Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Apropos of the Michigan Primary

N.B. Since I started writing this post, the Michigan primary has come and gone, and as you'll see my punditry-skills suck. Nonetheless, I leave the post intact.


I had been planning on writing a post on memorizing poetry while commuting between Harrisburg and Philadelphia, but since this was apropos of Dr. J.'s comments on trucking, I figured the only "manly" thing to do (and apparently I only do manly things) would be to write something different.

So instead I've decided to write about one of my overriding obsessions --- primary politics. Now, thankfully, I haven't had the time to get as obsessed about the primaries as I was about the 2006 elections. I followed these the way that I believe that some people follow sports. Despite my generally high testosterone levels I don't follow any sport although I did get pretty into the last hour of the 2006 World Cup whilst watching it in lovely Citta Di Castello and I do reserve the right to become jingoistic during the Olympics. I started following the 2006 elections because I really wanted the Democrats to take back both houses of Congress but at a certain point following the minutiae of the goddamn race became rewarding in and of itself. Thus, for example, on election night I'd excitedly shout out things like "Schuler is up by 2 points over Taylor" or "I don't think Madrid is going to be able to pull it off" and Ideas Woman, Esq. would look at me like I was insane. Although I've been following it pretty closely, this year, there are two factor's getting in the way of my pure joy of the race: 1) the fact that Obama is the only politician in my life that I think has actually inspired me, which keeps me from taking any pleasure in the ups of Clinton's campaign (naturally I take pleasure in the downs --- especially since I firmly believe that the "Third Way" strategy is ultimately self-defeating) and 2) the painful issue of Mitt's Mormonism.

Given that Michigan doesn't matter even in any symbolic way for the Democrats, we'll give them a rest tonight and focus on the Republican primary. I haven't seen any exit poll returns yet, but I imagine that the lack of any real competition on the democratic side will mean that most independents will vote in the Republican primary and that consequently McCain will win what would otherwise be a very close race. I don't think though, that this will spell the end of the Romney run. He is rich enough, and doing well okay enough everywhere to be able to hold on, pile up enough second places, and clinch the nomination on a technicality. I am ambivalent about how I feel about this. I do think that McCain is the most palatable of the top-tier Republicans. The fact that I say this even after his shameful sell-out to Bush in 2004 is a reflection of just how dismal the Republicans are, but so be it. But I also think that he is the most electable of the Republicans --- I realize that a lot of people will say Giuliani is, but, 2004 notwithstanding, I like to think Americans are smart enough not to elect another bona fide fascist. And as much as I'd like to see the ironic spectacle of Giuliani swift-boated on 9/11 (with the caveat that the charges will in this case be true), the divisiveness of that spectacle would be really bad for America. Conversely, I (like just about everyone else) think Romney is the least electable of the top-tier Republicans and I think he's the second-most palatable for me (I have no problem with wishy-washiness and since I don't consider Ron Paul a viable candidate I don't have to decide whether or not the wackiness of a libertarian presidency would be a comedically justifiable argument for preferring it to another conservative presidency). So should I hope for a McCain win on the grounds that he caters the least to the hateful elements of the Republican party or a Romney win on the grounds that the hateful elements of the Republican party reject his best attempts to pander to them?

I think that I hope for a McCain win merely because it will spare me the pain of watching Romney flounder again and again in public (even though this really would be best for the country since it would all but insure a democratic victory. My biggest fear is a Clinton-Huckabee matchup, because I think Huckabee would win.) I should be happy that a huge number of social conservatives would stay home on election night in the event of a Romney candidacy, but I have found myself strangely bothered, and even angered by it.

There are, as lots of intelligent people have pointed out, lots of good reasons to be worried about voting for a Mormon. But I have yet to hear any of them from even the intelligent voices in the "mainstream media." Social conservatives point to the wackiness of some Mormon beliefs and the controversy over whether or not Mormons are "really Christian" and liberals --- well --- they also point to the wackiness of some Mormon beliefs and, if they are really sophisticated and need a good reason to justify what I suspect is more often than not a latent prejudice they might point to some shameful truths about Mormon history --- the fact, for example that black men in the Mormon church couldn't "receive the priesthood" --- something non-pederastic that happens to all Mormon boys at the age of 12 --- until 1978. Or else they invoke the bugaboo of Mormons social conservatism --- in this case a true description of most mainstream Mormon's self-identification and voting patterns but both inconsistent with the social realities of the larger conservative movement in America and at odds with the other elements of their reasons for finding a Mormon president unpalatable. But all of these things really miss the point.

