Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mormon Wars: Internet Porn, Gay Marriage, and Women Priests

Now is not the first time the Mormon Church has battled internal dissent, but this is gearing up to be a proper religious schism.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (hereafter, LDS or Mormon) Church just held their 184th annual General Conference two weekends ago.  I wasn't at the Salt Lake City event, nor did I watch the 10-hour marathon on TV or the internet, but I heard it was a doozy.

In the midst of a ten-hour General Conference (an annual event where the LDS leadership broadcasts divine guidance to the fifteen million-odd Mormon global community), the octogenarian leadership warned against the "scourge of pornography" and exhorted its faithful to "defend their beliefs," which include the conviction that "marriage is between man and woman." 

Also at the General Conference, hundreds of Mormon women demanding the ordination of women tried to gain entrance to the (male-only) Priesthood Session.

Three factors are converging to create a perfect storm for the Mormon Church: (1) the wider American society is becoming more progressive at a very fast clip, (2) younger Mormons (like younger people in general) tend to be significantly more progressive than their elders, and (3), the very DNA of theChurch is patriarchy, heteronormativity, and traditional gender roles.  Indeed, the day-to-day functioning of the Church is based on unquestioning belief in, and obedience to, divine revelations generated by a hierarchy of (seriously elderly) male "elders."

For these or other reasons, the Church has encountered a crisis in its membership, particularly young people.  This is one of the reasons that the Church recently lowered its missionary age from 19 to 18 for men--to get more missionaries in the field.  Although the Church claims 15 million members around the world, only half of all Mormons are active churchgoers in the U.S. and only one-quarter of members outside of the U.S., meaning that the active Mormon community may be only 5 million strong.

The church leadership is clearly scared to death of these trends, as gay marriage is rapidly becoming normalized, women are beginning to demand that they also be given priesthood authority (currently reserved for Mormon men), and Church dictates on sexuality in general (as well as injunctions against alcohol, tobacco, R-rated movies, and so on) are increasingly seen as suggestions from the (lay) Mormon clergy rather than divine revelation from God.

In a previous blogpost, I explained that the Mormon Church, which lobbied powerfully against the legalization of gay marriage in many states in the 2000s and mobilized against the Equal Rights Amendment for women back in the 1970s, entered the political arena on these two issues not so much because they want to dictate the social behavior of non-Mormons, but to ensure that their own beliefs were not wildly out of step with that of the wider society.  This is because Mormons are both highly differentiated from general society, but also highly integrated into its institutions.  After all, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and the current Senate Majority Leader are both devout Mormons.

These fights are fights for the life of the Church, as many younger Mormons in America have become inactive in the Church, and the growth in the Church has shifted away from the affluent (deeply-pocketed) West to the Global South.

The leadership has largely retrenched from overt political battles and is now focused on urging its flock to reject changing societal norms. "In the world, but not of it" is their guiding mantra.

Already back in 1993, Elder Boyd K. Packer (the archconservative current President of the Twelve Apostles and next in line for church presidency) declared that three dangers were influencing the Church faithful to "disobey" Mormon elders because they seem so "reasonable and right":

"The dangers I speak of come from the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars and intellectuals."

They are now engaged in a ferocious battle for the hearts and minds of the Mormon faithful.

Rearguard Battle #1: Internet Porn (aka Masturbation)

Let's take the LDS war on internet porn.  This is really a retread of the earlier LDS war on masturbation (once called "self-inflicted purging," this is still considered a serious sin by the Mormon Church, and admitting to it might prevent you from getting a temple recommend from your bishop should he choose to ask you about it).  

 A previous Mormon Prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, famously railed against masturbation (Miracle of Forgiveness, 78):  

"[Masturbation] too often leads to grievous sin, even to that sin against nature, homosexuality.  For, done in private, it evolves often into mutual masturbation--practiced with another person of the same sex--and thence into total homosexuality."

True, this was decades ago. No Mormon leader today would suggest that masturbation might lead to homosexuality, any more than it would lead to insanity. This is because Americans today generally believe that masturbation is normal, if not healthy.  And many in the Mormon community increasingly agree with this position.  Thus, references to masturbation have quietly been expunged from official literature; a Church handbook instead exhorts the youth to

"never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression. Treat others with respect, not as objects used to satisfy lustful and selfish desires before marriage, do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person's body, with or without clothing. Do not do anything else what arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body [emphasis mine]."

