“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
That’s the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925 novel about that Gatsby fellow – and of course it is full of deep meaning. Or maybe it just sounds like it is. That’s the sort of line that keeps English teachers busy. The essay assignment almost writes itself – Monday morning turn in a two-page essay on what that last line means. Yes the students groan and roll their eyes, but it’s pretty simple. Earlier in the novel, the dispassionate narrator and Gatsby’s one real friend, Nick Caraway – who says he’s the most honest man he knows – tells Gatsby that you just can’t repeat the past. That’s the honest thing to say. Gatsby flashes his amazingly warm smile and simply says of course you can, old sport. The idea is that that’s what money is for – if you have enough of it you can make it any year in the past you’d like. And Gatsby almost pulls it off – he almost wins back the girl he was supposed to end up with long ago. It’s just that she’s a pretty but useless twit – her voice is full of money, as Gatsby knows full well – and, well, you can’t repeat the past, no matter how much money you toss around. You end up brokenhearted and then shot dead – like Gatsby. Life’s a bitch, or at least Daisy Buchanan is.
It’s just that we do get stuck in the past – there’s that irresistible current that bears us back there. What are you going to do? That’s the problem with life – we all look back, and we all want to go there, that idealized past. Later there was Look Homeward, Angel – that 1929 novel by Thomas Wolfe, also tightened up by Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner, Maxwell Perkins – who also edited Hemingway’s stuff. Wolfe’s big theme was that you can’t go home again. Right – you can’t. All of Hemingway’s “lost generation” tales were about the same thing too. Isn’t it pretty to think so? Maxwell Perkins was a busy fellow.
For more of such things see this list of the One Hundred Best Last Lines from Novels – most which say you can’t go back, so you move on. On the other hand, Richard Brautigan ends Trout Fishing in America (1967) with this – “Sorry I forgot to give you the mayonnaise.” You can look forward, but you have to be ironic about it. The future isn’t going to be all that hot, and bring your own mayonnaise.
We’ve always struggled with this – the scary future, not the availability of mayonnaise. Conservatives don’t like the future very much – tradition and received wisdom and established (and earned) authority are nothing to sneeze at. New ideas are seductive, and they are dangerous – you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water after all. The folks in the Tea Party crowd say they want their America back – and that seems to be the America of Ozzie and Harriet, when the cars had big fins and black folks and gays were invisible, when we listened to Patty Page and Perry Como, those golden days before slash-rock and all the nasty rap stuff. With enough money, from the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson perhaps, we can bring those days back. It’s instructive that Mitt Romney had those major fundraisers this summer at mansions out in the Hamptons, on Long Island, the setting for the Gatsby novel, right where Gatsby had his mansion. You can’t bring back the past? Of course you can, old sport. That’s what money is for.
Liberals, who have decided to call themselves progressives these days, don’t care for that past. Those days back then weren’t so hot, except for comfortable white men. Since then things got better for everyone – women, minorities, the previously poor. There’s been “progress” – and the past was a nasty place. Who needs it? Let’s move on. And thus the Obama campaign has toyed with the idea of changing their one-word campaign slogan this time from HOPE to FORWARD – but haven’t quite done so yet. Someone there must know about that ceaseless current Fitzgerald identified. Making things shiny and new and better and all up-to-date sounds fine, but you never know what’s really going to happen. The French Revolution was supposed to usher in liberté and égalité and fraternité – but soon enough it was Robespierre and that Reign of Terror. New is good, but people really can screw up anything. Trusting them is the real issue. William Gladstone put it nicely – “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear.”
And so we are borne back ceaselessly into the past:
Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist dismissed recent criticism of his tax pledge from former President George H.W. Bush, saying the 41st president had “lied” to the American people by raising taxes while in office.
“When George Herbert Walker Bush ran for president, he promised the American people he wouldn’t raise their taxes,” Norquist said this morning on “This Week.” “He lied to them. He broke his commitment to them and they threw him out of office four years later.”
Bush famously said “Read my lips: no new taxes” during his 1988 campaign, before going on to raise taxes during his only term as president.
That was the past, and there are no do-overs. George Herbert Walker Bush had to raise a few taxes here and there – we needed the money. Let it go. But this was in response to what the old and cranky Bush had said in this interview with PARADE magazine:
The rigidity of those pledges is something I don’t like. The circumstances change and you can’t be wedded to some formula by Grover Norquist. It’s – who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?
And Jeb Bush had said this at a congressional hearing – “I don’t believe you outsource your principles and convictions to people.” Norquist isn’t running the country, after all.
