Appropriate Despair

Medea gets pretty ticked off at Jason and murders her two children by him, but then the gods descend and carry her off, which is a bit ambiguous, but that’s still one hell of a tragedy. Oedipus kills his father and marries his own mother, but then he finds out just who was who and gouges his own eyes out. Oops – but that’s still the tragedy of all tragedies. The Greeks were good at this, and they didn’t mix tragedy with comedy. Aristophanes was in it for the laughs. He has the women go on strike – no sex unless the men stop their stupid war. He even throws in dirty jokes.

The Greeks kept the genres separate, as did Shakespeare. Hamlet mopes and everyone dies, and Macbeth is done in by his overly ambitious wife – something wicked this way comes and all that – and Julius Caesar gets what he probably doesn’t deserve and the whole Roman state falls apart, and there’s poor Othello, undone by his scheming aide, who has no motive other than making the world turn out to be as nasty as he has decided it must be. But the comedies are sunny – “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” Puck has a lot of puck. Only Measure for Measure tries to mix tragedy and comedy, and no one performs that Shakespeare effort very much. No one knows how to play it – there’s just no way to get the tone right, because tragedy and comedy really don’t mix well. It would be centuries before playwrights came up with something new, something appropriate to our modern age, the theater of the absurd – where the situation is always hopeless, but not serious. Two World Wars and all that French existentialism will do that to you.

The premise there is that there may be no real difference between tragedy and comedy, as nothing seems to mean much of anything anymore, so Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Václav Havel and Edward Albee give us sardonic absurdity. In fact, Stoppard turned Hamlet inside out – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch what’s going on from the sidelines and eventually go to their deaths not even once quite knowing what’s really going on, and certainly never knowing why any of it is happening – just like in real life for most of us. We may not like it, we may deny it, but deep down we accept the absurdity of it all. It’s all quite amusing and it’s not. Life’s like that.

Is that a tragedy? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. It’s just what it is, and we’re used to it. That’s why the America public, other than political junkies and policy wonks, is taking what’s happening in Washington in stride. It’s just one more absurd crisis. Those wacky Republicans have shut down the government, which is slowly but surely crippling the economy, and they’ve dug in and said they’ll refuse to raise the debt limit, which many on Wall Street and every economist in the world tells them will destroy the economy and plunge the rest of the world into a multigenerational depression too, to match ours – all to force Obama to delay and eventually dismantle his Obamacare thing – all to make sure thirty or forty million more Americans will not have any chance at all to buy low-cost subsidized health insurance from private-sector parties.

What the hell is THAT about? It doesn’t even seem to be about Obamacare anymore, and that this might give these few Tea Party folks egging the Republicans on a way to nullify the results of an election, or in this cause multiple elections, and that it might nullify a law that has been passed by both chambers and signed into law, and that it might render a pesky Supreme Court decision about that law entirely moot, is even more curious. Things aren’t supposed to work that way – but disaster is looming. We’re all Rosencrantz and Guildenstern now.

As least there are the baseball playoffs, something diverting to watch, where one team wins and the other loses. There’s no ambiguity there, and it’s always a tragedy for Cubs fans because the Cubs never get that far. People seem to like having it one way or the other, win or lose – nothing in-between. Baseball is a relief from the existential absurdity of American politics.

The odd thing is that someone actually noticed that. An Atlanta Braves fan reacted to his team’s really tough loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers out here by sending a letter to a Republican congressman, setting up the perfect absurdist parallel. The letter was from Paul Kaplan to Representative Jack Kingston and was reported by NBC Sports – not some political outfit. Kaplan simply noted that his heroic Atlanta Braves “sent batters to the plate at least 40 times” in Monday’s 4-3 Dodgers win, which eliminated the Braves from the playoffs.

Yep, the House Republicans have voted over forty times to repeal Obamacare, every bit of it, and every time the Democratic Senate simply refused to take up each of those House bills, as everyone expected, so that was absurd, and Kaplan simply makes the connection:

But just because we couldn’t score enough runs, the Dodgers refuse to relinquish the title – and worse, they won’t even discuss it. LA’s stubborn refusal to even talk to us about reversing the results of this series is un-sportsmanlike and un-American. But there is an answer: If the Dodgers won’t listen to the cries of average Americans like you and me, then Congress should outlaw Major League Baseball until the Dodgers cave.

Yes, this would deprive America of its favorite pastime, but Kaplan calls on Kingston to take a stand:

Just because the Dodgers had more hits, scored more runs, and won more games doesn’t make them right. You can help them see that.

The entire letter is here – one can fight absurdity with absurdity, and Jack Kingston has yet to respond. There’s nothing much he can say.

