Study It Out! The Mormon Origins of the New Catchphrase
What “study it out” Really Means
Last night’s vice presidential debate has already spawned a surfeit of memes—from images of Joe Biden’s inexplicable fistbump with Kal Penn above the word “Biden’d” to animated GIFs of Paul Ryan’s frequent sips of water (taken, perhaps, to avoid fainting at the thought of the backwards baseball cap-wearing cheesecake photos of him that had been released earlier in the day). Perhaps most awkward and most telling, however, is the catchphrase that is sweeping the nation (or, at least, that part of the nation that obsessively checks the interwebs for news) post-debate: “study it out.”
This catchphrase was uttered not by Biden, Ryan, or even the brilliant, incisive moderator Martha Raddatz, but by one of the placard-toting, cheering/ jeering debate gawkers Chris Matthews interviewed before the VP candidates got started. The crowds were thick outside Centre College in Kentucky. As Matthews spoke to an Obama supporter whose husband had recently been laid off, causing the family to lose their health coverage, the word “communist” was bleated from the other side of the crowd.
Sensing a crazy, Matthews scanned the crowd.
“What did you mean by that?” Matthews gruffly asked, making his way over to a white-haired woman with large black sunglasses (worn perhaps to cover that special Red-baiting gleam in her eyes).
“All you have to do is study it out. Just study it out. And you’ll see, you haven’t done your homework, buddy,” she answered, psychically shaking her fist at the poor dumb bitch without healthcare to her right.
Matthews: “What do I need to study?”
Cold War Connie: “He’s a communist, and those of us who are not voting for him know it.”
Matthews: “And what do you mean by ‘communist’?”
Cold War Connie: “You don’t know?”
Matthews: “Just tell me. Help me out here.”
CWC: “You don’t know?”
Matthews: “I just want to know what you mean.”
CWC: “Oh, I know what I mean.”
Matthews: “Well, help us out. You’re on national television. He’s not American? What is he? What country is he from?”
CWC: “No. Just because he was born here doesn’t mean he thinks like us.”
Cold War Connie’s dialogue with Chris Matthews is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, it indicates the weird twists and turns of the Birther Movement, whose denizens have moved from arguing that Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya to articulating something more like Connie’s ambivalent retort that “just because he was born here doesn’t mean he thinks like us.” This is the kind of rhetoric you’re stuck with when the President’s long-form birth certificate cheekily appears on coffee mugs, available for purchase at only $22.50. The “Us” and “Them” are still there, but it’s increasingly unclear who “they” are for people like Cold War Connie and her overlords (black people? Muslims? the intellectual elite? hard-core pinkos like the Wall St.-friendly Obama?). The accusations of “communism,” coupled with the inability to define the term or how the President embodies it, are themselves not so new, fitting squarely in FoxNews viewers’ wheelhouse.
What is more striking about CWC’s pissing match with Chris Matthews is, as the internet memes mark, her “study it out” credo. Google searches for “study it out” turn up hit after hit on pages devoted to Mormon teachings. The awkward phrase first appeared in “Doctrines and Covenants,” part of the LDS Church’s scriptural canon. In the scene in which it appears, Joseph Smith, the prophet, is dictating the revelation he’s received from God to Oliver Cowdery, one of the Church’s first apostles. When Cowdery attempts to translate the words himself, Smith castigates him, saying, “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”
As Adam Gopnik pointed out in a recent article in The New Yorker, critics of Mormonism from Mark Twain onward have noted the linguistic awkwardness in the religion’s central texts—born of Joseph Smith’s attempt to make his 19th century words sound suitably oracular and ancient. This passage in general and the words “study it out in your mind” in particular are no exception. However, what’s most interesting about them is not how they’re expressed but how they might be interpreted. One interpretation of the passage is that Smith is exhorting his followers to think for themselves—to work things out (“study it out”) in their own mind. But, another, more convincing reading, I think, is that Cowdery is being chastised for trying to translate God’s words without properly bowing to his (and Smith’s authority). Cowdery needs to “ask…if it be right” and “if it is right. . .” his “bosom shall burn within [him].” It is this doubleness—the claim to want people to think for themselves, coupled with the expectation that his authority (as a person or a speaker) never be challenged—that characterizes not just this particular incarnation of the divine, but Mitt Romney himself. How many times have we been asked to disregard our own ears and take Romney at his own, often shifting word?
It may seem strange—thinking about the 19th century Mormon origins of the words of a Tea Party-style radical who appeared for a few moments on MSNBC. But, if we’ve learned anything during this election cycle, it’s that words matter and so does the willingness to challenge the received doctrine of both the 24-hour news cycle and the pulpit. In a campaign dominated by doublespeak and outright lies, vacillations between moderation and right-wing demagoguery, we need less “studying it out” and more PolitaFact.
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