Evidences of uneasy assimilation

Wm uses recent podcasts with Elna Baker and Brandon Sanderson to discuss assimilated-ness and uneasiness when it comes to Mormons and Mormonism.

Let’s get two things out of the way first:

1. This references two podcast episodes that contain content some AMV readers may be uncomfortable with: Sex. Language. Irreverence. Transsexuality. etc.

2. I am an assimilated American (although not fully). It’s likely you are too. But if you aren’t, this post isn’t for you.

Today I listened to the episode Marc Maron’s WTF comedy podcast that was posted this past Monday, a live episode recorded at The Bell House in Brooklyn. After doing his opening bit, Marc Maron brought out Ira Glass and they talked for awhile (about Ira getting drunk, actually) and then (at around the 40-minute mark; and again: content warning) they bring out Elna Baker who reveals that she is no longer a practicing Mormon and talks about why that is and what she has done (as in, you know, “rule” breaking stuff) since making that decision. It’s about what you would expect if you know anything about the three personalities involved. And I say that with fondness.

There is, however, an uneasiness there. Elna isn’t quite sure how to express things; Maron* and Ira Glass** go for the obvious jokes and show major unfamiliarity with Mormonism while still making comments and jokes as if they know what it’s all about. Once again the tropes come out — Mormons as the weird, the repressed, the naive, the stiff (and Elna certainly abets that. Water vault? Really? [on the other hand, I kinda think water vault is a cool concept — all those sins, proxy and otherwise, locked away in that water]), the other. Funny underwear***. Mitt Romney. Blah, blah, blah.

And while I’m tired of the totalizing tropes, I still found it somewhat fascinating. They really don’t know what to do with us. And, oh, I suppose I should be outraged about it, but perhaps being an assimilated American means that you can find a joke about baptisms for the dead being equivalent to necrophilia funny while at the same time feeling sorrow over the fact that so many outsiders can’t comprehend the beauty and brilliance of the practice. And I don’t mean to condescend****, but I can’t help feel some smugness over the fact that as an assimilated American I get to immerse myself in all these cultural products and enjoy them and even feel part of them (even if the assimliation is never fully realized — there always will be that unease) while at the same time having this whole other thing that’s mine.

Earlier in the week I caught up with the Writing Excuses episodes, including which involved a discussion with female-to-male transsexual writer Keffy Kerhli on gender roles and identity. It was a fascinating episode. And yet there was some slight awkwardness from Brandon Sanderson, especially in comparison to Mary Robinette Kowal. Look, major props to him for being open to doing an episode on the topic, but there were a couple of moments that showed some (very small) unease. On the other hand, Howard Tayler was totally not-awkward and expressed himself amazingly well in the comments section when, as was inevitable, the self-righteous (actually apparently non-LDS) Christian showed up.

Now we’ve said favorable things about both Elna and Brandon around here. In fact, it’s safe to say that some of us AMVers are major fans. And I don’t think that just because Elna leaves, that changes whatever achievement her book is. And I don’t think that Brandon being oh-so-slightly awkward changes the fact that just covering the topic on a podcast that has a huge mainstream Mormon audience is an achievement worth noting.

Both podcast episodes show evidence of the assimilation of Mormonism (and Mormons) into American culture. Both also show the uneasiness inherent in that assimilaton.

I was running errands (library, pharmacy, grocery) earlier this evening thinking about all this — these evidences of uneasy assimilation — while listening to the Current and after the whiny girl singing about love there was a pause, as I pulled out of the library parking structure, and then that familiar sharp chord (I knew it from the first note), and I turned the radio way up and there it all was — the crisp snap of Stephen’s drums; the melodic boom of Hooky’s bass; the piercing soaring of Bernard’s keyboard; the jangling of Ian’s guitar and his aching, baritone crooning — and I turned it up even more because if any cultural product put me into whatever tracks of assimilation I have wandered down it was this track. And as the chorus hit — the part where normally I’d sing along that love, love will tear us apart again — I was quiet because I just wanted to take it all in. And, you know, there was no unease. None at all. Still. After all these years. None. And beneath the rush of emotion, the rawness that still gets me every time, all was quiet. And when the last notes faded away (don’t ever fade away), I turned off the radio and, there in the grocery store parking lot, felt an odd gratitude. Because I know that whatever unease there may be between us and them (and us and us), I’m grateful to believe in something and be part of something that encompasses all of it. Which it does. And I say that without smugness or self-satisfaction. It doesn’t change the awkwardness here. But all of it is all part of this mortal life. And it’s also all part of the eternal.

