Monthly Archives: April 2017

Doctrines Mormons no longer believe: plural marriage

Of all the doctrines once taught and believed and practiced by the Church, the most famous, the most well-known is surely polygamy. Though it’s been officially disavowed since 1890 (or, at least, since 1904), it’s often the only thing people outside our faith know about us. Certainly, when I served my mission in Norway in the 1970s, Mormon equaled polygamy in most folks minds. They’d hear “Mormon” and either purse their lips in disapproval, or laugh. Big Love ran 5 seasons on HBO, and Sister Wives, a popular reality TV series, has broadcast on TLC since 2010. Of course, the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavows polygamy as practiced by fictionally on HBO, or in the highly mediated ‘reality’ of TLC, but in both shows, its practice is rooted in Mormon tradition, in the revelations of Joseph Smith. It’s not unfair to call their characters ‘Mormons.’

In the history of our Church, plural marriage went through a remarkable evolution. From the beginnings of the Church, polygamy was shrouded in secrecy, privately taught and (perhaps) clandestinely practiced. It then went public, and became the only thing people knew about us. It then went underground for awhile, until reemerging in subterranean enclaves. It was officially espoused, but also also officially condemned, though vestigial doctrinal remnants remain.

Joseph Smith certainly married multiple women (28? 31? 44?), as did others of the Twelve. Although officially denied, furtive polygamy was a shrouded part of Nauvoo culture.  The 1843 revelation on polygamy, canonized as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants wasn’t widely disseminated. Plus, there’s good old Emma. Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s first wife, who, uh, wasn’t a fan. The proximate cause to Joseph Smith’s murder was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, and its one and only issue, which exposed the practice of polygamy.

Secrets get exposed; that’s their main reality. When it became clear that the martyred prophet had received a revelation on polygamy, it wasn’t long before the Church embraced it, fully and publicly. Though, to be sure, Brigham Young made sure he’d put a mountain range between him and the people who were trying to kill him first.

So, 1851-1890. Plural marriage becomes part of Mormon culture, part of Utah life, part of LDS doctrine. I want to reiterate: I’m not an historian. I’m a retired playwright with wifi. Many many people know way more about this than I do. But my Mom’s family came from polygamous stock; I’m proud of my history and heritage. My Mom descended from Stephen Markham and his fourth (I think) wife Mary. He’s my FPA (Famous Pioneer Ancestor). My wife’s family comes from another FPA, Peter Maughan. And we tease each other about it; who would have won a fight between them. In fact, both Markham and Maughan were early Utah settlers; it’s not at all unlikely that they might have known each other.

Larger point, though: plural marriage was officially sanctioned doctrine. There were many many many talks, from the pulpit at General Conference, by men of Apostolic rank or higher, including successive Presidents of the Church and thus prophets, seers, and revelators, who taught that a plurality of wives was central to the Great and Everlasting Covenant, and therefore necessary for exaltation. And that was what was taught, most specifically by Brigham’s successor, John Taylor, in a big, highly disputed revelation in 1886.

There were women, at the time, who supported it. And we have to remember the context; LDS polygamy flourished in the Victorian era. Not a good epoch for women. Kind of a horror show for women and marriage. Income inequality led to massive social dislocation, leading to widespread abject poverty, leading to exceptionally high rates of prostitution, exacerbated by an incredibly hypocritical sexual double standard. Victorian men cheated on their wives with impunity, and mostly without consequence, except for a burgeoning syphilis epidemic. At least LDS men, when they slept around, did so with women to whom they were married. For many, many women, polygamy may have been marginally better than the alternative. Some sister wives really did become close friends. Others regarded their co-wives as succubi. My grandmother once told me of two women she knew, sisters and co-wives, who, when one of them died, it may have been homicide. Frontier women had a workload that was, literally, lethal. At least plural marriage divided that workload up a little. That’s the best case I can make for The Practice.

