Oh, Utah! How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

My wife and I are about to celebrate our 5th Wedding Anniversary. We wanted to go out of town to celebrate, but we’ve been invited to a wedding in Salt Lake City the weekend before the big day. Thus, we’ve decided to attend the wedding and celebrate our anniversary during the same weekend, effectively killing two birds with one stone. But what this means is we’ll be celebrating our anniversary …. in Utah! Ugh! We don’t really have any immediate family there, so it isn’t an obvious destination for us. We haven’t been back in years (O.K., we drove through once two years ago). We pride ourselves on not ever setting foot in that “cultural wasteland.” Our sense of identity and self-worth is largely a product of our being able to make snide remarks about that place. How will we answer the question “What did you do for your 5-year Anniversary?” without hanging our heads in shame?

I jest, of course, but not completely. The truth is, my wife and I have been making jokes about this all week, and this has got me wondering: Why do I hate Utah so much? Or perhaps an even better question: Do I really hate Utah at all, or is it just something I’ve become so used to saying that I don’t even think about it anymore? Is my Utah-bashing just a knee-jerk habit formed during my BYU sojourn all those years ago? Is it the product of any legitimate gripes, or is it just a tired, trendy “issue” that I have? (Remember in highschool when the only thing “trendier” than listening to Top 40 music was … NOT listening to Top 40 music? Same kind of thing, perhaps?) Let’s brainstorm together, folks:

1. Utah is very beautiful in parts, at least outdoors. I do have fond memories of camping at Arches and other assorted places. Nothing to hate about that.

2. Back when I pretended I could snow-ski, I couldn’t get enough of Alta and Sundance. Fond memories for sure. I don’t ski anymore, and while that’s partially because I was never any good, it surely has something to do with the relative let-down that Snow Summit or even Mammoth would be. You gotta love Utah for its snow sports.

3. On the other hand, the urban landscape in virtually all of Utah is a boil on the face of God’s green earth. Flying into Salt Lake City, I used to think “this is what Mel Gibson’s “Road Warrior” world would have looked like from the air, if it were a bit more populated.” O.K., some of the temples are nice architectural specimens, but let’s not pretend they make up for the rest of the urban blight.

4. Despite all my bitching and moaning about various aspects of BYU, it’s not like I had a bad time of it there in general. Day to day, I actually enjoyed myself most of the time. Do I just like to dwell on the negative?

5. The “people.” Ahh, now maybe I’m on to something. Are they really just a bunch of close-minded, insulated, naive simpletons who pronounce “wards” funny and who need to get out of town more often? Does every other Mormon housewife really look and act like an extra from “The Stepford Wives”? Or is this a problem everywhere in the American Church, and it just seems worse in Utah because of the heavier concentration of Mormons there? (Or is the real problem that I’m just a pompous, pretentious, self-righteous pseudo-intellectual with a faux-culturally snobby affectation?)

6. I am a Southern California Mormon from a wealthy L.A. suburb who was raised in a culture that took for granted our “cultural superiority” to those not living on the coasts. (You know the type). So maybe I’m the close-minded one?

7. In all seriousness, is there something about being a member of a majority religion that makes one insensitive, ignorant or just plain “weird” when it comes to one’s religious views and interactions with outsiders?

A few days ago, I spoke with a cousin’s husband in Provo and let him know that we’d be passing through. I casually made reference to the horror of spending my anniversary there, and then promptly realized that I was talking to a Utah native and resident. He graciously acknowledged that “Utah is for some people and not for others,” and I fumbled a “clarification” of my views so as to pull my foot out of my mouth (I don’t think it worked). Perhaps I just need some free therapy from all you readers to help me get over my bigotry and appreciate Utah in all its splendor.

Aaron B

Comments

  1. Could it be that anti-Utah sentiment is most likely to be voiced in Church where the members are most insecure that they are just like the Utahns, and so really feel the need to distinguish themselves?

    You rarely hear Utah bashing over the pulpit in California. That’s because we all KNOW we’re better than the Utahns.