NOTE: so it should be obvious, but let’s keep the comments focused on notions of assimilation and Mormonism and culture. I don’t want to hear about how you feel about Elna Baker or Brandon Sanderson or Marc Maron. Or how you feel about Brooklyn hipsters, conservative Mormons, stand-up comics, transsexuals, or fantasy writers. Let’s get past the obvious outrage or disappointment or whatever. That’s just as predictable as the unease.

*Yep. Maron. I figure after listening to more than 140 episodes of the podcast, I get to do that.

**Coincidentally Laura referred to Ira Glass in a post earlier today. Sorry, Laura.

***For the record Elna isn’t entirely wrong about what she says about women and garments, but she isn’t fully right either.

****That’s a Maronism, btw.

24 thoughts on “Evidences of uneasy assimilation”

  1. Funny story, but just this week I was re-reading Orson Scott Card’s essay “Prophets and Assimilationists,” which I enjoyed a lot the first time I read it ten years ago. Now, I get a little bored with it–mostly because I’m not a fan of how Card slams academia–and Mormon academia in particular–and suggests that you are either a faithful Latter-day Saint or you are an assimilationist, with no real place in between.

    I’m not a fan of assimilation tendencies (at least when it comes to my religious beliefs and practices), and sometimes I wish we Mormons were even weirder than we are, but I think there’s a lot space in between these two extremes where most Latter-day Saints reside. All of us want to belong, in some way, in both camps–and the many other possible camps that are out there.

    Incidentally, I was also reading bell hooks’ essay “Postmodern Blackness” this week, and she had this to say (adapted, for the sake of space, for this discussion): “When [Mormons] critique essentialism, we are empowered to recognize multiple experiences of [Mormon] identity that are the lived conditions which make diverse cultural productions possible. When this diversity is ignored, it is easy to see [Mormons] as falling into two categories: nationalist or assimilationist, [Church]-identified or [world]-identified.”

    I hope I’m not being too assimilationistic bringing hooks in, but I think that kicks Card where it counts. When we try to think too much in essentialist terms about Mormon identity, we end up missing out on the kind of diversity that enriches the culture. We also end up, I think, helping along the stereotypes (both of orthodox Mormons and Jacks) that cloud who we really are make for unoriginal, uninformed comedy material.

    At this point, I’m feeling kind of uneasy, so I’m going to end my thoughts here. What are we talking about again?

  2. The weird thing is that my wife just started reading Elna Baker’s book today (it’s been sitting on my shelf for three weeks). Clearly something is going around.

    But I think you’re spot on, Scott. Obviously, when I state “I am an assimilated American” (I was supposed to write an entire essay on that for the Irreantum contest, but I didn’t), I’m being both sincere and ironic. And this all ties in to that whole notion of the radical middle, which, hopefully, contains multiples.

    One of the things about both the podcasts that struck me is how we as Mormons experience assimilation in completely different ways. For example, I think the weirdness you’re talking about is quite different from the weirdness that Elna Baker experienced/experiences.

    I feel very assimilated into, but also (post-Mitt Romney’s first campaign) estranged from the East Coast liberal educated class (as in I’ve been reading Slate since it was founded; I used to listen to a lot of NPR; I love the comedy and culture podcasts like WTF and Pop Culture Happy Hour and Slate’s Culture Gabfest; I keep up on what’s in the NY Times, etc.), but I’ve only experience all that as a consumer and not (like Elna Baker) as a producer/socializer.

  3. Speaking of unease and Mitt Romney, Joanna Brooks had a post this week that addresses Mitt Romney’s apparent unease, which she calls it awkwardness. She speculates that it is possible a result of Mormon insularity.

