I’ve been just waiting for someone to get gutsy and rash enough, in the wake of Warren Jeff’s sexual assault convictions, to try a side-by-side, cross-historical comparison of Jeff’s polygamy with that Joseph Smith. Given the state of the public mind – inebriated as ever with the subject of polygamy and whetted by Big Love, Sister Wives, and now the salacious Jeff’s trial – it was only a matter of time. In his rather pitiable defense, Jeffs gave a rehearsal of Mormon religious persecution, ran through a sort of FLDS catechism, and made gestures toward Joseph Smith.
Peggy Fletcher Stack’s article this week comparing Jeffs and Joseph Smith (“Comparing Mormon founder, FLDS leader on polygamy,” Salt Lake Tribune, 08.19) was perfectly suited to the public appetite. The piece, headed by the provocative artwork below, pits the revulsion that many feel toward Jeffs’ foul crimes against the deep admiration that many Latter-day Saints feel for the Prophet Joseph Smith. It deftly exploits, as good journalists know to do, some of the strongest currents in the cultural atmosphere, and the effect is a visceral one. Stack unabashedly sits Joseph Smith and Warren Jeffs side by side in a parity that will make most Mormons flinch.
There are some eerie resonances in Stack’s comparison of Jeffs and Smith, at least it would feel that way from a contemporary perspective. As she points out, there are similarities in the young age of some of the brides that Jeffs and Joseph Smith married. Both presented a theological explanation for the polygamous practices in which they engaged, and the authenticity of these difficult to analytically verify. Likely due to social norms surrounding sexuality, these practices were not public in either circumstance, though Jeffs apparently involved his followers in ways that Smith did not.
The underlying question that Stack’s raises and skillfully leaves to tease is: Are these two men really akin to each other? Is one really a mirror image of the other, transposed over several centuries?
Stack’s article is simultaneously a remarkable piece of journalism and a sad piece of history, despite its attempts to engage more competent historians. Although the stuff of Mormon history is our raison d’etre here at the Juvenile Instructor, I’ll leave the corrective point-by-point comparisons of Jeff’s contemporary polygamy and Joseph Smith’s historical practice to others who are more fluent in both literatures and more interested in the topic. On a personal level, I think Stack’s comparison is gratuitous and wantonly provocative. But here I’ll just point out a few methodological considerations that she has neglected.
Cross-historical studies are fraught with peril and cause tremors in even the most stout-hearted historians (and anthropologists, and other competent scholars). That’s because historians are aware just what they face with such a project. It’s very difficult – in any venue – to work thoroughly enough in two widely divergent contexts to render the content of each so that it is even vaguely conversant with the other. The further apart these periods are, the more difficult that is to do. And it is certainly not so breezy as Stack’s piece would make it seem.
Naturally, treatment of the subject runs into trouble just by the fact that the piece is a newspaper article, which cannot hope to do historical justice to the topic. What the form necessarily excludes is all the contextualization and analysis that most scholars believe mandatory for any meaningful look into history.
Let’s not forget, though, that as piece of journalism, Stack’s piece is categorically different from academic history. Journalism operates under different rules, with different objectives, and through different means. Despite the fact that many of us while reading journalism perpetually cry out for closer analysis, not all journalism can take this form. The realm of popular media is a properly a distinct sphere, one that necessarily stands apart from academics. While it may often frustrate the thoughtful, journalism is a legitimate sphere of discourse, one that historians and academics should not merely bemoan, but visit and work to shape more often.
Perhaps more problematic for the article’s historical integrity even than its lack of historical context and sustained analysis, however, is the modern context in which the article is produced and received. To some extent, of course, all historical interpretations take place in a modern mindset. History is continually reinterpreted and meanings of the past are continually revised because interpretive priorities change over time. But Stack’s article (like most other journalistic writing) is an artifact of a very particular temporal moment that is exceptionally hypercharged. It is a product of a news-cycle episode that is invisibly framed by some very powerful and focused tensions, themes, and interests. This sensationalized paradigm is the effect of fresh exposure to the images, video, accounts, and unvarnished opinions inherent to modern media exposure. And this is the world which journalists inhabit, navigate, and try to exploit. It is all but inevitable that a proximate and sensational present will oppress a passive and distant past.
To me, these are fascinating considerations that arise when history enters into the rough-and-tumble world of journalism. I hope to make a habit of writing about this from time to time in a series I’m calling Grub Street History, after London’s colorful journalism district of the late 17th through the early 19th centuries. In the world of popular media, history has different roles and functions. It is handled in different ways – journalists have their own historical methods. So just how do journalists who invoke history, specifically those who talk about Mormon history, engage and utilize historical information and narratives? Are there patterns in the efforts of those who write about Mormons and their past? What is the significance of those trends and how do they help shape discourse about Mormonism? With the current media interest in Mormonism and often in Mormon history, there will likely be ample opportunity to find out.