I’m not going to get into the various court cases regarding polygamy, except to point out that the Church had a strong religious liberty case to make constitutionally. Also, again, there are lots of people who know more about this than I do. The argument against it (us) was, essentially, a legal brief for traditional marriage. Ponder that irony, but also consider this; Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto, in 1890, doesn’t read as terribly heartfelt. Utah wanted admission as a state, and the Church stood to lose its financial autonomy. We’d lost the legal battle; best to surrender with as good a grace as possible.

Meanwhile, clandestine polygamy continued. Joseph F. Smith’s 1904 Second Manifesto was probably intended to put the matter to rest. Two apostles were excommunicated, and although practitioners weren’t required to give up long-standing marriage arrangements, officially sanctioned polygamy finally did fade away.

Of course, there are still lots of people who still practice polygamy in Utah and surrounding states. Some of them seem more like insane criminals than like decent folks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t non-crazy, well-meaning, well-intended plural families around. I don’t know them well, but have engaged in dialogue, and let me tell you, they can quote John Taylor’s 1886 polygamy revelation at you until the cows come home.

But I’m not part of that circle. I’m an active, Church-attending, calling-accepting active LDS guy. And I don’t believe in polygamy, wouldn’t practice it if I was asked to, or even commanded to, and recoil from the notion that it might be reinstated.

My good friend and former student, Melissa Leilani Larson, wrote a play a few years ago called Pilot Program. About a contemporary husband and wife, active in the Church, who are asked by Church leaders to add another wife to their marriage. It’s a wonderful play, powerful and moving. And it filled my soul with sheer horror. What a nightmare. Our contemporary understanding of marriage would not, I think, comfortably sustain plurality. We believe in marriage based on two things; romantic love, and absolute equality. Those strike me as incompatible with polygamy. That was not true in the 19th century. It just wasn’t.

Of course, vestiges of polygamous doctrine remain. If a couple are sealed together in the temple, and he dies, she cannot remarry in the covenant. He can. And single women are ‘comforted’ with well-meaning bromides about how they’ll be eventually sealed to a worthy male. Cold comfort indeed.

So, no. I do not believe that polygamy’s coming back, and couldn’t be happier about that. I’m perfectly happy in my own marriage, thank you. What about our history, though? How do I reconcile it?

I don’t know. That’s where I come down: I don’t know. I do know lots of people, men and women, who believe that polygamy was never anything but a mistake. That Joseph Smith was not inspired, and that D&C 132 should be dropped from the canon of scripture. They believe this quietly, for the most part, but I do know people who think that way. It’s an attractive idea, that the single thorniest issue of our past was nothing aberrant.

But I don’t know. I’m troubled by our polygamous past, but also inspired by it, inspired by the real lives of extraordinary women (mostly women), who worked through heart-break and loneliness and despair to make their preposterous marriages work. I’m inspired by what little I know about Mary Curtis Markham, my ancestor. It’s hard to think that her life-long toil was in support of pure error. It’s equally hard to conceive of God requiring something that feels so entirely and comprehensively wrong. Commandment or ghastly mistake; it’s part of our history. And it’s not coming back. Let it go at that.

Oh, joy. A tax cut.

Pretty much every morning, I spend a couple of hours quickly reviewing 10-12 news sources: Vox, Salon, Slate, Politico, The National Review, Mother Jones, a few others. In the age of Trump, most stories, on most sites, are pretty scary. The presence of Donald Trump in the White House constitutes a continuing national emergency; we do all know that, right? But this morning, Vox had the scariest story of them all. I mean, it wasn’t Trump-with-the-nuclear-codes scary. But it was still pretty darn terrifying.

