. The soldiers on duty about the house made a pet of the bird, and on last election day the boy came tearing up into his father’s room to call his attention to the fact that the soldiers were voting. Noticing the turkey among them, the President asked “Tad” if the turkey was voting, too; to which the boy promptly responded – “Oh, no; he isn’t of age yet!” The indulgent father thought that reply was a great deal better than many of the so-called Lincoln stories.

Yeah, not bad for a dumpy kid.

This account is the source for the claim that Lincoln began the tradition of pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys, but the facts here make that dubious. In the first place, this was a a turkey “brought home for the Christmas dinner,” not Thanksgiving. It survived at least until the next year’s election, which would have been roughly concurrent with the Thanksgiving celebration that Lincoln had first designated the year before.

Thus, since the bird received no formal pardon, there would have been no legal obstacle to slaughtering, basting, and consuming it, complete with stuffing, a year after Lincoln’s dumpy son spared its life. That turkey’s ultimate fate, however, remains lost to recorded history.

Later presidents have offered similar reprieves, but none of them carried the force of law until 1989, when President George H.W. Bush began the process of offering an official pardon. Every president since has kept with tradition. This year, President Trump pardoned a turkey named Drumstick, who the president predicted has “a very bright future ahead of him.”

A bright future, eh?

Drumstick, like Tad, is pretty dumpy. He’s a 37-pound bird who has been genetically engineered to live fat, die young, and leave a tasty corpse. It turns out that he and his other pardoned turkeys tend to drop dead of dumpy causes not long after their official reprieves.

John Stossel commented on this phenomenon in a report during George W. Bush’s administration:

Bush made this promise to the two turkeys [he pardoned]: “They will live out their days in the comfort and care of Kidwell Farm in Herndon, Virginia.”

… I visited Kidwell Farm to see how the turkeys pardoned in previous years were doing. I looked for some of the birds pardoned by Clinton, but couldn’t find them. I couldn’t find the Bush Sr. birds, or the Reagan turkeys, or Carter’s, or any of the pardoned birds.

There is a sign saying Turkey Pen, and farmer Marlo Acock took me to it. But the pen was empty. Why? Well, the birds do come here, explained Acock, but they don’t last.

“We usually just find ’em and they’re dead,” he said.

Most of the pardoned turkeys only last a few months, Acock said. One died within days.

It seems that the presidential birds, bred to be eaten, are so fat that by the time of their pardon, their days are numbered.

“Their flesh has grown so fast, and their heart and their bones and their other organs can’t catch up,” said Acock.

Trump joked about the idea of undoing President Obama pardons of turkeys Tator and Tot, respectively. “”I have been informed by the White House counsel’s office that Tater and Tot’s pardons cannot, under any circumstances, be revoked,” Trump joked. “So, Tater and Tot, you can rest easy.”

Or, more likely, rest in peace.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Stallion Returns!

So this blog has gotten no love in over five months, and it has actually been offline for the past two weeks. (Please note that Yahoo Small Business web hosting sucks. I wasted many hours on the phone with those guys repeatedly trying to verify who I was before repeatedly telling me they couldn’t help me.)

This wasn’t just benign neglect. I was intentionally ignoring this place while I was running for Congress.  Any writing I was doing was in the service of the campaign, and I didn’t really want to explain to potential constituents why I operate under the pseudonym of “Stallion Cornell.” I even changed my Twitter handle from StallionCornell to jim_4_congress. (I have since changed it back, but when I’m not campaigning, I don’t really tweet much.)

So, yes, I ran for Congress under the banner of the new United Utah Party, and I had to sue in Federal Court to get on the ballot. I ended up persuading over 13,000 people to leave their tribal politics behind and vote for me, earning over 9% of the vote. That’s the highest percentage for any third-party congressional candidate in Utah history. I was also the first non-Republican/non-Democrat to participate in the official televised debate, which you’re welcome to watch in its entirety below:

I’m the guy in the middle, and they had to raise the podium to accommodate me. It was a lot of fun, actually, although perhaps the most nerve-wracking experience of my life.