The government shutdown is funny, in an absurdist sort of way, or would be if it wasn’t tragic. The USDA has now reported that 278 people have fallen ill with salmonella, “likely” due to eating chicken from a California-based poultry firm, and Maryn McKenna points out here that this outbreak is “the exact situation that CDC and other about-to-be-furloughed federal personnel warned about last week” when this all started:

As a reminder, a CDC staffer told me at the time: “I know that we will not be conducting multi-state outbreak investigations. States may continue to find outbreaks, but we won’t be doing the cross-state consultation and laboratory work to link outbreaks that might cross state borders.” That means that the lab work and molecular detection that can link far-apart cases and define the size and seriousness of outbreaks are not happening. At the CDC, which operates the national foodborne-detection services FoodNet and PulseNet, scientists couldn’t work on this if they wanted to; they have been locked out of their offices, lab and emails. (At a conference I attended last week, 10 percent of the speakers did not show up because they were CDC personnel and risked being fired if they traveled even voluntarily.)

What’s absurd isn’t necessarily funny, and while the USDA has yet to link the outbreak to a “specific production period,” Robert Gonzales points out here that the shutdown has just about ended the CDC’s ability to respond to these threats:

Foster Farms’ food safety chief Robert O’Connor insists that the USDA’s food inspection process “has not been affected by the recent government shutdown.” But according to the Associated Press, the CDC – which helps monitor multi-state outbreaks of food poisoning – “was working with a barebones staff because of the federal government shutdown with all but two of the 80 staffers that normally analyze foodborne pathogens furloughed.” While the AP reports “it was not immediately clear whether the shortage affected the response to the Salmonella outbreak,” shutdown memos issued last week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA both indicated staff relating to food inspection would be furloughed, further indicating that the government was ill-prepared to prevent and respond to a food-borne outbreak.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both die, by the way. It’s the same sort of thing, and this was the day Obama had just about enough of this nonsense:

President Obama intensified his pressure on House Republicans on Tuesday, calling on them to “lift these threats from our families and our businesses” as the federal government remained shuttered into a second week and the possibility that the United States would default on its debts grew closer.

Mr. Obama, holding firm to the position he first took more than a year ago, said at a lengthy news conference that he would not negotiate over the essential act of raising the nation’s debt limit or offer concessions to the Republican-led House to finance and reopen the government.

But he raised the possibility of reopening the government and raising the debt limit in the short term to allow negotiations, a development Republicans saw as positive. “If they can’t do it for a long time, do it for the period of time in which these negotiations are taking place,” he said.

Congress has a constitutional responsibility to both finance the government and keep it solvent, Mr. Obama said, and once the House acts, he will talk.

Earlier in the day he’d phoned House Speaker John Boehner to give him a heads-up:

“I am happy to talk with him and other Republicans about anything – not just issues I think are important but also issues that they think are important,” Mr. Obama said. “But I also told him that having such a conversation, to have talks, negotiations shouldn’t require hanging the threats of a government shutdown or economic chaos over the heads of the American people.”

“Think about it this way,” the president added. “The American people do not get to demand a ransom for doing their jobs.”

The speaker disagrees:

Mr. Boehner, at a news conference after the president’s, once again insisted that Mr. Obama must negotiate.

“When it comes to the debt limit, I agree with the president: we should pay our bills,” he said. “I didn’t come here to shut down the government. I certainly didn’t come here to default on our debt.”

Mr. Boehner added, “What the president said today was, if there is unconditional surrender by Republicans, he’ll sit down and talk to us. That’s not the way our government works.”

That last bit would have been more convincing if everyone hadn’t been giggling about that baseball letter all day – but the Republican position has come down to one assertion, that Obama is a mean and nasty man who won’t even talk to them, or talk to anyone. The Dodgers won’t talk to the Braves either.

This leads Kevin Drum into the depths of existential despair at the absurd:

I’ve written about the basics of the debt ceiling hostage crisis at least a dozen times, and I still don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to get across just how radical the whole thing is.

Except for Newt Gingrich in 1995, no one has ever shut down the government as a threat to get something they want. And except for John Boehner in 2011, nobody has ever threatened to breach the debt ceiling as a threat to get something they want. That’s because it’s basically nuclear chicken, threatening to destroy the economy unless you get your way. It’s unthinkable.

