The evil of the consumer economy

(Due to the holiday, I am reposting something from last year, updated and edited.)

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.”

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

One of the few silver linings in the bleak outlook caused by the current financial crisis is that people are likely to cut back on their purchases. I know that this is supposedly ‘bad’ for the economy but perhaps we need to change the basis of our economy, to one in which services, rather than goods, are the drivers. For example, we should be more willing to pay people to repair things rather than throw them away and buy replacements.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a ‘consumer economy’, and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don’t get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water? Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don’t see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the ‘end-timers’, the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive “must have” items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned pleasures of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: Ball jointed dolls

Speaking of consumption, NPR a few months ago had an extraordinary story about a new fad that is sweeping the country: ball-jointed dolls.

These are very expensive, customizable dolls for which people pay hundreds of dollars and then thousands more for outfits and even physical parts. The owners, mostly middle-aged women, dress their dolls up, make up stories and lives for them, and take them to BJD conventions where they compare their own “children” with others.

People spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars buying just one BJD sight unseen off the Internet. At the convention, BJD owners shelled out hundreds of dollars for mind-blowingly beautiful Armani-esque wool-lined coats, black wraparound pocket dresses and garnet jewelry for their dolls.

For BJD fans, the dolls are worth the expense. When Jennifer Kohn Murtha starts talking about her doll Kimora, it sound like she is talking about a child:

“I have one 15-year-old girl who is my love,” she says. “I have ordered for her a boyfriend who is a boxer and a physicist who will take good care of her. I’ve also ordered a vampire for her … I couldn’t resist.”

Thanksgiving musings

(Due to the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, edited and updated. The series on the future of the Repubican party will be continued later.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn’t repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. The modern thanksgiving tradition in an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War and began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick-off for that revolting shopping orgy, but not too close or people won’t have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.

I personally would like to see Thanksgiving shifted a month earlier to the last Thursday or so in October, not to lengthen the shopping season, but because there is a long drought of holidays between Labor Day and Christmas, and this would fall nicely in the middle. The weather would also be better for traveling, and it would coincide nicely with a mid-term break for college students.

I mainly like the fact that the holiday has (still) managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up. Although the holiday’s roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now mostly secular. No prayers are said. We are just thankful for the opportunity to be together.

Thanksgiving is a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without worrying too much about the cost. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness.

Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the “Christmas shopping season” which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present spend-spend-spend, buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing this holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

POST SCRIPT: Eddie Izzard on computers and Armageddon (language advisory)

The future of the Republican Party-7: Why don’t the Christianists ♥ Huckabee?

Mike Huckabee, who saw himself as the real deal, is understandably peeved at the way he was treated by the very people who should have embraced his candidacy and been his most ardent supporters. A review of his just released memoir shows that he is willing to name names:

Many conservative Christian leaders — who never backed Huckabee, despite their holding similar stances on social issues — are spared neither the rod nor the lash. Huckabee writes of Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian leader and former presidential candidate, as having an “ever-changing reason to deny me his support.” Of one private meeting with Bauer, Huckabee says, “It was like playing Whac-a-Mole at the arcade — whatever issue I addressed, another one surfaced as a ‘problem’ that made my candidacy unacceptable.” He also accuses Bauer of putting national security before bedrock social issues like the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.
. . .
He calls out Pat Robertson, the Virginia-based televangelist, and Dr. Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, for endorsing Rudy Giuliani and Romney, respectively. He also has words for the Texas-based Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed the more moderate John McCain in the primaries, as someone who was drawn to the eventual Republican nominee because of the lure of power. Huckabee says he spoke to Hagee by phone before the McCain endorsement while preparing for a spot on Saturday Night Live. “I asked if he had prayed about this and believed this was what the Lord wanted him to do,” Huckabee writes of the conversation. “I didn’t get a straight answer.”

I think Huckabee is justified in being angry at the way he was treated. But what was the problem? Why didn’t all these religious right heavyweights rally around Huckabee who had enthusiastically supported all the social issues of the culture wars that they have been agitating for all these years, and had proven himself in the Iowa caucuses as someone who had strong appeal with Republican voters?

In his memoir, Mike Huckabee takes a stab at trying to answer this question, and in the process reveals the real fight that is going on within the Republican party over its future. The above review of his book finds Huckabee pointing a finger at what he sees is the problem within the Republican party.

