February 8th, 2015

A Widespread Misunderstanding About Satan’s War on Agency

Having been raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was taught the key doctrines of the faith—along with various teachings that were not necessarily true, though I accepted them as such in my youth. This was the case with one of the most central issues in our theology—the catalyst for choosing Christ over Satan. I’m referring to the “war on agency” waged by Lucifer, God’s fallen son.

It wasn’t until I read a book called Satan’s War on Free Agency several years ago that I realized I had not correctly understood this foundational event. Taking certain statements by church leaders at face value, I had believed that Satan wanted to force us to be good, and that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ wanted to allow us our agency to choose to be good.

Reading the book, however, I realized that since the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ there have been contradictory statements made by church leaders suggesting, perhaps, some confusion on this topic—certainly there was not consensus. For example, then-Elder Ezra Taft Benson taught, “The central issue in that premortal council was: Shall the children of God have untrammeled agency to choose the course they should follow, whether good or evil, or shall they be coerced and forced to be obedient? Christ and all who followed Him stood for the former proposition—freedom of choice; Satan stood for the latter—coercion and force” (emphasis added).

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December 21st, 2014

Why Latter-day Saints are Condemned

King Mosiah had many duties, one of them being the charge over the protection of, and addition to, the plates of Nephi—the official record of the Nephite people to be used “for the instruction of [the] people” and their “profit.” Eager to help future generations know of their prophecies and experiences, the plates were added to periodically for posterity’s edification.

Having been raised in an environment rich with teachings and the documentation thereof, it should strike nobody as a surprise that Mosiah was well prepared to act upon other records he received. After all, if the entire intent of prophetic scripture-making was to benefit others, then of course he and his people would want to benefit from the record of God’s dealings with others.

When Mosiah’s sons began their missionary work among the people of Limhi, they were presented with a mysterious discovery—24 gold plates discovered in the ruins of a fallen and forgotten civilization, written in an unknown language. Limhi was hoping to find a way to translate the record “to know the cause of their destruction.”

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December 16th, 2014

Torture is okay, because hey, we’re awesome!

After four years and forty million dollars, a Senate committee released a report last week summarizing its findings and views of the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture against alleged terrorists held captive by the agency in hopes of extracting useful information.

The report contains a number of startling (but perhaps unsurprising) revelations, such as sleep deprivation, forced rectal hydration, threats made against detainees’ family members, extensive waterboarding, knowingly innocent people still being held and tortured, and a concerted effort by the CIA to evade transparency and accountability.

The reactions to this report have been voluminous and varied in their degree of dismissal or objection. One commentary on the issue, however, encapsulates a response that I believe to be held widely by Americans. It was passionately offered up by Andrea Tantaros of Fox News who justified torture because it was “what the American public wanted” the Bush administration to do in order “to keep us safe.” Dismissing the report as being solely “about politics,” she launched into a jingoistic spectacle of American cheerleading.

“The United States of America is awesome, we are awesome,” she said, then arguing that “the reason [Democrats] want to have this discussion is not to show how awesome we are.”

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December 14th, 2014

Can Prophets Come from Outside Church Leadership?

I find it troubling that, speaking generally, people seem unable or unwilling to observe something in the present that they readily admit occurred in the past.

This pattern permeates scriptural application (or lack thereof), which is fairly odd since the very purpose of these scriptures is to be applied in our lives.

Consider an example I find extremely problematic: the widespread ignorance or outright rejection of what I consider to be the Book of Mormon’s secondary purpose. With repetition and great emphasis, the book’s editors point out historical evidences for “secret combinations” and the manner by which they overpower a society (through the government), and then make explicitly clear that we will face the same conflict in our own day. Most Latter-day Saints are comfortable reading about and recognizing the influence of these groups in past societies, but are ill-equipped to discern who they are—and what they’re doing—in our day.

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December 7th, 2014

An Open Apology to Glenn Beck

The invite was received. The plane tickets were purchased. The questions were prepared, and I was set to go. Tomorrow, I was going to fly to Texas to appear on Glenn Beck’s TV program.

Those plans, shall we say, “fell through.”

You see, while over the past few weeks I pitched Glenn’s team on having me on to discuss Feardom, I didn’t have in mind what his researchers later found: a blog post from early 2012 in which I said some not so nice things to and about their boss.

