12:13 p.m. October 1, 2012

Romney's "Uncle Welfare"

“Honey on the tongue; ice underneath” - Russian proverb

I first came across this monument to Mormon Welfare by accident. I was on my way to interview Rocky Anderson, the legendary former Salt Lake City mayor who’s running for president on the Justice Party ticket, when I took a wrong turn off the stretch of highway where Interstates 15 and 80 briefly merge, and found myself in a sort of partly-developed industrial park zone.

There I was, cursing and cold-cocking the NSFWCORPMOBILE’s steering wheel, trying to find my way back onto the freeway, when I caught sight of something terrifying: A bright white grain elevator, 200 feet high, with the words “WELFARE SQUARE” emblazoned on the top, and a sub-header: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

That scared me: Either I was having my first Mormon Vision — happens all the time out here — or I was experiencing the first symptoms of glioblastoma, the most aggressive and deadly type of malignant brain tumor.

No way was Mitt Romney reared in a religion that deifies “welfare” in this way; no way did Glenn Beck convert to Mormonism if it’s a religion of welfare-symps, as that grain elevator lettering implied. Utah is the most diehard Republican state in the union; and Romney’s campaign is a one-note attack on the “welfare state.”

I gunned the 'MOBILE and aimed it straight at the Wasatch Range, due east, and once I was safely among stoplights and traffic, I called my insurance company to see if they cover MRIs, before picking up the trail to Rocky Anderson’s campaign headquarters. I arrived some 45 minutes late, with no viable excuse. (Rocky describes himself as an “anti-Mormon, not a lapsed Mormon,” so the last thing he’d want to hear from a Gentile like me was “I had a Mormon Welfare Vision, praise Elohim!”)

I’ll tell you all about my interview with Rocky Anderson in the next “Why Is Romney Such A Dick?” Dispatch — Rocky was mayor of Salt Lake during the 2002 Olympics, so he knew Mitt and Ann well, and his recollections will surprise you no matter which side of this election farce you're on — but to give credit where credit is due, it was Rocky who confirmed to me the existence of “Mormon Welfare Farms” and "Mormon Welfare Stores".

“So it’s real? It really exists?” I asked.

Rocky laughed and pulled up the Deseret Industries “Welfare Square” website on his desktop, and then adjusted the monitor so that I could see it for myself.

“This church was built in large part on the idea that this is a communal effort,” Rocky said, shaking his head sadly. “The teachings are one thing. But there is a meanness ... ”

* * *

If you see the word “Deseret” on anything in this part of the world, you know it’s Authentic Mormon. To us Gentiles, “deseret” looks like a typo. To Mormons, it’s tribal history — and therefore, the brand name to all sorts of Church-approved businesses and operations. “Welfare Square” hosts a handful of “Deseret Industries” operations along with the grain tower and employment services: There’s a “Deseret Industries” store stocking a range of “Deseret” brand canned goods and dry foods, a “Deseret Bakery,” a “Deseret Dairy”...

According to the Book of Mormon, “deseret” means “honeybee” in a non-existent language Joseph Smith called “Reformed Egyptian.” Because no one has ever heard of “Reformed Egyptian” either in Smith’s time, our time, or Cleopatra’s time, naturally it took some special tools to read and translate that language into English — which explains why Joseph Smith required the use of “magic glasses” which he lost and replaced with “magic seer stones.” That is how we know that the word “deseret” means “honeybee” in “Reformed Egyptian.”

The “deseret” part of the story goes something like this: about 5,000 years ago, a tribe of proto-Hebrews called the “Jaredites” got fed up with the whole Tower of Babel thing, and decided to vote with their feet and move somewhere more Jaredite-friendly. So they built these wooden sea-pods, or “barges” that the Book of Ether describes as “tight like unto a dish” — ba-bing! ba-boom, baby! — and sailed them to America 4,500 years before Columbus. These bobbing Bronze Age submarines somehow kept the ocean waters out and plenty of ventilation in for the Jaredite cargo — humans and honeybees (“deserets”) alike, because naturally they sealed themselves inside their sea-pods with “swarms of honey bees” because really, what Hebrew wouldn’t? — for their 344-day transoceanic cruise. It’s a story that puts not only Columbus to shame, but also Gilligan. The Skipper too.