    Aaron B

  2. for those that hate SLC, try going up in altitude a little, not alot, to the hills and look down…say from the cemetary near LDS hospital. This reveals a city that seems to be nothing but tree after tree. rather beautiful i thought.

  3. I confess that there is part of me that is glad that such a high concentration of Mormons has the capacity to make a place strange, even if much of the strangeness is not of the kind that I necessarily would want. It demonstrates that there is some life in Mormonism.

    BTW, as a resident of the “Bible Belt,” I can assure you, John H., that God and politics form a heady cocktail far from the Wasatch Front.

  4. I count myself among the Utah-bashers, but that began long before I actually left Utah–for the same reasons mentioned by others: the unrighteous dominion of the state legislature (sorry Lyle, but it’s certifiable, and if you don’t see it, it’s because one of them bit you on the neck and infected you too), the inbred xenophobia, the political homogeneity, etc.

    But even if those traits characterized the population as a whole, I found a number of people to be very inspiring and communities very accommodating. There were some great political minds, whom I always admired for maintaining their sanity and tempering the otherwise unimpeded rightward curve–Wayne Owens, Ted Wilson, the Mathesons, etc.

    Also, I would like to take issue with the idea that Utah is a cultural wasteland. In fact, I think Salt Lake City has (or at least had, when I left there in the late 90s) a rather impressive arts scene, given its size and location; you just had to know how to access it. The Jazz at the Hilton series used to bring (and perhaps still does) an impressive roster of performers to town every year; in a single year I heard Stanley Turentine, Milt Jackson, Joshua Redmond, Clark Terry, and I a few others. There are some incredible local jazz musicians, too, if you know where to go to hear them. When Abravanel conducted the Utah Symphony they were first class (within a couple of decades after he picked up the baton, they went from a bunch of part-timers to Mahler experts); they’ve gotten a little soft and cheesy since then, but so has virtually every other orchestra in the country. The contemporary music scene is pretty impressive, and there are some top-notch chamber groups in town as well.

    One of my formative cultural experience dates to the 8th grade, when the local concert series organizers in St. George (!) somehow brought in the Kronos Quartet, the rock stars of the modern classical scene. I owe my own pursuit of a musical career in part to my hearing, at that early age–and alongside the shocked retirees and hoity-toitys of southern Utah–the difficult sounds of Johnston, Nancarrow, and, as an encore, the scariest rendition of Purple Haze you will ever hear.

    So, even though the state culture as a whole drives me nuts in some regards, I hold a special spot in my heart for the people there who make it better for everybody else.

  5. i for one, a radical marxist-libertarian, am relieved that the mainstream actually stops to think about what the Prophet thinks before making major decisions. of course, i’m also a product of provo-of-the-north upbringing in lil ole clinton.

  6. I grew up in the heart of Davis County (a.k.a.- the other Provo, happy valley north etc.), and I am a major Utah hater. I miss the mountains, snow and snowboarding, but I can’t imagine ever trying to raise kids there. My mother still follows any of my political/economic views with “Kevin, what would President Hinckley think?” The sad reality is that my mother represents the mainstream. The Utah culture can be pretty overwhelming and even damaging.

    After I got married, I lived in the heart of SLC for 2 years. I have to say that much of what is said about Utah and its rather odd culture does not apply so easily to SLC, which I believe now has a non-Mormon majority. The Mormons who choose to live in SLC proper don’t usually fit the standard Utah Mormon stereotypes. For example, I actually had a fellow Marxist as a bishop who even went so far as to shed “brother” for “comrade” at church. There are numerous activist environmental, anti-war groups and left community organizations in the SLC area whose participants and leaders are predominantly active members in good standing. I don’t know what the situation is now, but as much as Provo and Davis County hated SLC Mayor Rocky Anderson, he enjoyed high approval ratings in SLC. The “wacko” legislature’s attempt to defeat Matheson was unsuccessful. Matheson is a pretty pathetic Democrat by all accounts, but it is still illustrative. I think much of what we consider to be Utah Mormon culture is really Davis County and Provo culture, and does not easily generalize to SLC itself. I actually found myself in a Utah bashing conversation earlier today (someone brought up the crazy gun culture and the Virgin River law), but I always feel the need to put in a caveat that SLC is not quite so crazy.

