Because I am, in my grumpy way, going to spend much of this review complaining about things I did not like, let me lead by saying Mormons in the Media, curated by “Jared Farmer, professor of history and prize-winning author of On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard, 2008),” is a terrific book and you should all go download it at http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/mormon. Especially if you are a journalist assigned to the religion, Broadway, or swing state beats, you should take an afternoon off and read this book and get some perspective.
And you know what? It won’t take you that long. The book’s mostly just pictures and captions.
Now. Onto things Theric is unhappy about.
(note: these complaints are more for a mormon audience, not that hypothetical gentile reporter referred to above)
(note: this post is by no means an essay—it’s just strung-together thoughts)
In discussing Joseph Smith, Farmer calls the destruction of the Expositor “a gross violation of the First Amendment” (14). Not so, according to the way the law was interpreted at the time he destroyed the press. Was it a dumb decision? I think so. But a Constitutional violation? Not even close.
The talk about Native Americans is interesting and useful and fun with some genuinely shocking images. But my growing lack of faith in the precision of his details makes me wonder how much I can quote outside the actual quotations. Many of which are awesome. And which I will be remembering.
Farmer’s intro cites Romney as an impetus for this volume, so it’s perhaps no surprise he delights in such comments from the past as the fear Mormons would vote a straight Democratic ticket or a long-time-ago call for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman to solve the Mormon problem. We enjoy the irony, but I’m not sure we need it yelled at us.
One of my favorite sections was 157-161 re Mormonism in popular music and on Broadway in the good ole days. I had had a vague sense of Mormons being, along with the Irish, “niggers” and “Orientals”, a standard fixture in minstrel shows, good for a laugh and a funny song, but I did not realize how standard the stereotype was. And that the New York Herald described Deseret as “the first really successful American opera”? Priceless
Here are some fun things:
On 175: ”In the context of irrigation, outsiders lauded Mormons for their communitarianism, communalism, cooperation, and consensus—all of the same qualities that made the Latter-day Saints such a religious and political threat.”
What I learned on 177: Days of ’47 is America’s third biggest parade.
But enough with things I liked! More complaints!
On 204: MoTab as a purveyor of “milquetoast Americana”!
205: “Music and the Spoken Word” “mixes choral music with ecumenical words of inspiration delivered in the distinctive declamatory style of LDS authorities (a placid avuncular singsong)”!
These are the sort of sideways slams that can be tiring, no matter how “fair” the book is as a whole. Read in small blasts, very enjoyable. Read in long stretches though, these small snideries can pile on. But if they bother you, just stick with the pictures and avoid the captions.
None of my complaints change the value of the book to journalists.
But if you really want to see how Farmer is going down to the word level just to get on my nerves, check out page 223: “knew” vs “know” to increase sense of weird secrecy.
Also, he often displays difficulty in separating Utahisms from Mormonisms. Even though I’m certain he knows the difference. He has a Mormon background, after all.
You culture observers will be interested to know he says Latter Days was “well received by critics”. Nice research.
On page 264: Yeah, sure, the Book of Mormon “basically contains no women” but I’m not sure about the caveat “besides Lehi’s wife and a multitude of harlots”—I would love to hear all these harlots counted up.
He uses the term Mo-lympics for the 2002 Olympics more than once. I think we can all agree this is a pretty egregious sin.
Chapter 12 about the ERA, priesthood restrictions, etc, probably got on my nerves the most (even though here also it’s mostly fair and still recommended to journalists), and not just because of a blatant misuse of the word “ironically.” One cannot use the term thought police without sacrificing some some credibility re evenhandedness. Never mind unsupportable speculations like Joanna Brooks would have been excommunicated in the 1990s or The Proclamation on the Family’s bound for canonization. And to act like the change from “white” to “pure” was a post-OD2 out-of-nowhere-ism lacks a certain something. Because, actually, Joseph Smith made that change. Then someone changed it back. Now it’ s back to where he wanted it. You can’t just repeat old stories like that unless you’re paying attention to the research and not just repeating the shocking fact you learned in 1997 on the World Wide Web. I know, sure, this book lacks enough text to capture every nuance on every topic, but it could be trying a little harder.
Because even kind comments can be annoying when they’re insanely broad; for instance, Mormons “surpass most Protestants in work ethic” (292). As I read, I had to keep reminding myself that this book will provide nuance to the discussion, even if it’s not always so nuanced itself.
(I know I’m expressing more irritation at generalizations of Mormon when the book treads on other groups in the same manner but, in my defense, it’s a book about Mormons, so those examples are simply more frequent.)
All complaints aside, this is a terrific introduction to Mormons in the media through history. And the images speak for themselves, meaning even those with an antipathy to reading can make their way through this book. In fact, those with an antipathy to reading won’t even run in to the things I’ve complained about.
Plus: it’s got a fabulous Further Reading.