The Donald wants a Big Achievement before his first hundred days are up. And on his wish list: a big tax cut. Here’s the link; here’s the quotation:

On Wednesday, President Trump will unveil a new set of principles for what he calls “massive” tax cuts for businesses and individuals — a plan bigger “than any tax cut ever.” Those massive cuts will come with a massive problem for Trump’s economic team: how to pay for them. The White House doesn’t appear to have settled on a means of making up the trillions of dollars in lost federal revenue that economists predict will accompany Trump-size cuts. But administration officials are signaling they may be leaning away from hard choices to finance the cuts, and toward highly optimistic assumptions about economic growth.


I shouldn’t have to say this, but okay, getting back to basics. If the federal government wants to spend money for something, it has to calculate where that money’s going to come from. Tax cuts equal spending. This proposal means that, in the mind of the President, the highest possible priority for our government is to give a lot of money to really rich people. How much money? Oh, about a gazillion dollars. Okay, how much really? We don’t know yet; no specifics have been announced. In his last public budget proposal, Trump wanted to cut somewhere around five trillion dollars over the next ten years. Give or take half a trillion or so. And, yes, that would be the biggest tax cut in history.

How are we going to pay for it? See, that’s the nice thing about tax cuts. You don’t have to worry about how to pay for them. They pay for themselves! Yay! Tax cuts for businesses and rich folks stimulate the economy into the wildest kind of frenzied growth. We won’t know what to do with all the money. Unicorns will prance into our homes, dispensing diamonds and emeralds. Money will literally grow on trees. We’ll have so much winning, we’ll get tired of it. Hoo-fricking-ray.

“Highly optimistic assumptions about economic growth.” Magic, in other words. Miracles, bestowed on America, because we deserve it.

This is an example of what Paul Krugman calls ‘zombie ideas.’ Terrible ideas that somehow never die. Tax cuts for rich people do sometimes stimulate growth, a little, when the biggest problem in the economy is a lack of investment capital. (As in the Kennedy tax cuts of 1963). That is absolutely not the case today. We have lots of investment capital waiting on the sidelines. What’s hurting our economy is a lack of demand. Ordinary people are hurting for cash, in other words.

Coming out of a demand-side recession, tax cuts have essentially no stimulative effect. They make rich people richer. Those riches do not trickle down. We’ve seen it again and again, most recently with the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. To be specific, we’re talking about the EGTRRA and the JGTRRA, the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (2001) and the Job Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act (2003).

They did not pay for themselves. The CBO calculates that those two bills added 1.5 trillion dollars to the national debt, not counting interest. They greatly increased income inequality, which remains one of our most troubling economic indicators. Middle-class and lower-middle-class folks have lost ground over the last fifteen years. That trend accelerated due to EGTRRA and JGTRRA. President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, all made public statements about how great the tax cuts had been, how stimulative, how fair. They’re contradicted by, you know, the facts. All that pesky evidence, found in reports by the CBO, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Tax Policy Center, and basically every professional economist who has studied the issue.

And now, President Trump wants to do it again, only four times bigger.

Okay, but all right, then, pal. Smarty-pants know-it-all. You say tax cuts don’t do much. Well, then, what about Reagan? Ronald Reagan took office when the economy was really struggling. He shoved a big tax cut through Congress. The 80s economy boomed. So, see? Tax cuts work! Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Sorry, but no.

Reagan inherited an economy in the doldrums, due to rampant inflation. Remember President Ford, and those goofy Whip Inflation Now buttons we were all supposed to wear? Turns out that wearing buttons with a slogan doesn’t do much to slow inflation. Raising interest rates does. That’s the job of the Federal Reserve, and under Paul Volcker, that’s exactly what the Fed accomplished. Also, in ’82, Reagan, terrified by the budget numbers he was seeing, called for, and got, the biggest tax increase in history (at the time). Then, Volcker having squeezed the inflation out of the economy, cut interest rates, from 20% in ’81, to 9.6% in ’83, leading to an economic boom. And, so, yes, in the mid-80s, the economy grew. Didn’t do much to raise poor people out of poverty, though.