Titled “An Open Letter to Glenn Beck,” the post was a reactionary takedown of Glenn’s treatment of Ron Paul. After I was informed that Glenn’s staff had come across it, I went back and read it myself to see what I had said nearly three years ago. I was with my family, and in sheer surprise at the… ahem… strength of some of the words, I read some excerpts to my wife who, along with myself, was surprised by my tone.

Here’s the harshest part, though a similar tone pervades the entire article:

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November 23rd, 2014

Mormon Pharisees and Phylacteries

It’s not uncommon for my Facebook posts to receive hundreds of comments; the more controversial the topic, the more comments are usually generated. A few issues, without fail, rank near the top: military intervention, breastfeeding, and vaccinations. But these threads were recently overshadowed by an unexpected tidal wave of opinion on an absurd issue: BYU-Idaho students being admonished for exposing ankle flesh.

Individuals who attend one of the LDS church-owned educational institutions agree, as part of enrollment, to abide by the school’s “Honor Code”—a code of conduct governing things such as drug and alcohol consumption, interactions with the opposite gender, and dress and grooming standards. It is part of the price of admission to study at the tithing-subsidized church colleges.

As many critics have (correctly) pointed out, however, the minutia of these mandates can sometimes be borderline (if not outright) ludicrous.

For the past several years, the LDS Church has invested substantial time and money in the creation of video vignettes of popular New Testament stories. The production cost and attention to detail have been significant; as the Mormon Newsroom wrote, “The creators were careful to reflect the stories of the King James Version of the New Testament as faithfully as possible, paying meticulous attention to scriptural details.” This careful detail especially included wardrobe and grooming, ensuring that the actors appeared like the individuals they were portraying, to create fidelity to the original story.

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November 18th, 2014

Changing Deckhands or Direction?

The following op-ed was published this past weekend by the Daily Herald.

The ballot box provides American citizens an opportunity to indicate their support for or opposition to a variety of political candidates and proposed policy changes — an opportunity that a majority ignore; in Utah County, more than 67 percent of voters abstained from voting in the general election earlier this month.

For the few who do vote, this process becomes a majoritarian popularity contest in which warring factions attempt to wrest power from their competitors in hopes of imposing their views on everybody else. As Lord Acton wrote, “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” No student of history should regard American elections as a particularly praiseworthy process.

Of course, most see the current system as the least problematic approach to public policy, and therefore a valid system by which the government can be changed. But will this election actually change the direction America is heading, or is it, in the end, a theatrical rearrangement of deckhands on a ship whose course is fairly fixed?

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November 14th, 2014

Transparency, simplicity, publicity: Words for GOP to live by in 2015

The following op-ed was published this week by Fox News. It was written, in part, to publicize the forthcoming publication of Feardom.

Every Republican newly elected to the U.S. Senate shares at least one thing in common: they each campaigned on repealing the Affordable Care Act.

As Americans all across the political spectrum prepare for a fresh round of debate regarding this controversial policy reform, it’s important to pause and address how it was adopted in the first place.

If we’re to believe one of its creators, “ObamaCare” came into existence only because of “the stupidity of the American voter.” Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist and chief architect of the law, admitted last year to a friendly audience that it “was written in a tortured way” to dodge legislative obstacles, and that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage” that “was really, really critical for the thing to pass.”

Let’s take Gruber at his word—that the success of the president’s signature policy proposal was predicated on ignorance and obfuscation. One must conclude from his explanation that the Obama administration relied upon—and helped to maintain—the electorate’s alleged stupidity; in the eyes of a politician, an ignorant populace is a malleable one. “Great is truth,” wrote the dystopian author Aldous Huxley, “but still greater, from a practical point of view, is silence about truth.”

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November 10th, 2014

Forced Taxation to Fund Schools — For the Good of Society?

I received my annual property tax notice in the mail last week, informing me of the amount of my hard-earned money that the government was demanding I submit, without mercy or exception. The penalty for non-compliance ranges from fines to foreclosure, clarifying to citizens that they do not in fact own the property for which they hold a title; we must pay rent to the government or be evicted.

The tax notice I was provided showed the break down of which government bodies would receive certain divisible amounts, the largest of which is the government school district in which I live—nearly $2,000, and $170 higher than last year’s mandate.

As a homeschooling father, I find this burden to be excessive and unjust. Because this taxation mandate carries with it significant penalties should I fail to pay, it becomes a priority expenditure. As such, the costs of my own children’s education becomes secondary; curriculum, materials, field trips, activities, and other resources needed to help my children learn can only be acquired after I have first financed the education of others’ kids.

