Category Archives: Politics

What we’ve learned

The last few days have been among the most consequential and remarkable in American history. On Tuesday, President Trump’s campaign chairman and his personal attorney each were found guilty of multiple felonies, with an hour of each other. In pleading guilty to felonies of campaign finance reform, Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s attorney, declared that he had committed his crimes at the behest of and with the full knowledge of the President.

I hardly need say that this series of events is essentially unprecedented. It feels much as Watergate felt; disorienting, terrifying, and heartening in equal measure. The word everyone seems to be using is surreal. Commentators and friends alike have invoked Lewis Carroll. We’re going down a rabbit hole, we’re behind the looking glass, our only companionship a mad hatter, and a Cheshire cat. It is indeed brillig, and slithy toves are gyring and gimbeling their frantic lives away. Fortunately, our vorpal blades have one last charge in them. We can’t just beware the jabberwock. We have to kill it.

During Watergate, amidst the daily revelations of Richard Nixon’s utter contempt for the rule of law (and remember that he, no less than Trump, ran under a ‘law and order’ platform, promising to restore American stability after the chaos and disorder of the late 1960s), we were reassured to see the basic mechanisms of governance stepping up and providing a counterbalance to Nixon’s cynical and lawless power grab. First, the press investigated and published daily revelations of misconduct by Nixon and his associates. Congress launched an investigation. The Justice Department, in the event known as the Saturday Night Massacre, gave us the stellar examples of integrity Elliott Richardson and William Ruckelshaus.  Special prosecutors did their job, as did the Supreme Court. Above all, Republicans in Congress only stood by their man up to a point. When party loyalty became untenable, they ended their support for the President. Had he not resigned, he would have been impeached and removed from office.

The system worked. Not perfectly, not smoothly, but eventually, the right people stepped up and did their job. A Nixon henchman, John Dean, flipped. (Just as Cohen, fingers crossed, seems to be doing). Sam Ervin investigated. Woodward and Bernstein became American icons of investigative journalism. America survived.

The Trump situation strikes me as different. I have no crystal ball, no prophetic powers, but I remember Watergate vividly, and this is different, and a good deal more dangerous. The gatekeepers envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution seem enervated, or corrupted, or cowardly. We’re in this alone now.

For one thing, the press is not the force it once was. The great echo chamber of the internet has reduced the power and impact of good journalism. There’s great journalism being done, of course, dedicated reporters and editors trying their best to sort out what’s actually going on and what it all means. But it feels at times like they’re in a losing battle. Powerful forces prefer obfuscation to fact-based revelations, and the most powerful man in the country most especially profits from nonsense. Donald Trump has emerged not just as a moral relativist–we always knew that–but as an ontological relativist unmatched in the history of solipsism. Or rather, as the ultimate cynic, as someone perfectly willing to distort absolutely any notion of facts or reality. “Truth is not Truth,” said Rudy Giuliani (Trump’s astonishingly pliable attorney-spokesman: remember when he was looked up, admired?) recently. Any revelation inconvenient to this most astonishingly narcissistic of Presidents becomes ‘Fake News.’ And the internet enables the proliferation of fantasies, conspiracy theories and outright lies because it is built on a foundation of pure subjectivity, absolutely democratic. It is our collective subconsciousness, and from time to time, on social media, its true hideousness–the hideousness we learn, to our horror, of which our fellow citizens are capable–comes spewing out. 4chan, incels, the alt-right, Infowars, Breitbart, QAnon.  At its worst, the internet is pure chaos, unmediated and without any underpinnings in any worldview or moral stance, including the ones we learned as children: don’t lie. Liars are bad people. Presidents, however, are patriots. They’re here to protect us. Not anymore.

(“What is truth?” the oh-so-sophisticated Roman Pilate asked Jesus, and then dismissed the possibility of an answer. He could have answered it himself, though. Truth is power. “I am the Truth and the Light,” would have struck Pilate as absurd. Truth: a prisoner executed on a cross. How absurd).

So the Press is trying. But there are alternative voices ceded equal authority by many, even when they’re clearly and obviously lying. Congress, meanwhile, is under control of a Republican party that has abdicated, completely and thoroughly, any pretense of paying anything but lip service to Congressional oaths of office. They want their tax cut fraud, and they want nutjobs in the Supreme Court. Which is about to be joined by a man who has opined in the past that Presidents are above the law. In fact, that’s likely the reason Kavanaugh was chosen.

Some of us hold out hope that rule of law will yet prevail, and cling to the integrity and patriotism of the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller. His fight is an uphill one, however, with a President willing to fire and pardon his way out of trouble. That leaves us. We, the People. And we have to win in November. That’s what this comes down to; we have to win. We have to prove the basic decency and patriotism of the American people. And in my opinion, it won’t do just to win back the House. We need to win the Senate too (a much tougher challenge), and we need not just to win the House, but obliterate Republican candidates for the House.

But here’s what I keep coming back to. What, actually did we learn this week? We learned that Donald Trump’s closest associates are hopelessly corrupt and dishonest, and that not just his associations, but his fundamental understanding of the world is that of a criminal. (John Dean is ‘a rat.’ Flipping witnesses should be illegal.)  But didn’t we already know all that? We learned that the Trump campaign went out of its way to keep the American people ignorant of the most unsavory sexual escapades of their candidate. Nothing new there. We learned that Trump hasn’t the faintest idea what is legal and illegal when campaigning for national office. No big revelation there: he knows nothing, and has no interest in learning anything, at all, ever.

Slate Magazine recently published an article by William Saletan arguing that we don’t actually need any new revelations of kompromat or sex tapes or money laundering to prove that Donald Trump betrayed the United States. All the evidence is already out. He puts the story together convincingly–of course Trump has committed high crimes and misdemeanors. We know that; it’s obvious. We don’t need further Mueller revelations to prove it, though of course we want the Special Counsel to keep after it, and we do anticipate a lot more criminality to be revealed. Still, argues Saletan, the case has been made. The evidence has been provided. Haven’t we always known Trump to be what he is now revealed to be? A conman and a grifter, a career white collar criminal, a racist and a sexual predator, and the most arrogant ignoramus imaginable? How is any of that news?

Our country remains in a state of emergency. The story is racing towards its conclusion, and unlike Hollywood, there’s no guarantee the good guys will win. If we love our country and its freedoms, this next election may well be our last chance to save it. Sorry, but it’s so. This guy’s instincts are all authoritarian. We can only keep our Republic if we fight for it. Vote, call, give rides, give money, post. Do what you’re able to.


The first salvos in the 2020 Presidential election

Last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, a bill that would, among other things, require that certain very large corporations change the composition of the membership of their boards of directors. On Thursday, Kevin Williamson of the conservative National Review wrote a scorching article attacking Warren’s proposal, calling it, among other things, ‘batty,’ and charging that it would require the nationalization of essentially all American businesses. Matt Yglesias, one of the editors for, responded at length, calling Williamson’s article ‘unhinged,’ and questioning if he had ever read Warren’s actual proposal. The kerfluffle has been, to say the least, entertaining.

Let me admit right up front that I’m on Team Yglesias on this one.

