Practice Makes Tolerable

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

I sure love Howard W. Hunter. He was one of the most intellectual of the general authorities, and he talked about the issues of modernity with the directness and foresight. Of course I like Elder Maxwell—everybody liked Elder Maxwell—but my appreciation for President Hunter took me by surprise because the only reputation he had for me before then was as a bit of a disappointment: he was the first prophet to be ordained while I was old enough to be paying attention and I hoped he would be around for a long time, but instead his tenure was incredibly short.

In any case, his talk in the Sunday Morning session of the October 1977 General Conference is a pretty great example of why I like him so much. Here is the opening:

Henry Ward Beecher once said, “It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk.” That was a century ago. There is now before us a danger that many may pray skim milk and live that not at all.

Our modern times seem to suggest that prayerful devotion and reverence for holiness is unreasonable or undesirable, or both. And yet, skeptical “modern” men have need for prayer. Perilous moments, great responsibility, deep anxiety, overwhelming grief—these challenges that shake us out of old complacencies and established routines will bring to the surface our native impulses. If we let them, they will humble us, soften us, and turn us to respectful prayer.

If prayer is only a spasmodic cry at the time of crisis, then it is utterly selfish, and we come to think of God as a repairman or a service agency to help us only in our emergencies. We should remember the Most High day and night—always—not only at times when all other assistance has failed and we desperately need help.

I highlighted quite a lot from this talk, but I’ll share just one other section of President Hunter’s words. He wrote that:

Prayer, reverence, worship, devotion, respect for the holy—these are basic exercises of our spirit and must be actively practiced in our lives or they will be lost.

In my life, viewing prayer (and the others) as something to practice has been incredibly beneficial. I read that ancient prophets prayed “mightily” and I thought about my own prayers and realized that there was really nothing “mighty” about them. So I stated practicing, approaching prayer with the same basic attitude as I approach long-distance running. It helped to have a plan, but more than that, it helped to view even my weak prayers as a part of a process of becoming better at praying.

Now I want to expand that to other areas of my life. Something I’m pretty bad at is getting spiritual sustenance out of a typical Sunday service. I like to be entertained. I like articulate lecturers with interesting ideas and novel ways of presenting those ideas. This is not what you’re gonna get out of a typical 15-minute talk prepared by a randomly-selected fellow congregant. And so, to be honest, I tend to read through Sacrament meeting.

I feel uneasy about that, and I should. The fact that I’m reading something spiritual—usually General Conference talks, over the last couple of years—doesn’t make it OK.

We tend to blame the speakers and Mormon culture for its general lack of emphasis on rhetorical ability and latent anti-intellectualism. I’m not going to tell you that those things aren’t real, or aren’t a problem. But I prefer to take responsibility whenever possible. If God wants me to worship with my fellow saints and be nourished by the experience (and He does), then He’s going to provide a way for me to make that happen.

Best start practicing, I suppose.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

The Story Behind Sexual Assaults: Power Corrupts

The list of prominent men who stand credibly accused of sexually assaulting women and children just keeps growing. Just today, Kevin Spacey and Neil DeGrasse Tyson got added to it.

In my cynical moments, I agree with Malcolm Reynolds

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Well, then you clearly missed the Wall Street Journal’s review of the Gandhi biography Great Soul which described (among many unsavory aspects of his life, from hypocrisy to outright racism) how “when he was in his 70s and close to leading India to ­independence, he [Gandhi] encouraged his ­17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her “nightly cuddles” with him.” If this is Gandhi, what did we expect from Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby? Perhaps our world is structured so that the people who get the statues built after them are the people willing to step on others to get there. After all, the blood on the hands of villains and the blood on the hands of saints is still the same color.