In a chapter titled “Faux-Cons: Worse than Liberalism,” Huckabee identifies what he calls the “real threat” to the Republican Party: “libertarianism masked as conservatism.” He is not so much concerned with the libertarian candidate Ron Paul’s Republican supporters as he is with a strain of mainstream fiscal-conservative thought that demands ideological purity, seeing any tax increase as apostasy and leaving little room for government-driven solutions to people’s problems. “I don’t take issue with what they believe, but the smugness with which they believe it,” writes Huckabee, who raised some taxes as governor and cut deals with his state’s Democratic legislature. “Faux-Cons aren’t interested in spirited or thoughtful debate, because such an endeavor requires accountability for the logical conclusion of their argument.” Among his targets is the Club for Growth, a group that tarred Huckabee as insufficiently conservative in the primaries and ran television ads with funding from one of Huckabee’s longtime Arkansas political foes, Jackson T. Stephens Jr.

But the Christianist opposition to Huckabee is based on more than just their anti-tax purity. It is also based on their opposition to any government intervention to aid those less fortunate.

Next: Compassionate religio-conservatism versus brutal religio-conservatism

POST SCRIPT: Money as an incentive

It is an article of faith amongst low tax advocates that money is what motivates people and by taxing people more, they have less incentive to work. Thus the huge bonuses paid to some executives on Wall Street and big corporations are justified on the grounds that this makes them work harder.

MIT business professor Dan Ariely examines this myth by offering low, medium, and high bonuses to people for comparable work and found that:

The people offered medium bonuses performed no better, or worse, than those offered low bonuses. But what was most interesting was that the group offered the biggest bonus did worse than the other two groups across all the tasks.

The future of the Republican Party-6: The Huckabee puzzle

The clue to the real problem facing the Republican party lies in what happened to Mike Huckabee’s candidacy when he ran for the Republican nomination in the last election. I thought that he had the perfect credentials for the party and was surprised that he did not do much better. He is a former two-term governor of Arkansas (1996-2007), showing that he has executive experience and the preferred rural Southern profile. He is an ordained Baptist pastor who worked as an actual minister from 1980 to 1992. He has been married to the same woman for 33 years and there has been no hint of personal sex scandals or even impropriety.

The scandals that he was involved in while governor tended to be the kind of fairly petty financial ones that politicians from smaller states tend to get embroiled in. In the hands of a determined prosecutor they can be blown up into a major issue (like Ken Starr did with Whitewater for Bill Clinton, Huckabee’s predecessor as Arkansas governor) but more often are treated as business as usual and blow away.

He has all the right positions on social issues to appeal to the party’s religious base, showing him to be a hard-core conservative. He believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and even favors amending the US constitution if necessary to reflect his belief that the country is founded on Christian principles. Austin Cline, creator of the excellent website About Atheism/Agnosticism, analyzes Huckabee’s views on church and state relations and claims that his views make him a theocratic fascist.

At the same time he is affable, telegenic, has a sense of humor, plays bass guitar in a rock band, has an engaging personality, and can appear on programs like The Colbert Report and win over an audience that would not be at all sympathetic to his views. Even I, who disagree strongly with him on almost every position he holds and cannot imagine myself ever voting for him, find myself liking him. He seems thoughtful and intelligent and articulate, a persuasive spokesman for his positions. He looks like someone with whom you could seek common ground by having a civil and reasoned discussion, even while the two of you hold opposing views.

He should be the dream candidate of the religious and conservative right, having qualities that could appeal to centrist voters despite his right-wing conservative views. And yet, after getting a surprisingly big win in the Iowa caucuses, he failed to get the support, especially financial, that he was entitled to expect from religious leaders of the social values base that should have propelled his candidacy.

All the Christianists like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, John Hagee, Gary Bauer, Bob Jones, etc. found excuses to not support him and instead pledged their allegiance to pretenders like McCain, who not only has been hostile to them in the past, but gave lukewarm support to their pet issues. McCain is also twice married, a self-confessed adulterer, not overtly religious, and has been tainted with serious sex and financial scandals in the past.

These Christianists were even willing to support the cross-dressing Rudy Giuliani who publicly humiliated his former wife with his open affairs, supported women’s choice on abortion, and had been the mayor of gay-friendly New York City, that den of iniquity that epitomizes the very opposite of the ‘real America’ that Christianists claim to represent.

Mitt Romney was also preferred by some of these conservative religious leaders, even though he is a Mormon and his commitment to their social issues was seen by many as a late conversion based on political expediency, and thus its genuineness was suspect.