The comment by Hendrik Hertzberg that I mentioned in my last post is really typical of the liberal response to Romney's Mormonism. In particular, I take issue with his criticism of Mitt for not speaking out against the ban on blacks holding the priesthood. Is it a sign of poor character? Yes? That he is an unfeeling person, not inclined to internally reflect on his beliefs. Certainly. Does it show a lack of compassion? Absolutely. But we already all knew these things about Mitt Romney without having to go back 30 years in history; and these poor qualities have very little to do with his Mormonism, which is what Hertzberg insinuates with his comments.

The truth of the matter is that the ban on blacks holding the priesthood says very little about Mormonism's place in American politics today. It would take lots more posts to cash this claim out so I'll leave it as a bare assertion. It ought to be a source of shame for the church, and both the ban and the removal of the ban say a lot about the growth of Mormonism as a global religion. The church's growth in the 70s in Brazil and Africa necessitated homegrown leaders. But this wasn't as pressing an issue in the United States because there are only slightly more black Mormons in the United States than homosexuals in Iran.

There are, however, plenty of homosexuals and women for that matter in the Mormon church, and the Mormon church's track record here is much more pertinent to understanding American politics. The church played an active role in helping to defeat the E.R.A. in the 1970s; and I was disheartened and a little surprised by the openness of their opposition to gay-marriage over the last few years (of course I knew that they would be against it, but the formal church hierarchy tends to stay out of the way of open political confrontation --- this is their general policy, for example, on abortion). Now, given that Romney ran as for both senator and governor as a pro gay-rights Republican but then immediately started backtracking once he set his sights on the White House, he can't claim religion is irrelevant here. Nor can he about women's issues, but the story here is a little more complex:

The irony of the polygamy bruhaha that arises whenever Mormon's come up in the mass media is that although active Mormons hate the fact that it comes up (and to be honest, it still really annoys me years after I've had anything to do with the Mormon church), it's a P.R. stroke of brilliance. Whenever the issue comes up, any respectable news-source will go out of its way to say that it's been banned for generations. I think that this has the effect of immunizing the Mormon church from more important questions into its patriarchal structure. Because the way the early church practiced polygamy was such an obvious manifestation of this patriarchal structure, any question about contemporary manifestations of that same patriarchal structure end up getting avoided out of respect to avoid the polygamy non-issue. But it is the distinctiveness of Mormon patriarchy that I think is pertinent to Romney's campaign, and that I haven't seen addressed.

This gets me back to my earlier claim that although most Mormons behave like social conservatives, they aren't really social conservatives in the a way that's meaningful to contemporary American politics. I don't claim to get the conservative movement, but I take it that, for the mainstream conservative movement the fundamental issue with homosexuality, abortion, and "secular" culture generally is moral. These things are immoral and it is therefore necessary for the government, acting in loco parentis to police them. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literal word of God: The Bible, or the parts of the Bible they choose to read, promulgates a certain morality, therefore social authority ought to be mustered to back up the word of God.

Mormons, importantly, aren't fundamentalists. One of the Mormon Articles of Faith (the closest thing Mormonism has to a creed is "We believe the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God. We also believe the Bible to be the word of God, so far as it is translated correctly." In practice, what this means is that a literal interpretation of the Bible is less important than an authoritative interpretation of the word of God, and there is a clear line of hierarchy that explains where that authority comes (see my inappropriate sex joke about receiving the priesthood above). The ultimate word comes from the current Mormon president or his two counselors or the twelve apostles. Since they all agree with one another in public anyway, it's one and the same. There are strict lines of hierarchy that extend from Salt Lake to local stake presidents and bishops (a far less exalted position in Mormonism than Catholicism --- more like a pastor, the head of one congregation --- more on this later). From bishops (who like all local Mormon leaders are lay people who do their "calling" as unpaid work), it extends throughout the ward (equivalent of a parish) to every male head of household. This line of authority is far more relevant than any style of interpretation, fundamentalist or otherwise.

This flips the rationale for social conservatism on its head. Even if the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin and implies that the morning after pill is Satan's medicine, this is less relevant than the why: the why is that God commands it. In other words, family values are values because the head of the family has decreed them as such. The authority has decreed that they must be policed; therefore they are immoral. In practice, the difference is minor, but in rhetorical style it's enormous. This is why the Mormon hierarchy can present their policy towards abortion and gay rights much less dogmatically than fundamentalists but, when the cards are on the table, expect the same results.