When it comes to fantasy writing, Joseph Smith was pretty bad with names — "deseret" and "the Jaredites" and "The Book of Ether" are just a few examples of what Mark Twain meant when he called the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print."

Brigham Young, however, thought Joseph Smith was the JRR Tolkien of his day. He especially liked that word “deseret” and everything it implied: a kingdom of grim, toiling worker-bees under his command, of whom 57 honeys were made into his wives ... Brigham named his theocracy “Deseret” or “The Kingdom of Deseret” and drew up maps showing plans for a major Mormon Lebensraum, under which “The Kingdom of Deseret” would include the states of Nevada and Arizona, all of Southern California, and slices of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Oregon.

But Washington wasn't as impressed by the whole “deseret” thing — so after stealing Utah from the Mexicans a year after the Mormons arrived in 1847, the United States ordered Brigham to name the new American territory after the local Ute tribes who were being slowly exterminated. And then sent the US Army into Brigham Young's backyard to make sure they got their way. The Mormons have had to settle with calling Utah “The Beehive State” ever since.

So that’s where the word “Deseret” of “Deseret Industries” comes from — and why their beehive logo is all over the place.

*

I arrived at the Welfare Square Visitor’s Center around lunchtime, and was greeted by a pair of young “sisters” on their mission — one from Canada, the other from Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. Apparently these two-girl missionary tag-teams work in more places than just Temple Square — and there seems to be a pattern of pairing white middle-class Mormon girls with MoCs (Mormons of Color). One wonders, considering that Utah has the highest rate of online porn addicts in the nation ... naw, forget that for now.

The Canadian girl was one of those perfectly-cast blond-next-door types that are so well-represented among Mormons I’ve known and grew up with — I assume that Veerhoven had contemporary Mormons in mind when he cast those blandly-perfect humans of the future for Starship Troopers. It’s a smart strategy, because unless you’re one of those Evangelical Truther-types on a mission to argue over dead schizophrenics, you’re going to be disarmed by these Mormon girl tag-teams. Something about the blank sincerity and sexual repression works like Kryptonite on one’s sneering powers.

After the girls asked me what I do for a living, they laughed and warned me that they were new to this Welfare Square tour, and so I shouldn’t expect to get much out of them beyond the film they were about to show me.

“Please don’t tape me,” said the Canadian sister, laughing.

They led me from the drab and surprisingly barren "Welfare Square Visitor's Center" through a door to the movie hall, which was far more impressive and modern, with neat rows of spanking new theater seats and a big new screen.

In the back of the hall there’s a row of five portraits of key Church Elders who made the Welfare Plan possible. One of them, J. Reuben Clark, was the real brains behind the Church Welfare Plan in 1936, and arguably the most influential and powerful LDS figure of the 20th Century, the brains behind the LDS church’s turn to hard-right politics at the very time when America went New Deal liberal.

Next to Clark hangs the portrait of another dead old white man with spectacles, whose engraved name stuck out like a sore thumb: “Romney.”

“Hey — is this guy related to Mitt Romney?” I asked the sisters. They looked at each other and half-shrugged. Then the Canadian sister put on her best serious face and said, “Yeah, he is. Romney. Of course. I think — I don’t know. We don’t know much, really.”

She wasn’t exaggerating — church policy ensures that missionaries are turned into a bunch of Sergeant Schultzes who know nozink ... except whatever’s in the Book of Mormon. For the entire duration of the young Mormon's mission, they aren’t allowed to read or watch any news, or films, or any media or information of any kind that isn’t Mormon scripture. They can't even call their own families more than two times a year — beyond that, they get to write just one email letter a week. The point is to isolate them from what's going on in the world. And it works.

“We really don’t know anything about politics or the elections,” the Canadian sister said, and it seemed that she was more relieved than anything from having a legitimate excuse not to talk politics with the waves of tourists (and Evangelicals) who come through. “Watch the film,” she advised me, as the two sisters took seats a couple of rows behind me. “It has all that stuff.”