Norquist was pissed, but no one really cared. Everyone has moved on, except they haven’t:
Democrats are eagerly renewing their fight against privatizing Social Security now that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has picked Paul Ryan as his running mate. It was a fight that didn’t go well for the GOP when President George W. Bush pushed the idea in 2005.
In his 2010 “Road Map for America’s Future,” the Wisconsin congressman proposed a plan to allow younger workers to divert more than one-third of their Social Security taxes into personal accounts that they would own and could will to their heirs.
Ryan wrote that the accounts would provide workers an opportunity “to build a significant nest egg for retirement that far exceeds what the current program can provide.” Workers 55 and older would stay in the current system.
That’s 2005 stuff and it didn’t fly then – the younger and less cranky Bush was embarrassed when even his own party turned on him. And Mitt Romney knows this. Romney hasn’t “embraced” the Ryan proposal on Social Security, and Ryan himself, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, didn’t include it in either of his amazing budgets passed by House Republicans the past two years, the ones that were entirely symbolic, because they quickly died in the Democratic Senate. But now Ryan is running for vice president and Democrats want to pin this on Ryan and Romney and make them say something about it all, one way or the other. Let’s all relive the past.
This is a long shot:
Until now, Social Security had been largely absent from the presidential campaign. President Barack Obama has yet to lay out a detailed plan for addressing the issue, and his silence is drawing criticism from advocates who supported him in the past. Romney has been more forthcoming with proposals, but Social Security has not been a big part of his campaign, either.
Romney, in his book, “No Apology,” said he liked the idea of personal accounts. But, he wrote, “Given the volatility of investment values that we have just experienced, I would prefer that individual accounts were added to Social Security, not diverted from it, and that they were voluntary.”
Yeah, telling people to put their money in stocks and bonds now seems madness – one glance at CNBC any morning would demonstrate that. And Romney implies the other problem – let young folks take their SSI withholding from each paycheck and divert to their broker, and the ongoing funds to run the whole system dry up and it all collapses. No one wants that and everyone worked this out years ago. A bad idea then is still a bad idea now:
Last week, Vice President Joe Biden made a more sweeping guarantee during a campaign swing in southern Virginia, telling a customer at a diner that Social Security will not be changed.
“I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security,” Biden told the customer, according to a White House pool report. “I flat guarantee you.”
There’s no need to revisit the issue. Republican theoreticians often long for 1932 or so, before there was Social Security and any of the New Deal stuff, when people were really free, as they say, and Democratic strategists want to go back to 2005, the year when those theoreticians, and the second George Bush, had their hats handed to them over all this. No one seems to want to be up-to-date.
There’s a funny song about that – Everything’s Up-To-Date in Kansas City – from that 1943 musical Oklahoma! It’s a joke – the country bumpkin is impressed by the big city, which isn’t much of anything, really. But then what anyone thinks is up-to-date is always a joke. There’s always something newer and better than what you’re impressed by at the moment. We’re all bumpkins. It just depends on where you’re standing.
The odd thing is what is playing out now in Missouri, where Kansas City is still not cutting-edge. They have a senate race going on there – the sitting senator, Claire McCaskill, a moderate to progressive Democrat, is being challenged by Todd Akin, the Republican nominee who is far to the right of even the Tea Party – and McCaskill is getting killed in the polls.
But that might change:
In an effort to explain his stance on abortion, Representative Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri, provoked ire across the political spectrum on Sunday by saying that in instances of what he called “legitimate rape,” women’s bodies somehow blocked an unwanted pregnancy.
Asked in an interview on a St. Louis television station about his views on abortion, Mr. Akin, a six-term member of Congress who is backed by Tea Party conservatives, made it clear that his opposition to the practice was nearly absolute, even in instances of rape.
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” Mr. Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something: I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”
Let’s see here – Akin differentiates between “legitimate” rape and, perhaps, some sort of fake rape – where the woman really wanted it, or perhaps she wore provocative clothing, not a burqa or something. Or maybe he meant something else. He didn’t say. But he was sure that science shows that when a woman is raped – when she really doesn’t like it – she cannot get pregnant. Her body won’t allow it, almost all the time. If she’s a loose woman things are different.
Talking Point Memo offers some background:
A 1996 study by the American Journal of Obstetricians and Gynecologists found “rape-related pregnancy occurs with significant frequency” and is “a cause of many unwanted pregnancies” – an estimated “32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year.”
Akin is perhaps the boldest among a crop of conservative 2012 nominees who could hamper GOP efforts to take back the Senate in the fall. Akin has called for an end to the school-lunch program and a total ban on the morning-after pill.
His claim about “legitimate” types of rape is not completely foreign to the current Republican Congress, however. In 2011, the House GOP was forced to drop language from a bill that would have limited federal help to pay for an abortion to only victims of “forcible rape.” Akin was a co-sponsor on the bill.