But anyway, it’s all over, and now I’m getting deluged with variations of two questions:

  1. Are you happy with the result? and
  2. Are you going to run again?

I’m proud of the race I ran, yes, and I don’t think I embarrassed myself. At the same time, I’m not particularly happy about losing. When I tell people that, they tell me I shouldn’t have expected to actually win a third party run, and they’re probably right. Yet there’s no way to conduct a credible campaign if you’re not running to win. You can’t wake up in the morning and hit the hustings hard if your only goal is to get 9% and go down in flames gracefully.

It was weird, too, to have people complain that the United Utah Party was trying too hard to win. One guy wrote a whole op-ed about how he was excited about this new party until he saw that I wasn’t willing to concede the race to my Republican opponent before the ballots were cast, and it was somehow unseemly that I was actually competing.

Another guy wrote that we should “take it slow” and “plant the seeds” and not expect to win elections for years, maybe even decades. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It’s what the Libertarians have done since 1972, and look how well it’s done them. Fact is, you can’t “take things slow.” You have to swing for the fences from your first time at bat. Granted, most people who swing for the fences strike out, but every once in awhile, they hit a home run.

(Yikes. Sports analogies? Really? Maybe the campaign really did change me.)

So to answer #2 – yes, I would very much like to run again. I had a great experience, and I think I tapped into a hunger for an alternative to the broken two-party stalemate. But whether I do or not will depend on a number of factors. The first is, will I have the resources to compete? I was outspent by a ratio of over 10 to 1 by both the Republican and the Democrat, and I’m not willing to jump into another race and be forced to bootstrap it in the same way.

I’m also not interested in being a sacrificial lamb. I’m not going to run to make a statement or plant seeds. If I run again, it will be in a race that I am confident I can actually win.

In the meantime, I’m not currently writing for the Deseret News – they understandably wouldn’t let candidates write for their paper –  but I do have a new gig as a contributor to The Jack News, a new website with a mission “to reevaluate political happenings and current events with an eye for factual response and at times a little humor and satire.”

Here are a couple of my latest pieces from other there – one about Al Franken who I have disliked intensely for many years prior to his current scandal, and another about the Justice League movie, which I haven’t yet seen. (No, it’s not a review.) I’ll post other links as they become available.

Beyond that, I’m trying to get my bearings and figure out what the next step is. While I’m doing that,  I’ll probably have more time to bring this blog back from the dead. I’be now been at this for more than a decade. That’s an eternity in Internet years.

But that’s no thanks to Yahoo Small Business. Seriously, they’re the worst.

The Politics of Will Rogers

I’m halfway through the run of Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “The Will Rogers Follies.” I play Wiley Post, the aviator who was piloting the plane that went down  in Alaska in 1935, claiming the lives of both Rogers and Post as a result. I spend the entire show sitting in the audience, yelling “Let’s go flying, Will” every once in awhile. It’s kind of a running joke until the end of the show, when it finally dawns on everyone as to what happens when Will finally takes me up on my offer.

Let’s go flying, Will!

The subtitle of the plays is “A Life in Revue,” meaning that the events of Will Rogers’s life are recounted in the context of an old-style Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza, complete with massive old-school singing and dancing from a bevy of beautiful showgirls. It’s mostly lighthearted fun, but you get a clear sense of Will Rogers’s political point of view throughout, most notably his serious third-party credentials.

At one point, he is asked which political party he belongs to. “Oh, I don’t belong to any organized party,” he replies. “I’m a Democrat.” He also claims that Democratic conventions are much more fun than Republican ones, because the Democrats know they aren’t going anywhere afterwards. In real life, he stepped away from the Democrats in 1928 to run for president as the head of the Debunk Party, which actually carried the District of Columbia in the general election.  Rogers said he took that as a personal compliment, seeing as how the people in DC are the ones who have to live with whoever gets elected for the next four years.

The show turns serious right near the end, as Will Rogers goes on the radio to address the country in the wake of the Great Depression.  The dialogue in the show is a condensed version of a speech that’s come to be known as ““Bacons, Beans, and Limousines.” You can watch it for yourself here:

Watching the speech every night has been a delight, as David Lutken’s performance in the role of Will Rogers has been a joy from beginning to end. Having seen it multiple times, I have had ample opportunity to consider not just the performance but Will Rogers’s message, which has sparked an economic epiphany for me.

Specifically, I’ve decided that a major source of the world’s economic and political missteps come from the mistaken assumption that money and wealth are the same thing. That was an assumption that Will Rogers embraced, and the speech in the show contains couple of moments that demonstrate that he didn’t make any distinction between the two.