But there are two silver linings to the floodgates of accusations we’re now witnessing. The first is the most obvious: these men aren’t getting away with it anymore. For every famous icon who is shamed and punished, I hope there are dozens or hundreds of predators out there who begin to act with decency out of a sense of fear and self-preservation. I hope women are safer today than they were yesterday because of the courage of these women to come forward and name their attackers, and because a complicit and corrupt media has finally been shamed into covering the story.[ref]I should say: partially covering the story. I was disgusted to hear NPR discuss the Kevin Spacey allegations in terms of attacks against men instead of attacks against children. The ideological instinct to manufacture equivalence between genders is truly stunning, and it allows Hollywood pedophilia to remain as much as taboo subject today as Harvey Weinstein’s attacks were a month ago.[/ref]

The second is not as frequently commented on. That is the fact that the perpetrators defy partisan explanation. We’ve got a Republican presidenta Holocaust survivor, a famous gay actor (that’d be Kevin Spacey), a scientist known for his views on global warming and atheism (DeGrasse Tyson), one of the mega-pundits of conservatism,[ref]And let’s not get: the entire network that covered for him.[/ref] and of course Harvey Weinstein was a major Democratic fundraiser. Democrat or Republican, straight or gay, black or white, the list of predators confounds just about every conceivable partisan breakdown. And if you think your particular partisan niche is safe, just wait. Because here are a couple of inviolable rules of human nature. The first is that men–yes, men in particular–are driven by sexual desire. The second is that power tends to corrupt. This means that when men have the power to coerce victims and get away with it, quite a lot of them will do so.

This has long been my problem with so-called “rape culture” criticism. The term “rape culture” implies that there is some kind of special, unusual set of assumptions required to create an environment in which sexual assault flourishes. It is a tragically naive view that the default, natural state of human beings is to be kind and nice to each other, and if only we could get rid of these ideological perversions–the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, whatever–and return society to its default, natural state then rape would go away.

But analyzing rape and sexual assault through a political lens has always been a lost cause, because the origins of sexual assault are not political or ideological. It does not require some kind of special philosophy, culture, or ideology to allow sexual assault to flourish. Rape culture is not some kind of aberration. It is the default. Civilization is the exception.

Some people have expressed surprise or even skepticism at the #MeToo campaign. I have not. For whatever reason, when I was growing up I was the kind of person people liked to confide in. So many of my female friends told me of the times they had been sexually assaulted (up to and including rape) that I have long supposed that a woman who hasn’t been sexually assaulted is very, very rare.

The reality is that men as predators are not exceptions or aberrations. It doesn’t take a specific culture for rapists to flourish. That’s the default. It takes a specific culture to counteract the natural tendency towards exploitation and abuse. It takes unnatural institutions like criminal justice systems alongside unnatural concepts such as honor and duty and sacrifice to create an environment where rape is suppressed.

If there’s one thing that I hope we can learn from these horrific revelations: this is it. That the ideas that men and women are interchangeable or that moral violations are political are bad ideas. They are political dogmas that fly in the face of common sense, science, and–most importantly–that consistently sabotage our efforts to build an anti-rape culture. Because we should be less concerned with tearing down rape culture and more concerned with building up anti-rape culture. We should be less concerned with teaching about consent–which is a horrifically low bar–and more concerned with teaching ideals of respect, honor, virtue, and love. We should be less concerned with sexual liberation and more concerned with discipline and self-control. Yes, I realize that the idea of teaching adolescents concepts like chastity and self-control sounds laughable today.

That’s why we’re here.

There will never come a day when rape does not exist in our society for the same reason that there will never come a day when theft and murder do not exist. But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to tolerate this degree of profligate harassment and exploitation, either. It doesn’t mean we have to do nothing or accept the status quo. We do not.

What does this look like in practice? I don’t think Weinstein was confused about consent. Teaching him the concept would have accomplished nothing. But teaching him about chastity would not have done an iota more good than teaching about consent. However, a society that still had some appreciation for ideals of chastity, fidelity, self-control, and what used to be called “decency” would be a much more hostile environment for predators. We live in a country where the President of the United States could coerce a young intern into a sexual relationship[ref]Don’t try and tell me that there is such a thing as consent across that power differential.[/ref] and instead of being viewed as a universal affront to civilization it became a partisan issue. The day we decided Bill Clinton’s abuse and exploitation of women was somehow his personal business and decided to rehabilitate a serial sexual abusesr and accused rapist into some kind of grandfatherly political icon was the day that we told every Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the world: go ahead. It’s open season. As long as you’re powerful enough, we’ll look the other way.