No explicit references to masturbation here, although the implication is clear.  Similarly, Mormon bishops (the equivalent of Protestant pastors or Catholic priests) routinely ask members of the Church, including children, whether they "follow the law of chastity." They may or may not enquire more specifically about their behavior, but Mormon faithful are increasingly creeped out by the idea of an adult male clergyman interrogating their children in private about their sexual activities.

The Church therefore turned its attention to pornography rather than masturbation, and even more recently, internet porn.  The reason is clear: this is a much more socially acceptable battle for the Mormon Church to wage.

The rebranding has been awkward at best. Earlier in the year, a video (that later went viral) by Student Services of Brigham Young University, Idaho (a Mormon university) used dramatized war scenes to hilariously suggest that confronting your roommate who watches internet porn amounts to leaving your wounded war buddy on the battlefield.  This must-see video is demented beyond belief.

Rearguard Battle #2: Gay Marriage

Meanwhile, the Mormon position on gay marriage has gone subterranean.  In the past few years, the Church has more-or-less abandoned overt efforts to oppose gay marriage after the considerable blow-back they received after funding the Proposition 8 movement to outlaw gay marriage in California in 2008; many pro-gay marriage activists picketed the Mormon Church, and many also called for the IRS to review the Church's tax-exempt status.  

The Church has largely given up the fight against legalization of gay marriage, and are now circling the wagons with the Mormon faithful to ensure that none of them think this is okay. In the previous (semi-annual) General Conference last October, Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks stated that human laws "cannot make moral what God has declared immoral."

The theme was repeated in this April's Conference, Apostle Neil L. Andersen stated (starting at 4:50) "While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the designated the purpose of marriage to go far beyond the personal satisfaction and fulfilment of adult to more importantly, advancing the ideal setting for children to be born, reared and nurtured." The video even shows how the Apostle used social media to argue his point against pro-gay marriage Mormon youth.  

(As an aside, such insubordination would never have been tolerated by a previous generation of Mormon leaders; offenders are likely to have been intimidated into silence, disfellowshipped or worse.)

The message: It does not matter what American laws say.  American laws are not God's laws.  And American values (where they deviate from God's laws) are not LDS values.

That does not mean the Church is not worried about American laws and values.  They understand that Mormon doctrine can deviate from wider social norms, but not too much.  They have therefore sought to craft a stance along the lines of "hate the sin, but love the sinner."  The result is a bizarrely convoluted position that (1) God *may* have given people "same-sex attraction," but (2) these things can change (either in this life or in the next), but (3) reparative therapy probably should not be tried (anymore), and so (4) gay people are to be accepted in the Church, but (5) they may not act on their gay impulses and must remain life-long celibates, unless (6) they marry an opposite sex partner (“mixed-orientation marriages”), but (7) only if they want to.

Some of these contradictory positions are represented on their new website. Despite their halting liberalization regarding the gay community, the Church has steadfastly proclaimed their absolute and unyielding opposition to gay marriage in the Church.  

Rearguard Action #3 The Fight over Women Priests

Finally, the Church is now being confronted by Ordain Women, a small but persistent movement of (mostly women) Mormon feminists, who insist that women be ordained to the priesthood.  This is a seriously no-go issue for the Church leadership (along with most of the membership), along the same lines as extending temple marriage to gay couples.   This is because the Mormon faith is based on strict adherence to patriarchal authority extending from the "First Presidency" (the Prophet and Two Counsellors), to the all-male "Quorum of the Twelve Apostles" to the all-male "Quorums of Seventies" to the all-male "Stake Presidencies" and "Ward Bishoprics."  Women leaders in the church are given positions over other women and girls, or welfare or music or family services--but do not have general leadership roles.  Patriarchal authority exists at family level as well, with the husband and father having the priesthood to preside over the family, give his wife and children blessings from God and even to heal the sick.  Boys as old as 12 are given a juvenile version of this priesthood authority.  

The patriarchal order is taken-for-granted in the Church, it is its DNA.  But a group of women are now trying to challenge this order for the past two conferences, last October and this April.  It could be the beginning of something new, but it may be decades before such a change is really made.