Huckabee, who saw himself as the real deal, is understandably peeved at the way he was treated by the people who should have embraced his candidacy and been his most ardent supporters. As a review of his just released memoir reveals:

Many conservative Christian leaders — who never backed Huckabee, despite their holding similar stances on social issues — are spared neither the rod nor the lash. Huckabee writes of Gary Bauer, the conservative Christian leader and former presidential candidate, as having an “ever-changing reason to deny me his support.” Of one private meeting with Bauer, Huckabee says, “It was like playing Whac-a-Mole at the arcade — whatever issue I addressed, another one surfaced as a ‘problem’ that made my candidacy unacceptable.” He also accuses Bauer of putting national security before bedrock social issues like the sanctity of life and traditional marriage.
. . .
He calls out Pat Robertson, the Virginia-based televangelist, and Dr. Bob Jones III, chancellor of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, for endorsing Rudy Giuliani and Romney, respectively. He also has words for the Texas-based Rev. John Hagee, who endorsed the more moderate John McCain in the primaries, as someone who was drawn to the eventual Republican nominee because of the lure of power. Huckabee says he spoke to Hagee by phone before the McCain endorsement while preparing for a spot on Saturday Night Live. “I asked if he had prayed about this and believed this was what the Lord wanted him to do,” Huckabee writes of the conversation. “I didn’t get a straight answer.”

I think Huckabee is justified in being angry at the way he was treated. But what was the problem? Why didn’t all these religious right heavyweights rally around Huckabee who had enthusiastically supported all the social issues of the culture wars that they have been agitating for all these years and had proven himself in the Iowa caucuses as someone who had strong appeal with Republican voters?

Next: Why don’t the Republican religious right leaders ♥ Huckabee?

POST SCRIPT: Who would you like to have been?

One of the positive developments during the election was the low visibility of Ann Coulter. Her shtick is always the same: say something outrageous to gain attention.

But here is a clip from the past where she and Al Franken discuss the question of which character from the past they would have liked to have been, and where Franken one-ups her shtick and makes her look silly.

Ann-coulter-al-frankenClick here for the funniest movie of the week

(Thanks to Ashali.)

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

(The series on the future of the Republican party will continue tomorrow.)

Yes, we can no longer ignore the signs that the Christmas season is upon us. Apart from the snow, Salvation Army bell ringers, and store decorations, the definitive event is the arrival of the whiners who claim that Christians are a persecuted group in America whose special holiday has become so secularized that they cannot even say “Merry Christmas” to others for fear of being set upon and beaten by the atheistic hordes who roam the streets looking to stamp out any sign of genuine Christian cheer.

Bill O’Reilly is as usual valiantly at the forefront of the defense of Christmas. His Fox News ally in the past John Gibson, however, has lost his show (probably as a result of an anti-Christian purge) and so no longer has a highly visible platform to show his love for Jesus.

But this year brings a new defender of the faith, one Daniel Henninger, and he has a startling new theory. He claims that the current economic crisis was actually caused by the War on Christmas! Yes, indeedy.

Henninger paints with a broad brush.

And so it will come to pass once again that many people will spend four weeks biting on tongues lest they say “Merry Christmas” and perchance, give offense. Christmas, the holiday that dare not speak its name.

This year we celebrate the desacralized “holidays” amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin — fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed. People wonder, What happened? One man’s theory: A nation whose people can’t say “Merry Christmas” is a nation capable of ruining its own economy.

Of course, that is quite a leap and he labors mightily to get there from here. He first goes through the list of well-known proximate causes of the crisis such as shaky mortgage loans to unqualified borrowers, securitization of debts, failure of ratings agencies to exercise due diligence, yadda, yadda, yadda, all things by now familiar to anyone even faintly familiar with the crisis and discussed at length in this blog too.

So what has all that got to do with the War on Christmas, you ask? Be patient, he’s coming to that. You see, all those factors that led to the crisis are merely symptoms of a deeper underlying malaise that is rotting the very moral fiber of the country and has led to all this bad behavior by the financial sector.

What really went missing through the subprime mortgage years were the three Rs: responsibility, restraint and remorse. They are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets: risk and reward.

Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down.

He then delivers the punch line, explaining that what caused people who would otherwise have been moral to abandon their principles was, among other things, their inability to say “Merry Christmas.”

And so we come back to the disappearance of “Merry Christmas.”

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

And he ends with a dire warning that this war on Christmas can only lead to the apocalypse, “Feel free: Banish Merry Christmas. Get ready for Mad Max.”

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Laugh, because the whole argument is so patently stupid. Cry, because Daniel Henninger is not some random nutcase ranting at the internet equivalent of street corners. He is actually the deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and this drivel appeared in an opinion piece on November 20, 2008.

This seems to provide further evidence of the view among newspaper cognoscenti that the WSJ is a schizophrenic newspaper.

On the one hand, its news pages are respected for their solid and reliable news coverage. This is to be expected. After all, businesspeople, who are its target audience, have no use for fantasies. They need a realistic view of the way things are in the world if they are to make informed decisions.

On the other hand, its editorial and opinion pages seem to be under the control of people on the far fringes of loopiness.

Weird.

POST SCRIPT: Happy birthday, Origins!

On this day in 1859, the first edition of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species appeared in print.

