To My Cousin

My Dear Cousin:

I am alarmed and concerned by your recent posts and responses to my posts on social media.

I know we have lots of differences in upbringing and experience that have given us very different world views. And in most cases, that’s a good thing! I learn from you every time we talk about those areas where you have learned and experienced more than I have. You’ve started a small business and led it to great success. That’s a feat I don’t have the wherewithal to duplicate, and I respect you for it immensely. I would never dream of telling you how to run your business. You’ve proven that you have the expertise to do it far better than I ever could. When we talk about your business, I listen because I’m trying to learn from you.

What I am asking for is the same level of respect in return in the areas where I have expertise.

One of the differences in our experience is that I chose to obtain a college education. Now, there’s nothing about graduating from college that makes graduates inherently smarter or better than someone who hasn’t. What a college education does provide is a set of intellectual tools and a breadth of experiences that someone who hasn’t attended college simply doesn’t get exposed to. For example, certain critical thinking techniques have to be taught and practiced. No matter how naturally intelligent a person is, someone who hasn’t learned and practiced these techniques can’t use them—or be expected to.

These tools are part of the breadth of experience that comes with a traditional four-year degree. One of the many advantages of exposing students to many disciplines is that we learn through experience that there are more ways of doing things than the one we were raised on. We learn that many truths are counter-intuitive. That is, that “common sense” is wrong more often than most people realize. And the more complex the situation, the more likely it is that the right solution is going to be counter-intuitive.

In addition to the breadth of experience a college education provides, students also delve deep into their major field of study. My major field of study was the linguistics of the English language. I learned the details about how people use English to provoke, persuade, manipulate, and deceive. I know what it looks like. I can recognize when it’s happening. This was useful in my Editing minor when I had to determine whether sources of information were trustworthy or not—something I still do as a professional editor.

This background led me to have some truly exceptional experiences—ones most people don’t ever have. I’ve helped run a U.S. Congressional campaign. I’ve run for the Utah State Legislature. Lots of people talk about politics, but very few do any more than vote. I’ve done a lot more.

It might sound like I’m tooting my own horn a lot here, but that’s not my point. My point is that as impressive and wonderful as your accomplishments as a small business owner are—and they are very impressive!—my accomplishments in communication and politics are at about that same level.

So when I talk to you about something in my area of expertise, I’m asking you to believe me. Believe that maybe, just maybe, my experiences have taught me something about language and politics the way that your experiences have taught you about your business. Something you might not have had the chance to learn. Yet.

When I tell you that a media outlet you’re listening to is untrustworthy (and there have been a lot of those on your feed recently), I am warning you that they are likely to lie to you. And I am worried because I know you don’t have access to the linguistic tools I learned in college—like how to recognize logical fallacies and confirmation bias and other sneaky rhetorical devices. And I know just how likely it is that people without those tools can be deceived by others who do understand how to use them.

And the more you post, the more I see this happening in you. Exactly the way I learned about it in college.

When I tell you that a certain policy is bad, or that a certain politician is lying to you, or that in this case, actually, the mainstream media is right—well, you don’t have to believe me right away, but at least entertain the notion that I might be right. Take a look at the arguments. Ask yourself if my experiences—educational and otherwise—might just mean I know what I’m talking about. That maybe I even know a little more about this subject than you do. I will do the same for you, as I’ve always tried to.

I’m not asking you to become a trained linguist any more than you’d ask me to become a successful businessman. Neither one of us would be very good at what the other does, and I don’t think we’d enjoy it much, either. At any rate, no one person can know everything—that’s God’s job. We humans have to specialize. But that specialization does us not one bit of good if we ignore the specialists—the experts—and assume that we know better than they do.

I am also asking you to believe that whatever my human frailties might be, I have your best interests at heart. You’re family, and I care about you. I breaks my heart to see you being manipulated so masterfully that you don’t even understand it’s happening. I am begging you to let me use the things I’ve learned—the expertise I’ve gained—to help you. Because sooner or later, all lies will be revealed as such. The question is how much a belief in those lies will have hurt you when that time comes.

I hope it’s as little as possible—that you’ve uncovered the truth for yourself before the wider world does. I’m here to help you do that—no charge. 😉

You’ve helped me in times of need before. Please let me return that kindness.


Your Cousin

The Morality of Paying Taxes

It’s impossible to forcibly prevent people from benefiting when tax dollars are spent. The only possible option is to forcibly ensure that people pay for the benefits they receive. This is just provided that people have a voice in their government.

A libertarian friend of mine (whom I greatly respect, despite our political differences) recently posted this meme:


This is funny on the surface, but it’s deeply misleading. Consent is given for taxes, albeit in an unfamiliar way. To see why, let’s look at the example just above taxation: a business transaction.

In the type of transaction most familiar to most of us, money is exchanged for a good or service provided by the business. Another good or service could be bartered instead, but most of us find money to be a more convenient medium of exchange. After all, it’s hard to make change out of a cow—at least, if you want the cow to stay alive. But the same principles apply. The good or service is usually not provided until the cost is paid, but this is not always the case. Think, for instance, of buying a home or a new car—in that case, the good is usually only purchasable by simultaneously purchasing the service of a lender. We’re all fine with that; the cost of these items is so high that it’s the only way for them to be accessible to most consumers in the market. If payments aren’t made down the line, however, that good can get taken away by the lender. If a person doesn’t want to pay for the item, they don’t have to—but if they don’t pay, they don’t get that good or service.

Governments also provide goods and services, from paved roadways to a service of national defense. They may be more or less efficient in providing these services, and figuring out the best way to provide them is worthy of debate, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. For now, just keep in mind that governments provide goods and services. Using our transaction analogy, it would seem fair for a person who didn’t want the services to not have to pay for them.

The problem is, most government services are impossible to repossess. It therefore follows that the only way refusing to pay taxes could be fair or ethical is if such a person could prevent themselves (or be forcibly prevented) from enjoying the benefits tax money spending creates.

On the local level, that would mean being barred from calling 911, using roads or sidewalks or parks, or even having your trash collected. At the state level, that person’s children would have to be denied access to public schools, and if good school funding resulted in, say, increased property values or lower crime rates, the non-taxpayer would not be allowed to benefit from those effects either. Nationally, if the military ever kept the nation safe from a threat, or if an EPA rule ever resulted in cleaner water or air, the “conscientious non-taxpayer” would have to be somehow prevented from enjoying those benefits.

Short of exiling someone from the country, I don’t see how that is logistically possible, let alone morally permissible. How do you repossess time spent at a park, or education gained in a public school? Unlike a business transaction, the services of a government benefit not individual purchaser, but society as a whole. Hence the term public goods and services.

Government services not only benefit society as a whole, but they do so in ways that are impossible to “opt out” of. (Government goods and services that are optable generally carry a fee rather than a tax, such as a driver’s license fee or a filing fee.) It is therefore perfectly just that society as a whole should have to pay for those services. In America, we decide how to pay for them (and who will pay how much) by electing people to represent us in the bodies where those decisions are made. And since no one in our society has the ability to prevent themselves from receiving the benefits of public services, everyone is required to pay. (This is somewhat simplified; our elected representatives have constructed a tax system where the very poor don’t have to pay, on the basis that they merit financial help. Even with such a progressive income tax, though, everyone has to submit tax forms proving that status.)

Memes like the one above make me wonder if people have forgotten two important principles:

  1. The rallying cry of our revolution wasn’t “No taxation without consent,” it was, “No taxation without representation.” Because as our founding fathers understood, being Enlightenment scholars, having a voice in government was how citizens signed the social contract, not having absolute control over everything that happened to them. As we saw above, that kind of control isn’t possible in our society.
  2. When Jesus was asked about the rightness of paying taxes to Rome, he asked to see a penny, then said, “Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Cæsar’s. And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which be Cæsar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” (Luke 20:24–25)

In a similar vein, I ask you, whose “image and superscription” hath this:


When it comes to taxes, let us render unto Washington the things which be Washington’s.

Moreover, we know that everything we have, no matter how hard we worked to earn it, is really a blessing from God. At the end of the day, it all belongs to him. Why, then, would we “covet [our] own property,” contrary to God’s commandment, in our frustration against paying taxes?

See the World in Color

The other day I had a conversation with a conservative friend in which we discussed binary thinking. According to the dictionarybinary is defined as “something made of two [and only two] things or parts.” Most of us are familiar with machine language binary, which is made up entirely of 1s and 0s. Like all binary systems, the two parts are mutually exclusive: if something is a 1, it can’t be a 0, and if something isn’t a zero, it therefore must be a 1.

This type of thinking can apply to just about everything: if a person is a woman, she therefore can’t be a man; if you’re not for my proposal, you must therefore be against it; if you’re a good person, you therefore can’t be a bad one.