The first comes when Rogers, talking about how to relieve the suffering of the unemployed, insists that this shouldn’t be too difficult to do. “We’ve got the money,” he says. “There’s as much money in the country as there ever was, only fewer people have it.”

In a strict sense, that’s true, but it’s also irrelevant. There probably were just as many pieces of paper with pictures of dead presidents on them after the 1929 stock market crash as there were before it. But that same amount of money represented a smaller amount of wealth. When old people go on and on about how, in their day, it only cost a nickel to ride the bus, they’re ignoring the fact that a nickel back then reflected essentially the same amount of wealth as the two bucks it takes to ride the bus today. Probably more, in fact, given the technological improvements that have cut the real costs of public transportation. Money is a reflection of wealth, not the other way around.

When the stock market crashed, the money didn’t go anywhere, but a huge amount of wealth disappeared. (Actually, in strictly economic terms, that’s not entirely true, as the stock market was trading on an assumption that the country had more wealth than it actually had, and the crash was the free market making a ruthless correction to bring fantasy in line with reality. But that’s getting a little too far into the weeds on this.)  So while Will Rogers could stand up and say there was just as much money as there ever was, he couldn’t accurately go on the air and say there was just as much wealth in this country as there ever was, because there wasn’t.

If money and wealth were identical, the way out of the Depression would be for the government to write everyone a check for a million dollars. In fact, why doesn’t the government just write us all billion dollar checks and be done with it? We could all be rich! I get first dibs on the private jet with the cool flames on the sides.

But that doesn’t work, because giving everyone a bunch of money for no reason just makes everything cost more. When you increase the money supply without a commensurate increase in wealth, a billion dollars can’t buy you a private jet any more than today’s nickel can get you a bus ticket. You end up having to take wheelbarrows full of dollar bills to the grocery stores to buy one loaf of bread. That’s why governments that try to dig their way out of debt by printing up more money end up collapsing into crushing poverty that takes generations to overcome. If you doubt me, take a vacation in Venezuela and see how well printing money has solved all their problems.

The second part of Rogers’s speech that raised some economic red flags was when he started talking about how we get money. “A man can make a million dollars overnight and he’s on every front page in the morning,” he says. “But it never tells you who gave up that million that he got. You can’t get money without taking it from somebody else.”

This is the kind of zero-sum thinking that fuels President Trump’s rants against China. He’s always complaining about how much money we “lose” in trade with other countries, when neither country loses anything. When people pay money for something, they’re doing it to get something in return. When we give China a billion dollars, they give us a whole bunch of stuff, much of which we can resell at a higher profit than what we paid for it. In international trade, its usually the case that after money changes hands, both sides walk away wealthier.

Of course, a great deal of money spent on perishable goods that don’t appreciate in value, but even in those exchanges, both parties walk away satisfied, because nobody feels wealthier if they go to bed hungry when they refuse to buy food for dinner. Money, therefore, is usually offered as a reward for creating wealth, and those who “give up that million that he got” always gets something of value in return for their cash.

Those misunderstandings aside, Rogers is on to something when he talks about wealth disparity and the social responsibility we have to care for our neighbors. While the free market is very good at creating wealth, it’s entirely indifferent to the needs of those who, for whatever reason, are not able to create enough wealth to meet their needs. Good government is able to balance the need for a vibrant free market with concern for the poor. Such balances require active compromise and consensus, and they require input from all sides.

This is probably why Will Rogers’s maxim that he never met a man he didn’t like is so valuable in today’s political world. He’s not saying that he endorses everyone’s point of view; he’s saying that even people who do the wrong things are often doing it for the right reasons. Accepting the good faith of an ideological opponent is a great way to build a country, and a great way to live a life.

To sum up: Will Rogers had some economic misunderstandings, but overall, he was on to something. You’ll get a better sense of the if you come see my show. Get a ticket on the third row, and you can even sit next to me!

Various and Sundry

I’m now writing a lot more than I ever have, but not much of it is posted here. I’m sorry this blog is being neglected, but, since nobody pays me to write it, I’ve been forced to shift my focus to wordsmithing in ways that produce income.