It is not inconceivable that women may eventually gain the priesthood in the Mormon Church.  It is a fascinating thought experiment, and possibly inevitable in the long run.  The problem (apart from the near-or-actual schism it might create) is that a Church that responds to its base begins to look a bit too democratic, a bit too voluntaristic.  It begins to lose its aura of divine guidance.  We may already know what such a Church might look like, for the the only surviving significant offshoot of the Mormon Church (founded by the son of the First Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., following his death) extended the priesthood to women already in 1984; women are now in top leadership positions.  In 2001, they changed their name to the Community of Christ, and last year extended the “sacrament of marriage” to include same-sex couples, allowing openly gay members to serve in the clergy.  These changes have led to multiple additional schisms and offshoots, with the core of the Church limping along at a quarter million members.

The Mormon Church really is between a rock and a hard place.  They can liberalize in order to stay relevant to its membership, but face schisms and outright defections by conservative adherents (the Reorganized Church model).  Or they could keep their conservative positions and possibly their adherents, but suffer increasingly inactivity by its members (the Catholic Church model).  

In truth, there are no good options.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Yellow Star Houses and the Budapest Holocaust

Seventy years ago, in June 1944, the Hungarian government began to segregate its Jewish population in preparation for Hungary's version of the Final Solution.

The Open Society Archives (OSA) in Budapest has created a map of Budapest that shows the location and addresses of each "yellow star" house, so designated in 1944.  They stretch out across Pest, but are concentrated in the historically Jewish areas of the seventh district (location of the world's second largest synagogue) and the thirteenth district, which lies along the Danube above the parliament--another historic Jewish area.

You can go to the website and search by address or browse the map to see which houses were designated "yellow star."  One of my friends discovered that her flat is in one of these buildings, as is the flat I recently vacated on the corner of Wesselényi and Nagydiófa, in the heart of the (still today) Jewish district. The image of a yellow star affixed to one of the approximately 1,948 apartment buildings in Budapest that were designated Jewish dwellings.  Starting on June 24, 1944, Budapest's entire Jewish population of nearly 250,000 was forced into these houses in the space of 8 days.

Hungary has a long history of anti-Semitism, which has ebbed and flowed over time.  At the end of World War I, thousands of Jews were killed in a wave of anti-Semitic progroms known as the White Terror.  In 1920, Hungary introduced the so-called "numerus clausus" laws that restricted the percentage of Jewish students in the university to five percent.  The situation became somewhat better under the 1920s Betlen government, although the effects of the laws were not entirely erased.  Still, the status of Jews in interwar Hungary were relatively good by regional standards.  Hungary's version of the Nürnberg Laws laws came rather late.  The government began to restrict the numbers of Jews in government, industry and universities in 1938, eventually prohibiting intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in 1941.

The relative lack of open attacks against Jews stood in stark contrast to general anti-Semistism in society, which bubbled just below the surface.  Hungary's Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, openly declared himself an anti-Semite, claiming,

"As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews. I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad."

Indeed, many Hungarian Jews (particularly in Budapest, if not in the countryside) were highly successful, not to mention numerous and well-integrated into Hungarian society.  At the turn of the twentieth century, 25 percent of the city's population was Jewish; they also made up 80-90 percent of the stock exchange and currency brokers and boasted between 50 and 90 percent control of industries.  They were also highly assimilated--they had Hungarian names, intermarried with non-Jews, and (on the whole) were not particularly observant--some had even converted to Christianity.

Their wealth and connections of many Budapest Jews actually protected them from the fate that had already befallen Hungarian Jews in the countryside.  The ghettoization and ultimate deportations of Jews in the countryside took place in the spring and early summer of 1944 when Nazi forces finally invaded the country; it wasn't until the fall of 1944 that the Jews of Budapest were ultimately ghettoized in preparation for deportation to concentration camps.