What most people remember is this: the economy stunk under Ford and Carter, and it boomed under Reagan. There’s not much use disputing that narrative. But it’s insane to give all the credit for that to Reagan. It had much more to do with Volcker than Ronnie. Hey, the economy nearly collapsed under Bush, and revived under Obama; Obama would be the first to admit that he didn’t do it all alone. His stimulus did help though; there’s no real disputing that.

Anyway. I think a strong case can be made for the Bush tax cuts being the worst public policy of the last forty years. Most policies have positives and negatives. Bush’s tax cuts accomplished nothing positive at all. Their impact was wholly negative. And now Trump wants to do it again. Only much much bigger.

And Congress is likely to go along with it. They want a win too. This is familiar Republican ground; belief in the efficacy of tax cuts is perhaps the single most foundational dogma in the entire Church of High Conservatism. The world rests on the back of a giant turtle, and this is what that turtle looks like.

A few Tea Party cranks, bless ’em, have expressed ‘concern’ for the impact of these cuts on the debt and deficit. (We’d been making such good progress on the deficit, even with the Great Recession dragging the numbers down!). They might join a unified Democratic Party and keep this from passing. That’s it, though. That’s our only hope. That’s who we’re counting on. The Tea Party.

So what will the negative consequences be, of this massive increase in our debt? If we’re lucky, if everything goes well, we’ll see a decrease in public investment. Infrastructure needs won’t be addressed, at a time when we desperately need repairs and upgrades in roads, bridges, the electrical grid, schools; we have all kinds of needs. Government debt will crowd out private investment. It’s likely to be inflationary.

What we’re absolutely not going to see is economic growth so robust that the tax cuts will pay for themselves. That’s a fantasy. Which is why this is so dangerous. This President loves to indulge in fantasy. Policy: not so much. And that’s a really bad combination.

Why Democrats lose

I’ve been reading a lot of polls lately. Presidential polls suggest that President Trump is historically unpopular; that doesn’t surprise me. They also suggest that his base still loves him. And I genuinely don’t get it.

I’m circling around an answer in my mind, and yet it’s one I’m uncomfortable with. I’m a liberal Democrat, but I live in possibly the most conservative state in the country, and I get along just fine with my neighbors. I don’t want to give a typical, Democratic-talking-point hyperpartisan answer. But, what the heck, let me toss this on the porch and see if the cat laps it up.

Democrats are good at policy, but pretty bad at winning elections. Republicans are good at winning elections, but lousy at policy. Democrats want to govern, and are generally pretty good about it. Republicans awful at governing. But they are great at messaging. Because Republicans are much less reluctant to lie.

I don’t mean to imply that all Democrats are uniformly pillars of integrity and rectitude, and Republicans are all lying hounds. Of course, both parties spin. Both parties shade the truth. Both parties’ politicians market pretty sketchy ideas aggressively, emphasizing the positive, downplaying negatives. That’s just politics.

But I do say that Republicans are more likely to say untrue things to win elections.

Let’s look at both parties’ ideas about the economy. Republicans had a lot of success in the last election by talking about the loss of jobs in mining and in manufacturing. “I’m going to bring those jobs back,” promised candidate Trump. Small towns across America are losing their job bases. The one factory that kept the town going shut down, and folks lost everything. Republicans are going to fix all that.

What was the Democratic response? As far as I can tell, it was this: “we have a program for that.” Job retraining programs, with targeted welfare to tide people over. That’s a lousy message for proud Americans, folks who want to stand on their own two feet, folks who aren’t looking for a handout.

But it’s honest. Those factory jobs are, for the most part, not coming back. Corporations have moved them overseas, because big corporations survive by staying profitable. Sure, politicians could enact some protectionist legislation, but that’s bad economics, bad foreign policy, and likely to, at best, delay the inevitable by a few years. Sadly, a good way to become unpopular is to be upfront with people.

Donald Trump won by telling people what they want to hear. But he’s not bringing those jobs back. And the best thing we could say to people who worked at those shuttered factories is the truth. “Sorry, but that job is gone. Figure out something else to do. Here’s some help while you retool.”

