Notes from Underground


U.S. vs. FLDS:
Prejudice vs. principle



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The raid by state authorities on the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints community in El Dorado, Texas, and the subsequent wresting away of 463 of that group's children by the same powers-that-be with badges, has provoked familiar and predictable reactions from different sectors of the American cultural mainstream. Some are sickened yet also titillated by the sect's strange beliefs and customs, which apparently include not just polygamy but also the marrying off of teenage girls to men of advanced middle age. Some are freaked out by the mere sight of the group's women, with their highly unflattering ankle-length prairie dresses, unpainted faces, and bunned-up hair. (The old-school ladies who populate M. Night Shyamalan's "Village" look positively glamorous by comparison.) Lurid reports of an abundance of FLDS members' suffering from the side-effects of inbreeding have also captured the prurient imagination of many a People magazine reader and "World News Tonight" viewer.

Others, however, are perfectly willing to overlook the moral and aesthetic shortcomings of the FLDS, and are instead prone to fixate on the jackbooted, helmeted, bulletproof-vested men who burst their way into the FLDS "compound" (a spurious word always used to describe a place where supposedly abnormal people dwell) and took away the kids — all of those actions having been undertaken on the basis of an anonymous call to the police from an allegedly imperiled teenage girl, a call now revealed almost certainly to have been a hoax. For many civil libertarians, El Dorado in '08 looks uncomfortably like Waco back in '93: once again, a religious sect in the state of Texas has been targeted by agents of the state on suspicion of child abuse. Unlike the Branch Davidians, the FLDS have not put up much of a fight, and a bloody and fiery standoff has been averted.

Still, the lack of violence hasn't quelled the furious debate over the matter. As with previous American media-fueled controversies (one thinks of Elian Gonzalez, Terry Schiavo, and the current presidential campaign), the event has led to the hyperbolic spewing of mutual anathemas between two hostile camps. The other day, I heard a radio announcer say that if you were against the raid on the "Yearning for Zion" ranch, then you were "just as sick as the sickos who rape 13-year-old girls." Others, of course, have indulged in equally irresponsible rhetoric on behalf of the FLDS, claiming that the group is simply the victim of a "witch hunt," as if no credible evidence of unsavory behavior on the part of Warren Jeffs and his cronies existed.

Such a tack, it may be recalled, was taken by many critics of the government's tactics at Waco; some claimed that David Koresh wasn't really a megalomaniacal cult leader but a well-meaning guy with some unconventional ideas. That proclivity to pitch one's ideological tent on the sinking ground of an untenable assertion — owing to one's earnest and reasonable distaste for the extreme behavior of one's enemy — has become an all-too-common trait of contemporary American debate and discourse. The fact is, the FLDS, like the Branch Davidians before them, have some significant and major flaws. Assenting to that proposition doesn't in any sense put one in the camp of their persecutors: those thuggish and heavy-footed agents of the United State (and their state-level partners). Yet it appears that the "culture war" mentality, having insidiously wormed its way into our collective psyche, has no room for such a balanced position. You've got to see the FLDS either as a poor, picked-on, and criminally maligned scapegoat of "the Man" or as a bunch of perverted freaks who are getting what's coming to them. Staking out a reasonable middle ground on the issue is simply not allowed, it seems.

The ongoing orgy of recrimination between ideologized, opinionated citizens, featuring the repeating of banal slogans and self-congratulatory bromides, is wearying indeed. One wishes that more people today kept things in perspective by paying attention to the implications of that vulgar yet profound aphorism: "Opinions are like *ssholes; everybody's got one." Yet to me there is something even more appalling about the "Yearning for Zion" brouhaha, in the context of our times.

The FLDS claim a direct link to the divine. They believe that they are the upholders of the true faith, which they think was restored to the world by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century. Among Smith's teachings was that plural marriage was important in order to obtain the fullness of salvation. In this, Smith practiced what he preached; it is estimated that he was secretly bound in "celestial marriage" to about 50 women over the course of his relatively short life. Today the mainstream Mormons have eschewed polygamy, but groups such as the FLDS still hew to it as they do to all of the church's original tenets. Why, after all — they ask — would God change his mind?

You can detest their theology and its ramifications all you like. I myself think that the historical record shows Joseph Smith in all likelihood to be a randy and unscrupulous (if highly creative and charismatic) confidence man. Yet on one matter we cannot assail the FLDS belief-system: if one accepts their first principles — which like all first principles must be taken on faith or not at all — then the rest makes perfect sense. If Smith was indeed the "prophet, seer, and revelator" that he claimed to be, then the FLDS are right, and we who don't hew to their dogma are wrong.

Mainstream America likewise thinks that it is right and that the FLDS are wrong. We object to polygamy, and are especially repelled by the notion of young teenage girls being forced to marry, and be impregnated by, hoary old men. Fair enough. But why do we hold these truths to be self-evident? What are our principles based upon? Unlike the FLDS, most of us lack the integrity of a coherent system of thought based on a first principle. We mostly believe what "feels" right to us at a particular time, but conveniently toss that belief away if it gets in the way of how we want to live at another time. Our beliefs, in fact, are seldom based on principles, but are more often mere self-serving prejudices.

Examples abound. Consider any one of many respectable young Americans who grow up faithfully going to church, then without missing a beat turn to a lifestyle of partying, fornication, and cohabitation when they become young adults. Such people aren't "bad" necessarily; they may be entirely polite, good-natured, and all around likable, in fact. They simply lack any abiding principles, including the ones that we supposed they had been taught. Yet many such people would be shocked and disgusted by the sight of a dowdy, pregnant FLDS teen going about her humble daily routine as wife number 14 to a 70-year-old man. "What kind of a life is that?" they would ask incredulously. Yet if one were to turn to them and ask the very same question: "What kind of life are you, a supposed Christian, living?" most of them would be taken aback. They take it for granted that they are better, without knowing why.

Like most other Americans, I am disturbed by the practices of the FLDS. I think there is strong evidence that they have committed illegal and immoral acts against their own. But I would like to see our opposition to those "Yearners for Zion" based on something a bit more substantial than prejudice. The FLDS, like them or not, are willing to stand out for the sake of their beliefs. They are willing to be persecuted. Joseph Smith himself was murdered by a mob for his principles, twisted though they undoubtedly were. If we lived in a country ruled by FLDS followers, would we "normal" Americans display the same strength of conviction?

May 22, 2008

© 2008 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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