That Unsatisfactory Second Act

There are no second acts in American lives. At least that is what F. Scott Fitzgerald said. And he was at a loss at the end, living out his last days just down the street here on North Laurel Avenue in Hollywood – a few screenplays kept him solvent why he worked on The Last Tycoon, a novel he never finished. Zelda had been institutionalized at the Duke University psychiatric facility back in Asheville, quite mad, and he himself now had a bad heart and certainly wasn’t going to last long. And he had his final heart attack at the cigarette counter at Schwab’s Drugstore down on the corner – now long gone. It was a long way from Paris in the twenties and hanging around with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and that crowd. And he had peaked early. The Great Gatsby, his first novel, was his triumph – one of the great books of American literature. But each that followed wasn’t quite as good as the one before, until he found himself stuck here, feeding the Hollywood entertainment machine and wondering what happened. For him there was no second act. What had happened to his life?

If you have reached a certain age and feel the same way – you really did have a good year once, long ago, maybe even in Paris – drop in and have lunch at Greenblatt’s, the historic delicatessen on the corner, where Fitzgerald had his least meal. The giant devilled eggs are killer. Yes, they are. And there is no second act. And there never was any diamond as big as the Ritz, really. And when you think about the Gatsby story, you do know Gatsby had to die young, as there was nothing left for him to do, really. Fitzgerald knew all along. That’s what happens to the Smart Set (the name of the magazine that first published “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” in 1922) – you have your moment, and all the goodies, and then you cannot have another. Sorry. America is like that.

You see it all the time, and at the moment you see it with the junior senator from Kentucky, Jim Bunning. He had his moment – he pitched in the Major Leagues for seventeen seasons, with the Tigers and the Phillies, and when he retired he had the second-highest total of career strikeouts in Major League history and had pitched a perfect game in 1964, one of only eighteen in Major League history. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 – and that was the first act of his life.

The second act hasn’t worked out that well. Bunning went into politics, deciding he was a Republican, moving up and up – city council to state senate to the US House of Representatives from Kentucky’s 4th district, then elected to Senate from Kentucky in 1998. And he’s been there since. But things haven’t gone well – he just disappears for weeks on end, and won’t explain, and says racist and nasty, outrageous things about his opponents, then apologizes, and says things no one understands at all, and smiles. He’s the oldest Republican in the Senate and maybe it’s all Senior Moments now.

The Republicans find him a bit of an embarrassment, but they can depend on his vote, so they look the other way. And he says sort of the right things. In October 2004 he told reporters this – “Let me explain something: I don’t watch the national news, and I don’t read the paper. I haven’t done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.” He anticipated Sarah Palin by four years, and maybe that’s enough, although in April 2006, Time called him one of America’s Five Worst Senators – it was Jim Bunning: The Underperformer. That must gall one of the best pitchers of all time, but then he doesn’t read Time, or anything else.

But he’s learning the Fitzgerald lesson without reading anything. In July 2009 he announced he’d not run for reelection – his own damned party had cut him off, not providing any campaign funding, so screw it all. He has his charitable foundation – funded by his sale of baseballs he autographs. Sure, none of the money ever went to any charity – he kept it for himself and there’ll be an ethics investigation one day – but tough shit. He’ll be fine, or down at Greenblatt’s with an order of those giant devilled eggs in front of him. Needless to say, the Republican Party doesn’t care one way or the other. He’s gone. There are no second acts in American lives.

But he had a parting shot on Friday, February 27, with this:

Depending on extended unemployment benefits to see you through the Great Recession?

You’d better not: The Senate failed to push back the Feb. 28 deadline to apply for this safety net.

Starting Monday, the jobless will no longer be able to apply for federal unemployment benefits or the COBRA health insurance subsidy.

Federal unemployment benefits kick in after the basic state-funded 26 weeks of coverage expire. During the downturn, Congress has approved up to an additional 73 weeks, which it funds.

These federal benefit weeks are divided into tiers – and the jobless must apply each time they move into a new tier.

Because the Senate did not act, the jobless will now stop getting checks once they run out of their state benefits or current tier of federal benefits.

Bunning mounted a one-man filibuster – that worked because most of the other senators had left for the weekend – that blocked any of that stuff from being extended. You don’t spend money you don’t have so lazy people can smugly snooze in the hammocks. This extension was going to pass ninety to ten by all counts – few Republicans wanted to tell potential voters they could live in cardboard box under a bridge for all they cared. This wasn’t controversial at all. But Bunning is who he is. This Democrat and that tried to get him to stop his filibuster, but that was a bust. They said he’d be hurting real people, badly, but at one point Bunning simply said “tough shit.” And then he “complained he had been ambushed by the Democrats and was forced to miss the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game.” He was pissed.