That said, there’s a bunch of stuff I’ve written that I haven’t linked to anywhere, so I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by shamelessly plugging some of my stuff and reviving this moribund blog at the same time.

Here’s a piece I did on the National Endowment for the Arts that echoes an earlier blog post I wrote about my experience as a musical theatre panelist for the NEA.

Here’s one where I review the Netflix movie “The Most Hated Woman in America”, which I doubt anyone else but me has actually seen. I think Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a fascinating figure, despite the fact that I disagree with her profoundly.

It looks like Disney isn’t going to put Carrie Fisher into Episode IX at all, so this article about repurposed footage is probably irrelevant now. But here it is anyway.

I turned a Facebook status update game into a column! Behold the Jim Bennett Guide to Broadway Musicals.

This is NOT a review, but it is a nice little piece about my experience in The Will Rogers Follies.

Incidentally, every time I do a show for Pioneer Theatre Company, I feel a need to take a picture of myself in costume next to the portrait of my great-grandfather that hangs in the lobby of the theatre, like so:

The eyepatch is cool but problematic, as I have to sit in the audience and watch the whole show without any depth perception.

The show is getting some great reviews, and I’m even mentioned in a couple of them.

Here’s the Deseret News review, which includes the following line:

Wiley Post, Rogers’ fellow aviator (played by Deseret News columnist Jim Bennett) delighted the audience as an agitator who would occasionally stand up and holler at Rogers.

Nice to get a mention, although I’m hardly an “agitator.” Pretty much all I say is “Let’s go flying, Will!” Glad to know that’s all it takes to “delight the audience.”

I’m mentioned in this review, too –

Wiley Post (Jim Bennet (sic)) has some of the funniest lines–but I grew to dislike him–the character, not the actor. If I tell you why, it’s a spoiler if you don’t read the Wikipedia link I added. Bennet (sic) has great timing and it was fun that he did his entire performance from a seat in the audience.

It’s nice to be disliked for the right reasons, so I won’t dislike the reviewer for spelling Bennett with only one T. And, really, I should be nice to her, because the reality is that I don’t have any funny lines at all. Unless, again, you think “Let’s go flying, Will!” is funny.

Moving on…

In this piece, I slam the new Alec Baldwin Match Game.

And in this piece, I praise Mystery Science Theatre 3000, because it’s awesome.

That’s all I’ve got. Come see me at Pioneer Theatre! Show runs until May 20. If you get a seat on the third row, you can even sit next to me.

CES Reply – One Year Later

I published “A Reply from a Former CES Employee,” my magnum opus in Mormon apologetics, on April 1, 2016, which, in hindsight, was probably not the best date to release something that I wanted to be taken seriously. That said, I have been deeply gratified by the response I have received. All told, it has been viewed tens of thousands of times, and I have gotten a large number of kind emails from those who found it helpful in their attempts to find answers to the objections raised by church critics.

Some examples:

Hi Jim:

We’ve never met but as I just (literally 2 minutes ago) finished your “A Reply From A Former CES Employee”, I wanted to drop you a line a say a HUGE thank you for what you’ve created…  I have already been able to use info from your “CESReply” in conversations and it’s been great. Surely I will time and time again.

Mr. Bennett,

I just finished reading your reply to the CES Letter. I found it wonderful. I met with the missionaries about 7 months ago and stopped after reading the CES Letter. I intend to start again. I can’t say I will convert, but I have a lot less reason not to now.

Thank you for your reply to the “CES Letter”! I’ve gotten through the answers to 6 questions. Superbly brilliant! Funny, easy to follow, well-reasoned!

Don’t know if I’ll ever get through all 251 pages, but just know of my gratitude for your efforts!

I found your blog/letter through of all places. Just want to say thank you. It was a fun and inspiring read. I couldn’t put it down. Truly grateful that you took the time to do this and I can assure you that your original purpose (“if this helps even one person…”) was fulfilled.

These messages are deeply humbling and heartwarming, and I want to express my gratitude to all who have taken the time to write to me, as I don’t think I’ve adequately responded to all of them personally. I’ve received many, many more responses similar to these, as well as a fair number of nasty notes from people who insist that I’m suffering from massive cognitive dissonance and am, in many ways, a terrible human being. You’ll be pleased to know that the kind messages outnumber the vicious ones by a ratio of roughly 10:1. Or, if you hate the Church and want to see it burn,  you’ll be upset to learn that the response I’ve received has been much more positive than negative.