I'd like to see the media look more at this aspect of Romney's persona. But I don't think they'd know how to. I've already suggested that a commentator who I generally really like really flubbed his approach to Romney because he emphasized the wrong beliefs and assumed the wrong style of social conservatism. I think this is because he didn't have a better model to go on --- he has to write a lot of columns and needs stories that fit a certain format. Anna Quindlen, maybe my least favorite "liberal" commentator (unless we count Colmes, but who does?) seemed to make the same mistake when she was weeping and wailing (rightfully) about the 2002 elections and wondered how a conservative from Utah could have one the governorship of Massachussets. I was surprised because the person I had heard win was a fellow whose background was from Michigan and Massachussets (he was around to lose a senatorial election to Kennedy in the 90s) and wasn't, at the time, presenting himself as particularly conservative. But Quindlen most have know better from me. All Mormons are fundamentalists from Utah. None of them are businessmen from tremendous privileged "East Coast Elite" backgrounds (I'm reminded of an employer of Heather's who wondered if my father --- a physics professor --- was a farmer --- what else do people in the farming powerhouse of Utah do? When he found out my uncle --- an engineer for Dupont, lived in Kennett Square, PA he assumed he was a mushroom farmer. Kennett Square proper is the mushroom capital of the United States; the surrounding area is a posh exurb of Wilmington, DE.)

One of the better articles that I've read on how Romney was also in the New Yorker, and it talked about his background as a management consultant and businessman. The main thesis of the article was that this background was more relevant to what kind of president he'd be than his background as a Mormon. At one point, the article did acknowledge that all Mormon males are essentially trained to be managers and businessmen but didn't really follow through with this to get to the point that to the extent that Romney's Mormon background is relevant, it's because it is identical with the particular business background that he has. The question I'd like to see someone ask is how Romney's considerable skill as a businessman (no one disputes, for example, that he did a very good job running the 2002 Olympics) mesh with the patriarchy of his religion. I'd also like them to stop and ask why they feel justified asking these questions of Romney and not, for example of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is also a practicing Mormon. They are right not to, but I don't think they understand why.

I've gotten way off track. Why does it bother me so much that people are concerned about Romney's Mormonism when I am also? I don't think it's just that I'm annoyed that they're concerned about the wrong things, that they can suppose that they can trot out tired old prejudices which lead them off on a wild goose chase even though it leads them to the right general conclusion. I think it's that by being annoyed, I've started to remember what it's like to see the world from inside Mormonism.

What do I mean by this?

Until I was nine, my family lived in Troy, which was a suburb of Detroit. Our identity out there pretty much centered around the Mormon church. Although we lived in Troy, we were in the Bloomfield Hills ward and the Bloomfield Hills . Bloomfield Hills was across the street from where we lived is a very well-to-do suburb, one that many prominent Michiganders call home. For example, it's where ex-governor George Romney lived.

I remember when I was a kid that my parents pointed out the bishop's father and told us that that man was almost President of the United States. When you're a little kid, this seems like a perfectly reasonable possibility. When I thought about that claim as a teenager, it became another moment in my growing realization of how provincial my parents world was. I mean, where did they come up with this stuff. And then I learned that it actually wasn't that far from the truth (it doesn't follow, however, that my parent's worldview wasn't provincial).

When we lived in Michigan, my identity as a Mormon was pretty secure, and I didn't feel any tension in my parent's identification as Mormons, although that tension had to be there on some level. Like pretty much every school in America, status at my elementary school was rigorously prescribed by wealth and sports ability, so I was a guaranteed outcast. The less said about my athleticism, the better. And growing up, I always thought we were poor. Only as an adult did I realize that my parents were too schooled in their parent's Depression values to take advantage of the perks of being safely in the upper-middle class.

But things were different in our ward where I felt welcome even though I didn't fit in any better. When my mom had to have brain surgery to have tumors removed we were farmed out to different families in the ward. I remember it being more fun than scary. For one thing, lots of those families had really cool gadgets to play with and really big houses to play in. But whereas not having those things made me different at school, it didn't really seem to matter at church. I didn't see much of a difference between the auto-exec families, or the doctor families, or even the ex-governor than the families of the professors or even the carpet cleaners. Of course, a lot of this had to do with the fact that I was a kid --- otherwise I would have noticed how the prominent church members came more from the doctors and execs and less from the carpet cleaners and blue collar workers.

When we moved to Utah, I was excited to go to a place where everyone would be Mormon. . . but I'm sure you can see where this is going. Of course, the social divisions at school were the exact same. And now those exact same people went to my church too! Without an outside to persecute us, we turned on one another. I often wonder if I would have remained Mormon if we hadn't moved to Utah. Certainly my oldest sister, who was 16 when we moved, is the only practicing Mormon among my siblings (except my 15 year old brother --- I think --- but give him time). And I know it would have made a huge difference for my parents, particularly my mother, who found herself at odds with a monolithic community and didn't know how to do anything but fight it (they were, of course, more than happy to take up the fight). I've decided it probably wouldn't have mattered for me though. In the end, my reasons for leaving had less to do how I perceived my "fit" than it did with the realization that I simply didn't believe it. My parents are liberals who have struggled to fit their values into their church's values. At a certain point, I realized that I had no idea to go through that same struggle.