Nor is this Akin’s first time suggesting some types of rape are more worthy of protections than others. As a state legislator, Akin voted in 1991 for an anti-marital-rape law, but only after questioning whether it might be misused “in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband,” according to a May 1 article that year in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Steve Benen has further detail:
The congressman believes the very existence of the federal student-loan program is a “stage-three cancer of socialism.” He’s also eager to eliminate the minimum wage, believes liberalism is based on “a hatred of God,” believes the Bible should be a “blueprint” for American government; and wants to impeach President Obama because, in his mind, the president is “a complete menace to our civilization.”
Everything is up to date in Kansas City, but Akin then released a statement – he said that he misspoke and his comment “does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year. I recognize that abortion, and particularly in the case of rape, is a very emotionally charged issue. But I believe deeply in the protection of all life and I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action.”
And then it got interesting:
The Republican presidential ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan was quick to distance itself from Mr. Akin’s remarks.
“Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement,” the campaign said. “A Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape.”
Romney and Ryan just threw away the vote of the Religious Right, as now they’re bucking their own party, as Nick Bauman in Mother Jones noted last year:
For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. (Another exemption covers pregnancies that could endanger the life of the woman.) But the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” a bill with 173 mostly Republican co-sponsors that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has dubbed a top priority in the new Congress, contains a provision that would rewrite the rules to limit drastically the definition of rape and incest in these cases.
With this legislation, which was introduced last week by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Republicans propose that the rape exemption be limited to “forcible rape.” This would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape, many of which are non-forcible. For example: If a 13-year-old girl is impregnated by a 24-year-old adult, she would no longer qualify to have Medicaid pay for an abortion. (Smith’s spokesman did not respond to a call and an email requesting comment.)
Given that the bill also would forbid the use of tax benefits to pay for abortions, that 13-year-old’s parents wouldn’t be allowed to use money from a tax-exempt health savings account (HSA) to pay for the procedure. They also wouldn’t be able to deduct the cost of the abortion or the cost of any insurance that paid for it as a medical expense.
There used to be a quasi-truce between the pro- and anti-choice forces on the issue of federal funding for abortion. Since 1976, federal law has prohibited the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, and when the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman. But since last year, the anti-abortion side has become far more aggressive in challenging this compromise. They have been pushing to outlaw tax deductions for insurance plans that cover abortion, even if the abortion coverage is never used. The Smith bill represents a frontal attack on these long-standing exceptions. “This bill takes us backwards to a time when just saying no wasn’t enough to qualify as rape.”
Missouri Congressman and GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin is a brilliant scientist (with a B.S. in something called “Management Engineering”) and is therefore highly qualified to speak on the intricacies of female anatomy, especially when it comes to the heretofore unknown magic powers of the reproductive system. Did you know, for example, that the uterus is able to determine the difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape? I bet you didn’t even know there was a difference, unlike Todd Akin, who currently serves on the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee thanks to his expertise. In science!
Wonkette offers a guide to this man’s thinking on these matters:
Scenario 1: A white virgin female wearing modest clothing is returning to her home after her Wednesday Bible study class. She is accosted at knifepoint by a large, unkempt black man wearing an “Obama 2012” hat – who drags her into an alley and rapes her.
Determination: Legitimate rape. Her uterus shuts down immediately, expelling the rapist’s semen as she prays to God for forgiveness.
Scenario 2: At a party where alcoholic beverages are being consumed, a young woman passes out in a private bedroom. A man of the same age and race finds her and proceeds to have sexual relations as she sleeps peacefully.
Determination: Illegitimate rape. Because the woman’s own moral turpitude is entirely to blame for the situation she was placed in, her uterus is unable to resist her beau’s sperm. It is quite likely that God will bless her with a pregnancy.
Scenario 3: A woman arranges to meet a date she met online at an art gallery. He is boorish and three inches shorter than his profile suggested. She agrees to go back to his apartment only to tell him that she does not want to see him again. But at soon as they get inside he assaults her brutally, keeping her prisoner for three days.
Determination: Illegitimate rape. Because she did not use a Todd Akin-approved dating service (Christian Mingle or eHarmony), the woman in this scenario is responsible both for her own predicament and the child God will now bestow upon her.
And they say everything is up-to-date in Kansas City. It’s still 1953 there – when coat hangers would have to do.
But then Grover Norquist is arguing with George Bush, the first one, calling him a big fat liar – and that Bush left office in 1993, when Bill Clinton was sworn in. And it’s 2005 again, or will be if the Democrats force Ryan and the Republicans to fess up on what they really want to do with Social Security. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…