Horthy, although allied with Nazi Germany, had resisted orders to deport Budapest Jews to concentration camps (although he failed to protect countryside Jews from a similar fate).  Plans to eliminate the Jews of Budapest escalated when German forces entered Hungary in March 1944.  In a series of negotiations with German authorities, and partly in reaction to negative international publicity, the Horthy government prevented mass deportations of Jews from Budapest in July.  It was not until late 1944 that the Jewish population of Budapest was finally ghettoized--in contrast to other European capitals.  In October, Horthy resigned, and Ferenc Szálasi of the Arrow Cross Party assumed leadership of the country; at this point, plans to round up the city's Jewish population began in earnest.

Tim Cole writes about the removal of Jews to the ghetto as fulfilling the twin goals of "Jewish absence" (in areas that would become 100 percent non-Jew) as well as "Jewish presence" (in ghettos where Jews could be managed and contained--and, ultimately, eliminated--through a form of spatialized control).

It is clear that class helped many of the (wealthier) Budapest Jews escape the fate that would befall a much greater proportion of Hungarian Jews living outside Budapest and the poorer Jews who lived in Budapest.  Without the means to buy their escape or concealment (which Tivader Soros--father of George Soros--had acquired for his family, which managed to pass for non-Jews in Budapest throughout the tense final months of the war), the countryside Hungarians were depopulated at a rate approaching 90 percent (as opposed to Budapest Jews, who were depopulated at a rate closer to 50 percent).

In the fall of 1944, the Jewish ghettos were finally created.  In the process, the group was divided into "protected" Jews (those who had the support of neutral countries or other actors that had managed to procure passports and other documents for them) and "non-protected" Jews.  There were further divisions into "Christian Jews" (those who had converted prior to 1941, in addition to other restrictions) versus non-convert Jews, and foreign Jews versus non-foreign Jews. The original idea was to segregate all populations, but the biggest divide emerged between the "protected Jews" who were placed in the International Ghetto (in what is now the 13th district in the fashionable Jewish middle class area on the Pest side) and the Jewish Ghetto of the seventh district, the other historically Jewish area.  The occupants of the International Ghetto were slated for safe passage to neutral countries (with the help of certain diplomats, organizations and foreign governments), while those of the Jewish Ghetto were were slated for death.

In late 1944, the non-Jews and non-protected Jews of the International District were removed to make way for the protected Jews.  The non-protected Jews, in turn, were sent on death marches to the Austrian border or the ill-fated Jewish Ghetto of the seventh district.  In the struggle to save the Jews of Budapest, a veritable battle was waged between good and evil.

On the side of good, Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat working through the U.S. government, had been enlisted to go to Budapest as a cultural attache of the Swedish embassy--tasked with saving as many Jews as he could.  He and others gave special passports to as many Jews as possible and is widely credited with having prevented the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews.

On the side of evil was Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi functionary charged with orchestrating the deportations of millions of Jews around Europe to the death camps.  He had also decamped to Budapest to facilitate the Final Solution at the tail end of the war.  Eichmann survived the war, but was ultimately captured in Argentina by the Mossad and tried and executed in Israel in 1962 for his Nazi crimes.

In mid-1944, the protected Jews (somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000 Jews were moved into the International Ghetto).  These kinds of swaps also occurred in the Jewish Ghetto.  Here, the non-Jews were moved out of yellow star and non-yellow star houses alike--and into yellow star houses in other parts of the city.  Meanwhile, the houses of the Jewish Ghetto became 100 percent yellow star houses, with Jews moved into every apartment, making up nearly 6 people per room.  The photo below is of Jewish women being rounded up on Wesselényi street in October 1944.

In December, the Jewish Ghetto was sealed off.  There were four gates--one at either end of Wesselényi street and one at either end of Nagydiófa and Kisdiófa street.  To get into the ghetto as a non-Jew, you needed a blue pass; to get out of the ghetto as a Jew you needed a green pass.  No food was let in, leading to widespread starvation and malnourishment. No waste was collected, the dead lay piled in the streets and busted storefronts.  Diseases spread through the Ghetto, leading to further deaths.