    The post is here: http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/joannabrooks/5178/what%E2%80%99s_eating_mitt_romney/

    Sometimes I wonder if Mormon assimilationism is sometimes confused with cultural outreach. It’s not so much that I want to be like other people and have my beliefs conform with theirs; it more that I don’t want to limit my experiences to all Mormon culture has to offer. I fully expect living the gospel to get me through eternity, but like most people I need more than Mormon culture to get me through the week. Let’s face it: the gentiles make great movies.

    I think assimilation begins to become a problem when it compromises our commitment to our covenants and makes us turn our backs on the gospel plan. So we’ve got to learn how to not confuse our covenants with our culture. Which can sometimes be difficult when we’re commanded to be one. How does the Lord want us to be unified? I’d say we need be unified through covenants, but do we also need to be unified culturally as well?

    I think some people believe we do. Why else would a business like CleanFlicks spring up in our midst?

    (Sorry about all the “C”s in this comment.)

  4. For what it’s worth (and I hope this is on topic), I interpreted Brandon’s awkwardness on the podcast as a lack of experience discussing the topic, not as religiously-motivated unease. (I suppose that you could lump both into cultural unease, though.)

  5. “I’d say we need be unified through covenants, but do we also need to be unified culturally as well?

    I think some people believe we do.”

    As one who believes we do I will stand with Orson Scott Card that assimilation has killed our chances to reach Zion. We are more Americans than we are Mormons I am afraid. You can’t participate with the dung beetle without getting caked with feces.

    Do I want to partake of the culture’s surrounding me with television, movies, and books? To some extent yes, but I don’t want to be a part of that culture. My habits of what I take in has been reduced significantly by watching less, reading less (novels especially), listening to less, participating less, and shutting things off more. I know that goes against the sentiments of A Motley Vision, but its the only way not to become, well, Elna Baker in this sick and demented modernity.

    Every famous (and a large portion of non-famous) Mormon who embraced the culture around them is no longer a practicing Mormon. It might be best if we want to retain our personal faith to question the degree we assimilate with the larger culture. To paraphrase a different generation maybe its time Mormons started to turn off, tune out, and do better.

  6. We all make our decisions in regards to what culture we consume. In some areas I draw the boundaries more conservatively that other Mormons of my same educational background/class; in some I don’t. So I’m definitely not going to criticize anyone who also sections off certain culture products/experience. And I’d suggest that by casting yourself as counter to “A Motley Vision” your’e once again engaging in this me vs. them rhetoric that isn’t actually born out in what we do here nor in what, imo, has been some productive conversation over the years between us (and that’s fine — not everyone need to be part of the radical middle. I personally think it’s the best place to be. But we all think that wherever we’re at is the best place to be).

    In particular, this “You can’t participate with the dung beetle without getting caked with feces.” is a vivid metaphor but one that has very little grounding in the socio-cultural reality of, well, pretty much ever, anywhere. It’s too late to not assimilate and was from almost the beginning — the technological, social and economic revolutions/advances of the past two centuries assured that. And any faithful LDS is going to experience unease because of this. And the broader culture in turn is going to experience unease because of our presence in it. And I think that’s very much intentional on God’s part. In fact, it’s the story of the scriptures.

    So, yes, turn off and tune out some stuff. Draw those boundaries and edges. But there is no pure culture, and there are no pure politics/ideologies. Which means one way or the other faithful Mormons are going to need to learn to live with unease and both assimilate but also subvert broader cultural streams. And that to me holds true whether we’re talking liberal/conservative/libertarian; high/middle/lowbrow; genre/form/medium; whatever.

  7. “As one who believes we do I will stand with Orson Scott Card that assimilation has killed our chances to reach Zion.”

    I think it’s interesting that you bring Zion into the discussion since we have no idea how our model of Zion, Enoch’s city, came about. All we know is that they were of one heart and one mind, but that doesn’t tell us much about how they came to be one heart and one mind. I think the scriptures don’t tell that story because part of becoming a Zion people involves figuring it out on our own.

    For all we know, Zion came about by everyone embracing the same culture. At the same time, it could be that it came about more from creating a cultural foundation that was big enough to assimilate a diversity of people within a common gospel foundation. Frankly, we don’t know.