Mining is another example of the same dynamic. Trump promises to be the ‘coal President.’ The coal industry will revive, and all those Kentucky/West Virginia/Pennsylvania/Wyoming coal mines will reopen, and, like their fathers/grandfathers/great-grandfathers before them, men of courage and character will venture back down the mine shafts and wring a tough life out of hardscrabble circumstances. And what could prevent it? Pointy-headed environmentalists. So cut environmental regulations, and we’ll dig ourselves out of poverty and energy dependence.

Every single part of that previous paragraph is wrong. Mining is not a noble profession. It’s not ignoble, but it’s crippling work, with a short life span, an good chance of dying from black lung disease; with horrible working conditions. Meanwhile, the most vibrant sector of the American economy is in alternative energy. That’s where the jobs are, that’s where the future will be found.

There’s a tremendous mythology surrounding coal mining, I know. That mythology is part of what Trump plugged into. But it’s nonsense. Coal is increasing economically unviable. Not to mention how much burning fossil fuels hurts our planet and increases climate change.

And the biggest job losses in our economy, as it happens, are in retail. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman had a recent column (which I don’t seem to be able to link to, sorry), in which he pointed out how many jobs have been lost in malls and big box department stores. Walmart survives, but Sears is in big trouble, as is Target, Shopko, K-Mart and other retailers. And when one of those stores closes, the job losses are massive, and as devastating to those workers and their families as the loss of a GE plant, or local mine would be. Why is this happening? Because it’s easier and more convenient to shop on the internet. Is that likely to change? No, I don’t think it is.

So why is less attention paid when a small-town mall closes than when a factory closes. Could it possibly be because retail jobs are often held by women, and factory jobs, by white men?

And what can be done about those job losses. Very little. Change is hard, economic dislocations are always damaging, short-term. But we can tell people the truth about economics. And, as Krugman says:

While we can’t stop job losses from happening, we can limit the human damage when they do happen. We can guarantee health care and adequate retirement income for all. We can provide aid to the newly unemployed. And we can act to keep the overall economy strong — which means doing things like investing in infrastructure and education, not cutting taxes on rich people and hoping the benefits trickle down.

Above all, we can tell the truth to the American people. There are things government can do and things government can’t do. Bringing back factory jobs happens to be something government is kind of bad at. But helping people with their community college tuition? That’s easier.

Also, tax cuts for rich people won’t help at all. That money’s never going to trickle down. But that’s a topic for another day.

Jason Chaffetz

Jason Chaffetz is my congressman. That is to say, he represents the Utah Third Congressional District, which happens to be the one I live in. I’m not proud of that fact. I have never voted for him, and can’t imagine a circumstance in which I would.

I think he’s kind of a weasel. I mean, look at him; he looks like a rodent. I fully admit, though, that my reasons for disliking him are entirely political and partisan. I am a liberal Democrat. If he were a Democrat, I would undoubtedly find him quite good looking.

Other reasons for me to like him. He’s a former BYU football player; I mean, a kicker, but still. He and I both graduated from BYU. His wife works with women with breast cancer, an admirable avocation. We’re both LDS. When he was elected to Congress, he decided to save money by sleeping in a cot in his office, Washington apartments being insanely expensive. When Stephen Colbert did his ‘Better Know a District’ routine (on his old show), Chaffetz not only agreed to be featured, but even leg wrestled Colbert. Chaffetz even agreed to appear on the Rachel Maddow show. Oh, he opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy. For about ten minutes. Then fell in line. And that about does it for positives.

Other than that, he’s pretty awful. For one thing, he’s a climate change denier. He’s an anti-vaxxer; wants to hold hearings on whether vaccinations cause autism. (Not really necessary, Jason, on account of this thing called peer reviewed, double blind scientific research). He opposed the Affordable Care Act, opposes net neutrality, hates Planned Parenthood, opposed marriage equality. As chair of the House Oversight committee, he wasted hundreds of hours and millions of dollars in a long, pointless, endless investigation of Hillary Clinton and Benghazi.

