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I know that my readers like to imagine that I live in a remote cabin, deep in a snowy forest, surrounded by books. And that every week, I lovingly craft an erudite missive which gets sent out into the world, unsullied by mundane concerns like family emergencies or poor health or a day job. I guess it’s more accurate to say, that this is what I imagine, my readers imagine, it’s like. But if there are any of you who do imagine things this way, you should disabuse yourself of that notion. As it turns out, I am subject to the same frailties as everyone else, and this week that frailty is (as far as I can tell) the flu, which is apparently particularly bad this season. In fact, a friend of mine, a fine strapping lad in his late 30s actually ended up being hospitalized for several days, his flu was so bad. (I don’t think that’s how I got it. I read about it on Facebook. I haven’t actually seen him in months.)
What does this mean? It means that the clockwork precision of releasing a long form essay every week might occasionally be derailed by, as they say “events on the ground”. In this case I’m still going to put out a post for the week, It’s just going to a) be shorter than usual and b) cover many topics shallowly rather than covering one in depth. Mostly because this requires less energy.
The New LDS First Presidency
First, given that this is ostensibly an LDS blog, I should probably spend some time talking about the new First Presidency. My prediction (which I didn’t register beforehand, so I can’t really get credit it for it, which is okay because it was mostly wrong anyway) was that the new president, President Nelson, wouldn’t keep the two counselors of his predecessor, President Monson. And had I left it there I would have been correct, but I went on to predict that he would keep Uchtdorf as a counselor and replace Eyring. Since it looked like Eyring was slowing down. But in fact he did the opposite, he kept Eyring (though moving him from First to Second Counselor) and brought in Dallin H. Oaks. Historically new LDS Presidents have kept the counselors of their predecessors, so predicting that he wouldn’t should get me some credit, but, of course, as is so often the case, I got greedy, and tried for a really impressive prediction, and ended up flat on my face.
Thus far, if you’re LDS you probably already know all of this (well not the part about my overly prideful predictions) and if you’re not LDS you’re probably not that interested. Let me try and make it interesting for both groups. Of course the number one subject everyone wants to bring up when talking about the leadership of the Mormon Church is the issue of LGBT members. And when people outside the church bring it up they do it almost exclusively as a criticism. In fact many members felt that the New York Times Obituary of the late President Monson, was less an obituary and more another criticism of the LDS Church’s LGBT policies. A Change.org petition asking the Times to rewrite the obituary got 190,000 signatures, and enough support that the Times did issue a statement defending the obituary.
Of course the criticism didn’t end with President Monson’s passing, and the very first question asked of the new leadership at the press conference following the announcement was how they would handle LGBT issues. It’s a safe bet that most people outside the Church found the answer inadequate. Additionally those engaged in trying to “read the tea leafs” so to speak, view the replacement of Elder Uchtdorf by Elder Oaks as a bad sign:
…Some observers see the leadership shuffle as a definite turn toward retrenchment.
“President Nelson is seen as a conservative, and Elder Uchtdorf as a centrist and even potentially a reformer, so many people will see this as sending a message about the direction of the church under President Nelson’s leadership,” Mason said. It may “indicate, and almost certainly will actually represent, a rightward turn in the First Presidency.”
Steve Taysom, a Mormon who teaches philosophy and comparative religion at Cleveland State University, echoed that sentiment.
Uchtdorf has been “an important symbolic presence for liberal-minded Mormons, and he clearly did not share President Nelson’s and Elder Oaks’ views on social activism in general and LGBTQ issues in particular,” Taysom wrote in an email. “This is going to be an administration characterized by social and ecclesiastical retrenchment, and the touchstone for this retrenchment appears to be the 1995 family proclamation, which, of course, Oaks spoke about in the last General Conference.”
For the moment I’m going to set aside a discussion of how someone can both believe that the LDS Church is being led by God and believe it’s completely wrong in how it treats the LGBT community, and consider, instead, where things might be headed. Broadly there are three possibilities:
1- The societal pendulum could swing back. There could be a backlash against LGBT rights, specifically marriage, and the pressure on the Church could go away. I think this is extremely unlikely.