    I think we fail as Mormons if there’s no difference between us and the average Joe. But I don’t think the Prophet and apostles want us cutting ourselves off from the world. They want us to have things in common with our neighbors, to interact with them, and be able to have conversations with them that address more than just the Church. Basically, the overriding message of since the early 1900s is we can’t just cut ourselves off from the world.

    Maybe we’re not talking about the same thing when we talk about assimilation. I’m not saying we have to accept the morality of our neighbors. Certain principles we live by, like the Word of Wisdom and chastity, need to be upheld. But is it a bad thing–is it detrimental to Zion–if I’d rather indulge in my American love for Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band instead of listening to the Tabernacle Choir? I don’t think so, as long as I strive to live a consecrated life. Some things don’t have to be conflicts.

    Of course, now I feel I’m moving the discussion into a banal debate over what is and is not appropriate. My point is this: the word Mormon should not necessarily connote a single culture. There’s some diversity there that we need to recognize and value.

  8. It’s a very bad thing, Scott. But that’s because I’ve never been a fan of the Boss.

  9. We are more Americans than we are Mormons I am afraid.

    Which would make sense, since we were Americans BEFORE we became Mormons. You know, that pesky time gap between 1776 and 1830.

    I have to stand with Wm on the Springsteen issue. Scott, clearly your fandom is inappropriate.

  10. You have a good point Moriah, and in fact that is what Joseph Smith tried to argue. Maybe I just feel Americans are no longer American, but have become jaded immoral Europeans? All I know is that somethings changed and not for what I consider the better. Put me down as someone who thinks that we are not weird enough. At the same time I think that Americans (if really believe in freedom for all) should accept that weirdness and not mock it incessantly on both sides (all sides?) of the isle.

    “I’m not saying we have to accept the morality of our neighbors.”

    That is good to hear, but what to make of the people you mentioned above (that you asked not to be directly critical of) when two thirds are no longer practicing Mormons? They not only have assimilated, but essentially become Mormons in name only. My fear is that, regardless of what it means to become a Zion community, we have assimilated too much and the “fruits” of this are seen in the lives of every day Mormons. I am asking if maybe we have assimilated too much in our search to be part of the American culture, becoming complacent in our duties and covenants as Latter-day Saints.

  11. “Put me down as someone who thinks that we are not weird enough. At the same time I think that Americans (if really believe in freedom for all) should accept that weirdness and not mock it incessantly on both sides (all sides?) of the aisle.”

    I completely agree.

    “That is good to hear, but what to make of the people you mentioned above (that you asked not to be directly critical of) when two thirds are no longer practicing Mormons?”

    I’ve asked us to not be directly critical of because I think calling out individuals in relation to personal faith/belief/practice is unseemly and unproductive.

    What to make of them? Applaud them when they get things (and by things I mean representation of the Mormon experience) right (or are at least interesting); Call them out when they get things obviously wrong; and ignore them when they are no longer interesting.

    “I am asking if maybe we have assimilated too much in our search to be part of the American culture”

    Probably. But I group some conservative Mormons in this as well, especially those who mingle politics and doctrine. Yes, I know that at certain points you can’t bracket out doctrine and culture. But I think both liberal and conservative Mormons err too much on the side of justifying their doctrines of men with scripture. My stance is that there is no perfect ideology except the Gospel and so we need to use other bases from which to argue about politics, but more importantly we need to carve out spaces where we can exercise our beliefs (and, of course, opinions differ widely on the best way to accomplish this goal).

    But for me the more interesting question is what do we do about this assimilation? One way is to call to repentance, and I think our prophets and apostles have done and continue to do that. But that’s not my place. So what I try to do is interrogate the fruits of that assimilation in a way that both celebrates (because I think that there are good fruits that have come out of it) and complicates and interrogates.

    Not to self-congratulate, but that’s part of why I’ve geeked out so much on the Monsters & Mormons anthology (which, incidentally includes work by conservative, liberal, disaffected and non- Mormons but all within the bounds of our editorial vision) — it hits so many of the buttons that I’ve been circling around when it comes to Mormons and American culture and literary history and the modern Mormon-American experience.

