Happy Pioneer Day!

This little reflection was originally posted on the blog Law, Religion, and Ethics — most of whose readers, if any, are presumably not LDS or residents of Utah.

Pioneer Day, in case you didn’t know, is today, July 24; it commemorates the day in 1847 (give or take a day or two) when Brigham Young declared “This is the place,” and the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. I imagine Pioneer Day is still celebrated in Utah, and it was a festive occasion in Idaho Falls, Idaho, when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. My mother, though she lacked training or college experience, had an artistic bent, and she used to spend untold hours preparing the ward float for the annual Pioneer Day parade, to march along with floats sponsored by other wards (a ward is the Mormon equivalent of a parish) and other churches, as well as countless horse posses, 4-H groups, Shriners, and nicely waxed cars carrying local dignitaries. One year my sister and I were enlisted to stand on the ward float dressed as Betsy Ross and Uncle Sam.

As you can see, Pioneer Day had a mixed religious and American character– Mormon pioneers got sort of squished together with pioneers generally, and Pilgrims, and American Patriots– and in that respect it reflected the town. Idaho Falls in those days boasted over 30,000 inhabitants—it was the third largest city in the state—and it was unusual because the largest local employer, an atomic energy facility, brought in an influx of scientist types from “back East.” So the population was about half Mormon and half non-Mormon, but everyone was American.

We Mormons knew, of course, that our religion was the true one, and the non-Mormons knew we believed this, and this knowledge created some psychological and cultural boundaries. But for the most part relations were cordial. In business and commercial matters, there weren’t religious divisions of the kind that seem to have existed in, say, Lake Wobegone. City government wasn’t religiously polarized. There was only one private school in town—Holy Rosary—and it only went through eighth grade, so the kids all mingled without religious distinction in the schools. And, of course, in Little Leagues, and Rec Center basketball leagues, and many other activities.

In the 50s and 60s we heard a lot about racial conflict. But racism wasn’t a local problem because although Idaho Falls had its share of Catholics, Protestants, Jews (and of course Mormons), the town was pretty much racially homogeneous. Maybe we would have been racist if given the opportunity, but I like to think not. Mormon doctrine officially had a racial component at the time, but the doctrine had no live local application and hardly anyone gave it a thought; if we did, it was one of puzzlement, and regret. In high school I went to a couple of dances with a girl who had grown up in St. Louis, and once, for some reason, we started talking about race. I expounded on how wicked and irrational racial prejudice is, and she said I only thought this way because I had never lived around “them.” Who can say?

As it happens, I’m in Idaho Falls this week, visiting family. This morning, on Pioneer Day, I went for a long walk through some of the old neighborhoods. I was struck by how tiny the houses are, though they didn’t seem especially small when I was growing up. (Houses in the newer subdivisions are much larger.) The lawns are still well-kept, though—lots of hose-operated sprinklers were pouring out their soothing rhythmic whisper—and people still cultivate small patches of assorted flowers around the driveways and porches, with functional or decorative bird feeders and other little adornments. Most houses still have gardens, profuse now with tomatoes, carrots, and raspberries. Lots of houses are flying American flags, maybe still lingering from the Fourth of July.

I walked past Hawthorne School, where I went to kindergarten, and past Longfellow School, where I went to sixth grade, but my route didn’t take me past the other American poet schools—Whittier and Emerson. I went past the yellow brick church where I spent so many hours on Sundays, and Tuesday evenings (youth activities), and Thursday evenings (basketball), and Saturdays (basketball again), and where I hated hauling out the clinkers from the old furnace. I walked down Twenty-third Street, past the house where Linda McConnell used to live. In Mr. Esplin’s class (and before a school friend explained the “facts of life” to me), Linda sat in a desk where she wouldn’t notice as I gazed at her long brown hair and smooth brownish skin. I used to go out of my way to walk past her house, but I don’t recall if I ever actually talked to her. She wasn’t Mormon, so I knew I couldn’t marry her anyway.

There was no parade in Idaho Falls on this Pioneer Day (although people have been pretty excited over a dazzling aerial show by the Blue Angels). The cultural divisions that have affected the country have come to Idaho Falls as well, and for obvious reasons the town has long since ceased to honor the holiday. Even so, there is still a sense of a way of life—a way of life with continuity and shape and a sort of deep spiritual integrity, and with its quiet joys and tragedies. The large irrigation canal where we used to swim almost every day in the summer (and where every few years somebody drowned) flows along as it always did.

A day or two ago, the local newspaper (the Post Register) reported that the Tea Party movement is strong in Idaho, and that the state Republican Party has adopted a states’ rights platform. (I don’t know the details.) The newspaper, which although endearingly thin is like other respectable media progressive, deplored this development, but the editorial I read didn’t go so far as to say that the Parties (Tea and Republican) are actually racist. I doubt that such a charge would be credible to people who know. And you don’t need to hypothesize racism to explain Tea Party sentiment in Idaho.

Having grown up here, and having spent much of my time since then among academics, I don’t find Tea Party leanings surprising. The academics tend to be intelligent, cultured, secular people (I’m generalizing, obviously) who have the advantage, as they suppose, of superior education—and hence of familiarity with refined theories of equality and justice, and of efficient use of resources, and of the cognitive deficits and cultural distortions that prevent the sort of people I grew up with from being either just or efficient. If these academic types have the good fortune to become, say, a “regulations czar” or a Supreme Court Justice or even, say, a President, they naturally want to use this power in accordance with their superior sophistication to make life more fair and rational and regular.

Conversely, the people I grew up with have the sense that the now empowered academic types don’t understand or appreciate—don’t have a clue, frankly—what life in Idaho Falls, with its mixture of religion and American pride, and its pioneers, and its continuities and quiet joys and tragedies, really is. And so they wish that the powerful, sophisticated people would leave them alone and let them live their lives. Actually, I wish the same thing.

14 comments for “Happy Pioneer Day!

  1. July 28, 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Wow! July 24 came and went and now it is the 28th and I did not even think about this, until I saw your piece. I grew up in overwhelmingly “gentile” towns yet still remember marching in July 24 parades that the local ward did anyway.

    As one who lives in Wasilla, Alaska and puts in a great deal of work in what we call “the bush” or the rural areas, with the people of the same, I find your definition of “progressives” to be rather smug and elitist even as you pretend it to be populist.

    You missed the mark.

  2. Steve Smith
    July 28, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    I agree with you, Bill. Sometimes my sarcasm is a bit too understated.

  3. July 28, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    I’m really surprised to hear that there isn’t a Pioneer Day parade in Idaho Falls! Sure, people will have somewhat different perspectives on it, but people had some different perspectives on the Jamestown celebrations (400 year anniversary) held here in Virginia in 2007, too. The Queen of England even came! The presence of different perspectives makes it a slightly more delicate business to plan a tasteful celebration, but for that reason makes a well-done celebration that much more valuable.

    The other day I was driving in northern Virginia (just outside D.C.) on Jefferson Davis Highway. If we can name highways after the leaders of a revolution involving half the country and an enormous, bloody, destructive war, lasting years, then we should be able to stomach a Pioneer Day parade. If people are more sensitive about religion than about slavery, rebellion, and civil war, there is something seriously wrong.

  4. July 29, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Thank you, Steve. And just in case it is not clear, I would not want anyone to mistakenly place me in the Palin camp just because we live in the same town. Quite the opposite.

  5. queuno
    July 29, 2010 at 1:10 am

    If we can name highways after the leaders of a revolution involving half the country and an enormous, bloody, destructive war, lasting years, then we should be able to stomach a Pioneer Day parade.

    I suppose you could say that about any street named after Washington or Jefferson, as well… ;)

  6. Steve Smith
    July 29, 2010 at 8:11 am

    What happened in Idaho Falls, I believe, is that critics thought Pioneer Day celebrations overshadowed Fourth of July festivities, and they resented this. Eventually it was agreed just to drop the official Pioneer Day events in favor of emphasizing only the Fourth.

    If Pioneer Day were still officially sponsored in Idaho Falls, I think the ACLU or some other objector who wanted to sue would have a decent chance, depending on the judge, of having this sponsorship declared unconstitutional. In Salt Lake City there’s a much stronger argument that the holiday commemorates the city’s history, but in Idaho Falls that’s less clear. Under the (deeply misguided, in my opinnion) constitutional doctrine forbidding governmental endorsements of religion, Pioneer Day might well be considered a transgression.

  7. Jonathan Green
    July 29, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Steve, I enjoyed your post. What does the last sentence mean?

    Also, wouldn’t a July 24 celebration that focuses on history and culture be permissible, in the same way as St. Patrick’s Day parades are?

  8. Adam Greenwood
    July 29, 2010 at 11:53 am

    You know this area of law better than I, but couldn’t the City of Idaho Falls *permit* a Pioneer Day parade on city streets sponsored by some other group: the Mormon Church or the Idaho Falls Pioneer Day Association or whatever. Provided the city tended to permit other parades of equal size/community support to an equal extent, there would be no governmental “endorsement”?

  9. James Olsen
    July 29, 2010 at 11:59 am

    Steve, I really enjoyed your reflections here. This is a wonderful adaptation of insider experience for both in- and outsider enjoyment. I’d love for you to say more about 1) what I think you see as a political hypersensitization toward anything religious; and 2) echoing Jonathan, what your last sentence is about.