If we returned to old-fashioned concepts of honor, propriety, and decency maybe some boys would grow up to be better men and never assault women. I believe that would happen. But–worst case scenario–at least we could take away the horrific sense of entitlement that men of power are currently operating under. Because, as great as it is for the current crop of serial abusers to get taken out, as long as the underlying assumptions of our society remain unchallenged, the only thing that will change is that the next generation of predators will be smarter than the last.

Irrational Voters

More voter irrationality from The Economist:

Image result for voters gif[M]ost [social psychologists] argue that it is a widespread tendency to attribute other people’s misfortune to personality traits rather than to the circumstances they find themselves in; we do the reverse when it comes to our own failures. This “fundamental attribution error” is discussed by Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, and his colleagues in a recent paper that could help explain many political outcomes.

There is no simple objective measure of a politician’s competence. But voters’ perception of competency appears to often be determined by ideology. For example 70% of Democratic voters thought Barack Obama would go down in history as an outstanding or above average president at the end of his term compared to 15% of Republicans. 

Even while objective outcomes do play a role in determining voters’ attitudes, voters often judge politicians on results that are beyond their control. Justin Wolfers, an economist, found that voters in oil-producing states were more likely to re-elect incumbent governors during oil price rises, and vote them out of office when the oil price drops—despite the fact that governors have effectively no power over the global price of a barrel of crude. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of Princeton and Vanderbelt similarly suggest a strong pattern of voters penalising politicians in the aftermath of floods, droughts and even shark attacks. They argue that in the presidential election of 2000 as many as 2.8m voted against Al Gore (the “incumbent” candidate in that he was a vice-president campaigning to replace his fellow Democrat Bill Clinton) because their states had been too wet or too dry that year.

It continues:

Voters are less interested in mechanisms to provide better guidance on who is a good politician or protect against bad politicians who are elected regardless: institutions like a free press or oversight mechanisms to fight corruption.   

Of course, no voting result can be reduced to a single set of factors, let alone one potential psychological quirk amongst the electorate. But Mr Glaeser and colleagues argue that the attribution error may lead to voters electing the lucky over the competent and selecting politicians on the grounds that they are strong in areas where elected officials actually have little control.  Not least, the paper suggests, voters favour presidential candidates who claim that they can manage the economy “despite the fact that presidential control over war and diplomacy is arguably far greater than presidential control over GDP growth”.

The social science is clear: voters are irrational.

The Gender Pay Gap Revisited

I’ve written about the gender wage gap before and a recent piece in The Economist on the subject graced my news feed the other day:

In the rich and middle-income countries that make up the OECD, the median wage of a woman working full-time is 85% that of a man. This is not, as many assume, because employers pay a woman less than they would have paid a man in her place. Data from 25 countries collected by Korn Ferry, a consultancy, show that women earn 98% as much as men who do the same job for the same employer. The real reason is twofold. Women outnumber men in positions with lower salaries and little chance of promotion. And men and women are segregated between occupations and industries; those where women predominate pay less.

Just a fifth of senior executives in G7 countries are female. Across the European Union supervisors are more likely to be male, even when most of their underlings are female. Nearly 70% of working women in the EU are in occupations where at least 60% of workers are female. The top four jobs done by American women—teacher, nurse, secretary and health aide—are all at least 80% female.

Occupations dominated by women have lower status and pay. Primary teachers in the OECD earn 81% of the average for graduate jobs. Nurses earn less than police officers; cleaners less than caretakers. Women’s lower earnings mean that after divorcing or being widowed, they often end up poor. And skewed workforces can be a problem for firms—and for society. BHP Billiton, a mining company, has found that sites with more women are run more safely. Heavily male police forces and female nursing corps are unlikely to have the best mix of skills, experience and priorities to deal with crime victims and patients of the opposite sex. One theory for why boys do worse than girls in school is the shortage of male academic role models.