  12. “Not to self-congratulate, but that’s part of why I’ve geeked out so much on the Monsters & Mormons anthology”

    But you didn’t accept MY contribution (even if under a different name) and so that devalues the whole thing! How dare you mock my brilliance! I’m just kidding, although like any writer my heart sinks when the work isn’t accepted or even acknowledged. I know this doesn’t have anything to do with the actual subject. You should print more of the ones that didn’t make it, but that are still good.Perhaps they can be an advertisement for what did make it (kind of like, “if you think this is good, you should see what made it into the book”). Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.

    “One way is to call to repentance, and I think our prophets and apostles have done and continue to do that.”

    But, are we listening (and that goes for myself)?

  13. I LOVE this: “I think assimilation begins to become a problem when it compromises our commitment to our covenants and makes us turn our backs on the gospel plan. So we’ve got to learn how to not confuse our covenants with our culture. Which can sometimes be difficult when we’re commanded to be one. How does the Lord want us to be unified? I’d say we need be unified through covenants, but do we also need to be unified culturally as well?”

    I think assimilation is always going to be an uneasy process for any group–and that’s appropriate. Interestingly, historians list the final step of cultural assimilation as inter-marriage, meaning marriage between two people of different cultures who give up (to varying degress) their “otherness” to make a life with someone of a different background. This is a very touchy subject in the Mormon world where we are encouraged to NOT intermarry–particularly because of covenants. In her book _Committed_, Elizabeth Gilbert makes the case for the nuclear family, with the husband and wife unit particularly, being the most subversive organization in the world. Nowhere else than within the walls of a home, within the private discussions of pillow talk, is secrecy and individualism more acutely expressed. And, no, Gilbert is NOT Mormon.

    All of that says to me that full assimilation, easy or otherwise, will never actually occur for Mormons. We are too dedicated to a subversive, counter-culture institution.

    I don’t think this is a bad thing, though. I absolutely think that it is in that uneasy psychological/emotional/spiritual space between circling the wagons against outsiders and marrying outside the Church that interesting art happens.

    And I think it isn’t helpful to a theoretical discussion like this to mix up an author’s aesthetic decision with their spiritual decision. OSC is a great example of why this is detrimental. Several of his books with obvious Mormon themes have included a surprising amount of sexual content and cussing. The only reason it is surprising to me, though, is because I expect him to be more conservatively Mormon in his writing because he espouses some very conservative Mormon ideas so often. But the truth is, for the characters he’s writing, refraining from cussing or leaving out the sex would be inappropriate. It doesn’t make him less Mormon–he’s not being gratuitous or breaking covenants–it just means he’s producing art. I think it’s dangerous to assume a sort of told-you-so-posture when it comes to authors like Elna Baker. Their spirituality is their own business (even if Baker has chosen to make a name for herself by flaunting it, we must never forget that there are plenty of things we don’t know about her spiritual choices and we shouldn’t judge). The whole question of literary types leaving the Church is really a chicken and the egg type thing.

    Cultural assimilation and spiritual assimilation are not necessarily one and the same and it would be good if we could find a way to understand them separately.

    And, BTW, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a Springsteen song–at least not on purpose so I’m not sure where that leaves me Zion-wise. Maybe we should all just compromise on Debbie Gibson and David Archuleta?

  14. Laura,

    You can always go here

    and then, after watching it, continue watching other Springsteen videos until your conversion to all things Boss is complete.

    It will be an afternoon well spent.

  15. Like Wm, I should add a disclaimer that the above linked video contains an account of a lake-side party I myself would be uneasy about attending in person. But no one listens to lyrics anyway, right? And by adding this disclaimer I’m only illustrating Wm’s point about the Mormon’s reverential uneasiness in the world and with its products.

  16. Mojo–please understand that I was kidding. I thought maybe they’d be Zion material since they were both so innocuous and Mormon. Also, do you like how I talk about David Archuleta in the past tense?

    Scott H– I don’t know that I really want to convert to the Boss. If you just want to leave a couple pamphlets and come back another day that might work better.