When I pointed out to my friend that he was engaging in binary thought during our political conversation, he said something very interesting:

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with viewing the world through a mostly binary lens. That’s what we’ve always done as humans. Our society is built that way, and I think it’s a good thing.”

I do think he is right about one thing here: binary thinking is humanity’s natural, default setting. It’s incredibly easy to do, maybe even instinctual. And it’s easy because it’s so simple. It is, in a word, tribalism: me VS you. Us VS them. Whoever’s not for us is against us. To co-opt an old phrase, binary thinkers see the world in terms of black and white.

But we don’t have to see the world that way. Unlike the animals, we are not enslaved to our instincts nor condemned to follow the natural man’s patterns of behavior. (In fact, Mormons believe that part of the purpose of this life is to “put off the natural man” and gain dominion over our instincts [see Mosiah 3:19].) We can control our thoughts and instincts instead of being controlled by them.

The second way of seeing the world that we discussed in our conversation was, in contrast to seeing in terms of black and white, instead seeing the world in terms of shades of grey.

Looking at shades of grey is not nearly so simple as binary thinking. It not only assumes complexity and nuance, it thrives on it. The world holds far more than just good and bad, for within all people, and even all ideas, are good and evil mixed. The world is a complicated place with complicated problems that require complex solutions, and only by examining every shade of grey can we find the best ones.

Unlike binary thinking, looking at the world this way requires training (i.e., education), practice, and a whole lot of time and mental energy. It is not simple.

In our conversation, my friend and I, he being the conservative and I being the progressive Democrat, found that we differed in our views of the world. He was the binary thinker (as quoted above), and I was the one who thought in shades of grey. As soon as we were finished chatting, I rushed off to write a blog piece about conservatives tended to be binary thinkers and progressives tended to see shades of grey, and how binary thinking was bad and we should all avoid it.

I didn’t get very far before I realized that grouping all people into binary thinkers and greyscalers was in itself binary thinking.

Well, shoot. I hadn’t expected to run into that shade of grey.

So I started over.

It should be obvious that I still do consider shades-of-grey thinking to be a generally higher level of thinking than binary, but as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized that each way of thinking has its uses and its drawbacks.

There are some situations in which binary thinking is actually preferable. In the military, for example, I want our soldiers to be thinking in us VS them terms when they’re in combat! They wouldn’t be doing their job well if they weren’t. (As an aside, the corollary between conservative ideology and military service is of note here; in this chicken-and-egg situation, I wonder if we’re not seeing a self-reinforcing cycle.) If you’re hunting or gathering, binary thinking is also better. Will that animal kill me, or can I kill it? Are these mushrooms I’ve found edible or poisonous? In those cases, binary thinking can help you survive. This very fact of survival is why I believe it’s our default setting.

There are also drawbacks to thinking in shades of grey. When taken too far, it can lead to an utter moral relativism that eschews the very concepts of good and bad. Even if this extreme isn’t reached, one can be tempted to spend so much time looking at the shades of grey and evaluating all the alternatives that one becomes paralyzed and makes no decisions at all. Neither of these things are healthy.

Yet all that being said, I still think that binary thinking is dangerous in many areas of our modern world, and especially in politics. I don’t think our society is built in terms of binary anymore, and I find great relief in the fact that it is not.

By grouping people into “people like me” and “people different from me,” binary thinking naturally leads to racism. Physical differences like color are very easy to spot from a distance and assign into the “different from me” category. Not that long ago, our nation was literally divided into Black and White sections, many of which have persisted into the present. Laws stated that “one drop” of African blood was enough to make someone “black”—an ultimate rejection of the literal shades of human color. It’s a well-documented fact that African-Americans, both in the slavery and Jim Crow eras, were considered less human than their white neighbors. Binary thinking—tribalism—can very quickly lead to dehumanization.

And dehumanization doesn’t just happen on racial grounds. As I said before, binary thinking is the default state of humanity. And to see the fruits of that default state, we can look across recorded human history. In most places in the world, for most of humanity, people have lived in various kinds of dictatorial monarchies with a very black-and-white class structure. There was the nobility and the peasantry; the lords and the serfs. In our modern words, the haves and the have-nots. And the economic separation between them was stark and dire. A few places, like India with its caste system, had a couple more shades of grey thrown in, but in most places where those shades of grey existed, they were found only in the better-educated nobility. They usually didn’t apply to the peons. And of course, we must remember that within these societies, this inequality of wealth and power was seen as natural. Kings had a “divine right” to rule, and the lower classes were constantly being told to “know their place.” Binary thinking overlapped; the poor were “lazy” or “simple” and therefore deserved to live in squalor and be ruled over by their “betters.” This way of thinking not only enabled but reinforced and perpetuated every oppressive and freedom-quenching government humanity has suffered under from antiquity through the middle ages.

I shudder to contemplate going back to a binary world.

And yet we are edging closer to living in one. Wealth and income inequality are approaching levels not seen since right before the French Revolution. If left unchecked, do we really think things are going to turn out any differently? (Especially with modern weapons involved.) The Enlightenment ideals that began in Europe and upon which America is founded revel in the diversity of shades of grey. Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. All different opinions, all different beliefs, all different ideas coexisting chaotically together, with liberty and justice for all, not just the privileged few. This foundation of freedom allowed a middle class to develop, and for the first time in history, average people had a chance at a good life. Yet now, because of conservative policies that give the rich ever more tax breaks, America is heading in the opposite direction—back to the simple, binary society of haves and have-nots.

Please don’t misunderstand and think that I’m calling all conservatives binary thinkers. Some are not. There are still moderate Republicans in Congress calling for an independent investigation into Trump’s Russia ties and who don’t want to sacrifice health insurance for millions of their constituents. And there are liberals who engage in binary thinking as well, calling every gun fan a murderer and every GOP donor an oligarch or plutocrat, or who think that every GMO is inherently suspect. And not all binary thinkers inevitably travel the slippery slope down to bigotry. As I’ve thought about this subject more, I’ve come to the conclusion that binary thinking isn’t a function of conservatism per se; it’s more a function of extremism. I do think there’s more binary thinking on the conservative side of the aisle at the moment. The reason for it is that the GOP is objectively more extreme than the left. Tea Partiers like Ted Cruz and white nationalists like Steve Bannon have pushed it there, often through tactics that rely heavily, if not exclusively, on binary thinking—on portraying “liberals” as the enemy of America, bent on destroying all that’s good and wholesome. This appeal to our base binary instinct has been, I regret to say, all too effective. And we can see it in the fact that the single biggest predictor of who would vote for binary thinker Trump over shades-of-grey thinker Clinton was education—the training program that helps us learn to think in non-binary terms.

What’s scary is how the GOP seems hellbent on cutting education spending wherever they’re in power. It’s like they know that educated people will see through their shallow worldview and discern the true nuances that lie beyond. At which point, they realize that the emperor has no clothes.

So why do members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tend to fall into the trap of the binary mindset? First, let’s remember that this is part of the natural man that we are trying to put off. We are all at different places in our conversion from sinner to saint, and we tend to work on our weaknesses one at a time. Just because someone hasn’t conquered binary thinking yet (or learned when it’s appropriate to use) doesn’t mean they don’t have other worthwhile, valuable qualities and talents. (And yes, this reminder is for my own imperfect self as much as anyone else.)

Second, let’s pay closer attention to how we talk about things in church. We like to say that we are “the ONLY true church.” That mindset is as binary as it gets: true VS false. And if we’re the only true church, then everyone else, by definition, must be false! But that’s not what the Church actually teaches. The doctrine is that we are the only church with all the knowledge and authority necessary for salvation. That is a BIG distinction. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have a monopoly on truth. In fact, the Church directly teaches that almost ALL other religions have truth in them! It’s even permissible that other religions may have truths that we lack. Joseph Smith taught, “the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. . . . The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation.” That’s not to say other religions are wholly true; we do believe they contain errors. But the Church’s position on this subject is much more shades of grey than it is black and white. So why do we teach it in binary terms? My only answer is that the binary framework is easier to understand.

I don’t believe God sees things in terms of black and white. I also don’t think he sees them only in shades of grey, either. True, God “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” (Alma 45:16, D&C 1:31) but this is the same being who told a woman taken “in the very act” of adultery, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:3-11). God knows perfectly the “thoughts and intents” of our hearts (see D&C 6:16) and is therefore able to judge us perfectly. To extend the visual metaphor, I submit that God sees in color.

And not just in color. God sees in ultraviolet, infrared, even radio and X-rays—in short, I believe that God sees the entire spectrum. This ability is part of what makes him divine. And if, as the Church teaches, we are here in this life to try to become more like him, I submit that we must do better than seeing in shades of grey or black and white (though we should learn these skills and when to apply them as well). We need to begin to learn to see in color.

Let me give you an example of what I think this means. In my conversation with my friend, he posed a question:

“Should a devout Muslim photographer be forced by law to shoot a gay wedding?”

