I was called an icon this week. After I expressed my hopes that the person nice enough to express such a thought was not an iconoclast it set me to thinking about orthodoxies. At 17 the orthodoxies which ruled my life, whether I knew it or not, were Mormonism and God belief, laissez faire Capitalism, American Exceptionalism, and an ignorant acceptance of what I would now call auto-oriented development. That there were, and are, other orthodoxies so deeply ingrained within my psyche that I am not even aware of how absolutely they control the bounds of my thought I have no doubt, but the aforementioned are the ones of which I became aware and have cast off.
My father worked nights at “Tapley Street”, a regional distribution center for the United States Postal Service. If you asked him what he did he would say that he “got the Wall Street Journal out”. Dow Jones and Company printed the WSJ and Barron’s and such in Chicopee and from there it was distributed throughout the Northeast…including Wall Street. When I started to show interest in economics he would occasionally take a copy of whichever publication was being shipped out that night and bring it home. I watched the PBS series “Free to Choose” and got a copy of the book with Milton Friedman holding a pencil on the cover. I took an Economics course at Classical High School which did its best to cover major themes in economic thought in a semester and I was off to Brigham Young University as an “Econ major” to take my first class under James Kearl, returning advisor to then President Ronald Reagan.
(An old BYU Econ textbook “A History of Economic Theory and Method” which is still in my collection…Marx included:)
Not a whole lot there but Free Market Orthodoxy.
One of my first “13 Stake Firesides”, I think that’s what they were called, a filling up of the Marriott Center by perfectly groomed BYU students to listen to some speaker or other, was offered by former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson and focused on the evils of feeding the poor unless a church did it. It seemed weird at the time. I was in a giant room with 20,000 religious youth and the primary message was not one I could have imagined in the mouth of Jesus. I started to notice the messages apart from the theoretical models which had so captured my desire to be rational. I began to notice the paranoic level of anti Communist and anti Socialist rhetoric I was hearing every day despite the fact that no one was making any counter argument. It was responding to “Hey, honey, how was your day?” with “I am not fucking my secretary!”
The level of fear was obvious in that they never explained why anyone might think these crazy evil terrible stupid ideas could convince anyone. I became obsessed with studying “the other”. Nothing too radical, John Kenneth Galbraith is one I recall, and attending a meeting with a representative of the Nicaraguan Sandinista movement…OK, the 4 of us who were there, apart from the Sandinista representative and the watchers from BYU, must have seemed pretty radical: “Sure if greatly diminished infant mortality and increased literacy are good things!” I began to curve away from Laffer.
Being Mormon was what made me different. How many Mayflower descendants living in Massachusetts were LDS in 1970 or 1980? It gave me a small social network to thrive in, as opposed to my high school with 2,000 kids, and gave me a ready made excuse for being a social failure; I was too good, no smoking, no drinking and all the rest. Mormonism was tailor made to exist in American suburbs, but New England didn’t supply the type of growth that Mormonism needs to expand as it did in the rest of the United States; Mormon transplants establish themselves in numbers large enough to create a ward and locals are drawn not so much to the dogma as to the social cohesion and support. Here proselytizing looked much more like the way in which the LDS church works in the Third World: Pick off the losers, loners, and weirdos until it gives you a foothold and then try to establish type 1 wards. Ergo, my ward growing up, I would discover, wasn’t very orthodox. Beggars can’t be choosers and all. I heard very little about politics, just getting all these newbies on the same page with respect to Mormon theology was all that we could handle.
I couldn’t wait to attend BYU, visit the temple, and go on “my mission”, in that order. All three would erode my trust in ol’ Joe Smith and my God belief.
BYU had what was called “the old campus” which to me actually looked like a college campus. At the other extreme, literally and figuratively, was the newer Big Box Campus with all the parking lagoons and mediocre architecture that implies highlighted, at the time, by the N. Eldon Tanner building or “the box the temple came in”:
I soon learned that criticizing anything about BYU was indistinguishable from criticizing “the brethren” and therefore was as heretical as a fully caffeinated Coca Cola or a cup of Earl Grey.
Next, the temple ceremony which I had been told for years would answer all my questions only made me wonder what the hell kind of cult I had been a member of my whole life. We were symbolically slaughtering ourselves to represent what we would suffer if we revealed that as part of the ceremony we were symbolically slaughtering ourselves, snakes really didn’t have legs ’cause they pissed off Elohim, and I was going to wear protective underwear with special emblematic stitching.
People were giving me knowing looks and saying cryptic things about what an eye opener the temple is, and how it really makes sense of things; Sure, I thought,like an LDS LSD. I was scheduled to enter the Missionary Training Center the next day: Geronimo!
In Spain I was bombarded by sensations. I might suggest what had the most lasting effect on my life was not necessarily the Spanish way of life, but how my fellow Mormon-Americans responded to it. So many things in cities like Jaén and San Fernando reminded me of home, most of my mates, from the west of the U.S. saw nothing reminiscent of home and very little of value. That irked me. The platitudes these same people would pronounce about loving Spain and its people were contradicted by their constant criticisms of everything Spanish. Theologically, though, they started me on the path which led, finally, to my atheism.
One night, in a small apartment in Jaén two missionaries in particular started in on mocking the belief in the story of the Virgin of Fatima; Three kids go into the woods and see the Virgin Mary. Mary gives them messages to transmit to the world.
How stupid! Kids. In the woods. Getting messages from celestial beings. How can anyone believe that crap?! I pointed out, leaving aside the veracity of the claim, that the only difference from that story and the one we were carrying from door to door was the ratio of children to celestial beings: