Today is the first day of the Christian season of Lent, a period of voluntary self-denial that is the excuse for the indulgence of Mardi Gras. Last year a credit card processing company traced spending in New Orleans on both Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. They found a spike in the days leading up to the big day (below) and then a crash the day after.
On Valentine’s day last year, my Facebook feed exploded with Pakistani memes that, on the one hand, used Islamic texts to criticize the day as unIslamic and, on the other, poked fun at the religious opposition to the holiday.
When I conducted interviews with Pakistani women in Karachi over the summer, I expected Valentine’s day to be a salient event for my participants. I did find religious resistance to Valentine’s Day. The more religious-minded participants were likely to say things like: “St. Valentine is remembered for fathering illegitimate children, so the day is sinful.”
Less religious women, however, seemed surprised that I even asked about it. “I can’t remember what I did,” they would say, or they would criticize it as “cheesy” or “too commercial.” A few respondents asked: “Why does there have to be one day for love? Every day should be a celebration of love.”
Based on the media, I was expecting a contest between people who embraced Valentine’s Day and people who rejected it, but I only found one side of the debate: the rejection. There didn’t seem to be a large group of women who embraced it. Among those who didn’t outright reject it, I discovered only disinterest.
All this suggests that the push to make Valentine’s Day a thing in Pakistan is more about capitalism and the globalization of Western norms and practices, than it is about a grassroots desire for such a celebration. It is the marketers, mall managers, and restaurant owners that seem most interested in Valentine’s Day. I originally thought of this as a battle between the religious and secular members of the society, but it seems to be, instead, a resistance by some to efforts of companies to find one more way to make money.
Fauzia Husain is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Virginia. She is currently studying globalization through an exploration of Pakistani women’s narratives about love.
Over the past 40 years, Americans have become increasingly likely to deny an affiliation with a religion. The graph below shows that people with “no religious preference” rose from about 5% of the population in 1972 to about 20% today. Overall, however, Americans do not report a corresponding decline in the a belief in God, life after death, or other religious ideas. What’s going on?
Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer — the guys who made the graph above — argue that the retreat from religious affiliation is essentially, a retreat from the political right. Religion has become strongly associated with conservative politics, so left-leaning people are choosing, instead, to identify as “spiritual but not religious.”
Here is some of their evidence. The data below represents the likelihood of rejecting a religious affiliation according to one’s political views. The more politically liberal one is, the more likely they have come to reject religion.
Using fancy statistical analyses, they explain: “generational differences in belief add nothing to explaining the cohort differences in affiliation.” That is, people haven’t lost their faith, they just disagree with religious leaders and institutions. Hout and Fischer conclude:
Once the American public began connecting organized religion to the conservative political agenda — a connection that Republican politicians, abortion activists, and religious leaders all encouraged — many political liberals and moderates who seldom or never attended services quit expressing a religious preference when survey interviewers asked about it.
Democrats have wondered how to break the association of the right with religion and claim a little bit of moral authority for themselves. It looks like they may not need to or, even, that having failed to do so has a surprise advantage.
What do we mean when we say “we”? Or more to the point, what does the president mean when he uses that word?
The Atlantic has an interactive graphic (here) showing the relative frequencies of words in State of the Union addresses. (“Addresses” because I’m choosing my words carefully. These were not “speeches” until Wilson. Before that, it was written text only.) Here “we” is.
The rise of “we” seems to parallel the rise of big government, starting with Wilson and our entry into a world war, followed by a brief (10-year) decline. Then FDR changes everything. “We,” i.e., the people as represented by the government, are doing a lot more.
Sorting the data by frequency shows that even in the big-We era, big-government Democrats use it more than do Republicans. (JFK used We less frequently than did the GOP presidents immediately before and after him. But then, it was JFK who said not to ask what the government could do for us.)
Other words are less puzzling. Freedom is a core American value, but of late (the last five or six presidents), it’s the Republicans who really let it ring.
As with We, Freedom gets a big boost with FDR, but Freedom for Reagan and the Bushes is not exactly FDR’s four freedoms – Freedom of speech, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want, Freedom from fear – especially the last two. Nor is it the kind of freedom LBJ might have spoken of in the civil rights era, a freedom that depended greatly on the actions of the federal government. Instead, for conservatives since Reagan, freedom means the freedom to do what you want, especially to make as much money as you can, unbothered by government rules, and to pay less in taxes.