This is one of the fundamental questions of our time: Where does religious freedom of conscience end and the secular right of access to business services begin? It’s a variation of the old wedding cake conundrum, which should be familiar to all of us by now.

In the binary way of thinking, there are only two outcomes to this problem:

  1. The photographer (or baker, or whoever) is forced by law to provide his services, and freedom of religious conscience is thereby violated.
  2. The photographer is allowed to deny service to the gay couple, at which point their right to freedom from discrimination is violated.

Because binary thinking allows for only these two options (“YES” or “NO”), someone’s rights get violated in either case. The binary thinker must therefore make a value judgment about which right is more important. A conservative binary thinker would, unsurprisingly, decide that religious freedom was the more important right. A liberal binary thinker would likely choose freedom from discrimination. (Note that there can be binary thinkers on both sides! And in this issue, there certainly are in real life.) If we follow a binary thought process here, no side can win except at the expense of the other. Which brings me to the final drawback of the black-and-white worldview: binary thinking results in zero-sum situations.

The genius of our civilization is that it encourages positive-sum solutions—ones in which neither side may get everything they want, but both sides are better off than they were before. This is the power behind capitalism, be it in competition between neighborhood grocery stores or in the benefits of global trade. Not everyone gets benefited equally, but everyone benefits.

As I thought about this question during our conversation, I realized just how limiting the binary mindset was. It completely prohibited my friend from imagining any other solution. In his mind, my “liberal grayscale views” were taking a simple situation and making it needlessly complicated! But by looking at both sides, I did manage to come up with a tentative solution that worked to keep both sets of rights from being infringed. I don’t pretend that this is a final solution to the problem in any way (it needs a lot more debate and deliberation than two old mission pals chatting on Facebook), but here is what I told him:

“As an off-the-top-of-my-head example, the law could mandate that such a photographer make a good-faith effort to find another business who offers the same service at a comparable price. That way the photographer’s conscience is satisfied and the LGBT couple’s right to access the goods and services of the market is fulfilled.”

Obviously, such a law would have to provide for situations in which no other business could be found, and a host of other details. (This is a statement of principle, not draft legislation.) But in presenting this example, I hope I’ve given you a glimpse not just of greyscale vision, but of what solutions we might deliver to the world if we began to see things in the colors they truly are.

Times and places exist in which binary thinking is appropriate. But in our complicated, nuanced society, those times and places are the exceptions rather than the rule. Seeing the differences between shades of grey is, in general, better in our society. But seeing things in color—as they truly are—is best.

Why Trump’s Immigration Policy is Unchristian

Yesterday we got our first look at what Trump’s immigration policies will look like in practice. Some “highlights” from the New York Times:

  • Refugees of all types will be blocked from entering the US for the next 120 days.
  • Refugees from Syria have been denied access to the US indefinitely.
  • People of all stripes (not just refugees) from 7 Muslim-majority countries that Trump is worried have connections to terrorism are denied access to the US for 90 days. Note: NONE of these countries produced a 9/11 terrorist, and NONE of the countries that did are on the list. Nor are any Muslim countries where Trump has a business interest.
  • Trump is establishing a religious test on future refugees with the goal of favoring Christians over Muslims. Note: The US currently admits almost as many Christian refugees as Muslim ones, despite Trump’s lies to the contrary.

Separately, Trump is considering cutting foreign aid to other nations as part of his “America First” strategy.

Trump’s supporters, of course, are cheering these actions. And they did vote for exactly this immigration plan, complete with its “Muslim ban” (such as it is).

Which makes me think that none of them have read the Bible. If they have, they have either forgotten it, or not understood it. Here is one of Jesus Christ’s most famous parables, from Matthew 25, along with some pictures of Syrian refugees, to help us liken it unto ourselves:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory . . . before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. . . .

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat:


I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:


I was a stranger, and ye took me not in:


Naked, and ye clothed me not:


Sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not:

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Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

What’s ironic about all this is that people celebrating Trump’s rejection of Syrian refugees are often the same people who call the United States a “Christian” nation.

(This is false; we are and always have been a nation of religious freedom, without an established state religion. We just happened to be populated by a majority of Christians for most of our history. But freedom does not depend on one’s religious beliefs; it depends on being willing to coexist with different beliefs than your own.)

But if we did want America to be a Christian nation, shouldn’t be start by having American national policy follow the teachings of Jesus?

All refugees, including those from Syria, are truly “the least of these,” our brethren. They are hungry and thirsty and sick. They are imprisoned in squalid camps. They are not naked only because they escaped with the clothes on their backs. They are the victims of terrorism, not terrorists.

They are strangers. Should we not take them in?

If you are scared of a terrorist sneaking in with them, remember: “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). If you are fearing these refugees, you are not listening to the Spirit of God. And if you have the spirit of love toward them, you will not turn them away , but take them in. (Besides, terrorists can come in a lot easier on a tourist visa than as a refugee.)

A friend of mine pointed out that most people in Muslim countries continue to have a negative view of the US. This is true, and has been ever since the Iraq war began. If we want to change that (and thus reduce the appeal of the terrorists’ message), which policy will have a better chance of earning goodwill: caring for Muslim refugees, or rejecting them because they are Muslim, as Trump is now doing?

Let me put it another way: If another country were rejecting Christian refugees because they were Christian, would your opinion of that nation go up or down? If you answered “down,” don’t expect Muslims to react any differently than you would. But what better way to prove that we are better than they think we are, than by treating them better than they expect?

Which brings me to my final point. Putting aside the pragmatic point of playing into the terrorists’ narrative of America persecuting Muslims (which we weren’t until now), there is a greater Christian point here. Heaven forbid that anything like the Syrian civil war would ever happen here in America. But if it did, and the roles were reversed, and it was you getting on a leaky raft or hopping international fences to save your life and the lives of your family, how would you like the nations you fled to, to treat you? Would you like to see some foreign leader treat Americans in the same way Trump and his supporters are treating Syrians? Jesus said:

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them (Matthew 7:12).

To those that want America to be a Christian nation, I say: prove that Christianity is better than other religions by living like Christians! Show it by your actions, for your “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17), and cannot save anyone.  James also says:

If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? (James 2:15-16)

All refugees, including Muslims from Syria, are our brothers and sisters. They are children of God. They need our help right now, and that includes a safe place to live. Shall we say unto them, “Depart in peace,” and give them nothing? At the moment, we’re not even doing that—we’re saying “Screw you,” and “If they’re going to die, they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

But we don’t need to say that. We can be more Christian than that. And I believe that if we act according to Christian principles—feeding the poor, ministering to the sick, and, yes, taking in strangers—God will bless our nation. He will bless us as individuals, as communities, as a nation, and in the eyes of the rest of the world. It’s already happening in Canada. If you let him, he will help you let go of your fear and open your arms and hearts to our brothers and sisters who will die without our help.

Let’s make America a more Christian nation than the one Trump wants it to be.

Let’s Talk about THE WALL

Yesterday, Trump signed an executive order regarding his signature campaign promise: building a wall on the US-Mexican border. I’d hoped I’d never have to talk about this, but now that it’s here, I suppose I must. So let’s talk about the wall.

First of all, if you haven’t seen this old thing, do it now. It’s still relevant: 

To summarize:

  1. The wall won’t work.
  2. The wall won’t work, and it’s expensive.
  3. The wall won’t work, and it gets more expensive over time.
  4. The wall won’t work, and no, Mexico won’t pay for it. Period. (In fact, they’re so pissed, they’ve pressured their president to cancel a meeting with Trump.)

Are you sensing the recurring theme yet?

I think most proponents of the wall imagine a world where all illegal immigrants are drug-running “coyotes” sneaking through the desert at night or “wetbacks” swimming the Rio Grande. If that’s your fantasy, stop imagining it. Those stories might be the most dramatic, but they’re not the norm. Most illegal immigrants enter the country legally, on a student, tourist, or work visa, and then don’t go home when they’re supposed to. They find a better life here, and they stay in it. That’s how illegal immigration happens. The wall is not a practical barrier in such cases.

And even if those dramatic exceptions were a bigger problem, drug runners will find illegal ways around, over, or under the wall. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and to the true criminals crossing our border, the wall will be a mere annoyance at most. Any money we put into a wall would be better spent on drones and agents patrolling the border. They cost less, and they’re better at catching lawbreakers. Even Trump’s own Homeland Security Secretary says the wall alone won’t work.

As for the real reason people want the wall built—the idea that immigrants are “stealing American jobs”—if your career is picking strawberries in the Southern California sun, go ahead and be mad. If your pinnacle of employment is to be washing cars at a dealership, by all means chant “Build the Wall!” But if you’re employed in anything above that, shut up. I know a man from Mexico who’s a legal immigrant to the US, and he gave up being a dentist there to become an apartment complex maintenance man here. It was worth it to him so that his kids could grow up in America and go to American universities and have better lives than he does. Illegal immigrants have even worse prospects when it comes to jobs. They’re not taking any of yours.

Finally, there’s the spiritual aspect to this. I find it amazing that people who support this wall and claim to be Christians have forgotten one of the single most powerful lessons Jesus ever taught (emphasis added):

And the King shall answer and say unto them . . . Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For . . . I was a stranger, and ye took me not in . . .

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment. (Matthew 25:40-46)

Surely illegal immigrants count as “the least of these,” our brethren.

Let us be Christians who not only remember Christ’s words, but understand them and DO them (see Mosiah 4:10). Christ did not teach us to build walls, but gave us an example of gathering all people together, “even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings” (Matthew 23:37). Indeed, Paul taught, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Should we not apply this same principle to our fellow men, most of whom are also fellow Christians, when they want to come here to work hard for a better life?

The answer to immigration isn’t the wall. It’s a better law letting people come here legally.

How the Hugo Awards Could Resurrect American Elections

I didn’t vote for Evan McMullin, but I wholeheartedly agree with this recent op-ed in the Deseret News calling for “ranked-choice,” or preferential, voting because of his candidacy. Science Fiction fan that I am, I’ve participated in the balloting for the Hugo Award several times, and I’ve seen the strengths of this process in action. I like what’s advocated in his article, but I would like to add one one addendum to it, from the Hugo process, that I think would make a crucial difference.


You see, in the Hugos, there are five works competing in each category (for instance, Best Novel). But there are six options for voters to choose. The sixth one is always the same: No Award.

The No Award category is the “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” of the Hugo Awards. It exists so that Hugo voters can reject all the nominated works as being unworthy of receiving a Hugo.

This happened two years ago, during the Sad Puppies controversy. When a slate of works filled most of the categories, the Hugo voters resoundingly rejected the slate works, mostly by voting “No Award.” Now, there’s a lot of conservative VS liberal politics going on with Sad Puppies that I don’t want to get into here. A simple Google search will produce inflammatory commentary from both sides of the issue, if you’re interested. The point I’m making here is that the No Award system worked. Where the Hugo voters felt their award had been co-opted by unacceptable fringe elements, they had a trapdoor to make sure those elements didn’t win. And they didn’t.

Sad Puppies 3 Logo

We need something similar in our American electoral process. As some opponents of mandatory voting aver, not voting can be free speech as much as voting is. And adding an “I abstain” option to each list of candidates would be easy enough; just like with “No Award” in the Hugos, no votes listed after “I abstain” would be counted.

But I think we need something better than simple abstention. Or at the very least, in addition to. I think the “No Award” equivalent in American elections should be this:

I Call for a New Election

What this would do in practice is simple. Like “No Award” or “I abstain,” once you put a number next to this option, no lower numbers would be counted. This is the end of your voting. It means that every other candidate on the ballot (besides the ones you ranked higher than “I call for a new election”) is, in your view, unfit and unworthy of holding the office they’re running for.

What Happens if “New Election” Wins?

If, through the preferential voting runoff process, “New election” gains a majority before any actual candidate, we do just that: hold a new election. But in order to make sure that it really is a new election, all the people who were previously on that ballot are disqualified. Political parties need to put forth a new nominee, not the same one who just lost.

Now, in our current political climate, there wouldn’t necessarily be a lot of time for campaigning in that new election. That’s something parties would have to weigh in making both their original nomination and their nomination for the new election. Ideally, the new election would be completed and a winner declared before the incumbent’s term is up. We’ll have to provide, by law, for situations where that is not the case, including situations where “New election” might win multiple elections in a row. But it will be in all parties’ best interests to field acceptable candidates so that such situations rarely, if ever, happen.

Think of what this would have meant in the 2016 presidential election. Both candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, were historically unpopular. Most voters felt like they were picking “the lesser of two evils” rather than voting for someone they supported. The aforementioned Mr. McMullin ran for president for exactly that reason. Think of how empowering it would have been to have had an option that directly expressed how voters felt! Voters who didn’t like voting for the lesser of two evils could have rejected both evils. And if “New election” had won, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton would have been on the ballot the next time around. We might have had Bernie VS. Rubio. Who knows?

And this works not just for presidential races, but for governor, senator, school board, you name it. It’ll even work in situations where just a single person is running—letting voters “throw the bum out” even if they don’t know who they want to replace him with yet. Lack of good choices would be much less of a problem for us.

This option would also give Americans a direct way to rebuke American political parties as a group. Americans will finally be able to say, “All y’all’s candidates suck! Pick new ones!” And the parties would learn from that quickly, believe me. Americans could force their political parties—on both sides—to get it right and field candidates that the majority of Americans find tolerable. And that, in turn, would cut down on political polarization and fringe candidates.

Plus, who doesn’t want the option of sticking it to the man? (Politically, at least.)

Rejected grunge red stamp

So call your state and federal legislators. Bug your city council. This idea works on all levels, from local to national. Let them know you want the choice to reject everyone and have that opinion matterThis nation is of, for, and by the people. We can do this if we want.

We just have to be loud enough.

The Morning After

It’s hard to find the words to express how I feel today. Disappointedshockeddismayed, and sickened all come to mind yet somehow fail to express the depth.

If you’ve read this blog or my book at all, you know where I stand. Yet I think I have friends who can express what this means better than I can:




Positive Thoughts

So enough on that. I want to mention some positive things.

First, Trump’s victory speech was perhaps the best one he’s ever made as a candidate. I have a rather low bar set for that, but still, any and all improvement is welcome.

Second, the voting seemed to go well this election. Nothing’s being contested, and the people certainly made their voice heard. As I said while I was waiting in line to vote in Provo, I would rather have good turnout and lose than have bad turnout. And as someone on the losing side, I stand by that. Good election turnout lets us know what the people want. And this year, it’s proven to be FAR more accurate than the polls.

(As a side note about polls, I think this election—and the very, very tight margins of victory in the key swing states—prove that it is high time to demand polls that have a sample size and corresponding margin of error of less than 1%. Three and four percent is clearly no longer acceptable.)

Finally, one of the few things I don’t agree with the Democratic party about is abortion, and there is now a real chance that Roe V. Wade could be overturned. That would be a silver lining. A small one compared to what I expect we will lose, but a silver lining nonetheless. And if it somehow allows us to reach a national consensus on this topic, that would be wonderful. It would allow so many good, pro-life women I know who are single-issue abortion voters to finally focus on other issues (where I suspect they might find they’re not as conservative).

To My Fellow Democrats:

I hope you have learned some things today:


First and foremost, I hope you have learned that most Americans DON’T CARE about electing the “First [fill-in-the-blank] President.” Obama won his first term because he was campaigning against George W. Bush’s hugely unpopular legacy; he won his second because the very same rust belt states and voters who elected Trump last night felt that Obama had defended their jobs when Romney wouldn’t have. (That, if anything, should be the clue that good-paying jobs are important to people.) But the point is that these voters, who made the crucial difference, DID NOT CARE about breaking diversity records. They just want to be well-off, and if the current policies aren’t doing it fast enough, they’ll try something else, whether or not experts think it’ll work. If diversity milestones are met at the same time, great. But that aspect of things is not important in deciding their vote.

This type of candidate-making-a-diversity-statement also sank the senatorial campaign of the Utah Democratic Party’s US Senate nominee, Misty Snow. I don’t think that her challenger in the primary, Jonathan Swinton, would have beaten Mike Lee in this election, but I do think he would have done a lot better. So next time, let’s pick Swintons over Snows. Let’s talk to the voters, not to ourselves.


Stop being arrogant. And this is one I can do better at myself. In this election, we saw an unprecedented division between college-educated voters and those without degrees. Trump ran on a campaign of rejecting expert opinion and questioning whether the experts actually knew what they were talking about. And then he proved his point by showing that all the media and election-poll experts knew NOTHING about his candidacy’s real strength. But the reason so many people bought his rhetoric is that they feel looked down on and condescended to by said experts, be they politicians, climate change scientists, or the so-called “liberal” media. And whether or not these people have the educational background to parse economics texts, they still have human emotions. And NO ONE likes being made to feel stupid.

So stop acting like you’re better than a high school graduate because of your education. Instead, persuade “by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, . . . without hypocrisy, and without guile.” (D&C 121:41-42) Education is a scarce commodity in our nation, and I fear it’s about to become scarcer. We need to humbly share the knowledge and skills we gained in college with those who didn’t have the opportunity to earn a degree. We must teach our fellow citizens with kindness, not condescension. And we have a lot of work to do to make up for the emotional damage our attitudes have caused.


For goodness’ sake, stop picking flawed candidates! To be clear, Hillary was never my first choice this election cycle. I believed from the very beginning that Bernie Sanders would be more competitive in the general election, even though on policy issues, I agreed with Secretary Clinton more. I also sensed that he was a much more inspiring and charismatic candidate than Clinton was. I think this election’s results give us some evidence to support those claims.

