Friday, January 12, 2018

On Contempt for the Poor

What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of hosts.
-Isaiah 3:15

I started drafting a blog post here a while ago, meditating on contempt for the poor, and am thinking about it again for some reason today. Isaiah 3:15 is a scripture my mom used to quote a phrase from when she'd read about or how a policy or practice that upset her: they "grind the faces of the poor" she'd say. Why are there so many ways people rip off the disadvantaged?

Two months ago, I read an article in the Washington Post about a district attorney in Texas who berated her Uber driver for following his navigation app rather than her own alcohol-influenced directions. She threatened to call the police and tell him they were kidnapping her. "Who are they gonna believe?" she said, "You or me?"

The driver realized she was probably right, so he took out his phone and recorded her. In a profanity-laced tirade, she did everything she could to tear him down. She called him, among other things, an f--ing joke and an f--ing idiot. She said she hoped the police would f-- him up when they arrived.

With the spread of cellphone cameras and recorders, the story is hardly unique. You can find regular instances of wealthier people with more prestigious jobs, often under the influence of alcohol, launching into extended tirades against poorer workers--who seem to have done nothing more than get ever so slightly in their way. And for the offense of making themselves noticeable when they are expected to be invisible and frictionless, these workers are, time and time again, ridiculed for their appearance, for the neighborhoods they are assumed to come from, for their supposed lack of intelligence, for any stereotype attached to their class.

The rants are awful to read. Growing up, I always focused on the word "grind" in Isaiah 3:15 and the way little acts of material oppression can wear away at somebody, but reading about just a few drunken tirades, it's hard not to think about the word "face." About the way people grind the face of the poor. The prophet's indictment speaks not just to the economic side of exploitation, but also to the psychological side of it. The Lord, the scripture says, wants someone to answer for this persistent crime. God is fed up at how casually people shame the poor to exert power over them.

It's a problem that concerned a lot of the early Latter-day Saints personally and viscerally. A friend of mine gave me his notes from a recent talk by Richard Bushman about the struggles of the Smith family when Joseph was growing up. He went through the economic side first, the little challenges and injustices that grind away at them. “These were the ailments of poor rural farmers everywhere," Bushman said.

But Bushman didn't stop with the material challenges. "Furthermore, I would add to the list something I think is powerful: the ongoing insult of class. It is the equivalent to the ongoing insult of race. That those who are poor are continually perceived as incompetent, degraded even." As evidence that the Smith were affected, he cited statements from their Palmyra neighbors collected by a disaffected Church member in the early 1830s. "The insult of class is everywhere in the Hurlbut affidavits," Bushman said. "The Smiths are condemned for their poverty.”

I understand, I suppose, that we are humans. Vain and insecure. I know that we like to think we're better than someone else, and I understand that if we have to grind the faces of a few poor people to do so, most of us won't hesitate.

We'll ask if any good can come from Nazareth. Or Haiti. We'll make fun of people's intelligence, their accents, their teeth.

And at the day of judgment, the prophet Isaiah will rise to accuse us.

I hope we repent before then.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Thoughts on The New York Times Obituary for Pres. Monson

The New York Times has known for at least a decade that one day they would be publishing an obituary of Thomas S. Monson. My understanding is that the standard journalistic practice is to draft obituaries of significant public figures in advance, updating them periodically, so that they only need finishing touches rather than a full research process when they are needed.

Even with the lead time, the Times clearly slacked off a bit on this one. Their main source seems to have been a glance through their own archives during the past ten years, which is understandable if underwhelming. But at at least one point, I'm pretty sure they also straight-up Googled to find a quote to insert. I say this because they threw in a statement about polygamy from the website yes, they did attribute the quote to the website itself and not its author, Rob Phillips, whose job code is "team leader of communications and apologetics" for Southern Baptists in the state of Missouri. I mean, is it really so hard to get someone to criticize polygamy that a national newspaper needs that source? 

Most commentators haven't focused on the carelessness of the obituary, but on its tone--which is either dominated by tough journalistic rigor or open hostility, depending on your perspective. Several people have contrasted the piece to the obituaries of figures like Hugh Hefner, which seemed more generous--not to mention less soulless and perfunctory. 

In response to complaints, the Times ran a piece in their Reader Center covering messages they'd received and offering their obituaries editor a chance to reflect on his team's work. The editor largely doubles down on the piece. I personally found his discussion a little condescending. But then again, it is entirely possible that I am an oversensitive religious zealot from the distant provinces of America with no appreciation for Real Journalism. 