I thought, then, that as I pass the one-year anniversary of the CES Reply, I thought it appropriate give a summary of the whole experience thus far.

Perhaps the most profound praise I received was from my father, who suffered a stroke on April 11 of last year, ten days after my reply went online. He passed away less than a month after that.

Dad read the whole thing from beginning to end, and he was thrilled with it. It may well have been the last thing of any length that he read in this lifetime, and it dovetailed with his own apologetics efforts that were the subject of his final sermon, delivered the evening prior to his ultimately fatal stroke. As such, the CES Reply will always be connected, in my mind, to my father’s final days, which were a precious time of family gathering and love.

People continue to ask me whether or not Jeremy Runnells, the author of the CES Letter to which I replied, has in any way acknowledged my response. To my knowledge, he has not. He has a full section on his website tabbed as “Debunking,” which is primarily aimed at, and it references a couple of other articles. My reply is not mentioned. It is, apparently, unworthy of debunking. I have received second-hand reports that he tells people that I didn’t answer any of his questions and spent all 110,000 words of my response merely cracking jokes and attacking him personally.

That last accusation has been made several times, yet my accusers can never provide me actual examples of ad hominem arguments against Jeremy. That’s because they aren’t there. I don’t expect my critics to concede this point, but I will reiterate my challenge to any reader – if you can find a single instance of a place in my reply where I either insult Jeremy or attack him personally, please call it to my attention so I can remove it immediately.

Perhaps most notably is that this experience has also exposed me to the desire, both in and out of the Church, to find immutable, irreducible truths that are only open to a single, self-evident interpretation. For Runnells, that desire means that there is no other explanation for his lack of knowledge about Joseph Smith’s rock in a hat other than an extensive campaign of deliberate deception by Church leaders. For some active and believing members, that desire means that no prophet has ever made a consequential mistake. For me, it shows that those who harbor this desire are pining for a reality that does not and cannot exist.

Any truth of any significance invites scrutiny and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. That’s why Republicans and Democrats can both read the Constitution and believe they are interpreting that document correctly yet still come away with diametrically opposite conclusions. The desire for irreducibility leads partisans to assume the absolute worst about their ideological opponents  – after all, if Democrats/Republicans could see the truth, they’d know the Second Amendment absolutely doesn’t/absolutely does guarantee an individual right to bear arms. If they don’t see that truth, then the must be either imbeciles or demons.

It’s also fascinating that thousands of different churches have sprung up over the centuries, all of which are devoted to the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the World, and yet most of these churches are quick to disavow other churches who dare to interpret that truth in even slightly different ways.

The CES Letter, then, relies less on factual falsehoods and errors than on hostile interpretation of a common set of facts. In every instance where Jeremy Runnells sees an event or a doctrine that lends itself to different points of view, Runnells assigns the worst possible motives to the Church and the best possible motives to its critics. Joseph and Brigham apparently never made an honest mistake or were subjects of misunderstanding or misrepresentations. Every defender of them is a hopelessly biased and brainwashed dupe, whereas every critic is above reproach with no hidden agenda. Every mistake by church members or leaders should be amplified, and everything they did and do right should be completely ignored.

I do know that the quickest way to get banned from Jeremy’s Facebook page is to reference my reply. The minute it is mentioned, the comment is deleted, and the user is blocked. I have not made the mistake of personally commenting on his page, but I have been in the room when other have commented, and I have watched the comments disappear and the banning take place in real time. (This was shortly after I published my reply, so things may have changed, but I doubt it.) I think that demonstrates that Jeremy is less interested in open discussion than he is in perpetuating the narrative that his questions have never actually been answered and are, indeed, unanswerable.

That’s a false narrative.

The whole point of my reply was not just to provide my own answers to Jeremy’s questions, but to demonstrate that the questions are answerable. That is not the same thing as saying that my answers are in any way definitive, or even that my answers are correct. Rather, it’s to highlight the reality that one can confront thorny issues in church history and doctrine and still come out with a testimony on the other side. Furthermore, you can do so without having to set aside reason or rationality to preserve your faith.

Your answers may differ from mine, but I hope that if I’ve done nothing else, I’ve demonstrated that there’s no need to be afraid of the questions.