*

“Mr. Welfare”: that was Marion Romney’s nickname among the senior Mormon Church leaders. The movie in the visitor’s center doesn’t tell you that. I had to find it out myself.

I discovered the “Mr. Welfare” nickname for Marion Romney buried in an official Latter-Day Saints obituary when he died in 1988:

“President Romney has deservedly been called in the Church, “Mr. Welfare.” He, with Harold B. Lee, was the first to be called to establish the welfare program as it is known today. This program was not a beginning for Marion G. Romney, but an extension of a personal philosophy…”

And yes, “Mr. Welfare” was a close relative of Mitt Romney. Mitt’s dad and “Mr. Welfare” were first cousins — they were both born in polygamy colonies in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, and both had the same polygamist grandfather, Miles Romney, who’d fled the United States with his five wives during a federal anti-polygamy crackdown in the 1880s. Officially that makes Mitt Romney and “Mr. Welfare” first cousins once-removed, but given the polygamy stuff, “Mr. Welfare” is more like Mitt Romney’s “first uncle twice removed” ... or just “Uncle Welfare” for short.

Anyway, in the year 1912, both “Mr. Welfare”, Marion Romney, and Mitt’s dad, George Romney, fled their Mexico polygamy colonies for the United States, escaping the revolutionary wave that threatened wealthy gringos and religious landholders. The “Mr. Welfare” Romney also shared the more liberal politics of Mitt’s dad (and the liberal politics of Mitt 1.0, before his system downgrade in 2007 to Mountain Goatfucker 10.8). And, like Mitt’s dad, Marion Romney rose to the highest rungs of power — Mitt's dad was governor of Michigan and almost-president of the United States, while "Uncle Welfare" Romney rose to the highest rungs of the Mormon church, a member of the Mormon Politburo, called the “Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.” And higher still within the Mormon Politburo.

Like the Politburo, the Mormon Quorum is a gerontocracy where the only requirement for career advancement is to not die. By the 1980s, Marion Romney rose to President of the Quorum — just one dead Mormon away from being crowned “President, Prophet, Seer and Revelator” — which would have put Mitt’s first cousin once-removed in direct hotline contact with the gods, more infallible than the Pope. But poor Marion Romney couldn’t close the deal: “Mr. Welfare” died one crusty Bircher from the throne, ending yet another Romney dream of taking the crown.

It seems to be a curse in the Romney bloodline: high-achievers who can’t close the deal. Best stats in the league, but no red zone offense. It’s like the Romney clan walks around with a giant “L”-shaped skidmark in their Magic Mormon Underwear.

It makes you start to think that maybe Mittens looked at the record and decided that the politics were the cause of the Romney Curse — that the Romneys who went far, but not far enough, all rode to the almost-top on an agenda of liberal-centrist politics, a politics that made them all the darlings of the Gentile media. But something always happens at the last moment. Maybe, Mitt realized, you can’t close that final part of the deal on liberal-centrist politics, not within an organization controlled by dickish-reactionaries. Maybe Mittens figured that the key to ending the Romney Red Zone Curse was by pulling a reactionary flee-flicker at the last moment?

*

The way the right-wing media tells it, the Mormon church’s Welfare Plan stands as a free-market model for the rest of the country, living proof that faith-based volunteer charity accomplishes much more than government welfare programs could ever dream of. Politically, Mormon Welfare is the antidote to the liberals’ Government Welfare — that’s how it was sold to the public when it was first unveiled in 1936, and that’s how it’s still being sold today.

The Mormon church first established its official welfare program during the Great Depression, in the spring of 1936. At first it was named the “Church Security Plan”; two years later, in 1938, it was renamed the “Church Welfare Plan,” the same year that they broke ground on Welfare Square here in Salt Lake.

When the Mormon welfare plan was unveiled in 1936, the church president, Heber Grant — the last practicing polygamist to lead the Mormon church — framed the program as the anti-New Deal:

“Our primary purpose was to set up… a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished...The aim of the Church is to help the people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership.”