But if we had stayed in Michigan, I think I would have left the church in a more peaceful way. I probably could have accepted the positive aspects that it had played in my life and decided it wasn't for me. I'm not sure I would, for example, have clearly seen the underbelly of its patriarchy as clearly as I had to in Utah.

In "the mission field" as Mormons call anything outside of Utah, the intermountain West and maybe certain parts of the West Coast, there is a shortage of able-bodied and minded men to run the organizations. A weird kid like me who wasn't particularly macho and had terrible organizational skills probably could have found a way to fit in to the local ward hierarchy (which starts prepping its boys for leadership roles at the age of 12). But in Utah, there are enough to go around, so there was room to have a few outcasts --- Now I don't mean outcasts among one's peers but among the grown men who run the youth organizations: The Boy Scouts, the Deacon's Quorums, etc. I don't exactly mean that they were unfriendly to me. It actually had to do more with the fact that I fit in better with them then with the other "young men." The nicer ones would treat me a bit as their peers; the meaner ones saw me as a smart-ass whose will had to be broken. But in either case this meant that I didn't engage them as mentors and tutors, which is what I was supposed to do. So the lessons in leadership, in organization --- in "manhood" weren't for me. I was, as my grandparents will be happy to tell you, the first Allred since the inception of scouting 100 years ago not to get become an Eagle Scout (I am proud to report that some of my little brothers have followed in my footsteps). When I decided not to go on a Mission, it pretty much clinched the fact that I was a lost cause. I tried to fit in with the Mormon church for a little while even after we moved out to Pennsylvania, but it was just too late.

If you want to understand how any Mormon male perceives his role in society, you need to understand the pervasive importance of this acculturation process. I went through it badly; Mitt went through it well --- this is why, even though he went through a "wild" period as a teen and I never did he was always a better Mormon than me. Harry Reid didn't go through it at all. He's an adult convert to the Mormon church. It's also why his Mormonism is irrelevant.

Notice how little I said about women in this conversation (and notice how in a discussion of the Boy Scouts, homosexuality didn't come up.) Women were, of course, irrelevant to this story (thus, for example, Ideas Woman, Esq. who is much more compotent than me had the obverse experience of Mormon patriarchy); and homosexuality is a choice (I could tell another "great" story about a relative of a different prominent Mormon family whose uncle was gay and who was himself in all likelihood gay, but who's parents nipped that in the bud by making sure that he masturbated to Playboy --- you can bet that this had no deleterious consequences on him --- but that's a different story. It's also not the story of a footballer who we'll call Shmeve Smyoung, another Mormon long rumored to be gay from a prominent Mormon background who we could tell a few stories about).

As I write, I've reminded myself of my great reasons for hating the Mormon church, even if I happen to love a lot of devout Mormons. But here's why that doesn't make me feel less ambivalent about the spectacle of Mitt Romney: I'm irritated that the press focuses on all the wrong things. The wackiness is irrelevant --- it's a fun barroom conversation but it tells you next to nothing about the religion, which can only be approached sociologically (I have an idea for a murder mystery where someone reveals the "secret" temple mysteries and is gruesomly killed. Everyone --- Mormons and non-Mormons alike --- thinks that it is because he revealed the temple mysteries, which used to have instructions for the ritual suicide of anyone who revealed them. But no one --- Mormon or otherwise --- would really kill for such a retarded reason, at least no one in America, certainly not the respectable businessmen who run the Mormon church. The true secret to Mormon's wackiness, to paraphrase Jacques Derrida, is that there is no secret.

But I digressed again. I'm irritated that the press focuses on a non-existent wackiness that seems to differentiate Mormons from other social conservatives and then proceeds to equate them when it comes to the important question as to why their beliefs are so compatible. I'm irritated that social conservatives are so hung up on the non-existent wackiness that they fail to recognize what a good friend they have in the Mormons, especially a decent-looking guy like Mitt who could bridge the country-club / social conservative divide better than any Republican. And even though I'm glad that Mitt hasn't actually done that, I'm irritated that he's such a douche-bag that he doesn't understand how to. It's painful to see him in public flubbing around, alternately defending Mormonism and distancing himself from Mormonism, but at precisely the wrong times.