Here’s what Warren’s proposal calls for. This proposal would only apply to businesses with over a billion dollars in assets, which would be required to apply for a federal corporate charter, not state charters as happens now. A federal charter would include these stipulations. First, corporate boards would be instructed to take into account the interests of all relevant stakeholders–not just shareholders, but communities, workers, customers–when making decisions. Currently, boards are generally instructed to consider only shareholders, the value of publicly traded stocks. Second, boards of directors would no longer be elected by shareholders only, but also 40% of them would be elected by workers. Third, executives would have to hang onto stocks received as part of their compensation for five years. Fourth, any political actions by the corporation would require approval by 75% of shareholders and board members.

Williamson says this would involve nationalizing all of American businesses. Yglesias responds that it would national zero businesses, and wouldn’t even apply to most smaller businesses. Williamson also uses a conservative slippery-slope argument, insisting this would result in the creation of a huge federal bureaucracy. Nothing like that appears in Warren’s bill. As Yglesias puts it: “I’m not sure he even read it.”

Any argument in which words like ‘deranged’ and ‘bonkers’ appear is surely entertaining, and both articles make for fun exercises in political vitriol. I’m on Yglesias’ side, though, for one main reason.

Surely corporate power is massive right now. And while capitalism is great and good and market economies rule, money is power, and big companies can surely be said to wield too much of it. Certainly corporations want to be profitable, and investors want to see a positive return on their investments. But corporate profitability is not the only national interest, nor the only natural interest. Communities want big companies to be good community citizens. Workers want to be paid a living wage. And the role of government is, it seems to me, to be an honest broker between competing interests. Not automatically side with business or labor, but work to find a balance between what they both want.

Corporations are people, we’re told. That legal fiction is in force in our society. Fair enough. We don’t want corporate ‘people’ to be vicious, selfish sociopaths (Hello, Amazon!).

In the meantime, why does there not exist a national service workers union? Why aren’t Walmart and Amazon and McDonald’s union shops? One issue in the last Presidential campaign–and I suspect in the next one as well–was the minimum wage. Bernie Sanders wants it to be fifteen dollars and hour nationally. While that’s an attractive proposal, it’s seems to be ham-handed and short sighted. After all, both wages and cost-of-living expenses differ wildly by region. Instead, how about increasing unionization? Let the workers at each company collectively bargain what their compensation will be.

And, as Yglesias also points out, the new boards of directors Warren imagines is hardly a radical proposal. What Warren is describing is called codetermination, and it’s common throughout Europe. In Denmark, any company with 35 workers has to include workers on its board. In Germany, half of the board can be workers, depending on the size of the company. Maybe there are good reasons to question whether codetermination would work here. But it’s worth studying. In short, Warren has made a proposal that is the norm in many other prosperous countries internationally, which she thinks we should try here. That’s hardly ‘batty.’

But I’m not sure this is necessarily about a Senate bill that, at least for now, will never so much as come to a Senate vote. I think it’s about 2020. I think Elizabeth Warren is going to run for President. I think this bill is her first major campaign proposal. And I think Williamson is preemptively trying to label her. Suggest she’s an extremist, suggest that her proposals are extreme and socialistic and untrustworthy. Suggest that she’s too batty to be a good President.

That’s all normal political positioning and a certain amount of rhetorical overkill is surely not unknown in major party politics. I like Elizabeth Warren a lot. I think she’s probably going to compete effectively for the Party nomination, along with Kamala Harris, Kristen Gillibrand, Corey Booker, a few others. But I like this proposal. I like the inclusion of labor in board decisions. I like requiring boards to include perspectives in addition to those of shareholders. I like codetermination. And I like a major party candidate taking a imaginative and creative solution to an important issue to launch her campaign. Team Yglesias all the way.

Korihor’s Children: Part 6.5

I had intended my next post in this series to be a) a lot sooner and b) a continuation of the arguments made earlier. Illness has intervened, however, and I thought a brief side excursion first might be helpful. I want to talk about a challenge I see a lot. My conservative friends frequently ask this: where in the scriptures does it suggest that the coercive powers of government can or should be used to help alleviate poverty? Isn’t charity a private matter? Doesn’t the Church oppose public welfare; isn’t our obligation to the poor supposed to be a matter of agency? Everyone agrees that the scriptures urge us to help the least of these, Christ’s brethren. But do we partially fulfill that through a government program?

The difficulty is that the scriptures describe a variety of societies very distant from our own. We are a religiously pluralistic society, with a democratic republic governing. We believe in a separation of Church and state. Throughout most of human history–and certainly every society described in scripture–none of that was true. A public v. private understanding of charity would have been nonsensical in ancient Israel, for example. The predominant political structure throughout most of history was monarchy or, occasionally, theocracy. Most nations had, and enforced a state religion. And caring for the poor was rarely any kind of governing priority. And even so, there are still a number of scriptures in which political/governmental entities engaged in supporting charitable activities.

To begin with, the Israelite practice of Jubilee was surely intended to alleviate poverty. As described in Leviticus 25, every fiftieth year, all prisoners and slaves were freed, and all debts canceled. Fields were to lay fallow, and everyone urged to celebrate the bounty of the earth. It was to be a year of simple living, with class distinctions erased. Property would revert to hereditary ownership. What that means in practical terms is that you couldn’t really buy or sell land–you could only lease it.

The existence of jubilee years would seem to preclude the possibility of income inequality, or at least reduce inequality. After all, if land is money, and land is power, the fact that anyone would have to return land purchased from other people every fiftieth year would militate against the accumulation of wealth.

So what we have described here in Leviticus 25 is a divinely mandated, but legally enforced anti-poverty, pro-equality program. Every fiftieth year, everyone’s debts were cancelled, and purchased land reverted to its previous owners. Would you say that’s a private anti-poverty mandate, or a public one? The context is so radically unlike our own, those terms are close to meaningless. But it was, in pre-exile Israel, a requirement, not optional. The coercive powers of the state could be said to enforce it.

What about the practice of gleaning? Leviticus 23 is clear enough about it:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God.

Again, the practice of gleaning was not an option. It was a requirement of the law of Moses, legally enforceable. When harvesting, you were expected to leave the corners of the field alone, and the edges of the fields as well. The grain in those areas was free pickings for poor people. Farmers were not allowed to discriminate–decide which poor people they’d let into their fields, nor frighten away gleaners with dogs. They were required to harvest so that gleaning could follow, and they were supposed to allow gleaners in.

That practice is central to understanding the book of Ruth, which I consider one of the most beautiful works found in scripture. Boaz obeyed the law, and seeing Ruth gleaning in his fields, was impressed by her. And the rest of the story followed.

No one knows how long gleaning took place in ancient Israel, or by what legal mechanisms it was enforced. It’s quite possible that the book of Ruth was included in scripture to encourage the practice. Many European nations continued doing it up through the mid-nineteenth century, and in Israel, some communities practice it today. You could argue that this was an example of private, not public charity. But if communities enforced it, and likely some did, then it wasn’t optional. It was a mandate.

What conservatives really object to, of course, is tax revenues being used for charitable purposes, as legally required and enforced by a strong central government. That’s the system we have today in the US (and elsewhere), and the conservative argument is that coercion, with the threat of violence, corrupts the giving of alms. ‘Let me keep my own money, and I will use it to help the poor, as God requires of me.’ (I hope I haven’t misrepresented the conservative argument here–let me know if I have).

The difficulty is that the situation of today, with a large, centralized, somewhat distant central government collecting taxes from us (under threat of violence if we don’t pay) doesn’t really have much of a parallel in scripture. That didn’t really describe the political situation found in most of the Bible, or in LDS scripture.