This is probably a good time to tell readers that my own new book THE CASE OF GOD v. DARWIN: Evolution, Religion, and the Establishment Clause will be published sometime in the middle of 2009.

The book looks at how the attempts to oppose the teaching of evolution in schools have themselves evolved due to the setbacks received in the courts. My book looks at the legal history of the trials and the role of religion in schools, starting with the Scopes trial in 1925 and ending with the Dover intelligent Design trial in 2005.

The future of the Republican Party-5: McCain opens the Pandora’s box

One of Al Gore’s biggest sins for which I will never forgive him is his putting into the spotlight the insufferable Joe Lieberman by selecting him as his running mate in 2000. Lieberman has milked his gift of prominence to the maximum so that it is now hard to avoid his smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous presence in the media.

John McCain is likely to suffer similar reproof among large segments of the population for his inflicting of Sarah Palin on the American public. She too has a grating personality, though in her case it is her snide and sneering tone mixed with her ignorant but pugnacious self-assurance that tends to irritate.

But in many ways, McCain’s choice of Palin will do a lot more harm to the Republicans that Lieberman did to the Democrats, even though the latter actually campaigned against the Democratic candidate and provided cover for some of the most despicable allegations made against Obama. In the end, Lieberman represents just himself, a voting bloc of one, and will eventually disappear, most likely losing his next senatorial election in 2012.

But Palin does represent a large constituency that will not go away even in the event that she does, and this group has been newly energized by the Palin selection and their claim to power is what is going to cause problems.

McCain belongs more to the old-style conservative Republican wing of the party, does not seem particularly religious or enamored of the religion-based agenda of the social values bloc, and he probably saw that bloc in the subservient role it has traditionally played, which is to mainly turn up on election day. It is very likely that when McCain selected Palin, he saw her as bringing female and outsider and youth and energy credentials to the ticket, nothing more.

I think it is now obvious that the vetting of Palin prior to her selection to be McCain’s running mate was cursory to the point of being almost non-existent. I am almost certain that he did not realize that the elevation of Palin would open a Pandora’s box of expectations of the social values bloc of his party and did not anticipate the outpouring of religious fervor that would accompany her selection. For the first time, the religious base has had one of them be part of the top leadership. Now that they have got so close to the driver’s seat, they are not going to return to the back of the bus. I think they will insist on a true believer as the next leader of the party.

This is where the battle lines are going to be drawn within the Republican party. What is happening now is that the culture wars that were used in the fights against Democrats is becoming a weapon to be used within the Republican Party, to determine who the ‘real Republicans’ are. The Southern strategy tactics of dividing the country on cultural issues that worked so well for the Republicans on the national level for nearly four decades, has now suddenly turned in on itself and is being used to divide up the party internally in order to see who will lead it and in what direction it will go.

This is why the jockeying for leadership within the Republican party will be interesting to watch, as various candidates try to keep their names in the public eye while at the same time trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing.

As is usually the case, the names of candidates from the previous election are being bandied about the most. Mitt Romney is the one who is most nakedly revealing his ambitions. But he is a Mormon and however much he and his church may protest that they are really just another Christian denomination, they are still seen by many Christians as not one of them, a little too out there, more like Scientologists and Wiccans. Furthermore his earlier softer stances on gay rights and a woman’s right to choose may make his true-believer credentials suspect. For these reasons, I think that he has a tough road ahead of him to gain the Republican nomination.

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was short-listed as a possible vice-presidential candidate, might serve the bill. He seems to have the required positions on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, though he does not seem to flaunt his religion, perhaps because of that famous Minnesota reserve.

But earlier in his career he had softer stands on abortion and stem-cell research and supported anti-discrimination laws against gays. He is also one of the few evangelicals to support actions to combat global warming, and these will hurt him with the true believers.

While Pawlenty should be acceptable to the social values base of the party, it is not clear if he gives out that special frequency signal that only true believers can hear that enables them to identify those who are truly one of them and thus support them enthusiastically.

Another rumored vice-presidential candidate Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is also seen as a possibility for future party leadership. Does he have the required religious cred? He is the son of Indian immigrants and a Catholic convert from Hinduism and describes his conversion in a 1993 article.

He seems to hold orthodox, hard-line conservative Catholic views, which puts his in agreement with the evangelical social values voters on most of the issues dear to them. He is fervently anti-choice, anti-gay rights, and anti-embryonic stem cell research.

His youthful involvement with an exorcism might worry old-style conservative Republicans but will likely strengthen his religious credibility among the true believers, who see such nuttiness as signs of genuine faith, enough to overcome their misgivings about him being a former Hindu and the child of immigrants.

But the real clue as to the problems the Republican party faces lies in their puzzling response to the candidacy of Mike Huckabee.