Mass executions began in late 1944, with the population of the ghetto reduced from around 200,000 to around 70,000 when it was finally liberated by the Soviets.  Many were rounded up and shot. Others were taken to the banks of the Danube River, where they were lined up, tied together and every third person shot--falling into the river and dragging the others with them.  This was done to save bullets.  They were also forced to take off their shoes before the executions, as shoes were expensive.  The monument below immortalizes the horror:

Adolf Eichmann, charged with the logistics of effecting the Final Solution across Europe, came to Hungary to help supervise the process, at one point sending 10,000 to 12,000 Jews to their deaths every day.  Nor were Hitler's henchmen acting alone; the Arrow Cross government were enthusiastic collaborators--there are accounts that the Hungarian gendarmes were highly motivated exterminators.

As the Soviet Army approached Budapest in 1945, German forces together with the Szálasi government planned a massacre of the remaining Jews in the Ghetto.  Wallenberg found out about it through a connection in the government and convinced the German general in charge that he would personally ensure that the general would be hanged as a war criminal were it carried out.  The general, recognizing an imminent Allied victory (and fearing for his own skin), ultimately called off the massacre.  With this action, Wallenberg saved literally tens of thousands of lives.

Wallenberg remained in Budapest as the Soviets approached, thinking to negotiate a good postwar peace for the residents.  He scrambled to learn a few phrases in Russian in order to communicate with the Red Army commanders.  Unfortunately, he was instead captured and imprisoned by the Soviets after they arrived in Budapest.   His fate is still unknown, but is believed to have perished in a Soviet gulag.

The story of the yellow star houses is remarkable for many things.  For the rapidity a minority went from a comfortable existence to being marked for segregation and ultimately death. For the calculating brutality of those who carried it out.  For the fact that the process was speeded up, even as it became clear that the perpetrators would likely to be held responsible for heinous war crimes.  One wonders at what point (and which) Jewish residents of Budapest began to comprehend the hopelessness of their situation.  Today's Jewish district of Budapest is forever marked by this geography of violence.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Princess Palace Update -- We are Getting There!

Dear readers: the flat renovations are nearing completion (knock on wood)!  The pictures below are from mid-December to last Friday.  As you can see, the place is shaping up nicely.  We (and by we, I mean me) are very happy! Several brick walls are now exposed in the living room, kitchen and bedroom.

The brick walls look amazing (pictured below prior to fixing and polishing).


View of the living room from the bedroom.

The bathroom is obviously still in a primitive state.  Yet to be constructed: a built-in shower, a built-in reclaimed cast iron tub, and reclaimed sink (see below). Plus the paint and tile... Also, it later turned out that the window below was rotted on the outside, so it could not be saved, sad to say...

The view from the bedroom into the kitchen/dining area (the brick holding wall newly exposed).

View of bedroom into the bathroom; the idea was a modified open plan for the apartment overall, plus sliding door for the bathroom.

This is Levi, the housepainter (and dystopian artist!), enjoying an espresso during break.  He will be painting the regular walls and fixing the brick walls...


Now to the sink...a couple weeks ago, I told my architect and main contractor that I wanted the bathroom sink built out of a reclaimed antique dresser, in a rustic shabby chic style.  So last Saturday, Gabor (the contractor) took me, Levi (above), and friends, Karl and Deniz to the Esceri market, one of the biggest flea markets in Central Europe, to find an antique dresser with which to fashion a bathroom sink.  Most of what we found was NOT an awesome antique dresser. Selected items on offer are pictured below:


Random racist knick-knack.

Military swag.

Ram's head for the breakfast nook?

Deniz and I enjoying the market (but also freezing, it was COLD).

Tada!! The antique dresser (soon to be reclaimed bathroom sink), for which I paid 175 USD. The trim will be reworked by a carpenter and a sink basin built into the top :)

More very soon...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why the GOP "Can’t Quit" its Nativist White Base

In 1987, in the run-up to U.S. presidential elections, the New York Times ran an article entitled “GOP Ponders an Appeal to Minorities” that began thusly:

“WHEN Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, stared down at an audience of young Republicans the other day, he was struck not so much by what he saw as what he did not. ''I'd like to see 50 wheelchairs in this audience,'' he said, ''I'd like to see 50 black faces, 50 Hispanics, 50 Asian-Americans.'' The problem with the Republicans, he said, is that ''we're sort of a hard-hearted party, the upper crust.

“Representative Jack Kemp, who is also running for the Republican Presidential nomination, has made the opening up of the party to members of minority groups something of a private crusade. Vice President Bush has signed on blacks both in the Vice Presidential office and in his Presidential campaign.”