    As to 1 and its relation to Pioneer Day, along with a healthy adaption to publicly affirming the value (or at least the valuable) in our collectively religious heritage (after all, even our best atheist come from stalwart religious stock), I would like to see those of us who are religious better able to adapt our public celebrations to broader audiences. Just as many others on this blog (see the spat of posts around Easter), I love holidays, holy days, and think they’re a critical cultural element that get far to little attention. And I’d never want to see Mormons watering down this one holiday that we actual celebrate as a Mormon holiday. But surely the city of Idaho Falls, a solidly western city, could adapt to celebrate the fantastic pioneer heritage of our whole country, and particular the western US?

    As for 2, I wonder if you mean sophisticated people should leave unsophisticated people alone? Are you celebrating simplicity in life? in judgment? black/white-tinted spectacles? Should those

    with refined theories of equality and justice, and of efficient use of resources, and of the cognitive deficits and cultural distortions that prevent the sort of people I grew up with from being either just or efficient.

    simply ignore the injustices they see? Are they wrong? Are small town unsophisticates (like me and my family) incapable of holding our own in discussions with a broader audience, incapable of giving a rational basis for our maintenance of various levels of local autonomy or salvaging our traditional-cultural based lifestyles? Is this a call for some flavor of libertarianism or anarchism? Are you merely lamenting Idaho Falls inability to still celebrate Pioneer Day (are you claiming that it’s the infiltration of the Easterners or sophisticates who have wrecked a unifying small town tradition)?

    Regardless, it’s great food for thought.

  10. Craig H.
    July 29, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Yes, do tell us the meaning of your last sentence; are you wishing things would go back to the good old days in its old form, or are you wishing people would come up with a solution that better suits our more multi-cultural and multi-religious world, even Idaho Falls? (I took some friends from Sweden through there, and it was their favorite town they saw in the intermountain west.)

  11. Jonathan Green
    July 29, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Craig, I’m very curious why your Swedish friends liked Idaho Falls so much. I’m sure the town has much going for it, but what specifically did European visitors see in it?

  12. Craig H.
    July 29, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Jonathan, I think they felt it was more authentic than a lot of the modernized western towns they’ve seen; is that a compliment or not? For them, it was: he’s a museum director, and is very much into things authentic. Though of course how authentic IF is, I couldn’t say. In short, I think it fit their preconceived vision of what a western town should look like. Just like an American might expect a European castle or village to look a certain way. And it often doesn’t.

  13. Steven Smith
    July 31, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    I owe several commenters answers to some questions. A couple of people asked what I meant by the last sentence of the post, which might be taken as expressing sympathy with Tea Pary thinking, and one or two comments wondered about my apparent criticism of academic theories of justice and efficiency. It may be too late by now to pursue this line of comments– such is blogosphere, it seems, which is still pretty foreign terrain for me– and in any case my short answer is likely to be unsatisfactory. (A longer answer might be equally unsatisfactory, but at least its shortcomings would be hidden in verbiage.) But for what it’s worth, here’s a short response to these questions:

    Academics theorize, which is what we’re supposed to do, and theories oversimplify, which is in their nature. Normative theories of justice or human behavior inevitably fail to take account of much of what makes life valuable and rich. That’s okay– the theories can still provide insight– until someone gets in a position to try to impose the theories on life, or to make life over according to the theories. Then the results can be destructive, even disastrous. In modern times, at least, courts have often been prone to this sort of intermeddling (although the judges usually aren’t theorists themselves, but often tend to be unduly influenced at one or two removes by ideas emanating from the academy). And my own view is that we’re currently being ruled by some people with this sort of orientation. Their home is Harvard, not normal American life.

    Having said this, I would hasten to add that I’m unhappy with this statement of the problem. Let me try a slightly different take. I’ve long been intellectually but also viscerally hostile to approaches to law and politics– and life, I guess– that sometimes get put under the heading of “rationalism.” But though it’s not so hard to give examples of rationalism– Bentham and Rawls come quickly to mind– it’s hard to articulate just what rationalism is, and even harder to explain the alternative. I could say I’m a “traditionalist,” maybe, but that label immediately gives rise to all sorts of misconceptions and false dichotomies: tradition vs. change or progress, tradition vs. reason, etc. Once, in an article called “Separation as a Tradition,” I spent 30 or 40 pages trying to explain what traditionalism is: it’s one of my least-cited articles. (Which, in my case, is like a career .190 batter saying he’s going through a slump.)

    One difficulty is that rationalism is sort of the natural mode of the university, and maybe of all of us when we’re thinking and discussing, as opposed to story-telling or testimony-bearing. So even in trying to explain and defend traditionalism you have to betray yourself, in a sense, by presenting your outlook in rationalist-tending vocabulary.

    In the Pioneer Day reflection, I was trying to get the outlook across in a more concrete and narrative and true-to-life form. I hoped something would get across. But put into more abstract form, the points I was trying to make will suffer from the same oversimplification and detachment from reality as the rationalism they’re directed against.

  14. July 31, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Thanks Steve, I like your articulation of the limits of theory in your comment’s second paragraph. And I laughed at your slumping batter comparison.

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