“But!” the statist immediately interjects. “Surely this sacrifice is necessary for the good of society—it is the price we pay to live in an educated populace.” This argument is represented fairly well—though in nausea-inducing fashion—by author John Greene, who offered the following comment often paraded around by public school supporters:

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October 31st, 2014

In the Shadows of the Unknown

The following article was published in this month’s edition of The Freeman by The Foundation for Economic Education. It was written, in part, to publicize the forthcoming publication of Feardom.

Your doorbell rings in the dark of night, so you quietly approach the peephole to size up your visitor. The porch light doesn’t illuminate the person well enough to see him clearly, but he’s definitely wearing a mask. You move your eyes lower to get a better look at the tall figure. He’s standing, waiting, on the other side of the threshold. He’s holding a machete.

On any other night, this scenario might send adrenaline coursing through your veins, fueling an almost palpable fear. But tonight is different. It’s Halloween. And rather than feeling scared, you casually open the door to discover that the dimly lit figure is the teenager from down the street dressed as the killer from a slasher flick.

We don’t fear a scary-looking stranger on our doorstep on October 31 because we know it’s very likely to be a friendly neighbor seeking sugar. This information, born of experience, empowers us to act rationally. It’s possible, of course, that the machete-wielding figure really is a murderer going door to door — but the odds are against it, especially on this night of the year.

Imagine if you didn’t know how to assess that risk. Imagine locking your doors, turning off all the lights, and cowering in the dark, waiting for all the trick-or-treaters to go away.

Unfortunately, this is the situation we too often find ourselves in when politicians and the media tell us to be scared — of terrorists, of deadly contagions from overseas, or just of each other. We know that not all of the threats can be real, but how are we to discern the true menaces from the false alarms?

When people are scared, they will support policies that promise to keep us safe, but end up costing us ever more—both in tax dollars and lost liberties. That’s why despots throughout history have sought means by which the masses could be intentionally kept in the dark: ignorance and fear give the despots power. It doesn’t matter which political party is in power. The left tries to scare people with dark visions of unchecked greed and exploitation. The right wants people to fear alleged threats to our security, both abroad and within our borders. Fear pervades politics generally. As John Adams once wrote, it is “the foundation of most governments.”

We naturally defer decision making to those who have access to greater political and military intelligence than the general population does. Christopher Guzelian, a legal theorist, posits that politicians are so successful in their use of fear because of “risk information (whether correct or false) that is communicated to society.” In other words, we fear the hobgoblins we can’t see solely on the basis that we’re told they exist and are coming after us. Guzelian concludes that it is “risk communication, not personal experience, [that] causes most fear these days.” Without information, and lacking direct experience, we often respond irrationally.

What can we do when we are not ourselves scientists, soldiers, or spies? How do we protect our freedom from a political class that benefits from our fears?

We’re all familiar with the fable about the boy who cried wolf. A shepherd boy repeatedly tricked nearby villagers into thinking that a wolf was attacking his flock of sheep. After multiple “false alarms,” the wolf actually did attack. But this time, when the boy called for help like he had many times before, the villagers did not respond. What changed? This time, they had information. While they didn’t know if there was a wolf or not, they did have observational data informing them about the trustworthiness of their source.

Our lives are filled with supposed shepherds warning us about the terror du jour. This warning may be completely concocted for political gain, or simply amplified or misinterpreted as a prediction of how a potential malefactor might act. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an analysis of predictions made by 300 subject matter experts — and summarized in his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? — Philip Tetlock observes that “there is a tendency for experts to claim to know more than they do about the future.” Put differently, we rely on people who often do not know what they’re talking about.

While we may not have access to the information necessary to know whether a purported political, economic, or other threat is as bad as is claimed, we are not helpless. Some sources are more reliable than others. We can cautiously develop a sense of which sources to listen to based on their track records.

The US government’s record is especially bad on foreign threats. “A few recent examples,” writes historian Tom Woods, “include the alleged Gulf of Tonkin incident (Vietnam), babies being tossed out of incubators (Iraq I), ‘genocide’ (Kosovo, where ‘hundreds of thousands’ of dead turned out to be 2000 dead on both sides of a civil war combined), weapons of mass destruction (Iraq II), and many others.”