The gender pay gap would shrink if men moved into female-dominated jobs and vice versa. But in America such workplace gender integration stalled about a decade ago after steadily increasing for more than two decades. A study of 12 European countries concluded that between 1995 and 2010 the share of female workers in most occupations changed little. A similar pattern has been found in Australia.


a survey by McKinsey in 2016 found that women in corporate America asked at the same rate as men. It also found that women and men were promoted at similar rates, except at the lowest rungs of the career ladder, where women lagged behind. A possible reason is that managers are reluctant to promote women who are starting families, or are likely to do so soon.

…A survey earlier this year of America, Australia, Britain, France, Germany and Scandinavian countries by The Economist and YouGov, a pollster, gauged how children affected working hours. Of women with children at home, 44-75% had scaled back after becoming mothers, by working fewer hours or switching to a less demanding job, such as one requiring less travel or overtime. Only 13-37% of fathers said they had done so, of whom more than half said their partner had also scaled back.

When women give priority to caring for toddlers they fall behind. A recent American study put the motherhood penalty—the average by which women’s future wages fall—at 4% per child, and 10% for the highest-earning, most skilled white women. A British mother’s wages fall by 2% for each year she is out of the workforce, and by 4% if she has good school-leaving qualifications. Jennifer Young, an American mother with a degree in mechanical engineering, had been out of the workforce for 13 years when Cummins, an engineering firm, offered her a re-entry internship in engineering last year. She had been sure that a part-time or administrative job was her only possible route back to work.

Lots of good info. Check it out.

High-Culture Activities and Meaning

I’m very much looking forward to economist Bryan Caplan’s Princeton-published book The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. Have been for several years. Battles over higher education usually focus on its ultimate purpose. Many argue that the goal of college transcends mere earning potential and is instead concerned with molding students into informed, critical-thinking members of society. The problem is that the latter is largely a fiction and I’m sure that Caplan’s book will demonstrate this more fully.

Interestingly enough, a draft of one of Caplan’s chapters is available online and it raises even more questions about the tastes and preferences people have.

Educators hope to enrich the soul in a hundred different ways. But there’s one form of enrichment high school and college pursues more explicitly and energetically than any other: instilling appreciation for high culture. English classes push classic novels, plays, and poetry: William Shakespeare, Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost. Music classes push traditional music, especially classical music: Antonio Vivaldi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and above all else, John Philip Sousa. Art classes are more hands-on, but still try to raise the status of visual works in top museums. Even school’s iconoclasm is conservative: Academic curricula often cover Kurt Vonnegut, Arnold Schoenberg, or Jackson Pollock, but rarely George R.R. Martin, Lady Gaga, or Frank Miller. Though some schools promote high culture more energetically than others, academic curricula are plainly tilted against pop culture.

How effectively has this tilt fostered high culture?

Image result for i hate reading gif…Consumer demand is shockingly low overall: American spend 0.2% of their income on all reading materials, barely more than $100 per family per year. Americans used to spend more on reading, but never spent much: Back in 1990, well before the rise of the web, reading absorbed 0.5% of the family budget. Today’s Americans spend about four times as much on tobacco and five times as much on alcohol as they do on reading. Within this small pond, high culture is no big fish. Here are three rankings of the bestselling English-language fiction of all time. Sales figures include school purchases and assigned texts, so they overstate sincere affection for the canon.

While sales figures are plainly flawed, all three lists [Wikipedia, Ranker, How Stuff Works] paint similar pictures of the public’s long-run literary tastes. High culture is but a niche market. Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities tops two of the three lists. The Catcher in the Rye, Ben Hur, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind, and Lolita all appear on at least one list. But fantasy – Tolkien, Rowling, Lewis – dominates. The point is not that fantasy lacks literary merit; by my lights, Lord of the Rings towers over Catcher in the Rye. The point is that the books high school and college classes hail for their supreme literary merit lose out to much less prestigious genres. By and large, literature teachers fail to “get through” to their captive audiences: They rarely spark love of reading, much less love of the genre they urge their students to admire.