In fact, it’s patently absurd, but then we may not like it, we may deny it, but deep down Drum fears that we’ve all come to accept absurdity:

It’s now become so institutionalized that Republicans can repeat over and over their mantra that “President Obama refuses to negotiate,” and eventually it starts to get some traction. Reporters who should know better write columns suggesting that Obama should try to bargain his way out of this. Conservative pundits complain not about the hostage taking itself, but about the fact that Republicans should be sure to choose the superior – i.e., most damaging – hostage-taking opportunity available. And Obama is forced to take the stage and try out an extended series of metaphors to explain exactly what’s going on. And then we all sit around and analyze his speech and nitpick his metaphors and game out how this might end.

It’s crazy. How do you get across how insurrectionary this is? Raising the debt ceiling isn’t a concession from Republicans that deserves a corresponding concession from Democrats. It’s the financial equivalent of a nuclear bomb: both sides will go up in smoke if it’s triggered – ditto for the government shutdown. And ditto again for the piecemeal spending bills, which are basically a way for Republicans to fund only the parts of government they like but not anything else.

Drum’s point is that you can’t govern a country this way:

You can’t allow a minority party to make relentless demands not through the political system, but by threatening Armageddon if they don’t get what they want. It’s not what the Constitution intended; it’s not something any president could countenance; and it’s reckless almost beyond imagining.

And most important of all, it’s not something that should get written about as if it’s just a modest escalation of normal political disagreements. It’s not normal. At all!

But how do you get this across? How do you get across just how non-normal it is that we’re even talking about it?

You write a letter to your congressman about how the mean Los Angeles Dodgers won’t negotiate with that Atlanta Braves? That probably won’t do the trick, especially when the other side sees things this way:

Speaker John Boehner rallied his troops this morning at a closed-door conference meeting at the Capitol. Democrats are trying to “annihilate us,” he told his members. “We can get through this if we stick together.”

The Ohio Republican added that a “grand bargain” is off the table. What he wants is something that “builds on the gains we’ve made over the past three years, puts points on the board, and doesn’t raise taxes.”

What gains? Obama easily and convincingly won reelection to the White House. Democrats also picked up two additional Senate seats and eight House seats, and they won the popular House vote too – overall more folks voted for Democrats than Republicans. Obamacare became law before that, and the Supreme Court said it was quite constitutional. They held onto the House – that’s it – and they have not proposed any new legislation, much less passed any. Boehner has said they should be judged not on how many laws they’ve passed but on how many laws they’ve repealed – and they’ve repealed none at all. The Senate laughs at them and Obama still has that veto pen. What gains is this man talking about? Yeah, the Braves sent forty batters to the plate in those four games. So what?

It seems that all of that doesn’t matter:

“I think the American people are watching unwillingness by one side to negotiate and compromise. I think they are watching the utterly vindictive actions of the administration to intensify the pain of the shutdown and I think they are watching the collapse of the administration’s signature program, Obamacare, as it unrolls and unravels before our very eyes,” says Representative Tom McClintock of California. “The public awakening to what is happening here is going to ultimately compel the Democrats to negotiate and compromise.”

No, they’re not awakening:

Disapproval of congressional Republicans’ budget wrangling after a weeklong shutdown has shot up to 70 percent, with 51 percent disapproving “strongly,” according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. At the same time, President Obama’s approval rating has ticked up due to improved marks among moderate Democrats and independents.

There’s also Wall Street – Debt Fears Hit Stocks: Dow Drops 160 points – so it’s not just the detailed phone surveys.

Andrew Sullivan sums it up:

There is effectively no Republican party any more. There is a radical movement to destroy the modern American state and eviscerate its institutions in favor of restoring a mythical, Elysian, majority-white, nineteenth-century past. This crisis is proving that more powerfully than even watching Fox News. We need to see what is in front of our nose: a cold civil war has broken out between those properly called conservatives, defending the credit of the government, empirical reality, and adjustments to modern life, and those properly called radical reactionaries declaring our current elected president and Senate as illegitimate actors, bent on the destruction of America, and therefore necessitating total political warfare, even to the point of threatening to destroy the global economy.

There is a really tough choice for the president to make – almost as tough as the choices Lincoln had to make.

Does he try to negotiate with those who simply wish to nullify his election or does he reluctantly declare war in return in order to save the republic from an economic catastrophe?

The absurd can be just as tragic as anything the Greeks thought up, and Sullivan isn’t finished:

What truly terrifies me is the almost Egypt-level of mutual incomprehension that is being displayed. I take it for granted, for example, that the deficit is falling fast, that the current continuing resolution that is now in suspension affirmed the sequester levels of spending that are far lower than most Democrats would like, that Obamacare is settled law that can only be repealed by the usual democratic process, and that no sane government would default on its debts. But none of this seems to be accepted by the spokespeople of the Republican “party”.