But most importantly, we knew the attacks that the Republican party had been launching ceaselessly against Clinton since her time as the First Lady of Arkansas. We knew they’d all come back to life again, and anyone who thought that some new scandal wasn’t going to show up is naive. The Clintons, for whatever reason, attract scandals, and the media on both sides just eats it up! The emails were a known scandal in the primaries. We, as a party, should have looked at that and said, “Sorry, Hillary, we like you, but you’re not electable. We need to pick someone with less baggage.”

When people hear something often enough, they begin to believe it, whether or not it’s factually true. This is a frightening human tendency, especially in our current world of social media echo chambers, but it’s not new. The American public has been hearing that Hillary Clinton is corrupt over and over again for more than twenty years. It should not be surprising that they didn’t trust her! And at the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter whether or not any or all of the accusations were true, because people believed it.

We could have had Bernie on the ballot. Or Joe Biden. Neither one of them would have had this crippling problem, and it very well might have changed the outcome of this election. At the end of the day, if a candidate loses, then those who picked the candidate are probably most to blame. That means us. We should own this failure to understand our fellow Americans, learn from it, and choose a candidate of unimpeachable integrity in four years’ time.

My great hope today is that this election’s results are more a rejection of Hillary than an embrace of Trump. Despite what I think about Hillary’s “corruption” being generally overblown, I genuinely hope that people were voting against their perception of her corruption, trying to make what they felt was the best choice in a “lesser of two evils” decision. If Americans genuinely believed that Hillary’s flaws were more evil than Trump’s and voted according to that conscience, well, I will disagree with their judgment, but I can and do respect their moral stand. That gives me hope that God, who judges people and nations by the thoughts and intents of their hearts can still judge us to be a righteous nation even after having elected Trump.

To Republicans:

You’ve finally got what you’ve been saying you wanted for the last six years: the entire federal government is under your control come January. Now is your big, perfect chance to prove to all of us that A) you can actually govern and get things done; B) that all your rhetoric over the past six years will be backed up with corresponding action; and C) that such conservative policies will actually, somehow, work. All of the experts on these matters, from economics to climate to foreign relations, of BOTH parties, jumped your ship, saying that Trump’s proposals were destined to failure. Now’s your chance to prove us wrong. There will be nothing in your way—no Senate to obstruct you, no Supreme Court to overturn. You can pass anything you want for the next two years. What will it be? Will it actually help American citizens? Will it “make America great”? We will be watching very closely to see if it works. We want conclusive results, and they’d better be here by the midterms.

“All We Really Believe about the World We Learned in Kindergarten.”

I want to talk about some broad generalizations here.

Disclaimer: This post will look at things in simplistic terms. Real life is far more complicated.

I was once in a college classroom talking to a fellow student also named Daniel. Despite our common name, we were almost nothing alike physically. Daniel was big and strong; I was small and skinny. Somehow, we got on the subject of what we would do if we were cave men being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. (It was boring before that class, okay?) Our answers reflected our physical attributes: Daniel knew he couldn’t run away from it, so he said he’d stay and fight—finding a rock or a branch to use as a club. I, on the other hand, would do my best to run away, and failing that, I’d find a tree to climb and then throw things at the beast until it went away or until a search party from the village came looking for me. I knew that I would have no chance facing it head-on.

In reality, we would probably both be prehistoric cat food:

Rawr! says the Smilodon

But that’s not the point. The point is that our physical differences determined our thought processes. The big, strong guy relied stayed and fought head-on, relying on his strength. The small, skinny guy ran and hid and threw things—relying on speed and wit.

Now, big Daniel is not a stupid guy. We were both taking the same college class, and if I recall correctly, we both did well in it. But we did solve problems in different ways. I bet you the prehistoric guy who invented the spear was a lot like Daniel. But I also bet that the guy who invented archery was more like me. The two weapons play to the strengths of the different physicalities—spears solve things by strength more than wit.

Today, I’d like to discuss how the mindset of solving problems by brute strength could inform one’s political views. To start, let’s go an elementary school playground and look at the stereotypical way these two groups sort themselves out: into bullies and victims.

Now, not every kid endowed with physical strength becomes a bully. But I’ve yet to meet a male bully who wasn’t. (Female bullying is a different subject that I’m setting aside for this post.) If you’re a boy who’s stronger than all the other kids, it’s pretty easy to get what you want, be it extra lunch money, the first place in line, or perverse pleasure in someone else’s suffering—you just hit the other kid until you get it.

For the victims, on the other hand, the way to get what you want depends entirely on dealing with authority figures: the teachers. Most often, this entails playing by the rules to earn the teachers’ good graces, and then asking for help. This includes involving the teachers whenever the rules are broken—such as by a bully hitting you.

Bullies can take what they want because they’re strong, but the weak kids have to appeal to an authority that is stronger.

So bullies can take what they want because they’re strong, but the weak kids have to appeal to an authority that is stronger than they are—and, in fact, stronger than the bullies. Strong enough to prevent the bullies’ behavior, or at least punish them for it. Now, once the authority intercedes, the bullies stop getting what they want. This, in turn, prompts the bullies to try to discourage their victims’ behavior of involving the authorities, sometimes by humiliation (calling other kids “tattletales,” “girly,” or any number of other names) and sometimes by threatening even worse physical violence once the authorities are no longer around to intervene (“I’m going to beat you up after school” and similar threats). These threats may or may not be effective depending on their perceived credibility.

I talk about this dynamic in this way because that’s how I experienced it—and I experienced it from both sides. As you might have inferred, I was the small, weak kid at school. But at home, I was the oldest brother—and therefore the biggest and the strongest. During my growing-up years, I could get my way by hitting my brothers—so long as Mom and Dad didn’t intervene.

(Now, I have to pause here and say that I did grow out of this before middle school. Since that time, my brothers and I have made peace and drawn closer together—in no small part because I changed as I matured. And then my brothers all grew up to be bigger and stronger than me, so they have that for their revenge.)

The Friend Brothers, 2012. Guess Who's at the end of the line.

But going back to bullies getting what they want through personal force and their victims getting what they want by appealing to authority. These strategies can be solidified into a cohesive worldview by more than a decade of repeated experience in our public school system. The details evolve as kids grow older—taking lunch money could turn into sexual assault; telling a teacher could become telling the school police officer—but the basic power dynamic remains exactly the same. Now, not all bullies or victims go to the extreme examples I’ve mentioned here. Kids can and do change as they grow up, as I did. But the lessons learned in childhood often stay with us for the rest of our lives.

So let’s imagine how a child growing up with these (admittedly simplified) worldviews would look at politics as an adult. First, the former bullies—or, to be more fair, the kids who could get what they wanted through their own physical strength. Such an adult would be more likely to seek an occupation where you can get ahead by physical strength, such as dockworker, truck driver, or steel maker—the exact kind of low-education, blue-collar manufacturing jobs that our economy happens to be hemorrhaging at the moment. These are not bad professions! And if the people working them are motivated by their own experience of getting ahead through their own hard work, they can be some of the hardest-working people on the planet. This is an admirable quality, and we need people who have it. But our economy is not rewarding them the way it used to. Their viewpoint of how the world works is no longer being fulfilled—no wonder they’re angry.

Liberals often wonder in amazement why people of this ilk routinely vote against the Democratic policies that are specifically designed to help this exact group of people. But keep in mind these blue-collar workers’ lifetime experience with authority: when the teacher gets involved, they get in trouble. The toy they hit the other kid for (i.e. worked for) gets taken away. Authority structures have repeatedly prevented this group of people from getting what they want. Now you’re asking them to trust the federal government, the biggest authority of them all?

The former victims, on the other hand, have no such problems. Authority figures have been their salvation from injustice for an entire lifetime. When the bully unfairly took your toy away, the teacher got it back. When the jerk in high school took inappropriate liberties, the school officer taught you how to press charges, and a judge (another authority figure!) convicted the perpetrator of assault. Governmental authority is not just helpful, it’s the only entity strong enough to protect you from the people who are stronger than you are. Governmental power is therefore not something to be feared, but to be celebrated—because it evens the playing field between weak and strong; it protects those who cannot protect themselves.

Here we come to the crux of America’s political divide, crystallized in one encounter on an elementary school playground.

Now, here we come to the crux of America’s political divide, crystallized in one encounter on an elementary school playground: the meaning of the world “fair.” In a “might-makes-right” mentality, it’s fair that I took the toy because you were too weak to keep me from doing it. If you had been stronger and beaten me, that would have been fair too. It’s not fair for the teacher to take away a toy that I went and got myself. In the grown-up world, it’s fair that the rich have lots of money because they were better at business. If I’m good enough at business, I’ll get rich too. It’s not fair for the government to take away money the rich earned by being good at business.

On the other side—call it “social justice,” if you like—the bullied kid says, “It’s not fair that he took away my toy; I had it first. Teacher, make him give it back.” And the teacher probably would. Then, in the interest of overall fairness, (especially if the other child complained, “He always takes that toy first!”) the teacher might institute a time-limit rule so that every child has a chance to play with the toy. This is fair in the view of the victim child; the authority has imposed order through a set of rules. We grown-ups call them regulations. Thus, it is altogether fair and proper that government should regulate business, to make sure that businesses aren’t taking unfair advantage of their customers or other businesses—which former victims will be quick to suspect they are trying to do! This mindset is based on their own personal experience, after all.

But so was the other mindset.

I’ve mentioned business regulations, but this mindset informs a whole host of political opinions across the divide, from whether rape culture exists or not to what help (if any) should be given to minorities to whether the Affordable Care Act is too much government involvement or too little. It’s the great question of America: How do we balance the freedom of individuals to do what they want with the right of others in our society not to be screwed over by individuals’ decisions?

And in my own anecdotal experience, the people I find most likely to be Republican and conservative are those who live by their own strength: farmers, ranchers, blue-collar workers, entrepreneurs, and people who are already powerful in some way. Even people who played sports in high school (which like no other institution in America reinforces the idea that the strong should win and the weak should lose). And yet we need some of that mindset in our country. Capitalism doesn’t work without it. Technological innovation can be driven by it. If we quash this mindset entirely, America’s progress would grind to a halt.

And on the other side we have everyone else. A black teenager may not be bullied in his inner-city school, but he certainly knows how it feels to be the victim of racial discrimination. Other minorities as well—be they Latinos, gays, Muslims, or anything else. As a Mormon attending high school in the Bible Belt, I certainly felt it in a religious sense. (And I think that if more Utah and Idaho Mormons spent some formative years outside of the Mormon Corridor, they’d have a lot more sympathy for minorities and a lot less loyalty to the GOP.) It’s everyone who’s been screwed over by an employer doing something that should be illegal but technically isn’t. It’s the city-dwellers who know that their own strength is definitely not enough to get ahead in this town because there’s too much competition from all the other workers in the city. But in situations where competition is not desirable, these people are essentially right about what fairness is. And they do not deserve to be victimized, whether by schoolyard bullies or corporate ones. We need this mindset too, because people’s feelings and the quality of people’s lives really do matter.

On the eve of the 2016 election, I find it interesting that after eight years of the “teacher” in our federal government imposing more and more rules, the party of former bullies have nominated for President the very hyperbole of a schoolyard bully, all grown up into a corporate one. And on the other side, the party of former victims have nominated someone who looks and sounds exactly like an elementary school principal:


They’re certainly not the candidates we want, but maybe they’re the candidates we deserve right now. For good and bad, they represent us more accurately than we’d like to admit.

My first high school play was Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I don’t agree with the prima facie meaning of that sentence. But I wonder if it should really read, “All We Really Believe about the World We Learned in Kindergarten.”

Please vote tomorrow, and as you do, please keep in mind that We the People need to behave more like adults and less like Kindergartners, regardless of our world views.


Movie Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

—Here There Be Spoilers—

You’ve had your caution. Now onto the show.

First, let me say that I had fun watching this movie. Whatever else it did wrong, it did that right. Second, the reason I was really excited to see this movie in the first place (other than the fact that I loved the original) was the evidence from the War of 1996 website that the film’s creators might have actually done their homework in terms of worldbuilding and creating an alternate timeline based on the events of the first movie. I was excited to see the new world they’d create from the ashes left in the first movie.

So on Saturday, July 2nd, my wife and I watched the original Independence Day with friends, including one who had never seen it before and ended up really enjoying it. It had been a while since I’d seen the movie, and I was pleased with how well it’s held up over the last twenty years. So with that good taste in our mouths, we went to see the sequel on the Fourth of July. Alas, this sequel, like so many others, did not live up to the original.

And now I’d like to offer you a few editorial thoughts on why.

What follows is something akin to the notes I would have given this movie’s writers if they had come to me for an edit on the script before it was produced. (They never do this, for some reason. And I think Hollywood would produce a lot more varied and interesting films if studio execs had to trust and rely on story editors in the same way publishers had to rely on book editors. But I digress.)


Here, Independence Day: Resurgence gets high marks. The alternate timeline it adheres to is really cool. As Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary puts it:

The thing it did right, it did almost perfectly. The events of the first film, set in 1996, are treated as if they happened 20 years ago. It’s now 2016, and the actors who appear in both films played their characters as having aged twenty years. Which the actors actually have. Sequels almost never get to do that to this extent, and I liked it a lot.

That fact alone makes the movie cool to watch. And lot of its ideas—from a ground war with aliens in the Congo to humans reverse-engineering alien tech—are exactly the kinds of things that would happen after a real alien invasion. Concepts like the aliens growing crops aboard their ships and other refugee species fighting against these aliens are cool answers to realistic science fiction questions. I even like how the movie dealt with Will Smith’s absence by killing his character off in the backstory but featuring his photo in various places throughout this movie. The character may be gone, but his influence is not forgotten.

So the thing I went to see the movie for in the first place didn’t disappoint. But having watched the first movie so recently, I recognized that the charm of the original never lay in worldbuilding anyway, but in its characters.


This is where I’d like to spend a lot of my time. The original Independence Day was so brilliant—and got away with having such a huge cast—because all of its characters were immediately and efficiently introduced as being normal Americans, the kind of people you related to and interacted with every day. They all had simple yet compelling arcs that existed independently of the alien invasion. Its main characters were:

  • The nerdy (Jewish) environmentalist who wants his marriage back.
  • The (warrior) President who’s lost his way as a leader and needs to find it again.
  • The African-American Marine who needs to marry his girlfriend (not his career).
  • The alcoholic, PTSD-suffering (crop duster) veteran who needs to become the father his children want and need him to be.

Everyone else in the story is either peripheral (like Dr. Okun and Major Mitchell) or essential to one of the main characters’ arcs—Jasmine and Dylan to Captain Hiller; the Secretary of Defense to President Whitmore; Connie and Julius to David Levinson. What’s truly brilliant about the first movie is how often these secondary characters help multiple other characters complete their arcs and move the plot along. Connie is important to both David Levinson’s arc and President Whitmore’s. Julius Levinson has more impact on David’s arc than anyone else’s, but even he moves the plot along by bringing up Area 51. Even minor characters have arcs, like Major Mitchell realizing (again, through Connie’s help!) that his job is about more than working a console inside the base; it’s about saving the lives of the civilians outside. And all of these arcs have satisfying conclusions by the end of the movie.

And this brilliance of character and multifaceted character interaction is, lamentably, where the sequel falls short the most. So here are my editorial notes, dear writers, about this film’s characters:

  1. Jake Morrison (played by Liam Hemsworth). This character did not need to be in the film. At all. Yes, I know “Hemsworth” = eye candy = women attending the movie, but a real romantic and emotional connection between characters will do more to endear a show to female moviegoers than dreamy blue eyes. And while Hemsworth does a decent job, he does so at the expense of a character that audiences already know and love: Dylan Hiller.
  2. Dylan Hiller (played by Jessie T. Usher). We know his backstory because we saw it in the first movie! No need to spend time introducing him like you do with Morrison. Instead, you can spend time exploring how the death of his hero stepfather has affected Dylan’s life. How hard it is living up to the legacy of the old man . . . especially if you don’t have all of his natural charm and talent. Learning to be your own man instead of living up to your dead hero stepfather’s legacy is a powerful, compelling, bullet-point arc like the original movie had. Unfortunately, in the current movie, this is touched on only by implication. Instead, we waste time having Dylan punching out Morrison. (Maybe he’s mad that his part has been replaced by an attendance ploy.) The fact of the matter is that everything the Morrison character does, Dylan Hiller would have done better (as a matter of character—I’m not commenting on the acting). Recklessly endanger the moon base with a hot-dogging flying stunt? Easier to motivate—and far more meaningful—if Dylan’s doing it because he thinks it’s how his old man would’ve behaved. Drawing the aliens’ attention through a bragadocious display? Wonder where he could’ve learned that from. Being engaged to the former president’s daughter? How’s this for backstory?
    Are You Scared_withtext
    Can you have a cuter beginning to a relationshp? Them getting married later in life is exactly the kind of campy, cheesy wonderfulness that Independence Day fans would eat up! (This 5-second scene had me imagining that future at nine years old, for crying out loud!) Why in the world are you flubbing this opportunity?
  3. Speaking of the Hillers, I was very disappointed in the underuse of Dylan’s mother, Jasmine (the stripper turned survivor group leader in the first movie). She was a plucky yet sensitive character, a perfect match for Will Smith’s marine. In this movie, she’s running a hospital and then gets killed very early in the film right in front of Dylan’s eyes, in one of those cheesy, that-didn’t-really-need-to-happen ways. So not only do we miss any mention of how she’s gone from stripper to doctor (a worthy story in its own right!), but she dies in a transparent ploy for audience sympathy that falls flat because she’s only interacted with her son via telephone. We just don’t see enough of her to connect with the character before she’s gone. I wanted to see how she’s coped with her husband’s death, and how she’s helping and being helped by her son. I would have also loved to have seen her interact with any of the other original characters as well. What kind of relationships did they form in the intervening years?
  4. Julius Levinson (Judd Hirsch). The introduction of Julius and David Levinson via a chess game in the original movie is a golden example of how to fully introduce two characters in an economy of words. We learn everything we need to know about them for the rest of the movie from that one conversation. The scene is near perfect.
    Chess game
    In this movie, unfortunately, the wonderful character established in that scene is compromised. The man who was unfailingly supportive and proud of his son in the first movie has supposedly written a narcissistic flop of a book about how he saved the world and is constantly disappointed when people ask about David instead. The character portrayed in the original movie would have written a book about how his son saved the world (because David, of course, is too busy to write it). But in this movie he somehow survives a tidal wave while on his boat and then drives a group of orphans across the country, putting them (unintentionally) in harm’s way just in time for the climax. And while Judd Hirsch’s use of Yiddish words is absolutely delightful, the subplot as a whole is unsatisfying because it doesn’t take the character anywhere new. Supposedly he’s grandbaby-hungry, but that doesn’t fit this character very well—and plotwise, it shouldn’t even be an issue, for reasons I’ll talk about in a minute. But if there is one beloved character who will really buy audience tears with his death, it’s Julius Levinson—especially if he’s been doing the things that made us love him in the first movie, like supporting his son no matter what. Then that phone call from the boat will have emotional resonance for David, and thus for us. The trailer made it seem like Julius was going to perish there, and so it felt disingenuous when he didn’t. But a final goodbye as the wave closes in, both of them knowing there’s nothing they can do about it, could’ve been the heart-wrenching beginning this movie needed to have.
  5. And now on to David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum). I have few complaints about this character, save one: WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CONNIE??? David’s entire arc in the first movie was about becoming the ambitious man Connie wanted him to be, and thus winning back his ex-wife. And as I mentioned before, Connie was essential to several characters’ arcs. She was a wonderful character. But in the sequel, she isn’t even mentioned. No one remembers her, and David’s wedding band, which he wore for three years after his divorce, has mysteriously disappeared. Instead, he’s given a psychologist to awkwardly flirt with (though like many character arcs in the sequel, it never actually goes anywhere).
    David and Connie should have gotten remarried. They should’ve had kids, to do their part in repopulating the planet (which would have not only gotten rid of Julius’s flat subplot but also made his death sadder with him asking David to tell his grandkids that he loves them). You could have easily turned David’s assistant (played by the talented Ryan Cartwright) into their oldest son, adding an excellent character relationship between them.
  6. Connie should have had a role to match her own ambitions as well. In fact, I can think of no one better to be this universe’s first female PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.
    (This character is currently called Elizabeth Lanford, played by Sela Ward.) Especially if, as the backstory notes, she was vice president first. Maybe this was intended and they simply couldn’t get the actress back, though that’s just supposition on my part. But it would’ve made the personal relationship between this president and Patricia Whitmore make a lot more sense. Connie helped raise Patricia in the White House, and could easily have become a sort of surrogate mother to her after Mrs. Whitmore’s death. This seemed to be the relationship that the actresses portrayed on screen, but how it got there is a mystery. But a Constance Levinson presidency would’ve made the whole thing make perfect sense.
    Plus, then the president gets killed by aliens.
    In novel writing, we often talk about making characters suffer. It creates good drama. Imagine the suffering our main character, David Levinson, would go through by losing his father and his wife of 20 years in a single day. It would push him to the breaking point, which is right where you want your protagonist before the climax of a drama. Two deaths would make this invasion doubly personal for David, not just professional. As it is now, he doesn’t have very high personal stakes because we know his only family is safe for the entire movie. He lost his mother years before the first movie. But now, if he loses everyone except his children, that turns his focus to saving the world for them, not for himself. I’ll come back to this focus on the rising generation later.
  7. Former President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman). I like the idea of him suffering some mental distress because of his experiences in the first movie. (My wife didn’t.) But even given that, I’m not so sure he would make some of the decisions the movie has him making. Letting yourself get choke-possessed by an alien doesn’t really seem like the best way of getting information about the enemy’s plans (more on this point later on, though). Nor was his backstory explored enough to motivate his suicide run.
    When it comes down to it, former presidents are in a unique position of having held great power and then relinquished it—and no president ever likely held more power in government than President Whitmore, yet according to the backstory, he finished his second term in 2001. But as we see with Presidents-turned-dictators in other countries throughout history, the allure of keeping or regaining that power again can be very, very strong. And it is almost always devastating for the countries they lead for an extended period of time. What would be an interesting angle to play with Whitmore here would be everyone turning to him for leadership again once the aliens come back. After all, he led them to victory before, so why not again? This power could be even harder for him to refuse once the current president and the whole line of succession is terminated by the aliens. A theme of refusing power while wanting to help would make great internal conflict for the character, as well as add to the crisis for everyone else.

There’s our main characters. Now on to everyone else.

  1. Floyd Rosenberg (played by Nicolas Wright). The annoying paper-pusher who keeps following David Levinson around for some reason and eventually earns the respect (kind of) of a hardened African warlord. I think he’s mostly meant to be around for comic relief, but he’s not funny, and his actions aren’t enough to really earn the warlord’s respect, IMO. This character may also be cut with no loss to the story. 
  2. General (and, later, President) Adams (played by William Fitchner, a.k.a. Colonel Sharp from Armageddon). I don’t have any problems with the way this character was portrayed other than that I kept seeing the Armageddon character (which might just be me). His speech wasn’t as good as the speech in the first movie, but again, that’s the writers’ fault, not the actor’s. My biggest question here is, Why isn’t Adam Baldwin reprising his role as a promoted Major Mitchell? This is perfect chance to build on the character development from the first movie, and Adam Baldwin has a lot more star power now. Of course, maybe that put him out of the movie’s price range. We may never know.
  3. Rain Lao (played by Angela Wing). The pretty Chinese pilot who has all of five lines, the best of which is to insist on a date instead of making out with perpetual sidekick Charlie Miller (Travis Tope). His little lustmance arc doesn’t go anywhere in the film, and neither does Lao’s potential sense of loss at the death of her uncle on the moon. Both of these characters could have been developed further if there had been more time for them and less time spent shooting close-ups of Liam Hemsworth.
  4. Catherine Marceaux (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg). The idea of a psychologist studying the effects of alien telepathy on people is really cool and deserves to be explored. But she’s not the right romantic partner for David Levinson (Connie is), and their flirtation never goes anywhere. A better place for her is next to President Whitmore, who is not only her patient but has also had 20 years to overcome his wife’s death and could be finally ready to look for someone new. Widowers come with baggage, though (as do therapists), so there’s lots of potential for interesting character tension, starting with the fact that therapists aren’t supposed to fall for their patients. She could also give him a reason to live, making his choice at the end of the movie even harder. And a victory for the world juxtaposed with a personal tragedy for this character would be an interesting angle.
  5. Warlord Dikembe Umbutu (played by Deobia Oparei). This character had violence leaking from every scar. But other than a once-mentioned desire to avenge his brother’s death at alien hands (tentacles?), he doens’t have much of an arc. As a warlord, he’s also the antithesis of the American ideals that the rest of the characters embody. Using him as a catalyst for a discussion on the merits of democracy VS authoritarianism would have added a nice social commentary aspect to the movie. He could also have been the temptor who tries to convince President Whitmore to step into power that is no longer his to take. Alternativley, if you ever needed a character who was an alien plant (possibly via telepathic control), he would be a perfect choice. 
  6. Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner). First, let me say that Brent Spiner’s performance is so much fun. This is an interesting case of a secondary character in the first movie (so secondary that we presumed him dead halfway through) becoming a main character in the second movie—kind of the opposite of what happened to Jasmine Hiller. This Dr. Okun wakes up from a 20-year coma looking exactly the same, and he jumps back into his work so quickly that he forgets to put on pants. Which is perfect for the character. He’s almost all the comic relief this story needs (plus a few more Will Smith-esque lines from Dylan Hiller, which would’ve been nice; he only got one). What doesn’t work so well is the attempt to turn this comic character into one experiencing dramatic loss through the death of Dr. Isaacs (John Storey). It’s never made explicitly clear if they were friends or more than friends (and this may be intentionally ambiguous), but the character of Dr. Isaacs was seen so little in both movies that again, audiences don’t have a real chance to connect with him. He’s also eccentric (as anyone close to Dr. Okun would have to be), which puts another layer of disconnect between him and the audience.
  7. The Guys on the Boat. These guys want money, and they get money. That’s their whole boring arc. Otherwise, they basically serve as countdown announcers. (Why an alien fighter looking for some target practice doesn’t blow them up is an open question.) They could have been the Russell Cases of this movie, except that they don’t do anything remotely heroic.