Twenty-five years later not much has changed. At a time when the United States has become ever more racially and ethnically diverse, the Republican voting bloc is nearly as white today (89 percent in the 2012 elections) as it was when it captured the southern Dixiecrat vote decades ago (96 percent in the 1972 elections).  Meanwhile, Republican leaders have continually bemoaned its overwhelmingly white base.

Cue today's Republican hand-wringing. Says Colin Powell:

“[H]ere’s what I say to my Republican friends: the country is becoming more diverse…you say you want to reach out, you say you want to see if you can bring some of these voters to the Republican side. This is not the way to do it.”

Powell is far from the only Republican pol who has read the electoral tea leaves and forecast a grim future for the GOP.  After Romney's 2012 loss, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the GOP was "not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal likewise warned that Republicans must stop "being the stupid party.”

Okay, so…change the message, right?  Use more inclusive language to “Bring in some of these voters to the Republican side.” The Republican Party "autopsy" report noted that the GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections:

 "We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities. But it is not just tone that counts. Policy always matters."

The problem is that non-whites are not really buying what the GOP is selling.  The GOP is also losing their support among seniors, and it turns out that minorities may be no more socially conservative than the population as a whole (and do not vote on gay rights or abortion anyway).  

The more fundamental problem is that today's Republican base is (almost uniformly) white social conservatives.  As Donald Rumsfeld put it during the Iraq War, you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want.  The folksy late columnist Molly Ivins put it like this: “you got to dance with them what brung you.” The upshot is that the GOP is terrified of losing its dedicated white conservative base in a possibly vain effort to appeal to non-traditional GOP voters.

Possibly inadvertently, Republicans have struck a multi-generational contract with an army of socially conservative (increasingly southern and/or rural) white Christians who are deeply suspicious of the “plantation mentality” of African Americans.  Who believe that Mexicans are taking away the jobs of native-born whites. Who distrust or despise liberals, intellectuals, artists, feminists and foreigners.

Truth is: the current denizens of the GOP tent don’t much care for creating a bigger tent—and this is as much true today as it was twenty-five years ago.  The 1987 article reckoned that the GOP might (already then) be running up against the “limits of conversion,” which was the very real fear that it was fearful that “too overt an appeal to blacks would endanger gains among whites.” Better a bird in the hand than two in the bush, as they say...

This is why the vaunted (and often mocked) Republican “outreach” to minorities, youth, students, and women is probably just hot air.  Today, as decades ago, the GOP’s Achilles Heel is its reliance on a single demographic group (Southern and/or rural white conservatives), who will only countenance outreach on their terms.   Said Kim Messick:

Because of [the GOP’s] demographic weakness, it is more beholden than ever to the intensity of its most extreme voters. This has engendered a death spiral in which it must take increasingly radical positions to drive these voters to the polls, positions that in turn alienate ever larger segments of the population, making these core voters even more crucial — and so on. We have a name these days for the electoral residue produced by this series of increasingly rigorous purifications. We call it “the Tea Party.”

In fact, many Republican voters believe the problem is their leaders are not conservative enough.  A New York Time blog cited a recent Pew poll suggesting that a majority (54 percent) of self-identified Republicans believe that the party needs to become more conservative and more inflexible in Congress; only 41 percent felt they needed to be more moderate.  Any movement to capture the median American voter is doomed to failure if the GOP still aims (as it must in order to win primary elections) to maintain the support of their (largely deluded) base. 

Despite proclamations by Jindal, Priebus and others that the GOP had learned its electoral lessons and was learning to reach out to minority communities, these efforts do not resonate with the Republican base.

On immigration, 74 percent of GOP voters feel the party’s position is “about right” or should be “more conservative”; only 17 percent believe the GOP leadership should be more “moderate” on immigration (meaning that they should make sure that the path to citizenship for undocumented workers is not too accessible).   