He’s an ambitious guy. He toyed with the idea of running for Speaker of the House, when John Boehner stepped down. He backed down when Paul Ryan threw his hat in the ring. (Or, more accurately, when Paul Ryan’s hat was ripped off his head and thrown in the ring for him).

Which is why it was such a shocker when Chaffetz announced that he would not run for re-election in 2018. And then, the next day, announced that he might even quit now, and not serve out the rest of his term.

On the one hand, I’m thrilled. I don’t like him, don’t like being represented by him, and am delighted to be quit of him.

On the other hand: what? Why? I mean, my gosh. What on earth?

I love real-life mysteries. Most people do, I think. And this is a corker. What’s going on? What’s the scoop? Why would this reasonably young, extremely ambitious politician just up and quit? In his statement, he offered the usual malarkey about wanting to spend more time with his family, which no one believes. He also tweeted, which didn’t help at all. It was a link to a puff-piece article about his wife, and how wonderful she is. My first reaction to that is to think that he must have done something really bad.

Anyway, the inter-tubes have been full of speculation about the whole thing, to which I thought I’d toss in my two cents. So here are the leading rumors.

He’s planning to run for governor of Utah, in 2020. Our governor, Gary Herbert, has already announced he won’t run for re-election. Chaffetz may be angling for the job, maybe as a prelude for a run for President in 2024. Could be, though why quit? He could run for governor while still a Congressman.

He really, genuinely, wants to make some serious dough. He’s got a lobbyist job lined up, and this is his chance to cash in big-time. That makes some sense.

He likes the investigative power of his House chairmanship. He was really looking forward to spending the next four years going after Hillary. But she lost, and suddenly he’s being pressured (by constituents, no less), to go after Trump’s many and varied conflicts of interest. That doesn’t sound like it’d be any fun at all. So he wants out.

He’s done something really really naughty. Woman troubles, or Russian blackmail, or something equally egregious, and he’s trying to get out from under it. The ‘my wife’s so wonderful’ tweet would suggest this. Maybe he thinks investigators won’t go after him so hard if he’s out of Congress.

He’s got a gig waiting for him at Faux News. That one seems kind of nuts, but the timing works. After all, it felt like Christmas in April when both Bill O’Reilly AND Jason Chaffetz left on the same day. O’Reilly’s replacement is Tucker Carlson, but he already had a Fox show. Chaffetz would be replacing the guy who replaces O’Reilly. A lot more money, and exposure, for a possible Presidential run.

Or (and I’m going to feel terrible if this turns out to be it), there really is some serious problem with his family. He genuinely needs to be home, to help deal with his son/daughter/wife. If so, I’m completely wrong about the guy. Which isn’t at all unlikely.

What I do not believe is that he just decided to quit. There’s something going on. There’s more to this story. Can’t wait to see what it is.



Multi-level marketing (scams)

You know that thing where you’re talking to someone about something, and it’s a thing you have a strong feeling about, and you express that strong opinion, strongly? And it turns out you probably expressed yourself more strongly than you should have? I did that recently.

Utah is home to many many multi-level marketing companies. Just in Utah County, I can think of several. NuSkin sells, like, dietary supplements. DōTERRA sells essential oils; I think they call their salespeople ‘wellness advocates.’  Morinda sells various products derived from a morinda citrafolia, a Tahitian tree that produces the noni plant, juice from which is supposed to be good for you. There’s also Neways; they also sell nutritional supplements. There’s Young Living–they sell essential oils–and Nature’s Sunshine–natural health supplements. There are many others.

And they all work the same way. Ordinary folks sign up for this stuff, and sell the product, but are also trying to get their friends involved in selling it too. You make your money via a pyramid. You get a cut out of your sales, but you also get a cut from the sales of the people beneath you on the pyramid. The basic model is Amway. Also Bernie Madoff.