2- An equilibrium could be reached. The LDS Church could get enough credit for its emphasis on loving and accepting LGBT members (a point the new leadership kept coming back to at the press conference) that the fact that they still believe marriage is only between a man and a woman could be accepted, if not necessarily embraced by those outside the church. This is my preferred solution.
3- The pressure could continue to ratchet up moving from individuals and organizations to the government, until sooner or later they’re re-enacting the measures used against the church in the 1880’s when the government was attempting to stamp out polygamy. This option seems increasingly likely.
Steven Pinker and the Moment We Live In
Recently Steven Pinker (who I’ve mentioned frequently in this space) was part of a panel where he discussed the idea that there are certain facts which are unmentionable on college campuses, in mainstream media, or in “polite” society in general. He then went on to point out, that as a consequence of this, when these facts are encountered it is only outside of an academic setting, in more fringe media outlets and among people who don’t care about politeness. This results in basically only one side of the debate using these facts in their arguments, meaning they get to extrapolate a worldview from those facts which ends up going largely unchallenged, because the other “side” won’t even acknowledge the facts in the first place.
As Pinker points out, this has several additional consequences. To begin with, it makes it look like academia and the mainstream media are hiding something, that the reason they won’t acknowledge the facts is that they have no answer for them. As you can imagine, this immediately gives enormous power to the side which isn’t afraid to acknowledge the facts, because they are immediately perceived as being on more solid evidentiary footing. They’re dealing with reality as it is, not as they wish it to be. Additionally it undercuts the perceived reliability of academia and the mainstream media, and makes it more difficult for them to accuse other people of fake news, when it’s clear they are engaged in the avoidance of facts themselves. Which is certainly a form of fake news. And finally, I think, in Pinker’s view the most worrying, it leaves people with no defenses against those arguments because no one is making a compelling argument for the other side because to do so they would have to acknowledge the facts in the first place. Pinker then goes on to contend that it is better to acknowledge those facts and that there are perfectly reasonable and academic friendly ways to do so and great counter-arguments to be made.
Despite this final point, his speech, as you might imagine, was not taken in the manner Pinker hoped (which is not to say that it wasn’t taken in the manner he expected.) Numerous people on social media jumped down his throat leading the New York Times to start an article about the controversy by saying that, “Steven Pinker is a liberal, Jewish professor. But social media convinced people that he’s a darling of the alt-right.” Of particular note was PZ Myers, who used to be pretty tight with the rest of the new atheists, but now apparently can’t stand them, and had this to say about Pinker, “Welp, that settles it, Steven Pinker is a lying right-wing shitweasel.”
You are of course welcome to watch the clip and decide for yourself whether Pinker is guilty as charged, but I personally think he’s hit on something profound, and it dovetails quite well with my own explanation for the victory of Trump. For many years, the majority of Americans have been worried about illegal immigration. (Fun fact the high was 72% in 2006.) And yet for a variety of reasons both Republicans and Democrats ignored the issue. This went on year after year, leading, I can only assume, to mounting frustration on the part of the voters. Meaning that when someone came along who finally was willing to talk about it, it almost didn’t matter who he was, people were so hungry for someone at least acknowledge their concerns, that basically nothing else about the guy mattered. And yes, I’m talking about Trump.
I understand that immigration does not occupy the same place as the facts Pinker mentioned, but you see some of the same things happening. Avoidance of a subject translating into a perception of illegitimacy (it’s no coincidence that trust in the media is at its lowest level ever.) The argument being mostly dominated by one side. And a lack of any sort of immunity among people who hear the argument from only that one side, (particularly since, in my opinion that side has a lot of merit.)
Once again I wonder what will happen. And this time I see four possibilities.
1- The populist moment passes. Trump is removed from office or fails to get re-elected. Things return to a pre-2016 state. This is another possibility that strikes me as incredibly unlikely.
2- Populist movements continue to gain steam, perhaps on both sides, but with more warning the globalist wings of the parties manage to continually defeat them in the primaries, and much like the Tea Party, things simmer, but never really reach a boil.
3- One of the parties (presumably the Republicans, but who can tell) adopts populism as it’s primary platform, and ends up with someone much more polished than Trump as it’s presidential candidate. (Leading to a sort of winner take all election?)
4- We get a new third party which overtakes one of the current parties, driving them into irrelevance. I also think that this is unlikely, but it’s definitely the most interesting option.