Everybody misses the point. I think it's buried somewhere in here, but I've forgotten what it was and I'm tired.

Hopefully I've included a little something to offend everyone.


Friday, January 04, 2008

Nominalist Eating in Florida

This is a response of sorts to a post of Dr. J's blog.

First of all, let me say that any day that includes both eating burgers at a gourmet restaurant and a surprise wedding (as long as it's not of the shotgun variety) sounds pretty awesome.

However, Leigh's theory that this particular steakhouse "use[s] Burger Friday as a way to get rid of their leftover meat before their weekend rush" needs further elaboration.

Now, central to my non-vegetarianism is an utter denial about where meat comes from, so it seems very odd to me that steak can magically be transformed into hamburger (Mormons don't believe in transubstantiation --- see Hendrik "Hertzburger Friday" Hertzberg's otherwise good but offensive even to a no longer practicing or believing Mormon comment in the most recent New Yorker --- so I'm not being inconsistent here). So my question to Leigh (as part of her Ask Me? series --- assuming that's what it's called, I'm too lazy to go and look it up) is "how does serving hamburgers help this restaurant get rid of steaks?"

There's a little more background here, which needs to be explained. When Ms. Ideas Woman, Esq. was pregnant with Ideas Girl we visited her sister in Florida (Despite what my grammar implies, I mean Ideas Woman's sister and not Ideas Girl's sister, which would refer to a --- hopefully always --- empty set). Erica was in Florida as part of Disneyworld's Slavelabor for College Credit Program. (I think the credits she got were in business but they really should have been in Applied Marxist Theory or perhaps Sociology --- "Theories of Racial, Ethnic and Sexual Stereotyping in Job-Assignment at Amusement Parks." But I digress.

Now, as near as I can tell, Orlando has the worst food in America, if not the world. My dissertation advisor, who fancies himself a gourmet assures me that I am wrong and that there are in fact fine restaurants in Central Florida but we were unable to find them (We did find one excellent Northern Italian restaurant at Coco Beach, which was otherwise the nastiest beach town I've ever been to). We did find lots of Denim World's, Houses of Denim and other Denim-related outlets. And we found lots of chains serving greasy food.

Now, I am not one of those foodies who is above fast food. Just as when one rates wine, one ought to pay attention to the extent to which it fulfills it's varietal characteristics, I find nothing odd about holding certain fast food meals in high regard as exemplary of what fast food's potentials are. There was a great NYT article on this subject by one of their food writers who toured the country on a fast-food road trip, but it was a while ago and I am too lazy to look up the link to it. So, for example, I am generally fodnd of Quizno's. For this reason, we went to Quizno's a couple of times down in Florida. Like everything we ate there except for Krispy Kreme donuts (which exhibit the "characteristics" of "donut" admirably., Heather developed a food aversion to Quizno's that lasted the rest of her preganancy. I find it odd that with this current pregnancy all of her food aversions returned. So, for example, even though we've been to Quizno's a few times in the the three years between pregnancies she is now nauseous at the very idea, even though we haven't gone to Quizno's post-pregnancy.

One place that we went to down there was called "Steak - N - Shake" which I take it is some manner of Southern Fast-Food chain. If it had in fact been categorized under the variety "fast food" I think that the hamburgers there would have been fine. Quite greasy (I could feel my face returning to adolescent levels of acne whilst eating) but edible and flavorful enough. The problem was that they had pretentions of falling under the category of "greasy spoon" or "diner" or somesuch slightly more elevated category. And in this regard they failed woefully.

Why do I bring up this long and, let's be honest, rather boring story?

Well, on the back of their menus, they had the following blurb. "Why do we call our hamburgers Steakburgers? [this is in fact what they were listed on as the menus] Because we can."

Such a bald assertion of branding should have warmed my nominalist heart. But it left me irritated. If they were going to call it a "Steakburger" (registered trademark) than it ought to be made with a higher grade meat than, for example, Wendy's uses. I was similarly irritated when I ate at the Cafeteria of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and bought a "multi-grain bagel with crisp Romaine, lox and capers" and got a white-bread bagel with iceberg, some orange cream cheese and onions. If the HM wants to spend its limited resources on something more important than a quality cafeteria, more power to them. But don't advertise your food as something it isn't. Whenever I tell this story to people they imply that I am being petty or that it is inappropriate to criticize any aspect of the Holocaust Museum. I simply insist that one can seperate the cafeteria from the rest of the museum conceptually, and hope my detractors can do likewise.

All of this leads back to Leigh's post. Presumably there is something more than simply branding which makes the steakhouse's burgers both good and appropriate for a steakhouse to serve. What, pray tell, is it?