Like the villagers in the fable, we cannot trust our shepherd — but what alternative do we have? Having grown weary of being duped by false reports, the villagers might have constructed a tower and employed an observer to stand watch and provide an accurate assessment of the surrounding area. The problem for the villagers, and for us, is that new infrastructure can be expensive. And, in the end, the new guardian may develop the same incentives as the old one.

Fortunately, modern technology offers us a superior strategy to combat those who wish to deprive us of the truth.

Prior to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1436, it was economically unfeasible for most individuals to own books, leading to widespread illiteracy. Without the ability to read information, let alone scrutinize and judge it, commoners had no intellectual defense with which they could combat falsehoods. The printing revolution empowered people to access and act upon truth, thus holding religious and political officials accountable for their misdeeds.

The Internet has similarly revolutionized information access and analysis. Leaks of confidential government documents have turned into a flood; firsthand reports from theaters of war circumvent government censors and combat propaganda; the proliferation of mobile devices has turned every citizen into an agent of accountability who can document the actions of police officers and turn their abuses of authority into viral videos. These and a host of other innovations empower the individual to obtain and act upon the truth. They also minimize the risk of our believing that something is a threat to our health, safety, or welfare when it really isn’t.

The most important and innovative byproduct of this technological advance is the decentralization of information, including inputs and outputs. There are now an abundance of sources and a variety of means by which we can listen to them. We’re not reliant upon a single shepherd. The world features observation towers in abundance—a marketplace of investigators, researchers, analysts, and commentators. Should one source prove untrustworthy, we have other options from which to choose.

Likewise, our ability to share the truth using technology ensures that controls and censorship will forever be circumvented; with the click of a button, we can now help countless others see that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes. Social media has radically altered the traditional news networks, and citizen journalists are increasingly empowered to identify, investigate, and report on an issue of concern. Worldwide dissemination of information is no longer a fanciful, futuristic dream—the revolution has become our reality.

We live in a dangerous world, where threats do exist and should be dealt with. We should be diligent, however, in figuring out what is or isn’t a credible threat. Imagine if your young neighbor was shot and killed by another homeowner unfamiliar with Halloween. Wouldn’t we agree that more information would have caused that neighbor to respond differently?

We can’t expect people to act reasonably in the face of some purported threat unless they can access the truth and the context that surround it. Thankfully, today we have more tools than ever to check those who cry wolf and expect people to stay cowering in the shadows of the unknown.

August 14th, 2014

After Ferguson, Then What?

Cheye Calvo was the mayor of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, in 2008 when law enforcement officers raided his home as part of a botched drug raid. The mayor and his mother-in-law were held at gunpoint, and officers shot and killed the mayor’s two dogs—one while it was trying to escape to safety. If this story is unfamiliar to you, read Radley Balko’s summary here.

Calvo and his mother-in-law were completely innocent, and the officers involved in the raid faced no repercussions. The Sheriff was even so bold as to say that “we’d do it again. Tonight.”

The mayor began lobbying the state legislature for reform, and succeeded in passing a bill that would bring a bit of transparency to law enforcement. It required every Maryland police agency with a SWAT team to periodically issue a report on how many times the team was deployed, whether shots were fired, the nature of the alleged crime, etc. It did not enact any restrictions on law enforcement activity, yet it was opposed by every police organization in the state. Still, it passed. Crisis paved the path for reform.

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July 7th, 2014

Why I Now Remain Silent During the Pledge of Allegiance

Four years ago I wrote an article explaining the sordid history of the pledge of allegiance and the modification I made to its words to make it more palatable to me. For a couple of years I used this version whenever I found myself at an event or meeting in which those present were invited to verbally demonstrate their allegiance.

Now I don’t say any pledge at all.

Honestly, I have simply grown tired of seeing people wear their supposed love of freedom on their sleeve. Whether it’s attending a patriotic event, expressing gratitude for “living in the freest country,” saying the pledge of allegiance, participating in a parade, or a variety of other superficial activities, these are devoid of any substantive meaning without corresponding actions. In short, many talk the talk but few walk the walk—or, in Tom Paine’s words, there are too many summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

While I take issue with the pledge itself—both its history and its textual composition (why do so few find it odd that they are pledging their allegiance to a piece of cloth or symbol of the state?)—my primary motivation for abstaining altogether from saying the pledge is to encourage people to think about their regurgitation of the same. In other words, I want people to focus on the “walk” and see how without it, the “talk” is worthless fluff.

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