Book Review:  The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner by Ezra Taft Benson

April 12, 2019

Thanks to Ned Boulberhane, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Someone once asked me why I read books from writers whom I don’t seem to like very much. The response was simple. If one only finds ideas that they agree with on a whole-hearted level, they will end up only seeing what they want to see. Sometimes it is good to be challenged, even if it is not always in our comfort zone. That is what brings us to the discussion of The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner.

Ezra Taft Benson served as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but perhaps his legacy is more rooted in his work as President of the Mormon Church (Dew 1987). In this work, which was an oral presentation transcribed into book-form, Benson attempts to make the case that the United States Constitution is a document that is the epitome of human freedom, as well as also having divine origins. Perhaps there is something poetic about how Benson introduces the subject, saying that sharing ideas through freedom is the work of God, and using coercion to force ideas onto people is the work of Satan (Benson 1986), yet that stands as only a poetic statement. Perhaps, what is more fascinating is when Benson discusses the relationship among freedom, governments, and the citizens of a nation. There is a bold statement that the people are superior to the government (of the United States).

To retort, in the United States, the government is not comprised of monarchs or theocrats, it consists of representatives of the people. Every member of the United States government is also a citizen or resident of the country. In short, the people are not superior to the government of the U.S.A. They are the government. As the monologue-style presentation continues, Benson states that the Constitution is a Heavenly Banner, for the Lord has approved the Constitution, and it is a document that emboldens freedom, which is the way of God. However, this fails to identify Article VI of the United States Constitution, which states that no one must pass a religious test to hold public office (Story 1874), not to mention a Bill of Rights, which also includes freedom of religion.

There is an important distinction that needs to be made regarding the meaning of these words. Freedom of religion applies not only to those who follow the pathways that Ezra Taft Benson is describing. It also applies to any other spiritual practice that is law-abiding and even to those who choose to refrain from spiritual or religious practices altogether (Cooley 1871). Therefore, to say that the Lord approved the Constitution is a statement that can stand as only a metaphor or figurative piece. It is the same Article VI and First Amendment that allow someone such as Ezra Taft Benson to hold the position of Secretary of Agriculture, for there are those who question whether or not members of the Mormon Church should be members of the government at all. Moreover, these are not relics of the Eisenhower administration. The same challenges were put forth during the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in 2011 (Tarpley 2012), and once again the First Amendment and Article VI triumphed over all.

Not to provide a complete sense of disagreement, Benson makes a compelling case for small government, arguing that the United States limits government functions to avoid tyranny. This is an interpretation that holds a lot of supporters, for whether it is checks and balances or even allowing people to believe and practice the spirituality of their choosing (or lack thereof) they are protected. The government cannot force a spiritual belief system on the citizens. Benson’s argument expands into a rather unique stance at this point, where he makes the claim that we cannot expect a higher level of morality from our elected officials.

While Benson makes some strong claims about the origins of the Constitution and who approved of it, there is some agreement here, for if our politicians are not monarchs or theocrats, we must recognize them as ordinary human beings and citizens. A person is a person. Therefore, we must approach our elected leaders as representatives of the people, but also use the laws of the land to monitor the actions of our elected few, so our nation does not turn into a domain dominated by tyrants. Sometimes we turn to writers and thinkers that we expect to disagree with, and we find that there are times when we have found the unexpected point of agreement. The world is wide.


Benson, Ezra Taft. The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner. Deseret Book, 1986.

Cooley, Thomas. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Lawbook Exchange. Ltd., 1874.

Dew, Sheri L. Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography. Deseret Book, 1987

Story, Joseph. A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States of America. Gateway Editions, 1874.

Tarpley, Webster. Just Too Weird: Bishop Romney and the Mormon Takeover of America. Progressive Press, 2012.

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The Double Consciousness of Noir

April 20, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

There is a persistent paradigm in the American experiment: There are those among us who insist on closing their eyes to the truth, those who deny—in lieu of their discomfort—a dedicated hold on reality. More than sixty years ago, in Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (148). To fully understand and upend this persistent American paradigm, we must examine the too often ignored disparity between perception and reality. And we must outline and describe this disparity as a physical thing—it is a concept and/or idea, yes, but it is also an object. Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.