There is, however, one exception: Rome. When the New Testament was written, Palestine was under Roman occupation. Rome was big, distant, powerful, violent and rapacious for taxes. Taxes were collected by publicans, public contractors, member of the conquered community, who took a percentage of taxes collected for his own use, and also maintained public buildings. So, Jewish publicans were, well, Jews. And the profession was much hated, as you can imagine. It’s no accident that the phrase ‘publicans and sinners’ so frequently is found in scripture.

And there were many kinds of taxes. Land taxes, estate taxes, taxes on manufactured goods and traded commodities, a tax on widows and orphans specifically earmarked to pay for upkeep of military horses, a tax on unmarried men, a special tax if you owned slaves, another one if you freed slaves, and a third if you sold slaves. So many taxes, for so many purposes. And all of them massively unpopular.

What did Jesus think about them?

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Cæsar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22: 15-21)

It was a verbal trap. Let’s ask this Jesus guy about taxes. If he says ‘taxes are evil; don’t pay them,’ the Romans will arrest him. If he says ‘taxes are fine; pay ’em,’ he’ll alienate everyone. Instead, Jesus presents a third alternative. Pay your taxes; obey the law. And worship God. It’s a beautiful answer.

The Romans had a tax for everything, and a use for every tax. And most of those tax dollars were spent on the military, or on civic infrastructure. But taxes were also used to . . . alleviate poverty. In fact, a major Roman expenditure was for what has come down to us as ‘panem et circenses.’ Bread and circuses.

Romans were conquerers, and brutal ones. Roman circuses–the Roman Games–were horrific, bloody, violent spectacles. But panem? The grain dole–the annona–was instituted by Gracchus in the second century BCE, and continued under the emperors, and literally could be the difference between life and death for the Roman poor. It was also, of course, a way to prevent civil unrest and the potential for violent revolution. It was hardly benign. But people who might not otherwise get to eat did get to.

Should we have to pay this tax? At least one of those taxes was used to feed poor people. Did Jesus endorse it? No, he sidestepped the question. But he did not condemn it.

Certainly, the scriptural record does not unequivocally endorse public charity. Nor does it condemn it. And there are scriptural passages that support at least some form of public assistance for the poor. Of course, our best, most relevant scripture on the subject is found in the Book of Mormon, with King Benjamin’s address. I’ll address that next.


In Defense of Mixed Economies

Thought experiment: let’s suppose your daughter just got a new job. It’s a great job, one she has been training for and preparing for all her life. She’s tremendously excited by it, and you’re excited for her. But it will require that she relocate. in fact, it will require her to move to another country, leave the US, if not forever, for at least a substantial length of time. How excited would be for her? How scared would you be?

My guess is that in large measure, it would depend on where she would need to move to. If her new job were in France, you’d be delighted. You might have some trepidation–after all, this is your daughter we’re talking about. But you can always Skype, you can email, you can text, you can call. It’s not like you’ll lose touch with her. And France, my gosh, France is beautiful. You’ll think of ways to plan vacations around visiting her. You’ll celebrate at a nice French restaurant. You’ll brush up on your high school French. You’d be excited for her. Right?

But let’s suppose that she told you her new job was in Libya. Or Somalia. Or Afghanistan. Well, you’d be scared to death. You’d try to talk her out of going. If she was, in fact, going to those three countries, it would probably mean that she was in the US military, and heading into a combat zone. But those countries are, economically, not prosperous. They’re for the most part failed nations.

You want your child to move, if move she must, to a country with jobs, good health care, good schools, rule of law, adequate transportation. You would want her to go to a relatively prosperous nation.

In short, you would want her to move to a country with a mixed economy. You would be thrilled if she moved to Norway, Sweden, Denmark or Finland. You’d be delighted if her job were in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, or Germany. Austria would be fine. So would South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Italy would be fine. Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all have growing economies. So does Romania. Mexico has a problem with gang violence, but is otherwise fairly safe and prosperous. And they’re all countries with, to some degree or another, mixed economies.

What is a mixed economy? It’s a system that combines market capitalism with socialism. It has some of the characteristics of each. Generally, it means an economy where private property is protected, where the free market and supply and demand determine prices. It’s an economy that relies on the enlightened self-interest of individuals, to make their own basic economic choices–where they’ll live, what they’ll drive, what they’ll purchase. Rule of law makes for orderly conflict resolution, and regulation and taxation keep income inequality under control. It also has a robust social safety net. Quality of life is protected through laws governing how much people are paid, how many vacation days they’re allowed, what to do in the case of illness or incapacity. Generally, pensions are either generous or, at least, adequate. Education is well-financed. Governments take infrastructure needs seriously. Taxes can be fairly high. And health care is regarded as a right, and provided for either through the government or via government mandate.

A lot of my friends on the Right are terrified of the spectre of creeping socialism. They warn against it. They point, with trembling fingers, to the Bad Examples of Venezuela recently and the Soviet Union historically. If LDS, they like to quote Ezra Taft Benson on the subject. And if they’re LDS, they vote for either conservative Republicans or Libertarian Republicans. Libertarians are likewise loathe to embrace socialism. Their mantra is Freedom, by which they mean complete deregulation, with private enterprise expected to take over many government services, and with health care up to each individual. “There has to be a market solution” to the problem of health care access, they say.

And, up to a point, they’re right. The defining characteristic of socialism is public ownership of industry and commerce, with a command economic element. Prices are set by government. production quotas are set by the government. Weak industries are propped up and not allowed to fail, and everyone is guaranteed full employment, at wages established by government bureaucracy. It’s been tried, and it doesn’t work. By the end, the Soviet Union was an economic basket case. Today, Russia is a deeply corrupt kleptocracy, but with market elements–it’s doing a bit better. Free markets work. It really is fair to say that socialism, as an economic system, is a proven failure.

But so is laissez faire, deregulated, fully-liberated-and-free unrestrained capitalism. The nineteenth century demonstrated that nicely, both here and in Europe. Libertarianism doesn’t have a lot of test cases anymore, but Somalia remains one, a country without rules, laws or policing. They have two major industries–sale of an addictive hallucinogen, qat, and piracy. It’s a nightmare state, just recently starting to emerge with something resembling rule of law. The nineteenth century tended to devolve into the worst kind of Dickensian nightmare. Income inequality was rampant, and the poor largely just starved. And if we learned anything from the world-wide debacle of the Financial Crisis of 2006-09, it’s the complete failure of financial deregulation.

By hook and by crook, by trial and error, through experimentation and by degrees, what has developed in its place is the mixed economy. Free markets are essential, and free trade preferential. But economies do also include some planning, and markets are carefully regulated. And social safety nets prevent income inequality from utter destructiveness. In nation after nation on earth, we’ve learned a lot in the last fifty years. Scandinavia led the way, as did the Fabian incrementalist model in the UK and elsewhere.

In the United States, in many respects, we’re a mixed economy. Every country is different, every example internationally can teach its own lessons. Right now, I would suggest that the US needs a greater commitment to the socialist side of the mix. We need universal health care; we need pension reform, we need to make college affordable for our kids. This is all doable. And should be the policy approach of the Democratic party going forward.

