Can I talk about Bill Clinton and a character in the TV show "Bonanza" named Hop Sing?
Seems odd, but there is a relationship.
Reach back into your memory or experience, and think about how Chinese immigrants used to be portrayed in the U.S. media a few decades ago.
They were inscrutable or servile or even vaguely dangerous. Sometimes, it wasn't even vague.
It's certainly a simplistic example given the long history of "Bonanza," but when I think of this stereotype, I think of my memories of Hop Sing, the Chinese cook on the old western TV show. Hop Sing seemed to be more comic relief with a funny accent than a fully-realized person — with part of that comedy coming from the simple fact that he was different.
Indeed, it seems as though his role in the show was to demonstrate how gracious the Cartwrights were toward others. Given the Cartwrights are icons of some American culture, Hop Sing as I remember him subtly reinforces our perception of American values of acceptance — but those perceptions seemed to come at the cost of diminishing the full life of an immigrant minority.
(To be fair, "Bonanza" broached at least one powerful story of how Chinese were treated by laws in the United States at the time, and that was to the show's great credit.)
Now, jump ahead a few decades. How do American media today often portray Chinese-Americans? They tend to be seen as hard working and successful — if still different from the rest of the mainstream of America. They are, in the language of the academic journals, "model minorities."
Now, I don't want to wander too much in the academic weeds, but there is something profound buried in the concept of model minorities — and it relates to Bill Clinton's description of his experience with LDS missionaries this week.
To me, one of the greatest contributions to the scholarship of Latter-day Saints and the media came from a dissertation completed at the prestigious University of Iowa by Chiung Hwang Chen. In it and related work, she looked at how Latter-day Saints and Asians have been portrayed, and she sees a similar arc between Asians and Latter-day Saints in the press.
In the 1800s, Asians were perilous, as were Latter-day Saints. Today, they have become "model minorities" — hard-working, successful models, something like avatars of the American way.
But often with the portrayals of Latter-day Saints as models of American success, Chen has pointed out, there's something that keeps Latter-day Saints at arm's length. It might be a focus on obscure or distorted doctrine or past practices. We "Mormons" may be models of American success, but we're still seen as different — all of which seems to be a result of this discourse.
It's a frustrating discourse because the portrayal reinforces old relationships in America and leaves Latter-day Saints as outsiders and oddballs, even while seeming to express admiration for us.
It's sort of passive aggressive in that way.
Bless him, but Bill Clinton acted as though he has studied this terrific dissertation. (Which I doubt, of course.)
In a recent interview with a handful of reporters, Clinton spoke of hearing some portion of the LDS missionary discussions years ago — maybe it was a discussion of the plan of salvation. As quoted, his comment seems to me a classic of the "model minority" discourse. While praising Latter-day Saints for their dedication and intriguing ideas, he nevertheless manages to portray Latter-day Saints as exclusive and a little odd — all with no seeming malice.
Here's a few paragraphs of what the online news site Buzzfeed wrote:
"Clinton also recalled a moment from his youth in Arkansas being approached by two or three Mormon missionaries in Hot Springs, where they explained the Mormon view.
"Clinton spoke highly of their effort, recounting the different degrees of heaven as was explained to him 50 years ago, describing it as a pyramid with many levels that put Hitler and Stalin at the very bottom, faithful Mormons on top, and everyone else in between.
"Clinton, a Baptist, said the sticking point for him was leaving his friends and family out of the top level of heaven.
"'I didn’t want to leave all these other people behind,' he said."
Kudos, by the way, to the journalists who pointed out that Bill Clinton's doctrine was somewhat distorted, but that's not the point here. I don't assume, by the way, the former president deliberately distorted anything.
(LDS belief, in my understanding, does not exclude in that it invites individuals, even after this life, to come unto Christ.)
Clinton also seemed to miss that almost all religions believe there are differing judgments and differing rewards or places awaiting each person, even if the only divide is between heaven and hell. This isn't an exclusively LDS concept; therefore, we are not unusual in that way. But that's not my main point either.
My point is that President Clinton couldn't have created a better example of this frustrating old discourse if he had wanted to do so. Clinton found a way to raise the "Mormon issue," while he didn't seem to be raising it at all — whether he did so on purpose or not.
Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.
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