In music, pop culture’s victory over high culture is even more decisive. The Three Tenors in Concert is the best-selling classical album ever. With twelve million copies sold, it does not even break into the top fifty albums of all time. Looking at overall sales, classical music is only 1.4% of the U.S. music market. Country is eight times as popular, and rock/pop over thirty times as popular. Classical does better globally, but still only commands a 5% share of the world’s music marketplace. Well, at least it beats jazz. The point, again, is not that classical music alone is aesthetically worthwhile. Bad Religion isn’t Bach, but it’s good. The point, rather, is that schools’ aesthetic priorities have negligible cultural impact. Even if American schools are the root cause of all U.S. consumption of classical music, their combined efforts only boost its market share from 0% to 1.4%.

Why is this the case?

The straightforward story, though, is that high culture requires extra mental effort to appreciate – and most humans resent mental effort. Students are overwhelmingly bored by Shakespeare, and the rare fan of high culture would probably have come to love the Bard on his own. Students sample a little high culture when their grades depend on it. As soon as the exam ends, however, the vast majority of students rush back to their low-brow comfort zone. Anyone reading this book is probably a bird of a different feather. You may even remember the names of the teachers who opened your eyes to the finer things in life. I owe my love of classical music to Mr. Zainer (General Music, 7th grade), and my love of literature to Mrs. Ragus (Honors English, 11th grade). A quick look at the basic facts, however, shows that our experiences are abnormal. The vast majority of our classmates emerge from years of cultural force-feeding with their aesthetic palates unchanged.

He concludes,

I am an economist and I am a cynic, but I’m not a typical cynical economist. I’m a cynical idealist. I embrace the ideal of transformative education. I believe wholeheartedly in the life of the mind. What I’m cynical about is people.

I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines. The best teachers in the world couldn’t inspire them with sincere and lasting love of ideas and culture. I’m cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring; they can’t even convince themselves to love ideas and culture, much less their students. I’m cynical about “deciders” – the school officials who control what students study. The vast majority think they’ve done their job as long as students obey. Deciders barely care if students inwardly transform for life as long as they outwardly submit until graduation.

…Mandatory study of ideas and culture ruins the journey. Even if you bite the end-justifies-the-means bullet, compulsory enlightenment yields little enlightenment. For all their Orwellian self-congratulation, schools are unconvincing. Under auspicious conditions, they fail to make either high culture or liberal politics noticeably more popular. Regimentation may be a good way to mold external behavior, but it’s a bad way to win hearts and minds – and a terrible way to foster thoughtful commitment. As Stanford education professor David Labaree remarks, “Motivating volunteers to engage in human improvement is very difficult, as any psychotherapist can confirm, but motivating conscripts is quite another thing altogether. And it is conscripts that teachers face every day in the classroom.”

I’m interested to see if Caplan beefs up his arguments in the final version. Nonetheless, this helped me realize that claims that we should, say, “save the arts” because it’s where people find “meaning” are exaggerated. Or at least misleading. “Saving the arts” is rarely (if ever) about saving low-brow entertainment, but most people prefer the latter. Most people don’t find meaning in books, opera, or Shakespeare because most people don’t engage them. Meaning, it seems, lies elsewhere for most people.

Most people just want to veg.

Image result for bored gif

A Regular Dad

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

One upon a time someone tried to insult me on the Internet[ref]A common occurrence, naturally.[/ref] and inadvertently paid my parents a lovely complement. I was, my interlocutor informed me, “emotionally spoiled.”

Being spoiled isn’t great, of course, but what this person was actually saying was that I was relatively well-adjusted. This was an angsty little corner of the Internet, but I didn’t really share in the angst. I didn’t feel lonely, or isolated, or bitter, or wronged, or any of those things. Most relevantly, I didn’t harbor any of the simmering anti-parental resentment that your typical 90s kid was supposed to harbor. I was free of all these hang ups not because of some virtue on my part, but because I came from a normal, typical, regular home: one where mom and dad loved each other.

Of course, I consider that normal, typical, and regular, but it’s not something to take for granted. That was what came to mine, when I read the end of a story from Elder Hanks’ talk in the Priesthood session of the October 1977 General Conference:

Somehow early in his life Bob has mastered principles and developed character that set him apart from most others. He is a regular boy in every choice sense of the description. Can anyone doubt that he will be an equally fine man, a good husband, a regular dad, a concerned leader who will help many others?