 What does this add up to?  Basically, today's Republican Party has poor chances at the national level, at least for the next few electoral cycles.  Their dilemma is clear to anyone who cares to look.  The GOP voting base is so homogenous that it is easy for firebombers to hijack local or primary GOP elections--dooming the election chances of anyone who has a half-way reasonable shot at attracting majority vote at the national level.  For years, the most important opinion leaders on the Republican side--Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and the denizens at Fox News--have been singularly focused on nursing their viewers' primal rage over Democrats, secularists, feminists, and the like.  There is very little like "outreach" going on in the conservative media.
For these reasons, the GOP has assumed a largely neo-confederate approach to governance: obstructionism at the national level, policy transformation at the local level.  A few geographical snapshots illustrate the point: Republican legislatures and governors have gone to town on abortion clinics in the past few years--using numerous legislative tactics to restrict womens' access to reproductive rights.  

They have also implemented legislation to make voting more difficult (aimed at poor people, seniors, minorities, immigrants, students...who are disproportionately Democratic).  

Of course, the GOP is nothing if not massively pro-business, and have restricted the rights of workers to unionize in numerous (mostly Republican) states under so-called right-to-work laws, which incur an average "wage penalty" of 6.5 percent for workers in those states.  This is because RTW laws weaken unions' leverage in collective bargaining over wages and benefits. 

At the national level, the GOP does appear to be in a death spiral.  Perhaps death comes before rebirth.  In the meantime, the GOP focuses its energies on creating pro-business, social conservative havens at the state level.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Princess Palace Update -- Post-Apocalyptic Bunker Stage

There is news on the flat renovation front,  dear readers.  After a lengthy bidding process, I finally settled on a team that agreed to renovate my 1940s Bauhaus flat in the palace quarter of downtown Budapest (inner eighth district).  The price is a very reasonable 7.7 million Hungarian forints (nearly $35,000).  It is a full renovation, including a completely new floor (with concrete foundation and solid oak Swedish floors), underfloor heating in the bathroom, a custom-made shower, completely new heating, plumbing, and electricity systems, refinished and painted walls, a wardrobe (without shelves), bathroom floor tiles, sliding inner doors, a new bathroom wall and an enlarged bedroom door, three new windows, new French doors that open onto the terrace (replacing the entrance doors), and a new entrance door (which will replace a window).

Not included in the price is the kitchen, a bathroom sink and built-in tub (which will be custom-made from reclaimed materials), shelves throughout the flat, electricity sockets, taps, and additional carpentry and furniture.  

Under the contract, the team (hailing from Transylvania) have two months to finish with penalties for late completion.

Less than two weeks after signing the contract, I checked up on the place with my architect, Szabi, who admitted that he was "very impressed" with their progress; they are nearly done with debris removal and removing old floors, and have stripped the walls (including the holding wall that runs down the center of the flat, which will be exposed brick--see below).

If all goes as planned, I should be able to move in in early January once the kitchen and sink is installed and I get some basic appliances and furniture.

Needless to say, it looks like some horrific WWII bunker or post-nuclear holocaust fallout shelter.

(to prove my point about the WWII bunker thing, I've stashed a pic of a WWII bunker below--can you tell which one it is?) 


Kitchen/dining area...

Bathroom area...

Exposed brick wall in the kitchen area (pre-sanded)...

The bedroom (below) with salvaged cast iron tub that will go in the bathroom.  That black stuff on the floor is iron-ore slag--which they apparently used for insulation in some of these older buildings.

Szabi, my architect, on the far right and Gabor (the head of the reconstruction team).

From the living room looking into kitchen/dining area.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Reflect on Your Life...and Be Satisfied

...Reflect on your Life
Time isn't Real
How Much Time Can you Kill?...

I promise this blogpost isn't going to be corny (okay, not too much).  It isn't even about stuff that happened to me this summer and the cheesy lessons I learned from it (cf., my last post).  Instead, it is about things I learned (which just so happened to be during the summer) second-hand through the interwebs.

The topic: the science of happiness.

It turns out that researchers know a great deal about what doesn't make us happy, including money (at least above the magical 75K/year that basically protects you from the misery and uncertainty of poverty, but see here), lots of possessions, life achievements or other objective measures of success and status (although it turns out that movie stars who win academy awards (or scientists who win Nobel prizes) live longer than those who were simply nominated, so there may be some psychological payoff to professional recognition).

There is also much that researchers know about what does make us happy.  There is, first of all, the unsettling fact that some people are simply born happier than others; so yeah, there is a genetic component to all of it that you can't do a goddamn thing about.  There is also social contactmarriage (although this works better for men than women), as well as pets.

