Thoughts on the Deseret News, Immigration, and a Mormon Voice

September 26, 2010 | 9 comments
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Consider this editorial in the Deseret News.  (I mean it.  Follow the link, read the article, and come back.)  Intellectually there is quite a bit going on in these paragraphs.  First, it is addressing the immigration debate arguing in effect that the rule of law is undermined by both widespread flouting of the laws and attempts to relentlessly enforce laws that are unfair.  Both points are well taken in my opinion and in my mind they point toward a policy of better enforcement of considerably more liberal immigration laws, something I would certainly support.  The interesting stuff, however, comes in the way that the editorial uses nineteenth-century Mormon experience.

All the talk of pioneers, of course, is just a polite way of saying Mormons in public, and the point that it makes is correct: The Mormon pioneers in Utah were squatters.  There is a certain amount of tetchiness on this point in the comments at the DN site, but there isn’t any serious debate about this.  Granted, after the ceding of northern Mexico to the U.S. at the end of the Mexican-American war, Mormon immigration to Utah didn’t necessarily involve illegally crossing an international boarder (although there was some of that later in the 19th century), but the settlements up and down the Mormon corridor were settled by people who did not possess legal title to the land that they occupied.  Indeed, the editorial understates this, implying that after 1869 when the territorial land office was set up in Utah everything was entirely legal.  Not so.  It actually took a decade or two to sort out legal title to all of the settled land in Utah.

The editorial also understates the way in which the Mormon pioneers status as squatters effected their attitudes toward the law.  Mormons were hostile to federal authority for much of the 19th century.  Most of this had to do with polygamy and theocracy, but it would be a mistake — I think — to underestimate the impact of property law on events.  Some pretty solid modern scholarship has demonstrated that the expulsion of the Mormons from Missouri (as opposed to the earlier expulsion from Jackson County) was orchestrated in part by a group of local non-Mormon elites who manipulated public sentiment against the Mormons as a way of getting their property.  At the very least, these elites profited mightily by snapping up Mormon “preemption rights” thereby reaping the economic benefits of Mormon improvements.  Thus, during the Utah period Mormons were in part suspicious of federal authority because they feared — not without cause as past experience showed — that formal land law could be used by enemies to confiscate their de facto property.  The result was a healthy dollop of contempt by Mormons for federal legal power and even — I believe — a certain amount of extra-legal violence (read “law breaking”) against claim jumpers, real and perceived.

There is another strand of thinking at work in the DN editorial, a strand associated with the work of Peruvian political activist Hernando De Soto and the Nobel Prize winning economist Douglas North.  Both of these thinkers have looked at the way in which informal and illegal activity can be formalized and brought within the legal domain.  Hence, North has argued that the origins of the rule of law in the Anglo-American tradition can be found in the formalization of land title in medieval England.  De Soto has argued that one of the chief impediments to economic prosperity in the developing world is the way in which the poor are excluded from the formal legal system.  In effect, they must exist as squatters.

Hence, this article is implicitly doing more than simply calling for immigration reform.  It is in effect arguing that the shadowy, informal, illegal labor market inhabited by undocumented immigrants is akin to the shadowy, informal, illegal system of land holding that Mormon pioneers (and medieval lords and peasants, the inhabitants of Brazilian slums) inhabited.  Just as the formalization of property rights in land allowed for economic flourishing, the formalization of property rights in labor — if you will — will allow for economic flourishing.

Aside from the merits of the argument, the DN editorial raises an interesting question: Is this a “Mormon” editorial?  Yes and no.  The example of Mormon pioneers serves two functions.  First it illustrates a point.  Second — and far more importantly — it appeals to a Mormon audience, inviting them to associate immigrants with pioneer forbearers.  In part this is simply a rhetorical move.  But in part it represents a peculiarly Mormon challenge to the claims of national identity to primary allegiance.  The idea is that if immigrants are like Mormon pioneers they have some claim to the regard of American Mormons in the face of any objection that they are not like Americans.  It is an appeal over the head of national identity to tribal and religious identity.  On the other hand, the arguments — especially the implicit appeal to De Soto and North — are not themselves peculiarly Mormon.  What we get is thus a marriage of Mormon stories and imagery to a-Mormon ideas, along with a subtle subliminal appeal to Mormonism’s most potentially radical political idea, namely the way in which it compromises allegiance to the nation state.

The Deseret News shouldn’t really exist.  I can’t think of any city in the U.S. of comparable size to Salt Lake that supports two major daily newspapers.  The DN is gambling that they can carve out a niche for themselves with — among other things — a stronger and more unique editorial voice, one that emanates from their “values.”  In this context, I don’t think that  values is simply a code word for “Mormonism” or “conservatism,” although at times it is both of those things.  Rather, I think it is an attempt to find a voice that combines an engagement with public ideas with some voice and ideas rooted in a Mormon milieu.  The possibility of such a voice is the final issue lurking within this editorial.

All in all there is quite a bit more going on here than one normally gets from the editorial page of a struggling regional daily.

9 Responses to Thoughts on the Deseret News, Immigration, and a Mormon Voice

  1. Ben Park on September 26, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Thanks for this, Nate. I wish I had more to add, but I just thoroughly enjoyed both the editorial and your musings on it.