  7. I guess that not all of us have Aaron’s refined tastes in urban planning. Some of us actually think Salt Lake City is a beautiful place. I guess that shows our shockingly unartistic eyes.

    I view “utah-bashing” with the same sort of skeptical eye as any other sort of bashing. I have also heard people bash the Southern United States, Southern California, the Northeast, and almost every geographic location in between. While “utah-bashing” may well be a “mormon” phenomenon overall, I suspect that every place on this planet has those willing to bash it for whatever they perceive its “oddities” to be.

    I usually don’t see the “oddities” in any place which people see fit to “bash”. I guess we can blame that on my plebian, non-Harvard-educated naivety and ignorance.

  8. Mardell says:

    I have to agree the mountains are gorgeous.
    Not only do I not like Utah but pretty much most of the west that is mostly mormon. It seems that they are so sheltered that they have no idea how to react to the real world.

    My relatives have reffered to where I live (New York City) and the great spacious city. Now that we have a temple and they do not know what to say.

  9. I like to make fun of Utah and Utahns too. It’s a required ritual within large non-Utah LDS communities (i.e., Arizona). Which is even funnier, since Mesa is essentially another version of Salt Lake, a few miles south.

  10. I love Utah and happily put myself among those who “miss the mountains”. My only real complaint is the sad state of relations between Mormons and non-Mormons is the source of a sometimes noxious atmosphere. I see groups trying to do something about this, but in my view their efforts have been largely confined to a few symbolic gestures between leaders in the community. It’s a start but I would like to see it take hold at the grassroots level.

  11. I should clarify–in my first paragraph, the stuff after the dash aren’t reasons for my leaving Utah (I left for grad school), but my reasons for being a Utah basher, even before I left.

  12. Jess K says:

    I think I hate Utah because, as a teenager, I had several “Utah Mormons” ask me how hard it was to live in “the mission field” (also known as Connecticut). I had 2 reactions: 1) Hey, that’s my home and I like it! and 2) Aren’t we supposed to be IN the world and not OF it?

  13. John H says:

    I think it’s the cultural thing that drives so many people nuts. Since I live in Salt Lake, I was surprised by Aaron’s comments about the architecture, suburbia, etc. of Utah. (Not that he’s not entitled to his opinion). But so many other places seem so much duller than Salt Lake in that regard – Denver, Dallas, Phoenix, etc., all bore me to death. Only New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC are more interesting to me than Salt Lake.

    Ah, but this great Utah culture. The problem is defining who controls or contributes to the culture. For every wacky Mormon I meet, I meet 10 normal ones who laugh at our culture. So is the culture controlled by the minority? I actually think it might be. Keeping that in mind, here’s what drives me bonkers about Utah’s culture:

    • Randy has every right to stand by his “State legislature are nuts” comment. They’re an absolute embarrassment, and they’re almost 90% Mormon. Remember, they actually tried to force schools and Churches to accept concealed weapons, whether they wanted to or not. They actually banned teaching ANY sex education in schools. So much of their legislation revolves around the cultural wars and protecting people from themselves.

    • I’ve never, ever been to a place that spends so much time worrying about such stupid stuff. Petty arguments about Coke and R rated movies – do they really take place in southern California too?

    • Utah Mormons (and maybe even those outside Utah) don’t have a clue of how to interact with people who drink alcohol. Since I grew up in a family where most people were not active and did drink, it was no big deal to me. But it’s truly remarkable how many Mormons in Utah only know one or two people who drink, and it’s always the crazy, alcoholic uncle no one talks about. They don’t know how to act when someone nearby orders a beer.