That was Grant’s position as head of the Mormon Church in 1933 as well, when Utah’s unemployment rate stood at 35.8% and FDR launched his wildly popular New Deal:

“I believe that there is a growing disposition among the people to try to get something from the government of the United States with little hope of ever paying it back...I think this is all wrong.”

Even though the Church was incapable of caring for its members under the circumstances, Grant’s bigger worry was how the New Deal’s success would affect church members as they learned by experience that the government was far more reliable and helpful than the church. Today, the Mormon missionaries guiding me through the Welfare Center emphasize the same individualist elements of “self-reliance” and “getting back on your feet as quickly as possible.”

The blond, green-eyed sister from Canada tells me, “The whole purpose of this program is to get the person in a position where they can take care of themselves as quickly as possible. The Church doesn’t want you getting used to the handouts—they want to help you through a rough patch.”

The youngest of eight siblings, she cited her own family’s experience as proof that it works: “When I was born, we were basically living out of our car in Toronto,” she tells me. “My father lost his job, it was a really tough time, or so I’m told, because I was too young,” she laughs. “So we relied on the Church welfare plan food for a year or so, until they helped find my dad a job, and we moved away and didn’t need it anymore.”

There’s a “welfare supermarket” on Welfare Square that offers mostly canned goods like soups and chili and vegetables, and also packaged dry powdered goods like mashed potatoes, jello and powdered milk.

“The powdered milk is my favorite, even still,” the Canadian sister laughs. “I was pretty much raised on powdered milk from that year when we were poor, and so I still love the taste, I can’t help it.”

Most of the people in the store seemed to be volunteers or employees, packing, unpacking, stocking, moving ... Of the dozen or so shoppers, about half were Latinos wearing grim, nervous faces, a few looked like unemployed farmers, and a handful had the calloused sunburned skin and paranoid eyes of the homeless.

The food isn’t handed out willy-nilly; instead, church members have to go to their local bishop (there’s something like one Bishop for every 500 Mormons), who then writes out a sort of welfare-prescription, checking off how much of which items he thinks is right for the person's needs for a fixed period of time. You then redeem that welfare-prescription for the food items, and then when it runs out, you crawl back to the bishop for the next batch of food, and a heaping helping of shame.

It sounds like a sadist’s idea of charity, specifically designed to inflict maximum humiliation on the welfare recipient, hitting church members at their weakest and most vulnerable moment in life, when they already feel like failures and have already battled with the demons of shame long enough — you only go to the bishop for help after you cross that rubicon from shame and embarrassment into survival mode, a state of mind beyond conventional shame. It’s as though the Mormon bishop’s job is to drag you back into a state of shame and self-loathing for curative purposes, like electroshock therapy.

The Canadian sister doesn’t see things that way: “This way, the bishop can monitor you and make sure you’re making progress,” she said. “The whole point is to get you off the welfare plan as quickly as possible. It’s better than just letting everyone take whatever they want here. Then how do you know if the person is being helped?”

The underlying assumption of course is the same one right-wingers have been making since the days when the Poor Laws were amended to force the poor into brutal workhouses, and relief aid to Ireland during the famine was discouraged: That poverty is a state of mind, a consequence of moral failures, laziness, lack of discipline — which can only be cured through tough love. It’s the argument Charles Murray has been making since the Reagan Years (when he’s not pushing his “Bell Curve” racial eugenics): Poverty is the fault of the poor; the lower-middle-class trap is the fault of the lower-middle-class. Therefore, welfare without accompanying humiliation and tough love only encourages indolence in the indolent.

Shame and embarrassment are the operating words when it comes to welfare. Even back in 1933, when vast numbers of Mormons were on the verge of starvation, church president Grant was pushing the shame theme on his flock: “Our able-bodied members must not, except as a last resort, be put under the embarrassment of accepting something for nothing.”

Embarrassment? What about starvation and homelessness?

