The semiotics of SpongeBob

Much of the recent coverage and the commentary on James Dobson has been entirely predictable, focusing on the buffoonery of another evangelical seeing sinister forces behind another popular children's show. From Barney to the Smurfs to the Teletubbies, there's no more certain way for a children's favorite to attract adult loyalty -- even to become a countercultural icon -- than for an evangelical to go on the attack.

Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg Times takes Dobson seriously enough to see him as -- well, if not an evil genius, then at least a crafty strategist:

Dobson, founder of the Colorado Springs-based ministry Focus on the Family, is a minister whose radio show draws 7 million listeners, a man who helped President Bush win the tough swing states of Florida and Ohio.

A leader this savvy knows the power of the media and likely doesn't believe his attacks will bring down the Sponge-ster, Nickelodeon's most popular cartoon.

But what he can do is mobilize his supporters by relying on three themes the religious right has beaten like a drum for decades: demonization of the media, demonization of liberals and demonization of gay people.

. . . Dobson's message can be amazingly effective in generating fear, convincing conservative parents they can't even place their children in front of kiddie channel Nickelodeon without exposing them to radical ideas. No one should forget how effectively fear sold the American public on war with Iraq and a president with a seriously low job approval rating.

These are seeds, once planted, that will pay off in future campaigns against media indecency and gay rights. And when Dobson's faithful turn out again to press their issues at the ballot box, mainstream media outlets will cluck their tongues and wonder how they once more missed the message.

I do not share Deggans' confidence about Dobson's long-term goals, or the ease with which his listeners can be inspired to do his political bidding. Still, as Michael Crowley argued recently in Slate, Dobson is flexing more political muscle post-11/2, and he's having some trouble adjusting to the world of politics, where compromise is an important skill:

He's already leveraging his new power. When a thank-you call came from the White House, Dobson issued the staffer a blunt warning that Bush "needs to be more aggressive" about pressing the religious right's pro-life, anti-gay rights agenda, or it would "pay a price in four years." And when the pro-choice Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter made conciliatory noises about appointing moderates to the Supreme Court, Dobson launched a fevered campaign to prevent him from assuming the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which until then he had been expected to inherit. Dobson is now a Republican kingmaker.

Surprisingly, though, this isn't a role he's traditionally sought or relished. An absolutist disgusted by the compromises of politics, he sneers at those who place "self-preservation and power ahead of moral principle." He has always kept his distance from Washington. Unlike Reed, a canny strategist above all, Dobson has talked about bringing down the GOP if it fails him. Yet as the gay-marriage movement surged this year, Dobson's moral outrage over the direction of American culture went supernova, asserting in his recent book Marriage Under Fire that Western civilization hangs in the balance. But now Dobson faces a difficult trial. He must decide which he hates more, Washington politics or cultural apocalypse.

Dobson will bear watching for the next few years. But if SpongeBob SquarePants represents Dobson's politics of symbolism, I would say the cultural left has won this round.

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