The Republicans said nothing. They didn’t support him. But they didn’t try to stop him. And you can understand their approach to this matter. The short-term extension of health insurance benefits was set to expire Sunday, and what will happen Tuesday is that the Senate will return in full force and pass the extension, with some kind of retroactive coverage that will bridge the gap. It’s no big deal. The Republicans seem to hope everyone will see that Bunning is just an eccentric and a bit of a madman, who they’ve already cut loose, and this really doesn’t matter much. No one’s getting cut off – Jim is just like that, and he’ll be gone soon enough. There’s nothing to see here folks – move along, move along.

But the Democrats would have none of that:

“Right now a single Republican is blocking the extension of unemployment insurance which means if he succeeds one million people, one million people next month will be thrown off the unemployment rolls,” Vice President Joe Biden said, according to Fox News.

Biden added that as a result of Bunning’s move “one million people will be thrown into nothing but despair.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said “it is really hard to understand why one senator in the United States Senate is holding up the extension of unemployment insurance at this time.”

“But he is, and I’m pleased that the Senate Democrats are trying to make a move to dislodge that,” she added, Politico reports.

So Bunning objected to Senate passage of a one-month extension of government benefits, including unemployment benefits, COBRA health care benefits and the Medicare Doctor fix, and Democrats were casting him as out of touch with regular Americans, just like the rest of the Republican Party. The Republicans had only one possible response. Jim who?

But CBS News suggests this is serious stuff:

Unemployed Americans could still file for this week’s benefits Sunday and Monday, but without an extension benefits for next week would be affected.

CBS News Capitol Hill Producer John Nolen reports that short term extension bill includes:

Unemployment insurance: extends unemployment benefits increased payouts and longer duration of benefits through April 5

Health Insurance COBRA benefits: extends COBRA health insurance subsidy through March 28

Medicare Doctor Payment: delays a scheduled cut in Medicare physician payments through March 28

Highway funding: highway project funding through March 28

Flood Insurance: extends National Flood Insurance Program through March 28

Satellite Television: extends copyright license used by satellite television providers through March 28

There was more in the bill than Bunning was saying, or perhaps more than he knew – like stopping all highway work and shutting down the Department of Transportation, throwing tens of thousands out of work. There is no clean legislation, and the bill in question was about more than unemployment benefits. Maybe Bunning doesn’t read anything, but someone might have told him. He does have a staff, after all.

But the question is what the genesis of this particular little mess might be. Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life, and Bunning seems to have proved that, even if inadvertently. But how did he manage to embarrass his own party so badly and give the Democrats such an easy opening? There he was saying those thrown out of work by the mess we’re in deserve no help of any kind, and he was literally saying “tough shit” to America – or you could frame it that way so very easily. Was he just tone deaf, or just a dumb-ass, or did actually take the whole Republican line too seriously. Any given day you can see someone on Fox News, like Judge Andrew Napolitano, saying the last thing you want to do in times of massive unemployment is pay people not to work – but such arguments are offered in terms of economic theory, or as “tough love” theory, where you claim it’s good for people to suffer, as it will build character and all that. You don’t just dismiss them. When Bunning pulled his stunt he didn’t invoke either of those theories. It was simple and free of theoretical underpinnings – there’s no money for this, really, and he was really tired of the government spending money it doesn’t have. So you’re on your own. Deal with it. My problems aren’t yours. So of course he said that he had been forced to miss the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game, with everyone on his case and wasting his time. Losing your job and then your house, and finally not knowing where your next meal is coming from and living in the street, matters to you, and that basketball game mattered to him. So what?

What Biden and Pelosi were trying to do is show that this I’ve-got-mine hostile antisocial stuff isn’t an aberration. It’s the core of conservative Republican thought and expresses their values, such as they are – they don’t give a damn. Bunning just got down to the basics. The Republicans can say that Bunning is just not that bright, and say that all they want, and say he’s going away soon so it doesn’t matter, but the Democrats can say that at least he’s honest – he really doesn’t give a damn, and doesn’t need all the disingenuous economic and moral theory. And if you think otherwise, prove that you too give a damn, you God and values people, and join in to pass some of our legislation.

It’s enough to make a Republican cry. Bunning screwed everything up, again. That man is just dumb.

But the curious thing is that there is new science showing that the problem may not be Bunning alone. See this item from Elizabeth Landau at CNN, Liberalism, Atheism Linked to IQ:

Political, religious and sexual behaviors may be reflections of intelligence, a new study finds.

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics and Political Science correlated data on these behaviors with IQ from a large national U.S. sample and found that, on average, people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. This applied also to sexual exclusivity in men, but not in women. The findings will be published in the March 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

The IQ differences, while statistically significant, are not stunning – on the order of 6 to 11 points – and the data should not be used to stereotype or make assumptions about people, experts say. But they show how certain patterns of identifying with particular ideologies develop, and how some people’s behaviors come to be.

It’s all a matter of evolving:

The reasoning is that sexual exclusivity in men, liberalism and atheism all go against what would be expected given humans’ evolutionary past. In other words, none of these traits would have benefited our early human ancestors, but higher intelligence may be associated with them.