They argue that we are facing a Greece-like implosion because of the current levels of debt (and not because they have shut down the government and are refusing to pay our bills until they stop Obamacare), that the deficit is growing (according to Speaker Boehner this week), that Obamacare is such a destruction of the entire American economy that it must be stopped or delayed at even the cost of a default, that a default is impossible anyway, and that even if we defaulted it would be no big deal.

That’s where we are. We cannot agree upon basic empirical fact in order to have a conversation, let alone a negotiation.

This is despair of the absurd:

If we were for a moment to step outside this cognitive abyss, I’d simply defer to the view of almost every single expert on the subject that even thinking about a default could be a catastrophic event not just for the American but for the entire global economy. Whatever your view of the budget or healthcare reform or the debt, surely no responsible government leader would want that to happen. And yet one party seems openly prepared to threaten it, even to save face among their increasingly radicalized followers. …

Do I believe they would happily explode this country’s credit and economy rather than have to go through the difficult task of building an actual majority in the country for their agenda? Yes, I’m afraid I do. I’ve been waiting to see some scintilla of resistance to ever further radicalization, and I see none whatsoever.

That leaves not much choice:

Obama can invoke emergency executive authority to protect the unquestionable credit of the United States and dare the Courts to over-rule him and the Congress to impeach him. Or Obama can give in to what is an unbelievably outrageous tactic – and try to salvage some kind of interim budget deal that will raise the debt ceiling in return for some kind of Republican trophy. That would be a surrender of profound implications for future presidents – yes, Republican ones too – and fundamentally alter our political system to reward the kind of blackmail we’re now witnessing. But it would end the immediate emergency and remove the blackmail – for a while, until the GOP insists that, even though they lost the last election, they have a right to run the country permanently, regardless of electoral outcomes.

Better perhaps for the president to act to save the economy and the world in a truly perilous self-induced crisis than to allow this rogue faction to concoct a Lehman-style collapse to the power of ten and then blame him for it. It remains staggering and outrageous that this is where we are. But if one faction of one party controls the House, and it goes completely rogue, as it has, then what can a sane president do?

That’s always the problem with the absurd. What can any sane person do – wait for Godot? There is no Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask each other questions, about what’s really going on, questions neither can answer. That doesn’t work either. What you’re left with is neither tragedy nor comedy – just absurdity – with No Exit like in the Sartre play. Perhaps the appropriate response to absurdity is despair. There’s a lot of that going around now.


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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One Response to Appropriate Despair

  1. Rick says:

    You often make fun of those who want to return to the days of Ozzie and Harriet, but that’s what I myself want to do — go back to the days when Republicans were sometimes the good guys, when a Republican president nationalized the troops in Arkansas to enforce school desegregation, and when Republican leadership actually believed in the America system, instead of threatening to destroy it — back when the American people would have been extremely agitated with Republicans if they even hinted at thoughts of destroying the American economy.

    Yay, Kevin Drum! He seems to be as spitting mad as I am that we have to sit and listen to these Republican idiots complain that Obama won’t sit down and negotiate with them over blowing up the world, as if they shouldn’t instead all be thrown in jail where they should all be maybe beaten with big sticks.

    Is the absurd supposed to make one spitting mad? It does that to me. I can’t stand it that people give serious audience to the ideas of the same stupid people who were absolutely gobsmacked that Romney lost that election!

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before, but back in 2001, al-Qaeda made a serious attempt to destroy the American economy, and because they did, we sent soldiers after them, to punish them and kill them. So why can John Boehner do the same thing, while we sit here quietly and listen to him? People should not feel sorry for him, sorry that he’s pushed around by the Tea Party, and certainly shouldn’t respect him, because he is, in fact, evil! Maybe also stupid. He is the enemy of America, and so are all those who agree with him. He is Hitler and they are his fellow Nazis.

    Yes, I know. We’re not supposed to demonize our opponents. But I’m not taking it back, because I think we need to be shocked out of our complacency, and because at some point we need to realize that some people are irredeemably dangerous and need to be dealt with as serious threats, not just treated as worthy opponents whose opinions are just as valuable as those of the good people who are not threatening to destroy their nation if they don’t get their way.

    By the way, even as the White House has apparently decided to not employ the 14th amendment as a way to prevent the bad guys from getting away with mayhem, there are those who still disagree with that decision. One of them, Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz, wrote a nice piece in yesterday’s New York Times, “Obama and the Debt”. He supplies us the historical background as to how and why not respecting the national debt became an illegal violation of the Constitution — it traces back to 1866, and was ironically designed to prevent Democrats from destroying our economy after the Civil War.

    That was way back before the good guys and bad guys switched sides. History is indeed strange that way.


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