Korihor’s Children, part six

Consistently, throughout the Book of Mormon, Nephite (and later Lamanite) prophets call the people to repentance for their failure to care for the poor. The prosperity/pride/fall/repentence cycle the Nephites repeat includes perhaps the most essential element; shared (and later, through transgression, denied) prosperity. When income inequality reaches a certain point, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated in his seminal work, Capital In The Twenty-first Century, nations inevitably decline. This is the central historical argument Mormon makes in his history of his people.

Which is why I return to King Benjamin. Mormon informs us that his book is a translation of two concurrently-written records, the large and small plates of Nephi, plus, later, an edited version of a Jaredite record. Joseph Smith began translating the large plates of Nephi, but the first 116 pages of his translation were lost by his associate, Martin Harris. This disaster had been foreseen by God, we’re told, and the small plates created in anticipation of this mishap. 1 Nephi-Omni are from the small plates, and Mosiah-Moroni, from the large plates, minus Ether. What this means in practical terms is that, in all probability, Mosiah was translated before 1 Nephi. Mosiah is thus the earliest translated book in the Book of Mormon. And it is, in my opinion, also the most powerful anti-poverty sermon in all of scripture.

My conservative friends insist that Benjamin’s call for his people to support the poor does not suggest that government do it. They say that he’s calling for private charity, for individual people to do what they can to alleviate suffering. And they insist that conservatives such as themselves do, in fact, care for the poor among them; that they donate time and money to help people in difficulty. And they do. I do not accuse my conservative friends and neighbors of hard-heartedness, of Korihor-ish selfishness. (Just the political party to which they have given their support).

And I would also say that this kind of tension between private alms and public anti-poverty programs is a relatively new development. Whether the Book of Mormon was written in the late 1820s or 100 AD, there would have been relatively few, and relatively paltry amounts of government assistance available for impoverished people pretty much anywhere on earth. Romans kept a lid on discontented plebeians by tossing ’em bread and entertaining them with circuses, and occasionally governments provided some small measure of disaster relief. But King Benjamin’s chroniclers may not have ever even considered a comprehensive, bureacratic anti-poverty scheme, no more than they would have been able to imagine a notional wall separating Church and state. Their high priests were often also their chief judges. And King Benjamin’s speech is overtly and specifically Christian in its approach.

Still, look at the setting for it. Mosiah 1: 9, tells us that the impetus for Benjamin’s speech was an announcement about the succession, a crucial matter for a king with three sons. In fact, historically, a king had no more essential function than this, to provide for an orderly transition of power. Was his talk a political address, or a sermon? Both, obviously, but the initial motivating force here was political.

And attendance was compulsory. He asks his son Mosiah to organize this big kingdom-encompassing meeting, and tells him that he wants everyone there (1: 10). So all the people in the kingdom gather. And they all show up, and pitch their tents outside the temple. And Benjamin sees how many there are, and orders a tower to be built (2: 7). so more people can hear him, and scribes to take the speech down so it can receive broader dissemination (2: 8).

So it’s a succession speech, with mandatory attendance, written down and published. That’s a big, important speech. And it may well have been setting up what would happen in his son’s reign, a transition from a monarchy to a quasi-democratic state: the rule of the judges. So King Benjamin’s speech is a succession speech, could be seen as setting the stage for a constitutional reform regime, mandatory and widely disseminated. The argument that it’s not intended as a political speech, or as announcing a political program really doesn’t hold water.

Of course, it’s also a sermon. And he begins by disavowing any special status as monarch. He’s not an Egyptian king/God. He’s just a guy. “I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man.” That’s his opening. He’s an ordinary person, subject to ‘infirmities of body and of mind.’ He’s worked hard to be a good king, and he thinks they’ll agree that he has served them, and God, well. At the end of his reign, his conscience is clear. He hasn’t taxed them heavily, hasn’t spent public money on lodgings or fancy royal outfits exclusive to royalty (there’s no sense of sumptuary laws, in fact). He has served their interest, and he wants them to do the same. There’s even a scripture mastery verse: Mosiah 2: 17. “I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” That’s what he wants from them. Dedication to serving each other.

This is, of course, a direct repudiation of the upcoming Korihor ethic, which is entirely selfish. But Benjamin takes it a step further. If they dedicate themselves completely, totally and without reservation, to lives of service, if they serve God by serving others absolutely, they’ll still be ‘unprofitable servants.’ Because we humans, we’re not worth much. We’re the dust of the earth. We’re inherently worthless.

I’m reminded of the great Moses paradox, found in the Pearl of Great Price, chapter one. Moses is brought to a mountain, and given a vision of, well, everything: the world–all the worlds–God had created. And Moses says “I know that man is nothing. Which thing I had never supposed.” And Satan shows up, and tempts Moses, and is rejected by him. And then Moses gets the same vision again. And God tells him this: “This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” It’s the ultimate both/and. Mankind is nothing, less than the dust of the earth. Mankind is also kind of the point. God created us for a reason, and that reason is more magnificent than we can possibly comprehend. Meanwhile, we’re dust. And unprofitable dust at that.

Korihor, you may recall, wanted people to “look up with boldness,” assert their independence and rights and privileges and powers, rejoice in the glory of their humanity. Benjamin begins by insisting that we’re fundamentally, inherently worthless. And also worth giving our entire lives over to serving.

Benjamin’s vision is foundational, the basis for the entire Nephite civilization. Next, we’ll show where his reasoning leads him.


Korihor’s Children, part five

Korihor casts a long shadow in the Book of Mormon. His ideas seem to have come from the priests of wicked King Noah, by way of Nehor and the kingmen, but his dark presence continues, influencing the Zoramite heresy and eventually, the rise of the Gadianton robbers. Giddianhi’s insolent bravado has echoes of Korihorish thought, and I see resonances in the history of that wiliest of Nephite quislings, Amalickiah.

I think that’s why he’s included. Imagine, if you will, that someone were given the responsibility of editing and compiling, from a variety of sources, a thousand-year history of England, with around 500 pages to work with. What should he include?  Shakespeare’s a no-brainer, and Henry VIII and the Reformation; does John Wycliffe make the cut? Henry V: in or out?  All right then, would our imaginary editor include a chapter on Ned Ludd?  Very unlikely, unless he thought the cultural audience for whom he was writing was likely to develop dangerously Luddite tendencies. And you were worried about it, and in fact, were writing the book to combat just those ideas. Then, yes, you’d include a good bit about Ludd. But not otherwise.

It’s generally historically dubious to draw direct and specific parallels between the actions of historical figures and actions being contemplated today. But scripture is different. Scripture isn’t intended to be read as history; it’s purposes are didactic and pointed.  We’re supposed to liken it unto ourselves.  The Book of Mormon, as scripture, is a 531-page sermon, in which historical materials are introduced to illustrate certain arguments, involving parallels between one ancient culture and our own culture, complete with heroes we’re meant to emulate, and villains we’d be wise to avoid.  When Mormon describes the arguments of Korihor, it’s because he has prophetic reason to think similar arguments are being made and listened to today.