A certain amount of cliche plot tropes can be forgiven if the characters are good enough. Without them, however, they shine like a black eye. Let’s mention a few:

  • Bigger is Better. This is less of a trope and more of a Hollywood addiction, seen most recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was, let’s be honest, the original Star Wars BUT BIGGER. The thinking (if it can be called that) goes, “The city-sized ships in the first movie were cool, so let’s build a continent-sized ship for this one!” But at these scales, your returns diminish very quickly because the size starts getting beyond what human minds are used to grasping.
  • Hive Minds Have Queens! We’ve seen this before, from the Borg to Ender’s Game. We know how this one plays out, so once you establish a queen, you eliminate audience-pleasing surprises. I list this as a plot point, but it does overlap with worldbuilding a bit. However you categorize it, it’s an old, cheap trick: an instant Achilles’ Heel for our heroes to exploit. The Independence Day aliens were much cooler as a civilization of individuals linked by telepathy. Plus, having them all drop at the death of the queen contradicts their behavior as seen in both movies, where the aliens (particularly the ones in the Congo) keep on fighting after the first mothership (which David Levinson speculates had a queen on it) is destroyed, and who act as individuals in the case of the alien captured by Captain Hiller.
    Speaking of the Queen, making her a giant monster is way too close to the queen from the Alien series. They even look a little too similar for my taste.
    Also, if you have a queen controlling every individual alien, they would probably not develop a written language (see Ender’s Game). Writing is much more useful to individuals.
  • The Artificial Deadline. The deadline in the first film was that every major city would be destroyed in the next 36 hours. It was only mentioned once, and it was a very real side effect of what the aliens were doing. In Resurgence, the aliens are drilling down through Earth’s mantle to extract our planet’s liquid core (which they will presumably use for energy and materials). First of all, there are far, far easier ways to get iron than wiping out a resistant species to grab their planet’s core. (They could have gotten almost as much stuff out of Venus, and we wouldn’t have cared.) And we don’t really need to know what they’re here for (“consuming every natural resource” is reason enough), just that they’re willing to kill us for it.
    But here, the real point of establishing this at all is to give the characters a few hours to destroy the alien ship. You don’t need the deadline. The fact that the aliens are here and killing people is motivation enough to stop them. The first movie didn’t need a hard deadline, and this one didn’t need it either. Instead of spending time on a scientifically silly excuse for a time limit, show our characters fighting the aliens more! (Or even resolving conflicts with each other.)
  • The Mysterious MacGuffin Sphere. Actually, I really, really love the idea of there being “refugee races” out among the stars, banding together after their various defeats by the aliens attacking Earth and trying to fight back. Broadening the scope of the conflict is a good choice because it raises the stakes (at least in the future). But the sphere’s plan leaves quite a bit to be desired. And more importantly, it would raise the stakes even higher if these other aliens were also willing to destroy humanity in order to score a strategic victory against their enemies. As Howard Tayler elsewhere quips, “The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy. No more, no less.” Making humanity have to earn an ally through its actions raises the stakes more than having super helpful and friendly aliens show up on your doorstep (where they really should have contacted us rather than waiting to get shot down, since we see the sphere use instant translation technology later on).
  • Sequels Must Hit the Same Beats as the Original. This is related to Bigger is Better, but it’s not quite the same. This happens when a movie tries to imitate the best parts of its predecessor, like Star Trek Into Darkness did with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, particularly at the ending. Independence Day: Resurgence does it throughout the entire movie. You have the humans losing the dogfight scene, the chase through the giant ship as the door is closing scene, the going to blow it up from inside scene, and the final victory on the same exact same salt flats scene. You have the inspirational speech, the person slammed up against the glass while being choked by a tentacle, and lots of city skyline destruction. And the worst part is, you could tell exactly when one of those things was going to happen. This sequel tried so hard to recreate all the iconic scenes from the first movie that it forgot that it needed to have new, cool scenes of its own.
    And herein lies the biggest problem of the movie for me as an editor: Hitting all the same beats undermines the world that has been built for this movie. The first movie was about unprepared humanity coming together in a last-ditch effort to save ourselves from extinction. The sequel tried to re-create that exact same situation. The problem is, once you’ve acquired alien technology (which humans would certainly do), that kind of lopsided, asymmetrical fight is no longer possible—and that’s the whole point of acquiring their technology! We want to be on even footing or better, and to make this movie live up to its good worldbuilding, we should have been. This shouldn’t have been a last-ditch “Hail Mary” attempt to save humanity; we’ve already seen that in this universe. What this movie should have been was an exposition of how much humanity can accomplish when we’re united together, when we’re determined to deliver a better, safer world to our children. This could have been a big, epic, even-odds war movie, with victories and defeats. You can still have us come back from the brink to win. But we shouldn’t start on the brink.


What I would’ve liked to have seen was a true handing of the torch from the generation of the first movie to the generation of their children. Instead of Levinson coming up with the plan and Thomas Whitmore executing it, let’s see Dylan, Patricia, and a Levinson son come up with the solution that saves the world in spite of what their parents want them to do. And then let the characters find some intergenerational respect for each other.

I’d also like to see Earth’s defenses do their intended job. Maybe five years before this movie starts, an identical mothership to the first one arrives to finish the job, only to find itself woefully unprepared for a united Earth with city-destroyer satellites ringing the globe. A good salvo of those blows up the second mothership, cementing Earth’s independence in the minds of its leaders and especially its youth (and possibly anyone else in the galaxy who happens to be observing). That hubris can be a source of both conflict and downfall when the aliens come back a third time. This whole sequence could be shown in about five minutes in flashback at the beginning of the film.

If you must make the aliens take us to the brink, then have them do it in an intelligent way. I suggest having them use our own strategy from the first movie against us: a computer virus knocks out (or takes control of) all alien-based technology in the Earth Space Defense arsenal. That way, all the technology we’re relying on, all the preparations we’ve made, are rendered useless because of a trick they learned from us. Any time you can make the solution of the first story the main problem of the second, you’re doing something right. And it would have been very easy to do in this case, and it would have carried a very big payoff with it.

Finally, the places where the characters ended their arcs in the first film needs to be the place where they start their journeys in the second (with the exception of Captain Hiller’s family). President Whitmore became a good leader. Now the very fact that he is such a good leader is causing him problems. David Levinson got his wife back and became ambitious. Now his very ambition in creating the ESD becomes the reason his wife dies (Maybe they redirect a human satellite to take out the President’s hiding place.) Dylan Hiller’s stepfather saved the world. Now Dylan’s expected to do the same thing, but maybe his fiancee does it better.

The worldbuilding of the Independence Day universe is so big and so good that you can tell any number of different stories within it (much as it appears Star Wars is finally doing with Rogue One). And from the ending of the sequel, it looks like they may be planning to do that in the future. But it is a shamefully missed opportunity not to have told a different type of story now.

First Endorsement!

So I’d like to take a little break from policy discussions and talk about personal things for a little while.

The first cool thing I’d like to mention is that Robison Wells, a speculative fiction author (and fellow Mormon) whom I greatly admire, contacted me today, telling me how much he’d loved my book and asking if I wanted a cover quote from him.

Of course I said yes!

Rob is best known for his Variant series, but I was privileged to work with him as a copyeditor on his novel Airships of Camelot. I really enjoyed both the book and the process of working with Rob, and if you like good YA SF/F books, you’ll like his work too. Here’s what he said about my book:

I remember attending a devotional at BYU where Senator Harry Reid spoke. He said “I am not a Democrat in spite of being Mormon; I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon.” I feel the same way, and Daniel Friend’s book, Why More Mormons Should Be Democrats dives into this concept head first, showing, with scripture and the words of modern-day prophets and apostles, how Mormon doctrine is fully compatible with Democratic policies. This down-to-earth, reasoned approach is a must read for Mormons of any political stripe.

I’m geeking out now for several reasons:

  1. It’s always cool when someone likes your book or anything else you’ve created artistically. (And yes, nonfiction is still creative.) That feeling of happiness mixed with humility is something that I hope never goes away.
  2. It’s really cool when someone you respect likes your art—especially when they’re working in the same field! Winning the approval of your peers makes you feel like you’ve done something right.
  3. It’s really cool when someone approaches you about endorsing or promoting that piece of art. There’s nothing wrong with asking for an endorsement, but that’s not what happened in this case. Rob said this because he wanted to. And while I don’t want to disparage solicited endorsements (they can be honest and heartfelt!), somehow coming from this direction seems even more genuine.

So that’s it for now, though there will be more news to come soon. In the meantime, if you have read my book, please leave a review on Amazon. Reviews do more than anything else to boost a book’s visibility on Amazon.