In her noir novel The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes constructs this disparity—that is to say she gives it physical form—by manipulating character and plot. In the book, a young doctor named Hugh Densmore is driving to Phoenix for a wedding. In the middle of the desert he picks up a young woman, a teenaged hitchhiker. The doctor immediately regrets his decision and begins to feel anxious. Hughes writes, “A chill sense of apprehension came on him and he wished to hell he hadn’t stopped. This could be the initial step in some kind of shakedown, although how, with nothing or no one in sight for unlimited miles, he couldn’t figure” (5). As readers, we may not necessarily understand this apprehension—for some fifty pages we are left wondering for certain why (and how) the doctor can be anxious about a simple act of courtesy. This foreboding anxiety and tension persist until Densmore drops the teen at a bus station (her alias is revealed as Iris Croom). It’s not long before Iris appears again; she bangs on the door at Densmore’s motel and insists he help her. Her problem, as she describes it, is this: “‘I thought my boyfriend would marry me. But he’s already married’” (35). When Densmore insists he can’t help Iris, she says, “‘Yes you can … You’re a doctor’” (36). Of course, Densmore slams the door and sends the girl away, rage and fear now running through him like hot oil. But still, it’s an oddity for some readers when Densmore thinks, “There’d always be a residue of suspicion that the girl’s inventions weren’t all false. How could he prove otherwise? They had traveled together” (36). In what reality does a doctor fear the he-said-she-said machinations of a teenaged girl? And a girl who, she admits herself, is in trouble?

Not long after this episode, Densmore reads a story in the local paper: A teenager has been found dead and, reading between the lines, Densmore knows the woman is the victim of an abortion gone wrong—it turns out the dead girl is Iris Croom. In the subsequent passage, Dorothy Hughes describes the dilemma of an innocent man who knows—who is absolutely certain—that he will be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Hughes writes, “[T]o flee in panic was not the answer. It was construed always as the act of a man bloodied with guilt, although in fact the innocent man involved beyond his depth might have more reason to run” (44). It’s clear at this juncture that Densmore knows his guilt will be assumed, that he will be called on to prove his innocence. How does one prove innocence? Must one acquire and present evidence? Must one, in the event of proximity to a crime, always be gathering evidence and formulating arguments of innocence?

When two detectives show up to question Densmore, he is immediately intimidated. His anxiety seems to burst out of him; his first question is whether or not the detectives are there to arrest him. During the ensuing interrogation, one of the detectives reveals that a witness saw a black doctor (he does not use so kind a term as ‘black’) driving the teenager into town in his “big white Cadillac” (55). And now we know that Dr. Hugh Densmore is a black man. We also know that the detectives, whether they open their eyes to it or not, are racists. Densmore’s anxiety and apprehension, his fear of the police, and his general doubt in controlling his own narrative become not only understandable, but also inevitable. In the first third of The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes depicts race as if it were a tablespoon of salt in a glass of ice water—it is present, yet undetectable. Until, of course, one is thirsty and must swig from the glass. For Densmore, this means he understands that racial bias exists within law enforcement, but he has not yet tasted the bitterness of that bias. Once he is connected by a witness to the dead woman, Densmore takes a long swig of that salty water. With his new legal trouble, race is the primary issue. If Densmore does not prove his innocence, race will be the decisive issue. Whatever your race, on page 55 of the book, with one character’s brief comment and description, the disparity that exists between perception and reality is clearly outlined—we all see it, whether black, white, or brown…the disparity between perception and reality is now a plot device. It has become a tool of craftsmanship.

