Monday, May 21, 2012

Michel's Iron Law of Oligarchy

D. Michael Quinn.  The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power. Signature: Salt Lake City, 1997.  ISBN: 1560850604.

This German sociologist [Robert Michel] argued that no matter how democratic and altruistic any movement is at its inception, "whoever says organization, says oligarchy."  Thus Mormonism became [in the words of Thomas O'Dea] "a democracy of participation and an oligarchy of decision-making and command"  (quoted from Quinn, p. 408).

My own (admittedly limited) experience with organizations (both personal and vicarious) confirms Michel's law.  The creation of authorities necessarily involves the creation of non-authorities: rulers create subjects, just as surely as subjects anoint rulers.  Some people long to rule just as much as others long to be ruled.  So we cannot really help scratching our mutual itch every now and then.

Two insights stand out to me in the wake of Quinn's book (which gives a clear, candid account of the LDS church hierarchy from its inception, covered in greater depth in a previous volume, to the end of the twentieth century).

First, human beings are just apes in suits.  We cannot really help ourselves.  We naturally group together, establish hierarchies, and play the game of currying favor.  (Even when we pointedly step away from the game, we are still playing, particularly when we do so in a forum where others can observe our action.)  There is no fundamental difference separating the antics chronicled by Quinn from similar behavior observed among baboons by Robert Sapolsky.  Yes, we wear clothes.  We talk.  We reason.  We keep trying to get things better.  Sometimes, we even succeed, but that does not fundamentally change the nature of the game we are playing--a game much older than our species.  My take-away message from this observation is that I should never expect more from people than they are capable of delivering.  It isn't fair to set an impossibly high standard for the suited ape, even if he sets it out there (rhetorically) for himself.  Of course he wants to do the right thing--to succeed where others have failed, to achieve heaven on earth (or whatever it is people want now)--but at the end of the day, this will always mean that he invites some people to subject themselves to others.  That is OK.  There is not much else he can do.  The human will has its limits: it is not really free; or perhaps better, whatever freedom it has comes along with overriding natural limits (without which it could not exist at all: we require some "slavery" in order to be "free" the same way we require immobility in order to move; without some built-in restriction, no joint experiences its full range of motion).  When some would-be boss promises you pie-in-the-sky as his employee, he is just doing what people do.  If you decide to take the contract, recognize beforehand that you are making a bet, a bet that might not pay off the way you expect.  Caveat emptor.  If you were born into a contract you never really picked, welcome to the club of life.  We all start out young and foolish.  The question is not why me? but what am I going to do about it?  Every ape will have his own answer, depending on his personal situation, and the choices, unfree as they are, do matter (though perhaps not always as much as some people would like to think: recovery from bad bets is easier if you don't beat yourself up over them more than you have to).

My second insight is that there are just two "core doctrines" of Mormonism (as I see it; it is fine if others think differently).  These are (1) follow the leader and (2) follow your gut.  Over the years, Mormon authorities, preachers, and apologists have said all kinds of contradictory things (about everything from the nature of God to what it means to be a member of the LDS church): the only things they agree on are that we should follow the Brethen and the Holy Spirit.  In theory, these things never conflict with one another; in practice, they are always conflicting (with the Spirit telling people all kinds of contradictory things: he made Hugh B. Brown a liberal and Ezra Taft Benson a Bircher; Mitt Romney is still trying to figure out how to straddle both sides without coming across as too lukewarm for Jesus freaks, who may or may not be Mormon in this era where Latter-day Saints do their best to look like Southern Baptists). 

What interested me most about Quinn's book was learning about all the different governing quorums the LDS church has had.  Growing up in the post-correlation church (thanks for overturning my applecart, Harold B. Lee!), I learned that the First Presidency was supreme from the beginning (by divine appointment).  It was a revelation to see that it is really just one of a sea of competing quorums: at one time or another, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the First Quorum of the Seventy, the Presiding Bishopric, the Presiding Patriarch, and the Council of Fifty all bid fair (at least on paper) to take the First Presidency's job (or at least some of their most important jobs: another revelation was the amount of secular work required to keep the church up and running).  To make a long story short, we could say that Brigham Young castrated these quorums: sending people on missions and failing to convene the Council of Fifty regularly so that he became a de facto autocrat.  Not everyone appreciated his high-handedness:
"Some of my brethren, as I have learned since the death of President Brigham Young, did have feelings concerning his course.  They did not approve of it, and felt opposed, and yet they dare not exhibit their feelings to him, he ruled with so strong and stiff a hand, and they felt that it would be of no use.  In a few words, the feeling seems to be that he transcended the bounds of the authority which he legitimately held.  I have been greatly surprised to find so much dissatisfaction in such quarters" (George Q. Cannon, quoted in Quinn, pp. 40-41).
This kind of "quiet" resistance and dissonance goes on through church history, with leaders pretending to present a united front in public even as they often disagree irreconcilably over church policy and doctrine in private (though occasionally circumstances flushed the disagreement out into the open, as when Ezra Taft Benson's strident political views drew pointed condemnation from fellow church leaders Harold B. Lee and Hugh B. Brown).  From my point of view, the most disturbing aspect of this dynamic is not its existence but the careful pretense that it does not exist.