At that time, Mormons, like the rest of America, didn’t have the luxury of weighing one’s embarrassment against the existential necessity of food, shelter, and a job, however menial — things the Mormon church couldn’t possibly provide during the economic apocalypse of the Great Depression. It showed at the polls: Despite the Mormon Church’s close ties to President Hoover and the Republican Party Establishment, in 1932, Utah overwhelmingly voted for FDR. Mormons also voted out the longest-serving and Mormon Republican senator, Reed Smoot — he of the notorious “Smoot-Hawley Act” raising tariffs early in the Great Depression, back when the Republican party was the party of industrial protectionism — and replaced him with one of the greatest, and least dickish, Mormon political figures ever, a Utah University professor named Elbert Thomas, or “the tight vagina of Mormon Senators” as he’s affectionately known around here at the NSFWCORP Compound of One.

I’ll have more to say about Sen. Thomas in the next installment of our “Why Is Romney Such A Dick?” series, but just to give you a sense of his story, it spans everything from the LaFollette Committee and the epic labor battles of the 1930s, to the worst of McCarthyism, to Watergate, the CIA, E. Howard Hunt, and right up to the Tea Party of today ... and yes, it also includes that thing in the kitchen with the faucet and the grinder in the drain, you know what I’m talking about right? That thing where you wash your dishes and stuff … ?

*

The Church Welfare Plan was established in 1936, undoubtedly the most important election since the Civil War. Either FDR’s New Deal programs would survive, burning into our political DNA the structural changes in power and class relations and the distribution of the economic pie; or his Republican challenger, Alf Landon, would win and quickly undo the entire program before it could take root, killing off labor union power and Social Security programs in their cribs.

Alf Landon had the backing of just about every millionaire in the country, the full force of the public relations industry, and the notorious Liberty League, the Death Star of right-wing libertarian front groups. The Liberty League had the backing of all the major titans of industry and finance and most of the major newspapers. And the power of the Mormon Church leadership.

If you remember how I mentioned the portraits in the Welfare Square visitor’s center, where Mitt Romney’s cousin Marion’s portrait hangs — and next to Romney’s portrait, the man responsible for setting up the Mormon Church’s Welfare Plan, J. Reuben Clark. Well, this same J. Reuben Clark was a rabid right-wing extremist by the time the Mormon Church rushed out its Mormon Welfare Plan. J. Reuben Clark was sympathetic to Hitler’s National Socialists, a frothing anti-Semite, and a racist who instituted a program in Mormon hospitals in which African-Americans’ blood was kept separate from whites’ blood in order to keep the white Mormon blood pure and uncontaminated — which is why the Red Cross was banned from doing business with Mormon hospitals back then. Apostle Clark was also a top campaign advisor to Alf Landon in 1936, and apparently, a behind-the-scenes legal advisor to the Liberty League.

And the Number Two guy in the Mormon Church presidency.

The Mormon Church leadership went all-out in its assault on FDR starting in 1935, when the Church savaged FDR and the New Deal Democrats for repealing Prohibition laws. But times were too difficult, and the culture war stuff just didn't have the same effect as it does in better times. So when that failed to gain traction, the Elders of the Latter-Day Saints went for the red-baiting throat, planting stories accusing Roosevelt of being a crypto-commie.

On the eve of the 1936 vote, the Elders came out publicly to make it as clear as they could, in no uncertain terms, that it was every Mormon’s duty to vote for Alf Landon. If you understand how disciplined (ie "authoritarian") the Mormon Church and its voting bloc tends to be, you understand how significant this move into politics in that decisive year 1936 really was. The Mormon church’s official propaganda reached a fever pitch when the presidency planted an editorial in the main Mormon Church newspaper, the Deseret News, accusing Franklin Roosevelt of “knowingly promoting unconstitutional laws and ... advocating communism.”

The author of that Mormon editorial accusing FDR of being a commie was, according to some scholars, the Number Two guy in the Mormon Presidency: Yes, our old friend J. Reuben Clark ... the same guy whose portrait was hanging next to Mitt Romney’s cousin in the Welfare Square Visitor’s Center.