Elder Hanks came back to the idea of a “regular dad” again later on in the talk:

Only a few days ago in Arizona as I was at the pulpit in a conference meeting, a tiny boy came walking down the aisle and up on the stand, perhaps searching for a mother in the choir, maybe just investigating. He wasn’t making any fuss, but he was a wonderful little boy and I couldn’t refrain from pausing a moment and talking with him. I asked him his name and where his mommy and daddy were, and at that point a tall, handsome young man stood in the chapel and advanced to retrieve his child. When the father took his son in his arms in front of the pulpit he kissed him, and I had to swallow a quick lump in my throat. There was no embarrassment, no spanking, no yanking, no anger. There was just the gentle kiss and a loving hug in those big strong arms, and for all of us present a warm, tender, memorable experience from a fortunate youngster and a wise, mature, regular dad.

There is something both beautiful and perilous in this kind of normalcy. The beauty is easy to spot, like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life if just for a moment. The peril is there too, however, because once a moment like this becomes ordinary—which is the goal of any religion, society, nation, tribe, or family—we start at once to forget all the lessons that made such an everyday moment seem effortless and forgettable in the first place.

Every generation has to relearn the same lessons again for themselves, and the conduit for transmitting kernels of wisdom from the parents to the children is slender and fragile.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Vaping: The Safer Alternative

Another example of perfect being the enemy of the good and good intentions paving away:

Image result for vaping gifFlavor bans for e-cigarettes and menthol in combustibles are pressing policy issues that have received relatively little empirical study. Now that the FDA has the power to regulate flavors in both combustible and e-cigarettes, it has again been considering flavor bans for all types of cigarettes (FDA, 2017). Thus, there is an urgent need for an analysis of the impact of flavor bans on public health. Despite the need for this information, there are no studies predicting the impacts of alternative bans on the use of combustibles, e-cigarettes, and neither. We provide such information for adult smokers and recent quitters using a DCE and a large, nationally representative survey.

We find that flavors themselves serve as an attribute that drives choices across combustibles and e-cigarettes and choosing none. We conclude that flavor bans can be effective levers that affect smokers’ choices. Alternative flavor bans can either enhance protection of the health of the public or worsen it. Specifically, our results indicate that banning flavors in e-cigarettes, while allowing them to remain in combustibles, would result in the greatest increase in smoking of combustible cigarettes; and the use of e-cigarettes would decline (10.3 percent).

By comparison, we find that a ban on menthol combustible cigarettes would produce the greatest reduction (4.8 percent) in the use of combustible cigarettes across the flavor bans that we study. Much of this movement from combustible cigarettes would be to e-cigarettes (3.5 percent) and the remainder would be toward “none” (1.3 percent). Given that combustible cigarettes impose the most significant harms on those who smoke them, reducing the smoking rate would likely increase the health of the public. Our results suggest that policymakers need to consider simultaneously the impact of flavor policies on combustibles, e-cigarettes, and abstinence (pgs. 20-21).

One study found for “those aged 15 years and above in 2016, almost 6.6 million fewer premature deaths and 86.7 million fewer LYL due to cigarette use occur in the Optimistic Scenario. The average 15-year-old would increase their life expectancy by 0.5 years, reflecting the increased life span of those who have, or would otherwise have smoked cigarettes, switching to e-cigarettes.” Even in the Pessimistic Scenario, “a net gain of 1.6 million (1.4 million male; 0.3 million female) representing 6% fewer premature deaths and 20.8 million (17.8 million male; 3.0 million female) representing 8% fewer LYL are projected. Average life expectancy increases 0.08 years (0.14 male; 0.02 female).”[ref]E-cigarettes have also reduced smoking in Europe.[/ref]

While I’d prefer that people not smoke at all, I’m all for safer alternatives that reduce premature deaths.

Image result for gandalf vaping gif

The No Vote

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

Ordinarily, I skim really quickly over General Conference talks that aren’t really talks: financial reports, statistical reports, and the sustaining of church officers. But the sustaining of church officers for October 1977 caught my eye for this reason:

President Tanner: It seems, President Kimball, that the voting has been unanimous in favor of these officers and General Authorities, and we would ask those new members of the First Quorum of the Seventy to take their seats with their brethren, please.
Voice from the gallery: President Tanner? President Tanner?
President Tanner: Yes?
Voice from the gallery: Did you note my negative vote?
President Tanner: No. Let me see it.
Voice from the gallery: Up here.

