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The Poisoning of Deseret

One biographer of the famed British composer and ethnomusicologist Ralph Vaughan Williams posted a question – how could Vaughan Williams be both a socialist and a nationalist at the same time?  One tended towards trying to eliminate boundaries and differences while the other tended toward glorying in boundaries and difference.  He answered through two different quotes from the composer himself:

I believe that the love of one’s country, one’s language, one’s customs, one’s religion, are essential to our spiritual health.[1]

Art, like charity, should begin at home.  If it is to be of any value it must grow out of the very life of himself [the artist], the community in which he lives, the nation to which he belongs. … Have we not all about us forms of musical expression which we can purify and raise to the level of great art? … The composer must not shut himself up and think about great art, he must live with his fellows and make his art an expression of the whole life of the community.[2]

His approach was a melding of aspects of both sides – embracing and loving your own culture and community, but not at the expense of respect for other people’s culture and making room for them to do the same.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading about the history and composers of European art music.  (I know, I’m weird.)  One trend of the late Romantic and early modern era was nationalism in music, with composers like Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia, Béla Bartók in Hungary, Carlos Chávez in Mexico, and Aaron Copland in the United States of America producing music that represented their country and incorporated folk music in ways that made them unique to their culture and nation.  I found the idea inspiring and embraced it to the extent that it became engrained in my mentality – specifically regional pride in all things Utah.  I’ve worked to collect books about Utah history and folklore.  When I arrange music, I tend to favor arranging hymns and folk music from Utah.  Even in classical music, I have gone out of my way to collect recordings of everything I can by Leroy Robertson and other Utah composers.  I take pride in many aspects of my Mormon heritage.  For that reason, celebrating Pioneer Day is a big deal to me.  In fact, for a long time, I thought of myself as a term I thought that I coined based on what I had learned about the nationalist composers—a Deseret Nationalist.

Partially, this was based on aspirations based on an idealized version of Deseret history and ideals.  Some of that aligns with what President M. Russell Ballard said in explaining the choice of honeybees (deseret) as a symbol of the community: “Brigham Young chose the beehive as a symbol to encourage and inspire the cooperative energy necessary among the pioneers to transform the barren desert wasteland surrounding the Great Salt Lake into the fertile valleys we have today. We are the beneficiaries of their collective vision and industry.”[3]  I found the faith and cooperative effort of the Latter-day Saint colonists to established an independent community of God’s people in in the Great Basin inspiring.  That was what Deseret meant to me.

Yet, as I’m sure most readers are aware, the term Deseret Nationalist isn’t a term that shines favorably on people who use it these days.  In 2018, Logan Smith employed the hashtag #DezNat as a shortened version of Deseret Nation to describe a right-wing movement with a strong dose of alt-right and white nationalist ideals blended with Mormonism.  They oppose progressive Latter-day Saints and are known for applying a variety of bullying tactics towards them.  In one example of their ilk, Matthias Cicotte was known for posting racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic Deseret Nationalist content on Twitter under a pseudonym.  When he was outed, he was condemned for his venomous and hateful messages against a variety of vulnerable groups by the deans of J. Reuben Clark Law School.  While perhaps an extreme example from a loose coalition, harsh and forceful language against marginalized groups or liberals while hiding behind a pseudonym is commonly associated with the hashtag.  All of this is done in the name of supporting and defending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and reviving a vision of what the community of Deseret was.

I find their vision of how to create Deseret through harsh rhetoric and occasional violence as being abhorrent.  I am far more aligned with progressive ideologies than I am with the alt-right.  Yet, I recognize that, unfortunately, they do represent aspects of the history of Utah Territory and the Latter-day Saint colonists who developed the region.  I also recognize that we ultimately share the same goal of supporting the Church and building a community of faithful and that we each do so in ways that seem justifiable to ourselves.  But, just as many of the DezNat group chose to reject polygamy today, I choose to reject racism, sexism, and the other -isms as well as Danite tactics in view of a community in line with how I understand Zion and heaven will look like—a community based around being “of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”[4]

So, do I still apply the term Deseret Nationalist to myself?  Not really.  In the sense that Ralph Vaughan Williams felt that “the love of one’s country, one’s language, one’s customs, one’s religion, are essential to our spiritual health,” I do have a deep love of Utah—with its history and customs—along with my religion.  In that way, sure, I still am nationalist in the sense that Vaughan Williams was.  I still aspire to the collective vision and industry of the community that the symbol of the honeybee represented to the early Latter-day Saints as they settled Deseret. That being said, I do not wish to be associated with the #DezNat group in any way.  Their public appearance as religious extremists and bullies has poisoned the term for me.  And frankly, that makes me sad – both for how it tarnishes the ideal of Deseret and Zion and for the negative impact that it has had on the people that have been targeted by Deseret Nationalists in recent years.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Ralph Vaughan Williams, National Music, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 154.

[2] Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Who Wants the English Composer?” The R.C.M. Magazine, 9/1 [Christmas Term 1912], pp. 11-14.

[3] M. Russell Ballard, “Be Anxiously Engaged,” Conference Report October 2012.

[4] Moses 7:18.

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