Next: The Huckabee puzzle

POST SCRIPT: Hopeful signs of overcoming bigotry

Jed Lewis points out something important.

Let us remember when this election is in the history books that it wasn’t just that majorities of white voters in states like Iowa and Wisconsin and Oregon supported Barack Obama for President, but it was also black voters in Tennessee who overwhelmingly stood up for Stephen Cohen, a white Jewish congressman who was challenged by Nikki Tinker, a black woman who ran a Jew-baiting primary campaign against him.

Tinker thought that black voters wouldn’t support a white Jewish candidate, but they did. She ended up winning only 19% of the vote.

The elections of Barack Obama and Stephen Cohen (who supported each other in their primaries) may not mean that we have overcome. But they do show that we can. And eventually we will.

I really hope that this is a sign of the beginning of the end of stupid and vicious identity politics.

The future of the Republican Party-4: Palin’s appeal

The radio show This American Life once had an amusing episode about how Americans of Canadian origin somehow immediately know if any person or thing is also Canadian, even if that fact is not at all obvious to anyone else.

David Rakoff . . . claims that there must be a chip in his head — or something like it — that automatically tells him when someone or something famous is Canadian. Lorne Greene? Canadian. The American space shuttle? It has a Canadian-built arm.

The religious right seems to have a similar sixth sense, an antenna that picks up the secret frequency sent out by those like them. While the rest of us were dumbfounded by the Palin choice for vice president and scrambled to try and figure out who she was and what she represented, they immediately sized her up as one of them and embraced her warmly. In the mere five days between her debut as the vice-presidential nominee and her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, she had become their darling on whom they pinned their hopes and dreams.

Palin is rural and attended the Pentecostal Assembly of God church in her hometown of Wasilla. Whatever one might think of their religious practices, such as getting into trances and speaking in tongues, one cannot deny that these are true believers. I know because I have relatives who are Pentecostals and they do not take their faith lightly. People who as adults belong to such churches are not your mere do-gooder Christians, those who value their church as primarily social organizations that happen to also give their lives some spiritual meaning. For these people, Jesus is real and present and speaking to them on a regular basis. The rapture and Armageddon are not some laughably goofy ideas but something they look forward to and pin their dearest hopes on.

So when during the campaign news stories and video emerged of Palin being prayed over by a witch-hunting priest who exorcised her of all demons, some of us were aghast at the idea of a political leader actively participating in such rituals, but the true believers were delighted at this evidence of genuine religion. After decades of being strung along by what they viewed as the false prophets of the Republican party, at last they had a true messiah, someone who would lead them to the promised land of a Christianity-based America. Her carrying to term of her Downs syndrome baby and even her teenage daughter’s unwed pregnancy were seen as further evidence that she was not paying mere lip-service to anti-abortion views. (There were always suspicions that the leadership of the Republican party might well allow secret abortions for their own family members while publicly opposing it.)

So Sarah Palin was seen as the real deal for the religious faithful. At last, they had someone who was truly of them. It did not hurt that she was attractive too. This is why the present battle over the direction and leadership of the Republican Party is going to be rather bitter. It is currently being fought over Sarah Palin the person but the real underlying fight is over whether the large voting bloc she represents is going to continue to be in the top leadership of the party.

Those who oppose her point out that she was significantly responsible for the party’s defeat in the last election.

There is evidence that Palin’s presence on the Republican ticket has hurt McCain with some voters. Fourteen percent of Obama’s supporters say they once supported McCain, and the top reason given for their switch was McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate.

That is a huge number of defections, probably coming from the old-style conservative wing of the Republican party. For such people, these numbers are a compelling argument that in order to build a winning coalition again, the party has to go back to embracing traditional Republican values and not those of the social values bloc. Republican Kathleen Parker who was one of those old-style conservatives who defected from the party at the last election explains the problem.

Mainstream media conservatives are amazed that Palin and her supporters do not recognize what seems to them to be obvious, that she doomed the party and needs to fade away onto obscurity. They cannot believe that she is instead going in the opposite direction, raising her profile even more, giving a hectic round of interviews with all kinds of media outlets and raising the possibility of running for the presidency in 2012. Meanwhile Joe Biden, her counterpart who actually will become the vice-president, is totally ignored.

Palin is not being delusional in her seemingly feeling that she has a real chance of being the party’s future standard bearer. It all depends on whose opinion you think should matter. A poll taken after the election found that 69% of Republican voters think Palin helped McCain, not hurt him. Furthermore,

Ninety-one percent (91%) of Republicans have a favorable view of Palin, including 65% who say their view is Very Favorable. Only eight percent (8%) have an unfavorable view of her, including three percent (3%) Very Unfavorable.