Freedom in this sense is what Robert Bellah calls “utilitarian individualism.” As the word count shows, freedom was not such a central concern in the first 150 years of the Republic. Perhaps it became a concern for conservatives in recent years because they see it threatened by big government. In any case, for much of our history, that tradition of individualism was, according to Bellah, tempered by another tradition – “civic republicanism,” the assumption that a citizen has an interest not just in individual pursuits but in public issues of the common good as well.
That sense of a public seems to have declined. Even the “collectivist” Democrats of recent years use the term only about one-tenth as much as did the Founding Fathers. Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison – their SOTUs had more than ten publics for every freedom.
I checked one other word because of its relevance to the argument that the U.S. is “a Christian nation,” founded on religious principles by religious people, and that God has always been an essential part of our nation.
The Almighty, at least in State of the Union addresses, is something of a Johnny-come-lately. Like We, He gets a big boost with the advent of big government. FDR out-Godded everybody before or since, except of course, the Bushes and Reagan.
Thank you and God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.
Update: I just noticed that the two “Gods” in that sentence work out to a rate of 200-300 per million. If tag lines like that are included as part of the text, that accounts for the higher rate since FDR. It’s not about big government, it’s about radio. Prior to radio, the audience for the SOTU was Congress. Starting with FDR, the audience was the American people. Unfortunately, I don’t know whether these closing lines, which have now become standard, are included in the database. If they are included, the differences among presidents in the radio-TV era, may be more a matter of the denominator of the rate (length of speeches) than of the numerator (God). FDR averaged about 3500 per SOTU. Reagan and the Bushes are in the 4000-6000 range. Clinton and Obama average about 7000. So it’s possible that the difference that looks large on the graph is merely the difference between a single God-bless closing and a double.
We cannot accept that a German Christmas tree has anything to do with a crib in a manger in Bethlehem. It is inconceivable for us that Christmas and all its deep soulful content is the product of an oriental religion.
But Germans were largely Christian, so getting rid of Christmas was going to be tricky. So Hitler turned it into a celebration of the Third Reich. According to John Brownlee, they re-wrote Christmas carols to extol the virtues of National Socialism. Mentions of Jesus were replaced with “Savior Führer.” Since they well understood that Santa wasn’t white, they re-cast the character; he was played by the pagan god Odin. And they changed the ornaments and placed swastikas atop Christmas trees.
To begin, it wasn’t just a toy. It debuted in 1890 and it was the next in a long line of devices that had been invented to allow people to communicate with spirits. These weren’t intended to be pretend; they were deadly serious.
According to Lisa Hix, who wrote a lengthy history of such devices for Collector’s Weekly, the mid-1800s was the beginning of the spiritualist movement. People had long believed in spirits, but two sisters by the name of Fox made the claim that they could communicate with them. This was new. There were no longer just spirits; now there were spiritualists.
Mediums sprang up overnight as word spread. Suddenly, there were mediums everywhere.
At first, spiritualists would communicate with spirits by asking questions and receiving, in return, a series of knocks or raps. They called it “spirit rapping.” There was a rap for yes and a rap for no and soon they started calling out the alphabet, allowing them to spell out words
Eventually they sought out more sophisticated ways to have conversations. Enter, the planchette. This was a small wooden egg-shaped device with two wheels and a hole in which to place a pencil. Participants would all place their fingers on the planchette and the spirit would presumably guide their movements, writing text.
These were religious tools used with serious intentions. Entrepreneurs, however, saw things differently. They began marketing them as games and they were a huge hit.
Mediums resented this, so they kept innovating new and more legitimate-seeming ways of communicating. In addition, the planchette scribbles were often difficult to read. The idea of using an actual alphabet emerged and various devices were invented to allow spirits to point directly to letters and other answers.
Eventually, the concept of the planchette merged with the alphabet board and what we now know as the Ouija board was invented.
In the 1920s, mediums came under attack from people determined to prove that they were liars. Houdini is the most famous of the anti-spiritualists and Hodge argues that he “ravaged spiritualism.”
