Once upon a time, I was an angst-ridden college student living in Utah, shocked and appalled at what I saw as the BYU administration’s inexcusable hostility to academic freedom. I had just returned from my mission and English professor Cecilia Farr was being denied tenure under what appeared to be pretty dubious circumstances. Professor Farr had, among other things (or maybe not among other things, which was itself part of the controversy), publicly espoused a rather moderate pro-choice position on abortion (carefully clarifying that she agreed with the Church’s stand as to abortion’s immorality) and all Hell had broken loose. My vision of what academic freedom at a university should be (yes, even a Mormon one) was not consistent with BYU’s actions, and I was quite the unhappy camper. Although there were a lot of lessons to be learned from this episode (and a lot of different ways of framing the issues that were in play), one of the bottom lines, as I saw it at the time, was this: An inordinately large number of Mormons have an inordinately difficult time recognizing the difference between their passionately-felt political views and the religious doctrines of their Church.
It’s been quite a few years since I lived through the angst and irritation of my BYU days, but much of it came flooding back to me the other evening, as I watched THIS DIVIDED STATE, a documentary that has just been released on DVD. THIS DIVIDED STATE documents the decision of UVSC Student Body President Jim Bassi and Student Vice-President of Academic Affairs Joe Vogel to invite filmmaker Michael Moore to campus to speak to the community just days before the 2004 presidential election. The university coughed up about $40,000 to bring Moore to campus, all of which was to be recouped by private donations and ticket sales. Nonetheless, UVSC student-activist Sam Vreeland spearheaded a petition campaign calling on UVSC not to spend school funds on Moore (as well as another unsuccessful campaign calling for Bassi’s and Vogel’s resignations). Meanwhile, wealthy community activitist Kay Anderson (who has to be seen and heard to be believed), campaigned vigorously and publicly against Moore’s invitation, offering to reimburse UVSC all its money if it agreed to cancel Moore’s speech. He also eventually filed a civil lawsuit against Vogel and Bassi. Then there was the visit to campus by Sean Hannity (of Fox News’ “Hannity and Colmes”) a few days before Moore’s speech, complete with his typical lambasting of “liberals,” John Kerry, and all the rest of it.
This was quite a fun, if maddening, movie. I say “fun,” because watching a bunch of Utah college students spew out tired, sophomoric cliches about “relativism,” “objectivity,” “morality” and “contention” is like watching a grisly car wreck: It makes you cringe, but you just can’t look away. (Can we all just admit that in Mormonism, 9 times out of 10, he who accuses his opponent of “contention” is usually more guilty of it than the person he’s accusing?) I say “maddening” because over the last few years, I had perhaps kidded myself into believing that maybe the bulk of LDS college students now-a-days weren’t suffering from the adolescent confusion over religious doctrine and their own political opinions that afflicted my college comrades back in the day. This film promptly disabused me of that notion.
THIS DIVIDED STATE contains numerous memorable scenes and unforgettable exchanges. Ken Brown, a Utah film projectionist who looks remarkably like Michael Moore, has some great moments posing as the notorious filmmaker. Sam Vreeland comes off a bit silly when he’s called on his apparently misleading claims about the funding of Moore’s visit, and he refuses (or is unable) to discuss the issue intelligently. But the most awkward moment of the film was probably when Dennis Potter, of LDS-PHIL fame (and who has participated here), poses a question to Sean Hannity concerning the Bush Administration’s foreign policy and the relative merits of “realism” vs. “neo-conservativism.” The heckling that Potter receives from the mob of assembled students is embarrassing (and not because of Potter). Even worse was Hannity’s complete non-sequitur response: “9-11 changed everything!” (Actually, Hannity’s response to the question was such a blatant non-sequitur that I wondered if this wasn’t a bit of creative, unfair editing on the part of the filmmaker).
Then there was Kay Anderson. Watching this guy run his mouth is alone worth the price of the rental (or purchase). He is truly a goldmine of over-the-top aphorisms and outlandish rhetoric. To Anderson, Moore simply doesn’t represent Orem’s values, since “Family City, USA” is a “bastion of conservative values.” Thus, Moore should be kept out of town. I particularly enjoyed Anderson’s silly conflation of “family” with all the particular moral and political views that he happens to hold dear. “This college exists to represent the values of this community!” we are told over and over again, and Anderson means it. But my favorite Anderson lines by far were:
“It’s difficult to stand up for moral values against people who don’t believe in moral values.”
(Bassi’s and Vogel’s decision to invite Moore to campus apparently wasn’t indicative of their differing moral values. It was evidence that they are completely devoid of moral values altogether!).
“Free speech works because most of us have the good sense to know when to keep our mouths shut!” (Admittedly, this would make a great bumper sticker, or a new tongue-in-cheek sub-title for this blog).
All in all, the film was a fascinating roller-coaster ride of political (and religious) conflict in Utah, frequently characterized by overwrought rhetoric about morality, family, free speech, etc. Good times, I must say. And “spoken like a true lefty,” you might say to me in response.
But at this point, I should probably point out a few things about myself: Politically, I am closer in my views to Sean Hannity and many of the conservative students I’m criticizing, than I am to Michael Moore and his fans on the anti-War left. I’ve always found Moore to be an embarrassingly inarticulate bore, and I don’t think much of the substance of his political argument regarding Bush and the Iraq War either. (Check this out, for starters). While everyone else in America either loved or hated “Bowling for Columbine,” I basically found it dull, and I had the same reaction to “Farenheit 9/11″ (though I confess I loved the Britney Spears clip). This doesn’t necessarily mean I love Hannity (a pompous, arrogant windbag if there ever was one), but there’s a reason I subscribe to National Review and the Weekly Standard, rather than Mother Jones and The Nation, if you know what I mean. (I prefer pundits like Bill Kristol, if you must know). Anyway, despite my right-of-center leanings, I’ve always found the smug, self-righteous political posturing of some of my conservative co-religionists nauseating, and particularly so when I was in college. If I learned anything at BYU, it was that many of my fellow students probably needed a much heavier dose of political and ideological diversity than they were getting. There’s nothing like an ideologically and intellectually homogenous environment to cause a student to mistakenly regard his or her propensity for pious declaration as a talent for making persuasive political arguments (particularly when it’s accompanied by the inevitable “amens” such declarations bring from fellow travelers).
So this whole episode, and others like it, leaves me divided. I’m divided because on the one hand, I don’t like Moore, I have political sympathies with Hannity, and I have traditionally been pretty hawkish on the Iraq War. But on the other hand, I’m embrarrassed at the way so many conservative LDS students demonize their political opponents as amoral reprobates, and demonstrate a complete inability to distinguish between religious and political orthodoxies. Ultimately, I wish that we could all engage in polite, intelligent discussions of our political differences, and that we didn’t need to shun our political adversaries as servants of Satan. I long for the day that most conservative LDS members become a little less intolerant of their political opponents, and a little more cognizant of the fact that not every single one of their public policy preferences follows logically and inevitably from a proper reading of Jesus and the prophets.
But if Sam Vreeland or Kay Anderson are any indication of which way the wind is blowing, I probably shouldn’t hold my breath. I highly recommend you check out this film to see what I mean. And now I’ll close with Vreeland’s most memorable and profound political observation, which is arguably the most classic moment of the entire film:
“Religion is definitely a big factor in any community … like the Middle East for instance .. I’m going to compare Utah to the Middle East … but the Islamic religion … everything that they do plays into the Islamic religion … doesn’t matter if it’s economics, or biology, or anything to do with the community … that plays a role in the community is affected by religion and I think that that’s … very much so the truth here in Utah.”