And so, in Alma 30, in just a few verses, we get a compact, even if rudimentary account of what appears to have been quite a comprehensive philosophical system, complete with metaphysics, axiology, and epistemology.  It’s not uncommon for Mormons to use Korihor as a club to attack humanism, or philosophy, or perhaps some philosopher–Nietzsche’s a popular choice–they disagree with.  Gerald Lund, for example, in a reductio ad absurdem article in the Ensign, compared Korihor to Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson and their 1973 Humanist Manifesto II, which appeared in Humanist magazine. Korihor=secular humanism. That’s much too broad to be very meaningful, and frankly reads as rather shallow, and so may my reading be; all readings are misreadings, de omnibus dubitandum est. Still, it’s not hard to see, in Korihor, a very specific cult of heroic individualism, one in which “every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.”  In fact, ‘prospering’ emerges as the defining value of Korihor’s system, excusing conquest, the acquisition of power and influence, and pretty much any kind of sexual or violent conduct.  (See, for example, that chillingly all-inclusive ‘whatsoever:’ whatsoever a man did was no crime.  This isn’t moral relativism; it’s moral anarchy.).  I’ll grant as well, that Korihor, at least as he emerges in an account written by men hostile to his teachings, is just not that interesting a thinker. To find his like, we’d need to look at more popular thinkers; not really at philosophers per se so much as the sorts of people who play them on TV, so to speak.  Which may be why my thoughts turn so immediately to Ayn Rand: someone superficially appealing, able to hornswaggle such “deep thinkers” as Paul Ryan and Rand Paul into thinking her profound.

Because it’s all there. The celebration of individualist achievement. The rejection of religion and spirituality. The notion that everyone prospers according to his genius, and conquers according to his strength, and that no act by a strong man can be immoral. And how strong men are set upon and persecuted by religious do-gooders like Alma.

It’s hard to improve upon the marvelously preposterous nature of Randian dualism.  Instead of dividing the world into ‘body’ and ‘spirit,’ as most dualistic thinking does, Rand divides ‘body’ up into ‘ideal men’ and ‘second-raters.’ Her world consists entirely of strong men, who we should view as exemplars because of their whole-hearted pursuit of their own happiness, and of weak men, ‘nonideal’ men, who only want to drag heroes down.  Strong men advance all of society through their fearless creativity, and tiny, lesser men either bow at their feet, or contrive to destroy them.  Rand called her philosophy ‘objectivism’ (which isn’t a bad description for Korihor’s own metaphysical stance), but what she really celebrated was egoism:

All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good.  All which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil. . . . The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. . . This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him, and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency.  But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others . . . that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental (Harry Binswanger 450)

By far the closest literary parallel I can find to Korihor is that iconic architect of great and spacious buildings, Howard Roark, hero of Rand’s The Fountainhead. Well, John Galt, of course, but bear with me. In her preface to the 1968 edition of the novel, Rand made it clear that the “purpose, first cause and prime mover” of the novel was its portrayal of the “ideal man” Roark (vii).  If we didn’t know that going in, we’d certainly get it from the novel itself, a preachy melodrama in which Roark confronts and eventually defeats the second-rate architect Peter Keating and his mentor, the evil altruist–and in Rand’s world-view, ‘evil’ and ‘altruist’ are inevitably linked–Ellsworth Toohey. But there’s a delicious irony in Roark’s profession.  Essentially the main plot of The Fountainhead revolves around the building of a Rameumptom.

The grim comedy of the Rameumptom is found in Alma 31.  Immediately after defeating Korihor, Alma takes his sons with him on a mission to the Zoramites, a Korihorish splinter group who were “perverting the ways of the Lord (Alma 31: 1)” through idol worship. And which idols were they worshipping–what were their golden calves?  Nothing less than themselves.  The cult of heroic individualism takes on a new face and identity.

We all know about the Rameumptom, the “holy stand (Alma 31: 21)” where each Zoramite stood, arms stretched upwards, and thanked God for how terrific Zoramites were: “We thank thee, Oh God, that we are a chosen and a holy people (Alma 31:18).” Compare this description of the Stoddard Temple, Roark’s greatest building in The Fountainhead:

When a man entered this temple, he would feel space molded around him, for him, as if it had waited for his entrance, to be completed.  It was a joyous place, with the joy of exaltation that must be quiet.  It was a place where one would come to feel sinless and strong, to find the spirit of peace never granted save by one’s own glory (334).

I love the idea of a building where men can go to celebrate their own glory.  What’s fantastic about both the Stoddard Temple and the Rameumptom is how sublimely, wondrously, marvelously funny they both are.  (And all the funnier given the self-righteous humorlessness of Rand’s prose).  It reminds us that Hamlet’s stirring “What a piece of work is  man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!” is meant sardonically; those repeated exclamation points give the joke away.  Hamlet would surely appreciate the savage comedy of the Rameumpton; a religion built on a preposterously inflated self-worth.  (We know what their prayers sounded like: what do you suppose is in their hymnal?  Right Said Fred’s “I’m too sexy for my shirt,” perhaps?).  I remember a few years ago, a friend and I happened to be in Anaheim, and had the opportunity to visit The Crystal Cathedral.  It’s a spectacular building, and we enjoyed our visit.  But our favorite moment was a memorial to ‘Christian capitalists,’ where wealthy donors could give money, and get their names on a wall commemorating, well, them. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of, let’s face it, me.” (The danger, of course, for a Church of Me, is an ill-timed bout of flatulence from just one celebrant, which could literally blow the whole theology away.)

But, of course, the selling point is “freedom.” Freedom from restrictions, freedom from a moral code, freedom to do whatever you choose and to profit by it, freedom from societal, governmental or religious restraint. Alma, as a priest, is accused by Korihor of using his Church position to enrich himself. He is likewise accused of using his governmental position, as chief judge, to enrich himself. Korihor, like Randian libertarians, preaches liberation. Above all, of course, today, it’s freedom from taxation. Taxation is bondage, we’re told. It’s our money, and we want to keep it. Our hard-earned money, as we’re constantly told. Look up, instead of down, rise against arbitrary restrictions!

No wonder it turned out to be kinda popular. But King Benjamin thought otherwise.

Korihor’s Children, part four

Korihor only appears in one chapter of the Book of Mormon, Alma Chapter 30, though his influence resonates throughout the rest of the Book. He arrives immediately after a major national emergency, the deadly war between Lamanites and Nephites that left victims too numerous to even be counted. Following that war, Nephite society, exhausted and devastated, rebuilds on two seemingly contradictory foundations: the Law of Moses, and their shared belief in Christ. (That’s the defining peculiarity of Nephite society: Christians before Christ, non-Talmudic Torah-followers). In the seventeenth year of the reign of judges, Korihor shows up, preaching against Christianity. Alma makes a point of explaining that this was not against their legal code. People were punished for crimes committed, not for their beliefs.

Korihor is called Anti-Christ. And in verses 13-18, Alma gets specific. Here’s the gist of Korihor’s message (I’m paraphrasing):

Vs. 13: Believing in Christ is foolish and vain. Prophecy itself is impossible; no one can know what’s going to come.

Vs. 14-16: Prophecies are nothing but foolish traditions. You can’t know what you can’t see. You look forward to a remission of sins. That’s just insanity. You believe in things you cannot know; your doctrines and prophecies are nothing but a mass delusion.

Alma foregrounds these accusations of Korihor’s, presumably because they sting the most. After all, Alma himself is being called a deluded fool. (And some variant of the word ‘foolishness’ is used three times in these descriptions). But vs. 17 gets more interesting. This is where we begin to get a larger sense of Korihor’s teachings.