Then there is the biochemical component, which is also to a great degree biologically determined.  However, this turns out to be something you can do something about through the use of drugs (namely, SSRIs, as well as certain supplements) that can increase the amount of serotonin (happy brain chemicals) that sticks around in your neural synapses and gives you a nice biochemical boost. (Coffee and other stimulants, plus sunshine and a range of other things also make people, especially women, somewhat less prone to depression.)

The good news is that there are things you can do to change biological destiny short of drugs--things that can actually change your brain nonetheless.  Turns out that how good we feel has much to do with how we reflect on our lives from one moment to the next.  

This is the essence of cognitive therapy, which I read about in a recent issue of the Stanford alumni magazine (my mom keeps these around for me to read whenever I visit).  I learned that a psychologist, a Stanford alumnus, had discovered through decades of practice that actively monitoring and logically countering the unrealistic negative automatic thoughts that we have on a daily basis was actually more effective than drugs in helping people with mild to even the most severe depression.  And it helped people immediately.  His book is literally a classic in the self-help genre:  Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, just fyi.

What the book comes down to is deliberately, painstakingly recalibrating one's processing of daily experiences so that our interpretations of events has a (1) neutral, (2) realistic, and/or (3) positive spin.  Further, this recalibration is continuous until it becomes automatic.  At its core, the book suggests that we should be calmer about everything.  It also suggests we should be grateful, focus our energy outward, and not act like an entitled jerk.

It was easy to recall stories of extremely happy people with a habit of doing this.

One was featured in a recent episode of This American Life, a syndicated National Public Radio show.  The person in question, Emir Kamenica, is a brilliant young economist who began his journey as a poor son of refugees from the 1990s Bosnian War.  He tells his story as one of unbelievable good fortune, where he and his family had been brought to the U.S. where he was enrolled in a under-performing public school that doomed its pupils to failure.  The only thing that saved him--sending him to Harvard and ultimately University of Chicago where he now teaches economics--was a student teacher who had come to believe he was brilliant because of an essay assignment that he had plagiarized from memory.  On the strength of his plagiarized essay, he recalled, she pulled strings to get him into a fancy private school tuition-free, setting him on the path to success.

The radio show producers then tracked down the teacher, and her story turned out to be at odds with the one told by her former student.  She explained that her pupil's success had nothing to do with the plagiarized story--that all of his teachers had discerned his brilliance and plotted to get him moved long before the story in question (which she barely remembered). She also averred that he would have succeeded regardless of where he had gone to school.  When confronted with this alternative version of events, the man refused to believe it, choosing instead to believe that his success was based on good fortune and the kindness of strangers (here, the substitute teacher).

The TAL host observed that his attitude was probably at the heart of the economist's extraordinary happiness.  Emir was grateful for everything that he had received in life.  He felt that merit had little to do with his success, and this conviction made him very, very happy.  He says that his current life is far more wonderful than he ever even imagined it could be when he was a child.

The second story is a PBS documentary from Bill Moyers that showcased two American families that have fallen on hard times in the Milwaukee area over the past two decades.  Both families had lost the single breadwinner unionized job that had sustained them in the 1980s.  With such jobs now in short supply, both parents in each family had to go into paid work--substituting two low-wage jobs (with few or no benefits) for the now-extinct union jobs.

Over two decades, both families struggled mightily, but, while the first couple divorced (the husband even leaving his family), the second couple persevered through it all.  What struck me was a scene in a church (the husband was also an ordained minister who led a small congregation on the weekends, in addition to his regular paid work).  In this scene in church, the man preached emphatically that you might lose your job, your health care, even your home, but you had to thank the Lord anyway. 

This is profound, it really is.  It is not to say you should minimize life's problems or live in denial.  It's saying the harder your life, the more grateful you have to be for the things that are going right.

By the end of the documentary, the second family was no less poor than the first family, but they were much much happier. and they were together.  This is at least partly because they continually gave thanks to God for the many things that they did have.

This story has lessons for secular folk as well--whatever happens in your life, you must be grateful for your good fortune, for everyone is fortunate in life, one way or another.

For inspiration...