In 1938, the same year that J. Reuben Clark’s “Church Security Plan” changed its name to the “Church Welfare Plan,” this same Clark was reported in the New York Times speaking before a meeting of the American Bankers’ Association calling for a bankers’ “holy war” against New Deal laws like Social Security and the child labor amendment, which Clark said were "totalitarianism"— and even to overturn the income tax amendment, which Clark told his fellow bankers was bringing a "reign of terror":

"J. Reuben Clark, Jr., chairman of the executive committee of the Foreign Bondholders Protective Council, Inc., declared the 'powers of evil' throughout the world were battling to 'set up the state as God.'" "After declaring that in some lands the state was even 'robbing parents of the custody of their children on the Sabbath,' and 'forbidding parents to admonish the children in the ways of righteous living,' he asserted that “the pending amendment [child labor] to the Constitution of the United States is of such scope and character that it may be easily wrenched to the same ends—a fact which at least some of its proponents know and approve.” - New York Times: “Tennessee Banker Wins At Houston”, November 17, 1938

In other words, the same Jew-hater who backed the overthrow of FDR’s New Deal, and who opposed the income tax and child labor laws, was also the same guy who co-founded the Mormon Welfare program that so many Americans journalists have been roped into promoting as the antidote and answer to “failed” New Deal-era guv’ment welfare programs.

Now to be fair to Mormons, unlike a lot of other religions, Mormons have historically been much friendlier to Jews than J. Reuben Clark turned out to be. That said, thanks to J. Reuben Clark, the Mormon leadership would spend most of the 20th century dominated by far-right John Birch Society politics.

But even as right-wing kooks go — and the LDS leadership has had its share, one of whom definitely was not Mitt Romney's cousin — even among them, the founder of the Mormon Welfare Plan’s brand of right-wing extremism made Mormon Birchers of our own time look like squishy liberals by comparison. Here are just a few examples of J. Reuben Clark’s anti-Semitism:

  • In a 1941, a fellow Mormon asked J. Reuben Clark to read his manuscript denouncing Hilter’s “butchery” of the Jews. Clark answered by defending Hitler and attacking the Jews: “There is nothing in their history which indicates that the Jewish race have either free-agency or liberty. 'Law and order' are not facts for the Jews."
  • The next year, as the Holocaust was well under way, J. Reuben Clark wrote a letter to Herbert Hoover that the Jews “are brilliant, they are able, they are unscrupulous, and they are cruel.”
  • Clark wrote that he stopped reading Walter Lippmann because Lippmann’s politics “veered Jew-ward.”
  • Clark was known for always keeping a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion around, and for giving out copies of the book to others well after the truth about the Holocaust was revealed.
  • In his 1898 valedictorian speech from the University of Utah, J. Reuben Clark denounced Jews as “the foul sewage of Europe.”

After the war, we find J. Reuben Clark playing a role in launching a movement that has relevance in our own time: Libertarianism. Clark served on the Board of Trustees of the first libertarian outfit, the Foundation for Economic Education, which funded and promoted the early works of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek and anyone else who would carry the water for big business and tell the American public, with a straight face: “Social Security is the Road to Serfdom.”

By now you should be going: “Wait, so this is the guy who created ‘Mormon Welfare’? ‘Welfare’? Are you shitting me, boy?”

*

First of all, don’t call me “boy.”

Secondly: Hey, good question! The answer, according to some of the research I’ve been able to dig up (the Mormon Church is highly secretive and doesn’t like disclosing its records, sorta like a certain presidential candidate): Most of the Mormon Welfare Plan's 76-year-history has been a public relations exercise. And a damn successful one too—a PR campaign that feeds the public a message they want to believe, and that they've been conditioned to believe by decades of corporate propaganda— but on closer inspection, it conceals what turns out to be one of the country's stingiest religious charity programs. Shockingly stingy, as you'll see. Indeed, in all that history of Mormon Welfare, there is one exception to the record of stinginess and PR: a sort of “Golden Age” of Mormon Welfare in the mid-late 1970s. And it was led by none other than “Mr. Welfare” himself, Marion Romney. Mitt's first cousin.

...

Tomorrow: A Kingdom Of Moochers