Vs. 17: There’s no atonement. None is needed: “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.” There’s no atonement because there’s no overarching morality. You prosper according to your strength, your will, your ambition, your work ethic and the way you apply your native wit.

Vs. 18’s also interesting. We’re told that the result of these teachings is ‘whoredoms.’ ‘Whoredom’ suggests prostitution. But I’m not sure that’s what Alma means by it. It makes sense, though, that sexual license would follow a program based on the rejection of all moral norms. But there’s an interesting phrase Alma uses: they ‘lifted up their heads in wickedness.’ In other words, they reveled in it; they distinguished themselves by it. Am I reading too much into this if I suggest an element of male privilege and sexual exploitation? We’re told that Korihor’s movement included both men and women, which might suggest consensual open sexuality. But there’s so much emphasis on power, on taking what you want and can fight for, it suggests, to my mind at least, a variant on rape culture. In any event, Alma has already told us ‘adultery’ was considered a crime in the Nephite legal code. Was marriage part of what Korihor’s followers rejected? Are we talking about the sexual mores of a hippie commune–theoretically, though not always actually, open and free and non-judgmental? Or something closer to a Playboy mansion: exploitative and woefully sexist, though presumptively built on equality?

Anyway, Korihor made what appear to have been tactical errors, taking his crusade to the two most rigorously pious Church strongholds in Nephite society, the people of Ammon (converted former Lamanites turned pacifists), and the people of Gideon (badly burned in the past by Noah’s priests). Both of whom tie him up and kick him out.

We are given what appears to be an excerpt of his examination by a Gideon high priest, Giddonah. Verse 23-28 are pretty much entirely in Korihor’s voice. Asked why he’s preaching Anti-Christian views, Korihor responds:

Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words. Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage. Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true. Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents. And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world. And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges. Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God—a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

The rhetoric is interesting here. Priests ‘keep (people) down.’ The people are in bondage. They’re not allowed boldness, or the free enjoyment of rights and privileges. They can’t ‘make use of that which is their own.’ Korihor’s message is one of liberation and self-improvement and empowerment. Priests are using the rhetoric of obedience and prophecy to keep people from honestly enjoying the fruits of their labors. I can see why it would be compelling.

It’s a rhetoric of freedom, a world-view in which any restrictions, moral, religious, ethical or legal are keeping people ‘down.’ Instead, Korihor urges his followers to look ‘up,’ to liberate themselves from bondage. And yes, Korihor is an atheist–something a sturdy Christian priest like Alma can barely wrap his head around. But I know lots of atheists who are perfectly moral people, who act charitably and kindly and show consideration for others and live the Golden Rule. And I know Christians who don’t do any of those things. Korihor, though, isn’t just an atheist. He wants to liberate everyone from all rules, all norms. He wants people to feel free to exercise their economic power, certainly, and also to use wealth to seize political power. Strong men will prosper. Who cares about anyone else? That seems to be Korihor’s ideology.

In short, he’s an Ayn Randian libertarian. To be continued.

Korihor’s Children, part three

The Book of Mosiah, though rich in sermons, simultaneously tells a rich and complicated story. Or, more accurately, three stories (or arguably more than three), beginning with King Benjamin’s long political/philosophical speech, but then going back in time, with various flashbacks. The principle narratives deal with Alma, and his church of religious separatists, who break away from the people of wicked King Noah, Limhi, and his leadership, trying to carve out a space for Nephites under Lamanite rule, and a group of emissaries from King Mosiah. Reading it, I get a distinct feeling of ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch.’

Noah is the king who initially causes all the trouble, leading to these miniature diasporas. And, yes, for most of us, the word ‘wicked’ is always appended before his name. It’s essentially not possible for Mormons of a certain generation to visualize King Noah without his leopards. In the iconic Arnold Friberg painting of his confrontation with Abinadi–which appeared in all those blue paperback Books of Mormon we remember from seminary–Noah is rich and short and fat and has a black beard. More memorably, he’s guarded by two snarling chained pet leopards straining to get at the prophet, who is old and in rags but still ripped. (Friberg loved drawing muscular guys, in common with Cecil B. DeMille, who Friberg worked closely with). Noah is surrounded by mysteriously Middle-eastern looking priests–we can see seven of them–who sycophantly make their complaint against Abinadi, in what has always struck me as a singularly strange way: by quoting Isaiah 52 at him. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings; that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good; that publisheth salvation.” That’s their coup de grace, their knockout punch. But it’s really important. Their theology is repeated endlessly by various Book of Mormon bad guys. Priests–or really authority figures generally, are specifically and richly blessed, by God, regardless of what they do. See, it says right there, in the scriptures, that priests–messengers from God–have particularly beautiful feet. That becomes a repeated theme; priests or kings or aristocracies should be popularly and financially supported. There’s no such thing as a bad leader. (“If the President does it, it’s not against the law.”) Abinadi has hurt their feelings, by pointing out how rich those same priests have become, and how far they’ve strayed from Biblical teachings. To Abinadi, holding priestly (or governmental) office carries with it responsibilities and obligations. If you don’t perform, you aren’t blessed all. (As Joseph Smith put it in another context: “when we . . . gratify our pride, or . . . exercise control  or dominion . . . in any degree of unrighteousness . . . amen to the priesthood or authority of that man,”) And Noah’s priests are bad at their jobs. Abinadi is quite specific, describing the duties they’ve neglected, the sins of which they’re guilty. Specifically, they abuse women.  Mosiah chapter 11 repeatedly points out the sexual dynamic of Noah’s court, with the king and his priests enjoying the favors of multiple wives, court prostitutes and concubines.

The court culture of Noah’s entourage is best described as one of toxic masculinity; sexually charged, contemptuous of moral norms, and violent. And boy, did they think they were hot stuff. Bigger, badder, tougher, stronger. After a military victory:

And now, because of this great victory they were lifted up in the pride of their hearts; they did boast in their own strength, saying that their fifty could stand against thousands of the Lamanites; and thus they did boast, and did delight in blood, and the shedding of the blood of their brethren, and this because of the wickedness of their king and priests. (Mosiah 11:19}

Abinadi’s sermon is interesting, and weird. It reads like what would become a standard Pauline understanding of the relationship between the law of Moses and the atonement of Jesus Christ, who hadn’t been born yet, but would be and who would, in time, redeem mankind. It’s like a simplified version of the Epistle to the Romans. The Book of Mormon does that repeatedly, of course; describes pre-Christ Christians living in the Americas. I’m not going to deal with the historicity angle; you either buy it as genuinely ancient or you don’t. My larger point, though, my political point, is that the specific condemnation of the priests of Noah is about their conduct, their ‘whoredoms,’ by which we mean an overall atmosphere of extreme misogyny, and their violent aggressiveness. Even when Abinadi warns of them of their impending destruction, these priests posture menacingly in response. ‘We’re strong, we’re tough guys. And we’re rich. No one’s going to destroy us!’ (Paraphrasing Mosiah 12: 15).

After Abinadi’s death, and after Alma’s departure to the Waters of Mormon, the priests of Noah become massive troublemakers for the Nephites. For one thing, they’re rapists. They find a favorite women’s refuge, a place where Lamanite girls gather to sing and dance, a recreation spot. They kidnap the girls, and that starts a war between the Lamanites and Nephites. They ‘marry’ the young women, have children by them, and become a group of people called the Amulonites. And stay trouble-makers for a good long time.