Here’s the strong opinion I expressed that got me in trouble. I think multi-level marketing companies are all crooks. I think they should all be illegal. I think they’re scams, ripoffs, hoaxes, frauds. I think their CEOs should be in jail. I think the normalization of con artists is a bad idea, and that businesses built on a pyramid model are nothing but Ponzi schemes, pure and simple. And I tend to think their products are all, without exception, worthless crap.

I come by these views honestly. I have family members who have been ripped off in Ponzi schemes. I have seen how devastating they can be. I know people whose lives were ruined by Amway. I think the world would be a happier place if Amway was shut down, and its business leaders thrown in the slammer. And that would include Dick DeVos, former Amway CEO and husband of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. And that includes Jason Chaffetz, my Congressman, a former NuSkin exec.

In China, MLMs are illegal. Good for them. If you want to know why they’re not illegal in the US, check the previous paragraph: they’re well-connected. The Federal Trade Commission has been trying to shut down Herbalife for years. Herbalife has responded in the usual way; by buying Congressmen, and by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on high-powered legal representation. So does Amway; so does Mary Kay. These are rich, powerful companies. They aren’t going to be easy to stop.

And they’re big in Utah. And that bothers me. Why are Utah Mormons susceptible to these kinds of scams? Because we’re naive, gullible, trusting? That’s surely part of it. But it’s also Church connections. Our lives tend to center around wards. And our fellow ward members are also our friends. If a person you think of as a friend comes to you and says, ‘hey, I know about this great opportunity, a way for you to make a little extra money, and also enjoy better health. It’s worked for me, and it can work for you.’ Well, that’s a powerful inducement.

It’s also why these things are so insidious. A friendship shouldn’t be about some outside agenda. We’re friends because we genuinely like each other. We’re friends because we decided to make a commitment to someone, to maintain and nurture a relationship with another person, for its own sake, not because you can make something from it. MLMs take the idea of friendship, that personal connection we feel towards other people, and profane it. It’s fundamentally sociopathic. It’s like doing your home teaching solely to get good numbers, without making any effort to actually make friends.

Pyramid scams take basic, honest human feelings and turn them into sales opportunities. I want to believe that my friends like me because they like me. Not because they think they can sell me some kind of weirdo goop. Frankly, I think MLMs are worse than Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Madoff ran an investment firm; his clients may have thought of him as a friend, but that friendship began as a business relationship.

I remember when my wife and I moved to Utah. I was a new BYU faculty member, and we hardly knew a soul. Some old friends of my parents, BYU veterans, invited us over for dinner, and we were thrilled. We knew these people a little, and it was nice to think that they wanted to be friends, maybe introduce us around to this new university subculture.

And then they pulled out their selling materials, and told us all about what a great deal Amway was.

We weren’t just offended. We were hurt. We were angry. We hid it pretty well, and are still able to greet these folks, when we run into them, with polite cordiality. But what an opportunity wasted! Of course, any possibility of actual friendship was completely gone. And that’s a shame.

So, sorry, but it’s time for these rip-offs to end. China got this one right. MLMs serve no legitimate role in any healthy economy. Or in any health-promoting friendship.


Beauty and the Beast: Movie Review

It’s fairly easy to dismiss the new Disney Beauty and the Beast as the conscience-less money grab it frankly kind of is. I mean, it’s a remake of a ‘beloved Disney classic,’ which is to say, one of the good animated Disney musicals. I loved the original movie, despite having to see it (or parts of it) many many times, and was wary of this one. But the value in cultivating a both/and aesthetic is realizing there are many ways to understand any cultural phenomenon. My wife and I went to Applebee’s for dinner before the movie, and our waiter waxed rhapsodic when we told him what movie we were going to see. He’d seen B&B twice, was considering taking his girls to see it again. Loved loved loved it. Which helped put us in a receptive state of mind.