  2. Dan on September 26, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Is the Deseret News subsidized by the Church or is it independently operated?

    As for the editorial, I thought it was excellent. I hadn’t thought about property law in the 1800s as an example to consider regarding illegal immigration, but I think it fits very well.

  3. Kent Larsen on September 27, 2010 at 6:05 am

    Dan, it is not subsidized by the Church.

    As I understand it, the Deseret News is part of Deseret Management, the holding company for the Church’s for-profit businesses (or at least for many of them). The for-profit companies are expected to turn a profit and provide income to the Church.

    I assume that the Church might provide investment funds for its for-profit companies from time to time, probably first from the funds of its other for-profit companies or the Church’s other investments. If funds are needed to keep the News in business, I assume they are most likely to come from the sister companies also owned by Deseret Management.

    Nate is right that the News shouldn’t exist, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Tithing funds are used to subsidize it. Part of the reason it continues to exist is the Joint operating agreement with the Tribune, under which they two papers share printing operations and advertising sales. Still, you have to wonder how long this can last.

    I suspect it will come down to a question of who can outlast the other — and now both sides have fairly deep pockets (The Tribune is owned by Denver-based MediaOne, which owns a lot of newspapers, broadcast and cable outlets). Despite a soft spot for the Tribune and a desire to see an alternative voice in Salt Lake, I’m guessing that the Church will see an important interest in maintaining the News (so that its viewpoints have an outlet), probably more than MediaOne has in the Tribune (which is just about money).

    But, this is just my speculation.

  4. RogerDodger on September 27, 2010 at 7:16 am

    I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the Tribune. It’s been written off before. On the other hand, the News competes with other LDS publications — e.g., The Ensign, the Bonneville stations — as an outlet for its views. All things being equal, one might argue that the paper that provides the best journalism will prevail. In Utah, however, things are never truly equal.

  5. Nate Oman on September 27, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Kent: I don’t have any inside information but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Church let the Deseret News go under if it turned out that it couldn’t pay for itself. I don’t see much evidence that the Church uses the Deseret News as a organ for expressing its opinions anymore.

  6. christian on September 27, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    I must have missed that part of pioneer history where they crawled under a fence and snuck passed border guards. The analogy does not compute, and it’s a cheap rhetorical trick to try to — “Look, now you must change your views and support me because these ancestors you revered did something tenuously analogous too!”

    No, let’s go to the heart of the matter and say up front these are people we’re talking about. The ones who want to make a better life for them and their family and work at it deserve our help. The ones who don’t also deserve our help, but I don’t know how to give it.

    So for those who want to come and make a life here, let’s help them integrate and make a life here and make sure they follow the law and become the next great generation of Americans. There’s no doubt in my mind that immigration, if done properly, can strengthen a nation. There’s also no doubt in my mind that the way we are doing it and talking about it on both sides of the political aisle is sowing the seeds for destruction — with a few good seeds being sewn too. We’re poisoning the well with this vitriol. Let’s not forget these are people we’re talking about. And the protesters who are calling everyone racists simply because they don’t want to see their border/nation overrun with people who flaunt their laws are doing just the same.

  7. Dario on September 28, 2010 at 7:47 am

    @christian: as the post points out “Mormon immigration to Utah didn’t necessarily involve illegally crossing an international boarder.” The editorial compares the extralegal practice of squatters (on land that by that time had been ceded to the United States) to the extralegal practice of undocumented immigrants. The article points out that pioneers were illegal squatters in United States territory. This fact is well documented and self evident by reading the history. The comparison and contrast between the two issues is a very compelling one, and hardly a cheap rhetorical trick. The editorial’s point is not to compel someone to simply change their beliefs and “support me” (which I take you to mean support amnesty). No, the point is to make readers pause and consider the issue in broader terms, both historically and morally.

  8. christopher klemetson on October 1, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    I would just like to state concerning illegal immigration I will always support the Articles of Faith. After many heated debates concerning illegal immigration I have come to conclusion any advocation of or assisting illegal aliens contradicts the Articles of Faith. I also think any church owned paper may or may not be a voice for the church, but wisdom has to be used in what is printed.

  9. James Olsen on October 2, 2010 at 1:19 am

    Christopher, one of the main messages of the editorial (which Nate endorses) is that you can’t merely state “Hurray for the Articles of Faith!” and assume that this implies a position with regard to current or proposed policies – or rather, if it does imply a position, it’s not that of the hardline right, but of the reasoned center, which facilitates and strengthens the rule of law (unlike the hardline positions which undermine it). Consequently, your response doesn’t helpfully contribute to the debate but misses what’s at stake altogether.

    In addition to the issue of squatting – i.e., our extralegal activities vis-a-vis the US govt, very nicely filled in by Nate here – is the issue of our annexing, sometimes violently, territory and resources from the Native Americans. My ancestors fought in the Black Hawk War in Utah, as well as numerous other skirmishes (with plenty of family embellishments on the heroics of their participation being passed down). Our pioneering settlement contains a genuine ugliness that we often gloss or ignore in our telling of what I think is a genuinely marvelous pioneer heritage.

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