He set up little “colleges” in cities like in Chicago for cops to attend to learn how to bust up séances, and there was a concerted national effort to stamp out fraud.
The Spiritualist believers never successfully cohesively banded together, because they were torn asunder by their own internal arguments about spirit materialization.
Most mediums ended up humiliated and penniless.
“But the Ouija,” Hodge says, “just came along at the right time.” It was a hit with laypeople, surviving the attacks against spiritualists. And, so, the Ouija board is one of the only widely-recognized artifacts of this time.
Four years ago, twenty-three economists (mostly conservative) signed a letter to Ben Bernanke warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy – adding billions of dollars to the economy – would be disastrous. It would “debase the currency,” create high inflation, distort financial markets, and do nothing to reduce unemployment.
Four years later, it’s clear that they were wrong (as Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us). Have they changed their beliefs?
Of course not.
Bloomberg asked the letter-signers what they now thought about their prophecy. Here’s the headline: “Fed Critics Say ’10 Letter Warning Inflation Still Right.”
This despite the actual low inflation:
I don’t know why I assume that high-level economists would be more likely than some ordinary people to change their ideas to adjust for new facts. Fifty years ago, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed that even in areas like chemistry and physics, scientists cling to their paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts. Why should big-shot economists be any different? It also occurs to me that it’s the most eminent in a profession who will be more resistant to change. After all, it’s the people at the top who have the greatest amount invested in their ideas – publications, reputations, consultantships, and of course ego. Economists call these “sunk costs.”
So how do they maintain their beliefs?
Most of the 23 declined to comment; a few could not be reached (including Ronald McKinnon, who died the previous day). Of those who responded, only one, Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, came close to saying, “My prediciton was wrong.”
“All of us, I think, who signed the letter have never seen anything like what’s happened here.”
Most of the others preferred denial:
“The letter was correct as stated.” (David Malpass. He worked in Treasury under Reagan and Bush I)
“The letter mentioned several things… and all have happened.” (John Taylor, Stanford)
“I think there’s plenty of inflation — not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.” (Jim Grant of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” Kinda makes you wonder how closely he’s been observing interest rates.)
Then there was equivocation. After Thursday night’s debacle – Giants 8, Pirates 0, knocking Pittsburgh out of the playoffs– someone reminded me, “Hey, didn’t you tell me that the Pirates would win the World Series?”
“Yes, but I didn’t say when.”
Some of the letter-signers used this same tactic, and just about as convincingly.
“Note that word ‘risk.’ And note the absence of a date.” (Niall Ferguson, Harvard)
“Inflation could come…” (Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation)
The 1954 sociology classic When Prophecy Fails describes group built around a prediction that the world would soon be destroyed and that they, the believers, would be saved by flying saucers from outer space. When it didn’t happen, they too faced the problem of cognitive dissonance – dissonance between belief and fact. But because they had been very specific about what would happen and when it would happen, they could not very well use the denial and equivocation favored by the economists. Instead, they first by claimed that what had averted the disaster was their own faith. By meeting and planning and believing so strongly in their extraterrestrial rescuers, they had literally saved the world. The economists, by contrast, could not claim that their warnings saved us from inflation, for their warning – their predictions and prescriptions – had been ignored by Fed. So instead they argue that there actually is, or will be, serious inflation.
The other tactic that the millenarian group seized on was to start proselytizing – trying to convert others and to bring new members into the fold. For the conservative economists, this tactic is practically a given, but it is not necessarily a change. They had already been spreading their faith, as professors and as advisors (to policy makers, political candidates, wealthy investors, et al.). They haven’t necessarily redoubled their efforts, but the evidence has not given them pause. They continue to publish their unreconstructed views to as wide an audience as possible.
That’s the curious thing about cognitive dissonance. The goal is to reduce the dissonance, and it really doesn’t matter how. Of course, you could change your ideas, but letting go of long and deeply held ideas when the facts no longer co-operate is difficult. Apparently it’s easier to change the facts (by denial, equivocation, etc.). Or, equally effective in reducing the dissonance, you can convince others that you are right. That validation is just as effective as a friendly set of facts, especially if it comes from powerful and important people and comes with rewards both social and financial.