When asked to choose among some of the GOP’s top names for their choice for the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, 64% say Palin. The next closest contenders are two former governors and unsuccessful challengers for the presidential nomination this year — Mike Huckabee of Arkansas with 12% support and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts with 11%.

Given that Palin clearly loves living the high life (her clothes shopping spree is a good clue) and relishes being in the media spotlight, you can be sure that with poll numbers like these within the party, she is not going to disappear into the Alaskan backwoods.

Brace yourself for the new reality series (or soap opera) that is going to last for four years at least: Sarah Palin, Republican sweetheart.

POST SCRIP: Eddie Izzard on Christianity

The future of the Republican Party-3: The social values bloc gets a top spot

There may be a little truth in the belief that culture war issues are losing some of their appeal, and that is a good thing. Looking back, we can see that the Southern strategy based on those culture wars was already losing some steam before the current election. In both the 2000 and 2004 elections the Republicans followed that same path and yet barely hung on to power. The mid-term elections in 2006 saw the Republican party lose its majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1992, and the presidential election year of 2008 saw the further deterioration of their support, resulting in even larger majorities for the Democrats.

But I don’t think the issues around which the Southern strategy was built have disappeared or even largely diminished. What I think has happened is that the balance of power within the Republican party has shifted for two reasons in ways that threatens the coalition that had been created.

One reason has been increased demand for real power from the social issues bloc. The second has been the rise within the Republican Party of a third group that has upset the working arrangement that existed between the old-style conservative Republicans and the social issues voters. This group is the neoconservatives. Although they are not a large voting group, they have grabbed the ideological reins of the party away from the old-style conservatives. The rise in influence of the social values bloc and the neoconservatives has seen a huge diminution in the influence of the old-style conservative group that had always run the Republican party.

As I said earlier, the social issues voters formed the backbone of the Republican party electoral base but they never really controlled the party. If one looks at the Republican presidential tickets from 1968 onwards (Nixon-Agnew, Ford-Dole, Reagan-Bush, Bush-Quayle, Dole-Kemp, Bush-Cheney), none of them emerged from the social values base. All of them said they were religious of course, and they occasionally hobnobbed with the radical clerics such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson of the religious extremist Christianist groups, but they did not give the impression of being true believers. Many of them did not even go to church regularly or, if they did, went to mainstream, middle-of-the-road Christian churches, not the born-again, come-to-Jesus, snake-handling varieties. George W. Bush came the closest to paying at least lip-service to that role but even he does not seem like a true believer.

All of the candidates genuflected at the altar of opposition to abortion but apart from nominating conservative Supreme Court justices, they did not enthusiastically fight for the issues dear to the social issues voters. So after four decades of Republican leadership that ostensibly supported the positions of the cultural issues voters, a woman’s right to choose is still not outlawed (although it has been severely curtailed), flag burning is still legal, gay rights have been steadily increasing, people of color are still immigrating to the US, illegal immigrants are not being detained and kicked out en masse, and the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols are still not allowed in the public square and in schools. One can understand the rising frustration of the social values voters.

It is with this background that we can understand why the choice of Sarah Palin electrified the social issues base of the Republican party. Here, for the very first time, was some who was just like them almost at the very top of their party hierarchy, just the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency.

An interesting feature about the Palin choice is that in its aftermath most media attention focused on the concerns about McCain’s age, and the danger that he might die in office leaving the nation with the novice Palin at the helm. So the ticket’s supporters in the media tried to reassure us that McCain was in very good health, had good genes for longevity (his mother is still alive!), and that he would be a good mentor for Palin and would help her grow quickly into readiness for the job if the need should arise.

But many people in the party’s social values base did not much like McCain. His heart did not seem to be into some of their passions and he seemed to be just the latest in a line of Republican pretenders who said he shared their values but would not really push their agenda once in office. What is less-well known is that his advanced age was seen by them as a good thing because they hoped he would die soon after taking office, leaving Palin in charge.

The enthusiastic crowds who started appearing at the McCain rallies after the Palin choice were her supporters, seeing her as more truly representing their interests than McCain. These people were hoping that soon after his inauguration, McCain would shuffle off his mortal coil and join that Big Maverick in the sky.

Next: Palin’s appeal

POST SCRIPT: Eddie Izzard on James Bond

The future of the Republican Party-1: The Southern strategy

Given the back-to-back defeats of Republicans in 2006 and 2008 that have resulted in the Democrats regaining control of the White House and both houses of Congress, there will be deep re-evaluation within the Republican Party about the direction in which they should go. Such evaluations, accompanied by vicious intra-party warfare, are normal for losing parties, especially if the defeats are big ones.