The young doctor’s understanding of his situation is described, in part, by what W.E.B. Du Bois termed double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of the measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." (2) The young doctor knows the truth of himself, that he simply gave a ride to a young woman who needed one. He also knows the truth of white public perception—he is a black man taking a pretty, young, white woman for a ride. And she ends up dead after enduring a secretive abortion. At the heart of the Densmore’s presumed guilt is the assumption of power and its location. Power, in the society Hughes sketches, resides in the white body, and—by extension—in the white body politic. Of course, The Expendable Man was published in 1963, and is clearly a noir of stunning realism. In a piece about the book for The New Yorker, Christine Smallwood writes, “Difference is defined by oppositions of power, after all—black, white; accuser, accused. Noir provides a language and rhythm for such differences.” Difference, however, has a cousin: disparity. And while it is not so visible as the blatancy of difference, disparity still carries within it myriad oppositions of power. In Densmore, Hughes creates a character at the perceived height of society—a doctor intent on researching cancer—and still he is subject to the basest and most treacherous of assumptions cast by men. As Smallwood puts it, “Densmore is exemplary, but he is still expendable. His guilt precedes him…”

I’d argue further that Dorothy B. Hughes, in her use of double consciousness as a tool of craftsmanship, gives physical form to the unspoken. The Expendable Man is a work about the monstrosity, the depravity, the utter insolvency of ignorance. There can be no true progress in human rights without a shared agreement—between all of us—about what is real. We are here. We exist. Our perceptions vary, and yet the effects of those perceptions do not waver. Perhaps the effects we see (and experience) on a daily basis—we might all agree—are reality. These effects then, as manifested in our daily interactions, are the truth. Our ways of seeing (or not seeing) not only make our world, but can also dismantle and reassemble our world. James Baldwin writes, “[T]ruth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted” (10-11). In The Expendable Man, Hugh Densmore escapes his accusations and takes to the highway with his future wife. His life is uncharted beyond the long road from Phoenix to Los Angeles, but it is a life still under observation and accusation by the tired eyes of monsters.

It is now the year 2018 and I wonder whether, to some degree, Dr. Hugh Densmore would still be The Expendable Man?


Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Thrift Editions, 1994. Print.

Hughes, Dorothy B. The Expendable Man. New York: Hudson Review of Books, 2012. Print.

Smallwood, Christine. “The Crime of Blackness: Dorothy B. Hughes’s Forgotten Noir.” 15 August 2012. Web.

Eight Bites Do Not Satisfy Me

March 9, 2018

Thanks to Sam Risak, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

An unnamed narrator sheds weight but not her past in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Eight Bites.” After a gastric bypass surgery, old flesh is personified into a “body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth” that lingers in the protagonist’s house (165). Machado’s surrealist blurring of realities rejects the possibility for any universal ideals, including a woman’s thin frame as the standard beauty model.

In the story, the protagonist’s mother only consumed eight bites of any meal, regardless of her hunger or the food’s content. The extremity of the eating practice stresses that the characters’ conflicts with their size was one concerning their appearance and not their well-being, significant when popular culture disguises many of its beauty standards as health claims. With eight bites, the mother could maintain her slender frame and never risk social deviance, still able to “compliment the hostess” (152). The difference in body size between the narrator and her mother constructed a wall of dissonance and uncertainty between the two. Why didn’t the narrator inherit her mother’s restraint? Why could she not subsist off minuscule portions? Eight bites became a conquest, a mallet to shatter the wall isolating her from her mother.

The narrator blames the birth of her now-grown daughter, Cal, as the instigator to her weight gain. Unlike the protagonist’s nieces who support their mothers, Cal—a difficult, incomprehensible feminist—is the antagonist to mainstream ideologies and is hurt by her mother’s surgery. She shares her mother’s shape, and when her mother renounces her own body, she renounces her daughter’s. The narrator cannot see how she is passing down to Cal the same maternal dissidence she experienced and dismisses Cal’s anger as one more thing she cannot understand about her daughter. Of course, Cal’s body is imperfect, the narrator thinks to herself, but can’t she see how her youth grants her ample time to change? The protagonist, like many subjected to the repetitive frames dominating popular media, regards the thin body not only as preferable, but as the only legitimate body to have.