“The adoption of some evolutionarily novel ideas makes some sense in terms of moving the species forward,” said George Washington University leadership professor James Bailey, who was not involved in the study. “It also makes perfect sense that more intelligent people – people with, sort of, more intellectual firepower – are likely to be the ones to do that.”

Contrast to Glenn Beck’s sarcastic keynote speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference:

“I’m really a progressive, I’m for progress. I just want to evolve into a nicer place.” Well, we don’t want to evolve!

But CNN’s Landau reports on the other view:

Religion, the current theory goes, did not help people survive or reproduce necessarily, but goes along the lines of helping people to be paranoid, Kanazawa said. Assuming that, for example, a noise in the distance is a signal of a threat helped early humans to prepare in case of danger.

“It helps life to be paranoid, and because humans are paranoid, they become more religious, and they see the hands of God everywhere,” Kanazawa said.

See Glenn Beck, above, and consider the data:

Participants who said they were atheists had an average IQ of 103 in adolescence, while adults who said they were religious averaged 97, the study found. Atheism “allows someone to move forward and speculate on life without any concern for the dogmatic structure of a religion,” Bailey said. “Historically, anything that’s new and different can be seen as a threat in terms of the religious beliefs; almost all religious systems are about permanence,” he noted.

But as for all that I’ve-got-mine hostile antisocial stuff in general, the data is even more dismaying, and the study defines “liberal” in terms of “concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people.” This was not about abortion, gun control and gay rights. James Bailey explains what this was really about:

“Liberals are more likely to be concerned about total strangers; conservatives are likely to be concerned with people they associate with,” he said.

Given that human ancestors had a keen interest in the survival of their offspring and nearest kin, the conservative approach – looking out for the people around you first – fits with the evolutionary picture more than liberalism, Kanazawa said. “It’s unnatural for humans to be concerned about total strangers.” he said.

But some people, the smart ones, evolve:

The study found that young adults who said they were “very conservative” had an average adolescent IQ of 95, whereas those who said they were “very liberal” averaged 106.

That’s all very curious. Maybe Bunning, while one of the great baseball pitchers of all time, is dumb. But maybe he’s not so unusual, or a bad Republican. Biden and Pelosi might have cited this study.

Or maybe they could have cited this new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger:

It is well established that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. Now a groundbreaking book, based on thirty years’ research, takes an important step past this idea. The Spirit Level shows that there is one common factor that links the healthiest and happiest societies: the degree of equality among their members. Not wealth; not resources; not culture, climate, diet, or system of government. Furthermore, more-unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them – the well-off as well as the poor.

The remarkable data assembled in The Spirit Level reveals striking differences, not only among the nations of the first world but even within America’s fifty states. Almost every modern social problem – ill-health, violence, lack of community life, teen pregnancy, mental illness – is more likely to occur in a less-equal society. This is why America, by most measures the richest country on earth, has per capita shorter average lifespan, more cases of mental illness, more obesity, and more of its citizens in prison than any other developed nation.

That’s from the jacket blurb, and this is from Publishers Weekly:

Wilkinson and Pickett make an eloquent case that the income gap between a nation’s richest and poorest is the most powerful indicator of a functioning and healthy society. Amid the statistics that support their argument (increasing income disparity sees corresponding spikes in homicide, obesity, drug use, mental illness, anxiety, teenage pregnancies, high school dropouts – even incidents of playground bullying), the authors take an empathetic view of our ability to see beyond self-interest. While there are shades of Darwinism in the human hunt for status, there is evidence that the human brain – with its distinctively large neocortex – evolved the way it has because we were designed to be attentive to, depend on, and be depended on by others.

So Bunning may not only be dumb, but un-evolved – the Hairy Ape from the Eugene O’Neill play or something. But he is not alone. And in a Boston Globe interview with the book’s authors, you get this:

We considered a whole range of alternative explanations – the size of the countries, the racial mix, the proportion of poor people – and it’s clearly not those things. It’s telling us it’s something about the structure of whole societies that really matters. …

I think people are extremely sensitive to status differentiation and to being looked down on, or disrespected, and those often seem to be the triggers to violence. We quote an American prison psychiatrist who goes so far as to say he’s never seen a serious act of violence that wasn’t provoked by loss of face or humiliation, and so on. And in more unequal societies, status matters even more. People judge each other more by status. There’s more insecurity. And people at the bottom are more often excluded from the markers of status, the jobs and housing and cars, so they become even more touchy about how they’re seen.

And the people at the top (rich Republicans, perhaps), would benefit from change as well:

The quality of social relations seems to deteriorate in more unequal societies. People trust each other much less…

There is much more at the link, but the point is clear. That I’ve-got-mine-so-screw-you urge, whether dressed up in economic or moral theory on talk shows, or as with Bunning, bare-assed naked and blunt on the floor of the senate, is a tad prehistoric, or Neanderthal. And in March 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly we see it’s just dumb, statistically speaking.

So it’s no wonder that Bunning had no real second act. F. Scott Fitzgerald might have told him that things were going to work out that way, but the man doesn’t read much. Ah, but who does these days?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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