What made this year a little unusual was that the sniping started even before the election was over. The difference may have been due to the fact that this division was over the role of a person than the usual ones of issues or campaign strategy. Sarah Palin, a relative unknown until a few months ago, seemed to be the flashpoint for the early fighting, the dividing line separating the factions. But rather than focus on Palin the person, an admittedly fascinating topic that the media can’t seem to get enough of, it may be more helpful to look at what she represents.

To see how the Palin phenomenon came about and why the warfare within the Republican Party is so vicious, we need to go back a little in history. Modern Republican politics has had at its core the ‘Southern strategy’. This was developed following the bitter battles for desegregation in the 1950s and the early 1960s, many of them occurring in the South, that led to the golden age of civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places, and employment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited states from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Congress was outlawing the practice in some which southern states were preventing otherwise qualified African-Americans from voting by having them pass literacy tests in order to register to vote.

These laws were seen as direct rebukes to Southern whites and in signing the second piece of legislation, president Lyndon Johnson is reported to have predicted “There goes the South for a generation.” But the effects actually lasted even longer.

Richard Nixon pioneered the Southern strategy that won him the presidency in 1968 and 1972. It basically exploited the resentment of Southern whites against the Democratic-led civil rights legislation to seal Southern support for Republicans. Once they had secured that large bloc of electoral votes, they then used race and religion-based issues as wedges to divide the rest of the country along cultural fault lines to carve out winning majorities in the electoral college by bringing together two large blocs of people.

One bloc consisted of old-style conservative Republicans, the ones who used to be called ‘Rockefeller Republicans’. They consist of people who are pragmatic, technocratic, and managerial in their outlook, and less ideological. They believe in the rule of law, a small but responsible and competent government, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. On economics they favor pro-business, lower-tax, fiscal policies and balanced budgets. On personal matters, they tend to oppose the expansions of social welfare programs and be somewhat libertarian in their outlook and believers in individual freedoms. They tended to be well educated and had a sense of noblesse oblige, that although possessed of a sense of entitlement that they were properly the ruling class, they had a responsibility for the welfare of people not as fortunate as themselves.

Allied with this group was the second bloc, those people for whom social issues were paramount, people for whom issues such as abortion, gays, guns, god, and flag were important. These people were always the rank and file of the party, the ones who existed in large numbers in parts of the country and gave it voting clout but they were never the leaders. They were the infantry and junior officer corps of the army, not the top brass. They were thrown the occasional bone to keep them satisfied and in line, but their main role was to get riled up at election time and come out in large numbers to vote for the Republican party. This was done close to election time by raising issues like flag burning, abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, immigration and border fences, and the Ten Commandments. After the election ended and the furor was over, it was scarcely mentioned that nothing much had actually changed on any of these issues, so that they could be resurrected the next election if needed.

So we saw campaign after campaign fought on issues of abortion, god, gays, guns, patriotism, xenophobia, pitting church-going rural people against the supposedly multicultural, non-patriotic urban populations, and setting less-educated working class urban people against supposedly effete sophisticates. And race was always a subtext.

Next: The Southern strategy takes hold.

POST SCRIPT: How right wing talk radio operates

This is a fascinating article by a former local station news director on how right wing talk radio manages to plug away in a coordinated fashion day after day on selected topics and thus controls the political conversation. (Thanks to Digby.)

These radio hosts exploit and perpetuate the sense of victimhood of their listeners.

To begin with, talk show hosts such as Charlie Sykes – one of the best in the business – are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.

This enemy can be a politician – either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a “RINO” (a “Republican In Name Only,” who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the “mainstream media” – local or national, print or broadcast.
. . .
[T]he key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners.

The audience for these shows is a lot more diverse than is commonly thought.

The stereotyped liberal view of the talk radio audience is that it’s a lot of angry, uneducated white men. In fact, the audience is far more diverse. Many are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, or soccer moms and dads.

These hosts actually do get daily memos about what to talk about and what point of view to take, so that a coordinated message can be promoted.

Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They’re not called talking points, but that’s what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim. But neither used them in their entirety, or every single day.

You really need to read the whole thing to see in detail how the system works.

Election analysis-7: The Obama campaign

While there may not have been much consistency in the McCain camp’s strategy, there was no doubt about Obama’s. Taking advantage of president Bush’s abysmal approval ratings, the Obama campaign steadily plugged away at hanging Bush around McCain’s neck. Bush has the unenviable record of being the most unpopular president in history. People were repeatedly reminded that Bush has been an awful president, who has got the nation stuck in two interminable wars while the economy soured, and that McCain represented a continuation of those policies while Obama represented a new direction.

While other issues have also been raised on the periphery, they have not been contradictory to the main message. Bush has been criticized for his tax cuts for the wealthy and McCain’s present support for those cuts has been used to tie him even more closely to Bush. McCain has been linked to Bush’s policies favoring big corporations. And who among us haven’t heard hundreds of times the repetition of McCain’s own proud statement from earlier days that he voted over 90% with Bush? We have also repeatedly seen the photos of Bush and McCain awkwardly embracing, with McCain in a subservient pose, further solidifying the image of McCain as a Bush acolyte.