It’s worth pointing out that the Amulonites eventually join forces with the Nephites, which, of course, complicates the whole Nephite/light skin/good vs. Lamanite/dark skin/evil dynamic. Fourth Nephi couldn’t be clearer–“Lamanite” and “Nephite” were cultural constructions. That’s true generally; what we call ‘race’ is cultural, not biological. To the extent that racial differences exist in the Book of Mormon, they were essentially exploited as war-time propaganda. By both sides.

Anyway, that’s Noah’s priests, that’s what they stood for. Toxic, violent, hyper-masculinity. And that is quite specifically what Alma barely escapes, and what he creates his own society in opposition to.

So by the end of Mosiah, the people of King Limhi–Noah’s repentant son and heir–the people of Alma and the people of Mosiah have all gathered together. Limhi–who we sense never really wanted to be king all that much anyway–abdicates, and his people join Mosiah’s people. And we’re immediately introduced to another Korihor precursor, a guy named Nehor. We don’t learn much about him; his story takes up about half of Alma Chapter 1, but he comes across as similar to the Noah priests. He’s a big guy, ‘exceeding large,’ and with a nasty temper.

Nehor’s message is the same as Noah’s priests. (In fact, that’s probably where he learned of it). He preaches the ultimate in moral relativism: universal salvation. He wants priests to be paid, and for their message to be a lot more positive:

And he also testified unto the people that all mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.

There’s not such thing as sin, no such thing, therefore, as repentance or an atonement.  Everyone’s saved, without effort or difficulty. It is moral relativism writ large, or universalism in a new context. But note the undergirding of violence. Nehor gets good and rich. Starts his own church. And enters into a theological dispute with an older, revered member of the community, Gideon, loses his temper, and murders him. He’s caught, brought before the chief judge, Alma, condemned to death, and executed.

We do have to read between the lines a bit, but it appears that the popularity of Nehor’s message corresponds with a rise in income inequality. Nehor’s ministry is of necessity short-lived, but Alma’s response to it is suggestive; he sends out missionaries with a mandate to alleviate poverty. As for Nehor’s universalism, it might appear superficially attractive, to say that everyone will be saved, no harm and no fuss. And we Mormons don’t, in fact, believe in hell. Our theology posits multiple kingdoms of glory, not some dank eternal torture regimen. But moral relativism, on this scale, ends up excusing and rewarding violence. If nothing anyone does is bad, then why not lie, cheat, steal, rape and murder? Isn’t that the great secret of Cain, who became Master Mahan? “That a man may murder and get gain?” (Moses 5:31). And does this not suggest that income inequality is by its very nature violent? Isn’t that the “secret” of slavery, for example?

And, again, we see two schools of thought; one concerned with poor people, and helping those who were struggling to rise, and the other side getting good and rich through violence. And the Nephite cycle continues. Immediately after dealing with Nehor, Alma gets to deal with Amlici, and the Amlicites. A group of wealthy guys who wanted a monarchy, with Amlici as king, and who, after losing a national referendum, started a civil war. Which Alma was able to defeat. More wealth and more violence. And that’s my final point. When we talk about the Nephite cycle, poverty-righteousness-wealth-collapse-poverty and so on, we often leave out one of the most important factors: violence. Wealth does not always require violence–it’s possible to get rich non-violently. But it’s easier, and faster, if you’re essentially indifferent to the welfare of those you exploit. Nehor was violent, Amlici was violent, the priests of King Noah were rapists, the various Nephite Quislings who incited war with the Lamanites were men of violence. The Book of Mormon’s patterns of wickedness always include outbursts of what can only be called toxic masculinity. And it’s often directed towards women.

Next up: Korihor himself.

The Opioid problem

My wife and I went to a department store this morning to buy a new bed. Our salesman, I’ll call him Brad, was both well-informed and helpful, and we had a most agreeable experience, and are very happy with our purchase. Brad, who was great, needed a cane to walk, and had a bad limp, so I politely asked about his health.  As I suspected, he has very serious health challenges, bad hips, knees, back, and is in considerable pain. Without the medications he gets from a pain clinic, he said, he would be unable to function. And that’s getting more difficult. Because of the opioid crisis, it’s increasingly difficult for him to get the prescription drugs he needs. But for now, he’s okay; he can work, and he can function.

More pain stories: last week, as it happens, my wife needed minor same-day surgery. The doctors gave her a prescription for some pain pills, and sent her home. The drugs didn’t even begin to help, and by 2 in the morning, she was in such agony, I drove her to the ER. They put in an IV, and gave her some stronger pain killers, and in minutes, she was doing so much better, loopy, but no more pain. They kept for a day, and then sent her home again, and this time, with the pills, she was able to keep on top of the pain. My wife is as tough as they come, but serious pain proved devastating.

Pain sucks. Chronic, serious pain, can be completely debilitating. Brad, our salesman, strikes me as a friendly, outgoing guy, and a superb salesman. With pain pills, he can do his job, take care of his family, enjoy at least some positive quality of life. Without them, he can’t. My wife is healthier than that, but for a day or two, her pain made her life all but unbearable. Pain management is a crucial part of health care. Some people literally can’t live without it. And I mean that literally; a recent article in Psychology Today suggests that as many as 20,000 suicides a year are related to chronic pain.

And so, now, the opioid crisis has become a major political issue, and politicians have been speaking out against it. Opioid addiction does seem to afflict white older men than any other group, and that’s a key demographic. And so, there’s been a crackdown. It’s way harder to get Vicodan or Oxycodone than it used to be. And that’s a problem, because people addicted to prescription pain killers tend to turn to heroin instead. Which is way more dangerous, and way more addictive. But cheaper. Affordable. And 33,000 Americans die annually.

And President Trump recently weighed in, with that delicacy and intelligence and nuance and attention to detail that so characterize his Presidency. He seemed to think that the answer to the opioid crisis is to murder brown people. Like, you know, Duarte does in the Philippines. He also seems to think that people go to the doctor with a broken arm and come out addicted to Lortab. And the way to solve it is to build a wall on the Mexican border. His speech was as terrifying as it was cretinous.

Americans freaking out over drugs is certainly nothing new, and freaking out over anything tends to result in moronic policy solutions. Right now, American drug policy is basically one of interdiction. Our efforts focus on preventing drugs from entering the US. In other words, we’re dealing with a popular-but-dangerous commodity by reducing supply, while doing almost nothing to reduce demand. Economics 101: when you artificially reduce supply, demand staying even, prices rise, and so do profits. So our federal drug policy regarding cocaine right now is to make drug cartels way richer. This strikes me as, uh, not helping.

There are sensible people, and even sensible politicians, working on the problem. Before I share their conclusions, though, let’s look at the problem rationally. With opioids, it seems to me that, first and foremost, the priority should be letting people who desperately need pain meds to get them, if it can be done safely. And it can. Brad The Salesman works with a pain clinic, and without that treatment, he would be completely incapable of doing anything, including working. That doesn’t seem to me to be remotely productive. Pain killers are incredibly important medications. First and foremost, people who need them, need access to them, working with their physicians, should be able to get them. Cutting off pain patients is idiotic.

Are some pain meds over-prescribed. Probably, sure. There needs to be some education efforts aimed at doctors. Which, honestly, I don’t think is quite so essential anymore. Any doctor who doesn’t know there’s an opioid crisis is probably too clueless to practice medicine.