The dust, I suspect, is clearing now. Very soon, if not already, people will find something else to talk about and whatever impressions they had of this incident will be logged in their memories in service of whatever large narratives they build up over time about the Church or the press or the country. Those stories are too big and strong for me to change, but I would like to reflect briefly on two of my own reactions as this moment passes: 

1) As an American, I am deeply disappointed by the missed opportunity this obituary represents. 
2) As a Latter-day Saint, I found my faith oddly affirmed by the piece. 

My Reaction As an American

I have been worried for a long time about the partisan fracturing of America. Years ago, I was in an experimental play where I responded to God's absence by going to fetch a golden elephant and a golden donkey, and the image has lingered with me ever since. I worry that our political and cultural positions have become idolatrous--and that organizing so much of the diverse complexity of reality through the lens of partisan fervor makes it hard to talk to, and to trust, each other at a moment when we desperately need talk and trust to face difficult problems. 

Like many Americans, liberal and conservative, I've been particularly concerned about the way political conversations have looked during the Trump campaign and presidency. I worry about the extent to which the president plays fast and loose with facts, the impulsive and emotive way he responds to private citizens and foreign leaders alike, the playground bully tone he employs on a daily basis. In a historical moment like this, I long for increased trust in public institutions where Americans can come together across old political lines to make sense of what has happened. As sobriety and dignity have left the Oval Office, I want to find them elsewhere. 

As the president attacks the media, I want them to do their best to act in a way I can accept as measured, careful, dignified, and open to a broad rather than a niche public. It's not really fair of me, of course, to expect that from media institutions with bills to pay and polarized audiences to serve. But I can wish for it. 

And this moment would have been such an easy opportunity. The Times needed to cover the controversies and the causes celebre of their left-leaning, intellectual-establishment base. But it shouldn't have been that hard for them, with a decade to prepare, to use the moment of a longtime leader's death to reach out. If capturing Thomas S. Monson's personal ethos seemed too small for them, there are plenty of other angles they could have used to explore his legacy. After all, Thomas S. Monson was called as an apostle in 1963. They could have mentioned his interaction with Mormons behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. They could have commented on his position as a religious leader during nearly six decades of significant cultural and religious change in the United States. 

I don't think they even would have needed to say anything nice about him, quite frankly. Dignifying him as someone who interacted with the grand scope of a long history would have been enough to stake a claim to a public sphere, where major religious leaders are a meaningful part of the history of the country. 

Instead, they left Monson's life squeezed somewhere between Kate Kelly and in his own obituary. And in doing so, they reinforced existing narratives--narratives the current President has worked hard to exploit--about the liberal bias of traditional media outlets and about their disrespect for broad demographic segments of the American populace. Mormons, who run civic-minded, have been open to caution about Trump even as they're remained by and large faithful to the Republican Party. Mormons are a community, arguably, moved by the moment to seek civic spaces for shared conversation that transcends partisanship. 

But the Trump team allowed someone competent on their staff to post a well-worded statement of sympathy and tribute--one with none of the account's signature all-caps phrases or self-aggrandizement--at the very moment the Times slapped together a case for their own insularity and called it an obituary. They gave their critics an unforced error to exploit, and by taking that approach at a moment of communal mourning, they earned double-points for alienating Mormons. 

The way I count it, American discourse lost. 

My Reaction as a Latter-day Saint

As much as I like my country, though, my faith runs deeper. In the long term, nations come and go, while religions extend through time--and, I believe, also transcend it. 

As a religious Latter-day Saint, I have a totally different reaction than I do as a Mormon-American. As an American, I wish the Times had reached beyond their own insularity. As a Latter-day Saint, I find it telling that they could not. The superficiality of the Times response is a witness to me of the depth and significance of a spiritual vision that even their substantial resources do not allow them to access. 

After all, if the nation's most prominent newspaper could plainly see what a prophet's life meant, what need would we have for prophets? Of course they miss they mark. Of course they fixate over a the latest controversies and can't see the subtle tapestry that connects us to one another on earth, the tiny dramas of discipleship that prepare us for exaltation. 

Of course they don't see an individual's lifelong commitment to listen to the still small voice as newsworthy. What to them is Tommy Monson's timely appearance, again and again, at someone's sick bed? What are his words of counsel to a quarreling couple in the middle of the night? His listening ear in a widow's living room or his familiar face at her funeral? 

Noise hides meaning. The wisdom of the wise will perish, Isaiah says. The kingdom of God creeps by on cat feet, hidden. 

If the Times could tell me how to live my life, what need would I have for the Holy Ghost? For a bedrock of values that go deeper than the latest news cycle? 

And so: as a Latter-day Saint, I rejoice when the prominent and the powerful miss the point. From a spiritual perspective, I appreciate it. 

President Monson never needed them to understand him. The world was blind to the prophets before him, too. 


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