McCain’s desperate need to try and remove the Bush albatross from around his neck can be seen in his statement in the last debate that he was not Bush and that if Obama wanted to run against Bush then he should have run in 2004. That was a good line that got appreciative laughter from the audience but it also was a reminder of how successful Obama was in linking McCain to Bush. McCain at one point even tried to argue that it was Obama who would represent a continuation of Bush’s policies, a truly pathetic attempt to separate himself from Bush.

McCain’s attempts to emerge from Bush’s shadow failed.

McCain has not been helped by his association with President Bush, the poll suggests. Fifty-four percent of voters think McCain would continue Mr. Bush’s policies, and the president is extremely unpopular: his approval rating now stands at 20 percent, the lowest ever recorded for a president. His disapproval rating of 72 percent matches his all-time high, first reached last month.

McCain gave the Obama camp some additional openings. By picking Sarah Palin to be his running mate without proper vetting, McCain opened himself up to the charge of being reckless with the nation’s security, lacking good judgment, and being impulsive. By ‘suspending’ his campaign during the financial crisis and even threatening to skip the first debate because of it, he opened himself to the charge of being erratic and incapable of keeping on top of multiple issues, and reinforced the image that he was impulsive.

All these things enabled the Obama campaign to raise questions about whether McCain had the required temperament for the office he was seeking. But unlike the changes in the McCain campaign strategy where new messages sometimes undercut the old, these multiple new charges against McCain could be layered on to the basic idea, without contradicting or distracting voters from the core message that McCain would represent a continuation of Bush’s policies.

The Obama campaign was not perfect. But they were steady. They seemed to have a carefully thought out plan and they stuck with it. Even in the immediate post-Palin period when they lost their lead in the polls, they did not seem to panic but simply rode out that setback.

One could see the organization early on in the primaries where they skillfully pulled out a win in the Iowa caucuses based on sheer organization and grass-roots effort, seriously denting Hillary Clinton’s image as the inevitable candidate. They stumbled badly in New Hampshire but learned enough from that to regroup and forge ahead.

Their success in winning the Democratic nomination was in carefully exploiting the delegate awarding rules for each state that were mostly based not on winner-take-all but on a district-by-district basis. By aiming to win even by a tiny amount all those districts which had an odd number of delegates, and avoiding big-margin defeats in districts that had an even number of delegates, they were able to rack up good delegate counts even when they were losing state voter totals overall.

Once they had the nomination, I think they realized that this was the Democratic Party’s election to lose. Bush and the Republicans were so unpopular, and the two wars and the sour economy were such millstones around that party’s neck, that as long as the Democrats stayed focused and calm did not make a big blunder, they would win. I think that the lack of traction of the Jeremiah Wright issue convinced the Obama camp long before the rest of us (including me) that race was going to be a relatively minor factor.

What was impressive about them was their message discipline. They stuck to their story whether the polls went up or down. In this they were aided by the fact that they kept the media focus on Obama and not on the campaign surrogates, and Obama is a very disciplined speaker. It was telling that even though I follow politics closely, and knew that Obama’s close campaign advisors and managers were David Plouffe and David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, I had never seen them on TV or in YouTube clips until election night and had no idea until then what they even looked like. In contrast, I had seen McCain’s campaign staff repeatedly all over the place.

The more surrogates that you have speaking for you, the more mistakes that get made and mixed messages that get sent and the public gets confused. The McCain campaign was overflowing with surrogates and pseudo-surrogates like Joe the Plumber and Tito the Builder, some of them saying outrageous things that drew attention to themselves rather than to the candidate they were supposed to be promoting.

It was after the selection of Joe Biden that the Democrats started going off-message since some media attention began to be focused on him. My impression of Biden is of a rather shallow man, someone who is not a deep thinker but wants to be thought of as profound and loves the sound of his own voice. Such people are liable to say stupid things in trying to impress audiences and this proved to be the case as he committed some gaffes here and there. But it was too late to help the McCain campaign. Compared to the Palin disaster, Biden, for all his faults, seemed like a brilliant choice.

POST SCRIPT: Mormons and California’s Proposition 8

California’s anti-gay proposition 8 passed due to support from blacks, Republicans, conservatives, and older people and Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons. A lot of the funding for the antigay effort came from the Mormons, even though most of them don’t even live in California.

This has aroused renewed interest in that religion and why they might hate gays so much. This article describes how the Mormon religion arose from the fertile imagination of a person who mixed together three elements that were intriguing the people of his time.