    • People all over the country have really, really strong feelings about politics. Utah isn’t different in that regard. But they are different in mixing politics and God. I’ll guess this happens in other places too – the Baptist south, for example. But it’s the real deal here. You don’t just believe what you do because you think it’s right. You believe what you do because God thinks it’s right.

    • But perhaps the number one thing that bothers me about living here and has Aaron and others loudly guffawing at us, is just the bizarre little things that turn up in the public eye every once in a while. I suspect, again, that most of these things are driven by a small minority of very vocal people. But they sure make waves. Some examples: The Springfield Devils (a high school) being pressured to change their mascot from the devil. Schools not being allowed to go to Las Vegas on a field trip to see an art show (because it’s Las Vegas). The aforementioned Rodan art exhibit at BYU being cleaned up (no nudes to be seen). And the list could go on, and on, and on, and on.

  14. I was born and raised in Utah (Brigham City), but my mother and my oldest siblings all grew up in SoCal, so from my earliest years I’ve been hearing complaints about Utah. This may be why at age 12 (I have the journal to prove it) I decided that I could never live in Utah as an adult.

    For me, it is ultimately about the culture. You can criticize the desert landscape or the lack of architecture, but you can and should also appreciate the breathtaking magnificence of the mountains and some of the interesting and quirky pioneer-era chapels and tabernacles. (Of course you could also ponder why on earth anyone thought that the Provo/Orem temple design was so great we needed two of them!)

    I do believe the cultural issue is legitimate, although I don’t think it is about who is better or worse. For example, when my wife’s cousins visit Chicago (her hometown) from Utah, we’ve learned not to take them to the Art Institute because we know (from experience) that they will take one look at a nude Renoir, turn red and bolt for the door mumbling something about obscenity. Also, remember when BYU decided to ban certain Rodin sculptures at a BYU exhibit because of the perception that Utah County residents would find them offensive? I also find that many Utahns think the Constitution contains only two things: the free-exercise clause and an absolute right to possess any kind of weapon ever invented.

    I have many more stories I could talk about, but you get the point. I found many Utahns to be silly and ignorant, but I don’t necessarily think I am a better person than they are; I just have different tastes. They would probably say I am a pseudo-intellectual with a faux-culturally snobby affectation,” and maybe I am. That’s why I moved to New York!

  15. I, for one, would like to know what it means to be a “marxist-libertarian.” Help me out, Lile.

    Aaron B

  16. In a place with low humidity and fruit trees, a great number of objectionable things can be overlooked.

  17. Kaimi nailed that one. I live in Arizona now and it is amazing at how many anti-Utah comments I regularly hear in church. As far as I can tell, there is little to no difference in the attitude and behavior of most Arizonan Mormons except that they do interact more with non-members. Of course, I grew up in Idaho, which is the one place on this earth where Mormons are even weirder than they are in Utah or Arizona.

  18. Lyle, I should not have implied–as I undoubtedly did–that “nutcases” cannot be good human beings. I agree that people with political views that can only be described as bizarre can be good, Christ-like people. We used to have one of these types in my ward. He would send out emails to those on the ward list with links to webpages describing, among other things, how the holocost had been faked, and how Clinton was a minion of the devil. Despite these crazed views, he also happened to be one of the most generous people I ever met. He lived in a beat up apartment in a bad part of town, but he was always giving, substantially, to others. He was so devoted to having a year’s supply of food that he used his boxes of food for furniture–no room for an actual table. I could go on but you get the point. I have no doubt but that he is much further along the path to the Celestial Kingdom than I am. But his political views can only be described as wacked. He is a great person, but I don’t want him voting on legislative proposals.

    To my knowledge, I have not ever met any member of the Utah state legislature. But I have read, for decades now, about the crazy things that get proposed there. I stand by my original statement–the Utah state legislature is loaded with nutcases, at least political nutcases. I am sure they are wonderful people, but I am glad they don’t run my statehouse (not that the legislators in my state are much to write home about).