So, a couple of things come to mind.

First, this was long, long before the new Conference Center. The Salt Lake Tabernacle was a lot smaller; it had overall capacity for 7,000 people compared to the 21,000 that fit in the new conference center. This kind of one-on-one exchange really wouldn’t be possible in the Conference Center.

Second, I had to Google around to find out what the concern was. I found an article from LDS Living that mentioned the event, stating:

The voice from the gallery belonged to Byron Marchant. He objected over the Church’s stance at the time of not sustaining those of African descent to the priesthood.

President Tanner addressed the event in the next General Conference (April 1978), saying:

During the last conference we had one dissenting vote, and there was some misunderstanding about it. Someone said that I treated him very curtly. I would just like to explain just what takes place if anyone or a number of people have a dissenting vote. We give them the opportunity to go to one of the General Authorities to explain to that General Authority why they feel the person is not qualified, and if he’s found not qualified, then we take the necessary action.

That April 1978 General Conference was the last General Conference prior to the 1978 Revelation that opened the priesthood to all faithful Mormon men, regardless of race. I don’t know much about what happened to Marchant after this, other than that he was excommunicated shortly afterwards.

The exact history of the Church’s policy of barring Africans from the priesthood and the revelation that ended the policy are complicated and controversial topics, and I’m not an expert. It strikes me as very sad that Marchant—and another man, Douglas Wallace (mentioned in the same article above)—were both excommunicated less than a year before the policy they protested was overturned.[ref]I’m reasonably sure they weren’t the only two, either.[/ref] The Church hasn’t had too much to say about these things, other than the very-important Race and the Priesthood essay published a couple of years ago on that stated the racial priesthood ban had no known revelatory origin but stopped short of outright calling it a mistake.[ref]The essay points out that Joseph Smith ordained black men to the priesthood, states that “There is no reliable evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime,” and then states that no theory or explanation for the ban that Brigham instituted in 1852 “is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church,” meaning that there is no accepted doctrinal foundation to Brother Brigham’s ban.[/ref]

I’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the talks as we get closer and closer to the October 1978 General Conference (the 1978 Revelation dates to September). I’m surprised that the topic has received almost zero official attention. There are a couple of implications here and there, but overall it’s basically completely absent. So a couple of further thoughts.

I don’t think there’s much basis to the complaint that—as opposed to in 1978—contemporary dissenters are directed to their stake presidents instead of general authorities. For one thing, there are more dissenters, in part because of organized attempts to acquire tickets to General Conference for the sole purpose of protesting. As the Church grows, this kind of thing is going to be pushed farther and farther away from the upper leaders. That’s unfortunate, but it’s hardly unprecedented. Moses learned that lesson the hard way.

I also don’t think there’s much comparison at all between the state of the priesthood ban in 1977 and the Church’s position on same sex marriage in 2017. The Church has communicated again and again and again that it’s position on the definition of marriage will not ever change. It’s been saying that a lot in recent years, but frankly it’s been saying the same thing—explicitly and repeatedly—all the way back to 1974 (the earliest General Conferences I started reading.) For the Church to change now would be to contradict decades and decades of loud, clear, authoritative teachings. The chances of this happening are essentially nil, and the effect if it did would be seismic (to say the least). In contrast—as I mentioned—I can’t find a single General Conference talk that defends the racial priesthood ban.

The contrast could not be starker. The racial priesthood ban wasn’t defended a single time in General Conference (at least, not in the years leading up to 1978). The Church’s position on marriage has been defended in every General Conference that I’ve read (from 1974 to 1977) and every General Conference that I can remember (over the last few years).

The hope some have that this policy is about to be changed does not appear to be grounded in any of the available evidence.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

Chinese Rebirth: Art and the Economy

Above is a pic of Chinese artist Chen Zhen’s 1999 sculpture Precipitous Parturition, which currently hangs in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City as part of its Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World exhibit. Zhen “used found materials, weaving black rubber bicycle inner tubes, plastic toy cars, and bicycle parts into a 25-meter-long writhing dragon form. Inspired by a slogan proclaiming: “In 2000, 100 million Chinese people will possess their own cars. Welcome China to participate in the competition of our car industry!,” the work comments on China’s transition from a nation of bicycles into a nation of cars.” If you look at the middle of the sculpture, you’ll see that the dragon is giving birth to an abundance of toy cars, capturing the essence of China’s emerging, globalized economy and culture.

As I listened to the background of Zhen’s art, I immediately thought of a 2001 lecture by the late Peter Drucker:

Let me start out by saying that maybe six weeks ago I had a visit from an old student. Forty years ago, he was a young Taiwanese. In the meantime, he has built a very successful business in Taiwan, and for the last seven years or so has been in Shanghai, where he is now head of a very large joint-venture firm. And I asked him, “What has happened? What’s the most important thing that has happened in China the last three to five years?” And he thought for about five seconds and then said, “That we now consider owning an automobile a necessity and not a luxury.” That is what globalization means. It is not an economic event; it’s a psychological phenomenon. It means that all of the developed West’s values–its mindset and expectations and aspirations–are seen as the norm…It is a fundamental change in expectations and values.[ref]Peter F. Drucker, Rick Wartzman (ed.), “On Globalization” in The Drucker Lectures: Essential Lessons on Management, Society, and Economy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 215.[/ref]

While Zhen may have bemoaned this modern China,[ref]It’s worth noting that even though Zhen grew up in China, he lived in France from 1986 until his death in 2000.[/ref] the country’s heightened participation in the global economy nonetheless yielded enormous benefits for the Chinese people.

Worries over increasing technology, urbanization, and globalization–and the cultural ramifications of it–are too often misplaced. Personally, I find it troubling that people pine over a lost era of poverty and misery. So instead of interpreting the toy cars in Zhen’s piece as a kind of spreading viral infection, perhaps we should see it as a rebirth; as something new and beautiful. Because that’s the only way I can think to describe millions of people being lifted out of extreme poverty.

Marriage is a Quest

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

You know the old saying: life’s a journey, not a destination. Journeys are cool. Quests are cooler. So I really liked Elder Faust’s quintessentially Mormon teachings on marriage in the opening Saturday Morning session of the October 1977 General Conference: The Enriching of Marriage. His exact phrase, coming at the end of the talk, is that “Marriage is a joint quest for the good, the beautiful, and the divine.”

The more I think about it, the less likely that is as a characterization of marriage. Oh, don’t get me a wrong. A lot of Elder Faust’s counsel is what we, as Mormons, are fairly used to hearing. The idea that “Our homes should be among the most hallowed of all earthly sanctuaries” places a Mormon home as basically one step below a Mormon temple and—I believe, at least—one step above Mormon meetinghouses. This might be an unusual position relative to the world today, but it’s exactly how we usually think about marriage and family and the home.

Similarly, Elder Faust’s teaching that “We understand best the full meaning of love when we become parents” is another absolutely distinctive Mormon teaching. We’re the guys, after all, who believe not only in God the Father but also in God the Mother. It is naturel for us to see our role as parents as echoes of Gods’ roles as Parents, and to see in our love and willingness to sacrifice for our little ones the love and willingness of our Father and Mother to sacrifice for all their children.

And yet, the idea that marriages is a quest still struck me as new.

I can’t even tell you for sure what it means, but I’m mulling it over.

My early thoughts? The idea that marriage is a quest emphasizes that marriage isn’t just a state of being. First you’re single, then you’re married. At one time you were young, now you’re old. Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you’re sad. No, marriage is a goal-directed activity. It’s intentional. It’s something we do, not just a state we happen to be in.

What I am still pondering—and will continue to ponder after I finish this post—is how the goals of marriage (things like: coming to a unity of love with your spouse and exercising love for your children) generalize to the goals Elder Faust spoke of: the good, the beautiful, and the divine.

I haven’t got that resolved yet, but I’m going to be meditating on it until (hopefully) I do.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!