  17. By happenstance, I’ve been re-reading Terryl L. Givens’ PEOPLE OF PARADOX this week. Much of the book is taken up with exploring the issue of assimilation. Givens quotes Orson Scott Card as follows:

    “those of us who grew up in Mormon society and remain intensely involved are only nominally members of the American community. We can fake it, but we’re always speaking a second language.”

    Thumbing again through the chapters, there doesn’t seem to be a time in Mormon history when assimilation hasn’t been a vital concern. Some degree of assimilation is inevitable. I do not think this is a bad thing; the Lord seemed to plunk the Saints down right smack dab on the ‘Crossroads of the West’ where they would _have_ to interact with the Gentile world.

    I do think the key to that assimilation, though, is how and on what points we choose to do so. Do we assimilate on our terms, or theirs?

    This is a struggle we face with not only the American overculture, but of subcultures within k.

    In that clip Laura included last post, Ira Glass speaks of artists having a heightened sense of ‘taste,’ of aesthetics, and does so in such a way as to suggest that that heightened sense or appreciation is what signifies an artist in the first place, a not-all-that-unreasonable argument. (I don’t particularly share it, but the case can be made for it.) For many artistic communities that sense of aesthetics, or more often a _specific_ aesthetic, defines their subculture, defines who they are.

    That aesthetic is their raison d’etre.

    And therein lies the problem.

    Aesthetics replace, supersede everything else. It is their guiding light, their moth-flame. Moreover, an artistic community is just that — a community; in order to be accepted into a community, one must adopt the cultural mores of that community.

    For a Mormon artist to seek acceptance, to seek assimilation into a subculture that has replaced morality with aesthetics is quite frankly like dancing on the railroad tracks with a freight train coming. Assimilating on _their_ terms is like jamming one’s foot into the frog of a siding switch and getting stuck. It’s not hard to predict the coming train wreck.

    Assimilate on our terms, not theirs.

    — Lee

  18. .

    The primary reason Brigham Young asked for a uniquely Mormon alphabet was not to teach newcomers English (though that was the public stance) but to prevent the Saints from being able to read anything from outside Zion, thus preventing assimilation. Or reassimilation really as, as has been pointed out, all the Saints were something before they became Mormon.

    The thing that makes me sad about Elna Baker (and the upcoming book by Nicole Hardy) is that it seems like New York is still stuck in this notion that the only interesting Mormon story is the story of a Mormon leaving the faith behind. It’s not true of course, but memoir is a copout for publishers who want to address a topic but aren’t sure it’s actually important, and a memoir that confirms it’s unimportance is best of all.

    And I say that as someone who always says the opposite! Because I do believe real Mormon-Mormon stories will get told and heard. So I choose to believe this is Mormonism 101 (if you’re read the review in the new Irreantum) and that we’ll get to move on soon enough.

    As soon as we assimilate them to us.

  19. I agree with Laura that assimilation is something that always will — and frankly, always should — remain an uneasy topic for Mormons, artist or otherwise.

    We can talk about the separation of culture and covenants all we want — but as Lee points out, there are limits to that separation. Part of culture is mores. Ultimately, we can’t be fully assimilated culturally without adopting the beliefs of the mainstream culture. But like William, I think there’s a large middle ground.

    Also like William, I think there’s just as strong a tendency toward (and danger from) assimilation on the right as from the left (or up, down, strange, charm, what have you). In fact, I’m enough of a postmodernist (not very much, but a tiny bit) to believe that we are probably always already compromised: products of a non-Zion culture struggling toward Zion, only gradually coming to know what fleeing Babylon means for each of us in our individual circumstances.

    At the same time, I’m even more troubled by the implications of believing that we need to create an official Zion culture. I worry that by so doing, we may build hedges around the law and the prophets. If it is true that every earthly culture has areas that conflict with gospel values, and that all of us are (to some degree) products of our earthly cultures, then it stands to reason that there are elements of the gospel that we can come to know only as believing Mormons from other backgrounds, with different cultural blinders than our own, call to our attention. That process is likely to involve some element of discomfort. So I think we need to be particularly careful not to define what Zion culture must be, based on our own limited current understanding.

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