  19. My problem with Utah bashing is that I never no if I am one of the bashers or the bashees. I grew up in Salt Lake City and I quite enjoyed it. I lived in a house full of books and classical music, traveled extensively, etc. I am under no illusions that SLC is a cultural mecca, but I have to say that when people describe “Utahns” as hopelessly ignorant and parochial rubes, I am never sure how am I supposed to react. “Yeh! That’s me!” “They are not!” “Oh yeh! I know just what you mean, but I am not like that, really, I am not…”

    On the other hand, there are things about Utah that I dislike. Many parts of the state are architecturally challenged, the church dynamic can be odd (on the other hand, you are close to large Mormon research libraries — I would love to be able to spend time regularlly in the Church Archives or the Marriot and BYU Special Collections), etc. Also, I don’t live in Utah, haven’t lived in Utah for many years, and have no plans to move back to Utah in the immediate future.

    To be honest, I suspect that the I-hate-Utah-and-will-never-live-there crowd and the Utah-is-Zion-and-I-will-never-leave crowd are much, much closer together than either of them would like to admit. Both of them define themselves at least in part by Utah, a testament to the power of the Beehive state!

  20. Oh, yeah–and I LOVE the doughy smell that hangs in the Salt Lake air during the summer.

  21. One more thing…

    I don’t think there is some eloquent psychological explanation for this “utah-bashing” phenomenon. People just like to put down others- its inherent in us. So why not make Utah a target?

  22. randy: how many ut state legislators have you met personally? i grew up thinking politicians were crooks…and then I met some; interning for the ut state leg, US senate finance cmte, and @ the WH. while i might not agree with all i met re: policy, all seemed like good human beings…not nutcases. IMO.

  23. There are some things that I hated about Utah when I was growing up there that I have since realized are true everywhere you go. For example, Utah’s state legislature is loaded with nut cases, but that is nothing unique to Utah. To the contrary, I think this is true of most states.

    That said, there are part of Utah that I absolutely detest, and that are somewhat unique to the culture there. The unfortunate thing is that these annoying things usually get tied by some, inappropriately, to the church. I don’t really care all that much that most Utahns are republican–that’s true of many other states. But I’m tired of debating whether democrats can be Mormon. There are countless other issues like this.

    The vast majority of my family still lives in Utah, and I visit 3 or 4 times a year, but I cannot imagine ever living there again.

  24. There really is a “Utah personality” that is separate from LDS culture. I knew a grad student at a UC who was from SLC. Nice guy, easy going, didn’t swear, looked like any other RM–except that he wasn’t LDS (which always followed immediately after “I’m from Salt Lake City”). Cultural issues aside, most Utahns are pretty decent people by comparison with the rest of the country.

    Not to defend the place, but those of us whose experience of Utah is limited to time spent at BYU have a fairly limited view of the real Utah. Wallace Stegner wrote an essay about growing up in Salt Lake City (as a non-LDS kid) that really brought out the good things.

  25. Utah is a very nice place to visit. Fun things to see and do. I spent my honeymoon there. I’ve only ever visited for a week or so at a time, and only two or three times.

    For so many LDS, Utah is “home,” and as a non-Utahn, I got really, really tired of the whining “I miss the mountains” by the expatriates who failed to appreciate the easily green grass of my native Midwest. But it’s not so bad. It’s not home though, and never will be.

  26. What I came to realize was that the people who were whining about how much they missed the mountains were just homesick. Transplanting to MI from OH, and then to TX, and then to LA, after living within 75 miles of my birthplace for 37 years, gave me a greater appreciation for those who missed the mountains. For them, it’s home. That doesn’t make it better or worse than anyplace else.

    “Home” is also the seat of Church Government, and many wards here in the field contain people are from there, who think it’s Zion, and that the way things are in Utah are thus the One True Path to Orthodoxy. That can be really irritating for those of us trying as best we can to do what we think is right for our circumstances, which are DIFFERENT. I think that’s where Utah-bashing comes from.

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