My initial response to this Beauty and the Beast was to think that the weak link in the cast was Emma Watson. This really bothered me, because I like Emma Watson. My wife loved her in this; she thought the weakest cast member was Dan Stevens, who played the Beast, who I thought was one of the movie’s strengths.

Emma Watson strikes me as an exemplary young woman, courageous and intrepid and bright as hell. Hermione Granger is all that too, plus aces at magic, but I really don’t think I’m conflating the actress with her best known character, except to the extent that they’re actually similar. Hermione is a bookworm; Emma has a degree from Brown in English literature. Hermione is an activist for the ethical treatment of magical creatures; Emma is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and a fervent feminist. They seem alike because they are alike.

Not to go all sexist, but what Emma Watson is not is a great beauty. She’s certainly an conventionally attractive young woman, and she has a modeling contract. But in Beauty and the Beast, she’s nothing special, and she flat isn’t the prettiest girl in the village. We see a trio of prettier village girls. So why is Gaston so besotted?

Because she’s all the rest of it; bright and intrepid and level-headed. He’s none of those things; he’s a spectacular narcissist. But as played by Luke Evans, he may be half-witted, but no one else in the village is even half. He has a tiny, pin-headed inkling that she’s special, that she’s unusual. And he wants to possess her. She’s a challenge. She dares turn him down. He’s a soldier and he’s strong and he’s so very good-looking; why she would turn him down?

Evans’ Gaston is a spectacular comic creation. He’s so good, it threw me off. Obviously, this insatiable mirror-gazer wants a shiny object on his arm; I was led to think that ‘beauty’ should be more beautiful. But Gaston wants to dominate. He wants to be adored, by more than his not-all-that-closeted friend LeFou (Josh Gad). I wanted a more movie-star-charismatic Belle. Emma Watson wasn’t interested. She got it, and I didn’t, initially. What distinguishes Belle from the rest of the village is precisely her independence and intelligence. That’s what constitutes her beauty, much more than an accident of bone structure.

And so, when she’s confined to Beast’s castle, what attracts her is not the Beast’s library, but the fact that he’s read all the books in it. They argue about Shakespeare. He is a former Gaston, a reformed Gaston; a spoiled rich brat who everyone adored, until cursed by a witch. He’s had to read, study, think, meditate. And at times, the Beast part of him takes over, and he rages. But the servant/furniture pieces all understand him better. They know he’s capable of kindness and gentleness. So when he orders them not to feed her, they respond by throwing her a feast. (And are so excited about it, she doesn’t get a bite to eat). And Belle comes to see it too, his essential goodness.

Granted, it’s still the Disney musical. We know all the songs; half the fun was anticipating what they’d do with them. (Hey, “Be our Guest” is coming up!) I’ve heard complaints about Watson’s singing voice. I thought she was fine. (Bear in mind, I also liked Russell Crowe’s singing in Les Mis). I wouldn’t want them to dub her voice; her singing fit her approach to the role. This is a more nuanced Belle, a quieter, smarter Belle. She didn’t need to be a Broadway diva anymore than she needed to be a movie star icon. She’s an actress; she thought her way through this character. And it works.

Of course, the movie looks great. The Disney Cinderella and Jungle Book both looked great. They’ve got the money to make these things look terrific. (If this is a corporate money grab, at least they make sure we get our money’s worth). And a who’s who of great British actors provide the voice work for the servants: Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor.

There aren’t any details to point to and say ‘see, they got that wrong, that isn’t as good as the animated film.’ It is forty-five minutes longer than the cartoon, and I didn’t think the extra time was padding. They used it to explore Belle’s family history; the death of her mother, and her close relationship to her father (a wonderful Kevin Kline). I liked that extra detail.

Ultimately, I thought the movie gave good value. One of my favorite actresses gives a fine, nuanced performance in a classic role. What’s not like about that?