But for people who do become addicted, the emphasis needs to be on treatment. There should be a requirement that insurance policies cover addiction treatment. (Well, there should be universal health care which would include that provision). And a public awareness program, letting people know about treatment options would also be helpful. Finally, my son works closely with the Salt Lake City drug court, a court in which the entire emphasis is not on punishment or incarceration (that does nothing positive for people) on treatment, on rehab, and on helping addicts function in the world. Expanding the drug court option seems like a good idea too.

And, as it happens, those are basically the proposals in the final report by the White House commission on the opioid crisis and drug addiction. It was a bi-partisan commission, chaired by Chris Christie, and they did a terrific job. Solid proposals and action items. Murdering drug dealers didn’t make their list. Trump presented it badly–he’s Trump–but the commission itself did good work. This is a problem that can be addressed. It just has to be done properly.

Here are the final recommendations of the White House opioid commission

Donald Trump’s Excellent North Korea Adventure

Chung Yeu-yong, an experienced South Korean diplomat, got an assignment last week; visit the White House, and pass on the latest developments in Moon Jae-In’s peace overture towards North Korea. Chung met with Trump, and, of course, began with flattery–every foreign government in the world has figured that one out. He offered some insincere blather about how Trump’s “show of strength” had been helpful in opening the door to North/South Korean talks, then said that Kim Jung Un was open to a meeting. And Trump jumped on it. And the next thing you know, poor Chung was telling the American press all about this summit between Trump and Kim. And Trump completely blindsided his Secretaries of State and Defense.

Every week, I watch the Sunday news shows, not because they’re terribly illuminating, but because of the window they offer into Beltway conventional wisdom. And on This Week, George Karl was saying something I’ve since seen echoed in the mainstream press. Trump may be unorthodox and his approach may be chaotic, and certainly he’s not like any previous President, and lots of Asian experts and Korea experts have been trying to bring peace to the Korean peninsula for a long time, but maybe this time, the experts were wrong, and Trump, bombastic and impulsive Trump, could maybe possibly pull this off. Get Korea to disarm. Open North Korea’s economy. Welcome North Korea to the world of civilized nations. Disarmament, reduced tensions, commerce. Expertise may be less important that bravado. Maybe this seat-of-the-pants thing could work.

Let’s get real: There is not the tiniest chance of any of that happening. Trump’s bluster and insults have not helped, and won’t. If something happens, it will be because of Moon Jae-In, not Donald John Trump.  But peace with North Korea? There’s zero chance Trump makes that happen. Less than zero.

How can I say that with such confidence? Let’s look at the world of nuclear disarmament.

What would be the defining qualities of a nation that probably shouldn’t have nukes? I would say, first and foremost, political instability. A country without a stable, functioning government would not be a good candidate for nuclear arms. A country with a history of providing safe haven for terrorists shouldn’t have a nuclear capacity. A country with ferocious internal and religious tensions probably shouldn’t have nukes. And a country with massive poverty and a deeply unstable economy wouldn’t be a good place for nuclear missiles. In short, the very definition of a country that shouldn’t have a nuclear capacity is probably Pakistan. Pakistan has just enough wealth to support a nuclear program, but is also essentially a corrupt military dictatorship, deeply unstable and torn by sectarian conflict. Plus Osama Bin Laden lived in a nice neighborhood a short walk from the Pakistani version of West Point. Bad county for nukes.

But Pakistan is a nuclear power.

President Trump loves to talk about the failed diplomatic strategies of every US President except him since the end of the Korean War. Every President has shared the same policy on North Korea; that they shouldn’t have nuclear weapons. And yet, here they are, testing missiles, and testing nukes. Was it because all those Presidents were weak? Or stupid? Or because all the diplomats and area-experts have been wrong and foolish and ineffectual.

Not really. That’s the lesson of Pakistan; if a nation wants a nuclear capacity, and is willing to commit sufficient resources to achieving it, and doesn’t care about international opinion or sanctions or anything else, there’s not a lot the international community can do to prevent it. There’s not much the US can do about it, certainly. The UN could invade, presumably. That’s never been a viable option. If Pakistan has nuclear weapons, despite all the excellent reasons why Pakistan absolutely shouldn’t have them, we have very little recourse. Same with North Korea. Kim put a higher priority on building missiles than on feeding his people. That’s a stupid, evil priority. But we can’t do much about it.

We had, in fact, more leverage over Pakistan than we have over North Korea. Pakistan is much less isolated, far more open, much more free. I suppose it’s true that all those Presidents and all those diplomats failed. But what leverage did they have? What actual leverage do we actually have now? We’ve imposed sanctions. We’ve gotten China to do the same. There’s only so much those sanctions can accomplish.

It’s true that the Obama administration was able to negotiate a deal with Iran. There are major differences, though between the Iran situation and the North Korean one. For one thing, it’s wasn’t the US negotiating the treaty, many nations were involved, and many nations were willing to impose sanctions. We think of Iran as a theocracy, but it’s really a much freer society than North Korea has. And its government is much more complicated than the word ‘theocracy’ implies. And with Iran, the diplomatic effort took years, thousands of hours of painstaking negotiations by experts in Iran, and in nuclear disarmament. Trump thinks the Iran deal is a bad deal. He’s wrong, of course; it’s an exceptional diplomatic triumph, and it’s holding; it works.

And now Donald Trump thinks he can get a better deal than that with North Korea? An agreement on inspections, and on the specifics of uranium refinement (subjects about which he knows absolutely nothing?)  He thinks that by the sheer force of his personality and deal-making acumen, he can open up North Korea, get rid of their nukes, and build a hotel/resort/casino/golf course in Pyongyang? There’s not the tiniest chance of it happening.

Why did North Korea want nuclear weapons in the first place? Leverage, I imagine, but mostly because that’s why other screwed up countries want nukes: legitimacy. If you own nukes, people look at you differently, respect you, cater to you. Having nuclear weapons is an entree into the big boy club. And that’s what Kim Jung-un wants; international respect, earned legitimacy. He can’t feed his people, but he’s got missiles with nuclear warheads. He’s got the President of the United States tweeting at him now. He’s a Very Big Deal now.

Well, Trump is just handing Kim something he wants; a summit with the President. (That carrot’s been dangled for years; previous Presidents were too smart to fall for it). He has no intention of actually, you know, disarming. He’s going to flatter Trump and suck up to him; Kim’s evil, but he’s not stupid, and he’s seen what works elsewhere. If the summit happens–and it might not, because the foreign policy and military establishments here are pushing back–Trump will likely hand over other unearned, unnegotiated concessions. What he’ll want in return is something Kim could easily, blandly, smilingly, promise, with no intention of ever actually giving up much of anything.

Washington conventional wisdom is treating this like a positive step, because the Beltway is desperate to have a normal Presidency. There’s zero evidence they’ll ever get one until 2020. If this summit happens, Trump will give away the store. His own self-flattery aside, he’s an awful deal-maker, a wholly incompetent negotiator, because he doesn’t know enough to know what a good deal even looks like. He doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. If we’re all really really lucky, this won’t lead to a nuclear exchange, or just as bad, a horrific border war between the two Koreans. I have some faith in Moon’s ability to keep this all reigned in. But Trump’s ability to broker peace with North Korea? Non-existent.