The Latest From the Pervnado
Of course the Pervnado continues to spin. Most recently there was quite a bit of noise being made over some allegations against Aziz Ansari. Also, people are finally starting to turn against Woody Allen. And finally, Catherine Deneuve along with 100 other french women put out a letter saying the #MeToo movement has turned into a “Witch Hunt”. I think the tornado metaphor becomes more and more apt, since as you can tell the winds appear to be blowing in every direction, and once again this is another place where it’s hard to know where things are headed.
Taking the incidents in order. The Ansari incident operated on a lot of different layers. Some women came to his defense. Others were quite angry with Ansari, particularly since he was wearing a Times Up pin at the Golden Globes and has otherwise been very outspoken in his opposition to harassment. In this instance, it does not appear that he is in any danger of losing his current gigs, though it’s still early. And the lack of a general consensus on how bad his offense should be treated seems to have created something of an impasse. Which is perhaps where it will remain. I will say in my opinion, it’s good that there’s a debate going on. As I think I indicated we’re more likely to arrive something which doesn’t neglect either justice or mercy if both of those principles actually have a seat at the table.
I mentioned Woody Allen in a previous post, in particular I expressed surprise that the Pervnado had not swept him up as well. Of course now that it’s beginning to there are some interesting aspects to this story as well. I had always kind of assumed he was a pervert. Not only was I aware of the Dylan Farrrow accusations from when they surfaced in 2013 but there was of course the whole Soon Yi scandal (though, interestingly, they’re still together) and on top of all of that I was watching his best known movie, Annie Hall, and there’s a scene where Woody Allen calls one of his friends to bail him out and the friend expresses how much of a sacrifice it was because at the time he was fooling around with two 16 year old twins, as I recall, he then repeats their age for emphasis.
All of this is to say that it seemed pretty obvious Woody Allen was a pervert. Obvious enough that if people were still working with him it could only be because they had heard the accusations and decided to overlook them, or decided that there was some room for doubt. And indeed there is. When you look beyond the unsettling things I mentioned, there’s apparently only one accusation of something illegal. (Please correct me if I’m wrong about this.) Which came during a messy divorce, was investigated by the police and dismissed, and finally, not even all of Dylan Farrow’s siblings believe it happened. I maintain he’s a pervert, and I’m not a big fan of his movies either, but you start to see where figuring out what’s actually going on becomes really difficult and being completely above suspicion (see the Pence Rule again) might be the only way to go.
Finally there’s the Deneuve letter. It’s in French and all the women who signed it are French, and I wonder if this speaks to a cultural divide with things. How much of the #MeToo movement is universal and how much is it an American movement? Particularly out of those parts which it’s opponents point to as excessive?
As far as the content, the letter mentioned many of the things which have been brought up in other venues:
The letter clearly condemns rape, but also draws a line. “Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly, is not – nor is men being gentlemanly a macho attack,” read the letter, translated from French. “Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone’s knee or try to steal a kiss.”
(Of course my question is how do you say cack-handedly in French?)
Beyond that it mentions that questioning of stories or tactics is being labeled as treachery, the totalitarian climate and those who have been accused not being given a chance to respond or defend themselves. (I’m using this translation.)
Once again we arrive back to the question I keep asking. Where are things headed? Is the Deneuve letter an indication that even women are getting sick of the #MeToo movement? (Though Deneuve did offer a partial apology.) Is it just an indication, as I mentioned earlier, of a specifically American phenomenon? Or is it an indication that opinion won’t ever reach a new equilibrium, but that rather things are going to split into two hostile camps, a split which will only deepen and intensify?
I think this is what all of these subjects have in common: reaching a new equilibrium or any form of consensus appears increasingly unlikely the longer things continue. And without that, where does it end? It certainly feels like there has to be a breaking point sooner or later, but what does that breaking point look like? Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great Supreme Court justice once said:
Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy but force.
My Dad phrased it in a different fashion, he would say that all important issues are eventually decided by the shedding of blood. Is that where things are eventually going to end up? I sure hope not. But from where I stand common ground is vanishing, tensions are increasing, and very few people seem to be interested in sitting down for peace talks.
I wonder if sympathy for me being sick will get anyone to donate. Probably not, but it can’t hurt to toss it out there.