When the protagonist’s sisters decide on surgery, she joins them, not because she needs a superior body, but because she fears risking marginalization otherwise. When the initial sister underwent the surgery, rather than responding with envy, the protagonist feared her sister may be dying. But when sister two and three each followed and the bypass was explained, the narrator could not overcome her feelings of being left behind. To mark the death of her old shape, the narrator orders a last meal at Salt. While the location of her favorite restaurant remains the same, the restaurant itself is always changing, always improving, in parallel with society’s continuously elevated standards. At the newest spot, the narrator eats a platter of oysters, and one of them sticks to the shell. The narrator realizes the mollusks are alive: “they have no brains or insides…but they are alive nonetheless” (156). She believes if there were justice, she would be choked by the oyster, a symbol of the discarded parts of her body that too cling to their shell. Plate in front of her, the narrator “almost gagged, but then [she] swallowed” (156).

Post-surgery, all appears to go well; the neighbors notice her weight loss—an implied compliment—and when she makes a chicken dinner, she stops at bite eight. She has joined her mother and sisters, tossing aside the body that made her an outcast before. But she is not quite free. That body haunts her, appearing initially as an unseen presence, and then as a tangible form one night at the end of her stairs. At first, the narrator believes the shape, almost prepubescent, to be her daughter. Soon, however, she recognizes her [the shape] to be the body she had tried to abandon—her post-Cal body. She tells her body she is unwanted, violently kicking her, yet wishing she, like the oyster, “would fight back” (165). After that, the body stays out of the narrator’s sight, leaving behind trails of laundry and offerings of hard candy which let the protagonist know she “is around, even when she is not around” (167). No one else ever witnesses her, but the protagonist never wonders whether she is literal or imagined, ghost or dream. Because she does not spend time worrying about or even questioning the physicality of the form, the significance of the debate itself is subverted. In any encounter, the details we notice, the meanings we attribute to interactions, everything is shaped by the lens constructed by our backgrounds. Outsiders do not perceive the body because they have not lived the life required to see her.

In popular media, women’s sizes are hierarchized, bigger bodies assuming the pyramid’s bottom row, and the slim and often underweight forming the tiny triangle on top. Society justifies this hierarchy by framing the thin body as the image of health, a more objective sounding ideal than one based in beauty. In the story “Eight Bites,” it is neither the narrator’s physical discomfort nor her high regard of a thin body that motivates her to undergo the gastric bypass surgery, but her fear for marginalization had she not. Only in death, when her old body comforts her, reaching out to “touch her cheek like [she] once did Cal’s” (167), does the narrator recognize how she cut herself down for a society she was never going to fit. The problem had never been her body, but the culture that trained her to believe it was.

Machado’s ambiguity between reality and hallucination illustrates the fallacy in universal standards. The narrator may share her sisters’ blood and size, but her different experiences alter how she lives inside her body. Her post-Cal shape was a culmination of all her identities and adventures, including childbirth, and to dismiss the body is to dismiss the life that led to it. In her smaller frame, the narrator may have been able to stop at bite eight, but she was never full.

Machado, Carmen Maria. “Eight Bites.” Her Body and Other Parties. Graywolf Press, 2017.


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Fracturing Millennials Reveal Flaws in Generational Political Narrative

February 9, 2018

Thanks to Carter Vance, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

The idea of the “generational conflict”, written in sociopolitical terms, is a notion at once ancient and modern. One can go back to the writings of Plato and find tropes which sound curiously similar to the proverbial old man ranting at about the indolent youth invading his front lawn. At the same time, the habit affixing labels (“Boomer”, “Gen X”, etc.) and a set of supposed personality characteristics to subsequent cohorts is a relatively recent phenomenon. The notion that people who grow up in the same time period would share more in common with each other than with those who came before them is a fundamentally modern notion. In a time before the industrial revolution massively altered the structure of the economy, most careers would be passed down within families, with each generation for the most part reproducing what their parents had done.