As a member of the church, I would like to know that some church leaders were decidedly opposed to Henry D. Moyle's missionary program (which caused me grief as a missionary, even with its worst aspects removed).  It was kind of hard when I was supposed to swallow this program as the unproblematic will of God; it would have been very helpful (to me, to the non-members I interacted with as a missionary, and ultimately to the church) if I had known that it wasn't.  The unity of the Brethren behind this program was a facade, a polite fiction designed to protect my fragile testimony (too weak to deal with reality, apparently: how was I supposed to grow up and behave responsibly if I was never to know what I was really doing? whose plan I was really following? what engineers in-the-know thought about it? would you ask a man to drive a car confidently if some of the technicians who inspected it found it seriously defective? why am I supposed to care more about the condition of my appliances than that of my soul?).

As a member of the church, I would have liked to know the real reason that black males did not receive the priesthood until 1978.  Other LDS authorities were ready to give black men the priesthood as early as 1969, but Harold B. Lee vetoed their motion.  God had to wait for his prophet to die before He could get the priesthood ban lifted.  This is not exactly how I imagined revelation working as a little kid in Sunday School, but it sure offers a more reasonable way to deal with honest inquiries than the squirrelly narrative I was stuck shilling as a missionary.  (We saw quite a few black people in northern Spain, most of them African, and if the subject of the ban came up, we found ourselves saying, "We have no idea why God waited so long to treat you like human beings.  You'll have to take it up with Him, eh?"  This always sounded lame to me.  Now I know why.  It's a cheap rhetorical trick, known commonly as the lie.  The fact that I came by it honestly does not change what it is.)

As a result of my experience in the LDS church, I have learned something about myself.  I don't like being played like a fool.  If you want to play me, fine.  Play me.  Bribe me.  Order me.  Lie to me, even, if you think that is the best way to get what you want.  But if you want me to trust you, tell the truth.  Don't pretend that you aren't really bribing me, that you aren't giving orders, that lies are true, or that I owe you trust that you never earn.  Don't try to play me, hoping I won't notice, and then try to pretend that you weren't really playing me, and that I shouldn't get all mad about it.  I may be dumb, but I'm not that dumb, and you aren't either.  A hunter respects his game, and a player can too.

To close out, I offer three short passages from Quinn that I really enjoyed:
(1) At the turn of the century J. Golden Kimball candidly complained that among the general authorities, "some men will kiss a man's ass to get to suck a sugar tit.  I would rather have the Courage to express my honest convictions" (quoted in Quinn, p. 17).  
Amen, Brother Kimball.  We need more like you.  Bring back the honest apes in suits!
(2) After his appointment to the First Council of Seventy in 1945, S. Dilworth Young stated his philosophy: "You must work through the Spirit.  If that leads you into conflict with the program of the Church, you follow the voice of the Spirit" (quoted in Quinn, p. 17).
This is certainly not the easiest road, but it feels right.  I have said before that I didn't leave the church as much as it left me.  The Spirit calls me to tell the truth as I see it and let the cards fall where they may.  When I ignore the truth, or worse, pretend that I see it otherwise than I do, I feel awful.
(3) Subordinates have sometimes been assigned to implement decisions they previously opposed and only reluctantly assented to ... When the Presidency assigned Apostle Mark E. Petersen in 1960 to form the stake he voted against organizing, Second Counselor Henry D. Moyle quipped, "Funny church, isn't it?" (quoted in Quinn, 18).
Yes, Brother Moyle, it is a funny church!  And that is as it should be.  The worst things happen when we take it all too seriously.  Today, I seriously think that religion should be a game: apes in suits, doing their little dances and pretending to fathom the mysteries of all existence (even as they come up with new ways to have fun and help each other: no one said they shouldn't have parties, or that these parties shouldn't be organized somehow, but there is no reason to take the organizers more seriously than their track record warrants).  The church is like the pub: a sacred institution where men (and women) can gather to be solemn or silly, sober or drunk, loud or quiet, depending on the circumstances.  There is no one true pub, and there is no point insisting that all pubs be the same (or pretending that some pubs have the magic property of making their denizens behave like gods instead of suited apes).  If we must have oligarchs, we must also be free to make fun of them, especially when they insist on tripping over the same banana peel over and over again.  ("I really am infallible!  Just watch me.  This time .... woops!")  People need to realize that they should question their leaders at least as often and as closely as they question themselves.


  1. I got hoodwinked in 1974 while working in Yosemite by a rabid latter-day saint...It seemed like a good way to meet women and go to byu, although i did find a Mexican wife, married in the slc temple, i was counseled to marry my "own Kind." I really never stayed active for more than a couple of years. Principally due to a church court held on my calling a women a bitch, which she came close. The lds church is based on fraud upon layers of rumors, fraud and lies..Mitt Romney sealed the deal, due to his high ranking positon; "You shall know them by their Fruit," and Mitt is a perfect emblem for the lds church...

    1. The LDS hoodwinking process is very odd. It is undoubtedly real, in my experience, but it is also true that the people participating very often sincerely believe everything they tell you (and hoodwink you in what they honestly think is your best interest).

      Some LDS hoodwinkers are unproblematically evil, but these are actually less troublesome (and easier to deal with) than the honest liars (to put it in those terms). I know that having been an honest liar in my time. I wasn't trying to lie. I wasn't trying to hurt anyone (or myself, to whom I lied as well). I honestly believed. I meant well by everyone. And sometimes I did really good work (for myself and others, if I do say so myself). But eventually I had to admit that I was not hewing to the truth the way I claimed. This admission cost me a lot (in terms of my relationships with other Mormons and my personal sanity), but ultimately it has been worth it. I have learned important things about my character, improved my integrity, and moved forward to a calmer, better place. That doesn't mean that I have solved life's problems, though. I can definitely see that my road (in and out of Mormonism) is not for everyone.