Of course, there were always exceptions to this rule of, for instance, poor individuals who, through luck or skill, ended up in a much different place than where they began. But, the notion that a son would not continue in the trade of his father would have been eccentric at best and a betrayal of duty at worst. The cutting of old ties and the emphasis on individual achievement forged by the dawn of capitalism had the paradoxical effect of sweeping up full generations into epoch-defining economic changes. Demand for particular skills, or just a willingness to work in a particular set of conditions, would ebb and flow over time, rather than being fixed to family names. This, along with the increasing interconnection of economies and cultures at the national and international scale, meant that trends in fashion and job-destroying commodity busts would both be experienced by wide swaths of the population as defining events.

At the same time, the notion of a “generation” did not become fully operational until the era of mass media communication. This gave rise to the second major shared aspect of generational experience: popular culture. Of course, it is not strictly speaking true that every Baby Boomer attended Woodstock or loved The Beatles, but the shared sentiment that they did, and more specifically that they embraced a set of values reflected in this art, came to be retrospective social adhesive. This world of shared experience, of both artistic creation and news events, would have been impossible to achieve without the technology to expose everyone within a “generation”, or at least a wide swath, to such things. It was also with this expansion of media consumption that the notion of a “generational divide” between parents and child, as exemplified by films such as Rebel Without a Cause, began to gain more purchase as a shorthand for a particular kind of social dislocation. It is this image, an irreconcilable split over essential values and worldviews across an age gap, that gives “Greatest Generation”, for instance, a meaning beyond the purely temporal. As much as such terminology flattens out a whole wealth of contradictions and conflicts across various lines within the people it gathers together, it also allows a kind of narrative to be fashioned of global changes over time.

Encountering “generational” writing in the present moment, the standard litany of clichés which accompany writing about millennials from their elders are so well-worn at this point that to critique them as a sign of lazy thinking feels redundant. For every column denouncing the “snowflakes” on campus or the need to hand-hold us fragile young people in the workplace, there is another which counters these claims directly. My point here is to not relitigate the case against a particular set of generational stereotypes, but rather to question if this entire framework for looking at the lives of young people today is not faulty. Though the notion of a “generation” as a contained, relatively homogenous sociopolitical unit sharing a set of experiences, values and aspirations was likely always an overstretched concept, this is particularly true of millennials.

The most obvious fact speaking to our fracturing is that millennials are the most demographically diverse cohort in the history of North America, and therefore come to the table of the social world with much different concerns and experiences. Attempts to describe a singular “millennial” are therefore strained to the point of futility. Beyond this, the increasing social recognition of a wide variety of identities related to gender and sexuality further complicates the picture. This is even before we recognize that this generation has grown up in a cultural environment which is both increasingly global and niche-oriented. “Media” no longer means simply the kind of mass broadcast networks which it once did, but rather a more diverse range of outlets serving particular interests, tastes and views. Though this has been primarily talked about in terms of a negative phenomenon as facilitating increasing epistemic closure in political terms, it is important to note its virtues as well. A greater diversity of means through which to transmit messages into the popular consciousness has meant that injustices previously ignored have come to light, and that communities which have faced historical oppression have been able to come together and find a voice more easily. Whether for good or for ill, this generation does not necessarily share common media reference points with the rest of our cohort in the way Boomers can seemingly all recall listening to Hendrix on the hi-fi or watching the moon landing on TV. In short, the defining condition of being young in this moment is that of notionally infinite choice, both in terms of what we will consume, and how we will define ourselves in relation to the world.

Much more could be written on this, but I would close with the thought that the main option which is not available to us is that of security, in both economic and social terms. If we do all indeed swim in what Umberto Eco has defined as “liquid modernity”, taught to view all things as impermanent and flexible, it is my generation that was born into it. The variety of individual and group attachments, to artifacts of popular culture or internet ephemera, for instance, that we develop are something of a cheap substitute for the kind of shared meaning we believe defined life before our time. The attraction of young people to politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who promise a renewal of both common purpose and social security, testifies to this desire. Much of what is viewed by those above us as signs of some sort of generational psychosis are in fact very rational responses to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We have learned to be as fluid as the world around us, not because we necessarily want to, but because it is demanded of us.

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