Why I like Obamacare [the Spiritual Masters Series]

When the heart is right
“For” and “against” are forgotten.

— Chuang Tzu (from Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu)

I like Obamacare’s medicine and policy; let’s get that out of the way. I liked it in 1993, and I like it now. But what I like best is the political process.

We have listened to one another. We have given in to one another. We can still compromise, we can still solve big problems. But time has taken the place of reason. Our deepest failing – our short collective attention span – has become our highest virtue.

We Americans are a forgetful people. We have forgotten that Obamacare is essentially the Chafee bill co-sponsored – co-sponsored! – by nineteen Republican U.S. Senators. The Chafee bill became the Republican rallying cry, the chief alternative to Hillarycare.

The Chafee bill contained that infamous Republican innovation, the individual mandate. It contained Obamacare’s state-based exchanges, its ban on denials for preexisting conditions, its subsidies for low-income people to buy insurance policies. It contained Obamacare’s expansion of the private insurance industry, its allowance for individual state innovation, its efficiency requirements, its reduction in growth of health care costs, and its expansion of Americans covered to around 94%. Even though the impartial Congressional Budget Office never did the analysis, the Chafee bill probably would have reduced the deficit in real dollars almost as much as Obamacare will. (Here’s a chart summarizing a comparison of the Chafee bill and Obamacare.)

I like how Democrats can now say, “Ha ha! You Republicans thought you lost when Obamacare was passed and upheld, but you really won! You got exactly what you wanted almost two decades ago, including your precious individual mandate that we hated, and the public voted us out of office in 2010 instead of you! Nyeh!”

I like how one can fall asleep a Republican in 1993 and wake up, Orlando-like, in 2010 a Democrat without modifying a single view. And how one can argue passionately as a Republican one decade and passionately as a Democrat the next while making the same points, even using the same words. In the alternative, I like how one can remain true to an inconstant party, ignoring the lipstick, the nights out of town, even the recently discovered love letters. We are virtuous consumers of political rhetoric: we remain loyal to a brand even when the brand itself is sold to its competitor. Time, aided by a certain peer pressure, makes it the most natural thing in the world to argue for more freedom as a teen and more responsibility from our teens, all the while hearing faint echoes of one’s future or former self. We have raised a child who (the ode reminds us) is father of the man.

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Radical individualism left and right

In 1968, David Frost interviewed Ronald Reagan and Robert Kennedy and asked them to address the purpose of life. For Reagan, it came down to “individual fulfillment.” The government’s job was to get out of the way. For Kennedy, it came down to fulfilling his responsibility to society by helping someone less fortunate.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wrote an article in The Atlantic last year entitled, “The Pursuit of Happiness: What the Founders Meant – and Didn’t.” In it, she reproduces Reagan’s and her father’s complete answers to Frost’s question. Then she implies that Reagan’s idea of life’s meaning – an individual happiness that the government could only threaten but never help to achieve or maintain – led to his anti-government rhetoric. Reagan, she believes, left us with “an unnatural obsession with individualism, a single-minded focus on wealth over work, and an anti-government animus.”

In this post, I’d like to use Townsend as a liberal voice in favor of an Aristotelian notion of “happiness.” I’ll also quote Harry V. Jaffa from his book A New Birth of Freedom  as a conservative voice in favor of the same notion. I’ll point out how neither Townsend nor Jaffa has brought the left or the right to the Aristotelian table. Frankly, the Aristotelian notion of happiness on an individual and societal level, which Jefferson and the Framers were schooled in, seems to scare the hell out of today’s political left and right.

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So much of what I’ve written before feels like innocence.
I could no more write it again than the earth could cool.

How did I find this pencil? Was I reaching in the kitchen drawer
for a twist tie, or did I fish it out of my old shorts?

It’s hard to change, being old. It’s hard to start over.
Death is no longer a metaphor.

We have wine. The label is stained with wine and
resembles parchment or an old man’s arm.

These hot days and short breaths are the sweetest, never
to be repeated. Leaves fall in July and come to mind.



On Why I’m a Whig. This quote from Book 1 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics cracked me up today:

. . . What it is that we say political science aims at and what is the highest of all goods achievable by action[?] Verbally there is very general agreement; for both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well and doing well with being happy; but with regard to what happiness is they differ, and the many do not give the same account as the wise.

I’m no great thinker — I don’t have a philosophical intelligence or frame of mind — but I can relate to Aristotle’s rueful (well, rueful if Aristotle were an American politician) “the many do not give the same account as the wise.”

I’m not up for Aristotle’s class-structured government, and Aristotle’s teleological understanding of happiness is a tough sell in a democracy dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But I agree with his teleological understanding of happiness, and I agree that, usually, “the many do not give the same account as the wise.”

I think Lincoln agreed with both, too. In fact, I think he lived out this paradox. A democracy is blessed if its leaders, during a critical time such as our Civil War, demonstrate wisdom consistent with a high notion of what Jefferson called “societal happiness.” Lincoln is the last United States president, I think, who was critical of his nation’s spiritual condition and got away with it, at least in the eyes of history. (See his Peoria speech and his Second Inaugural.)

The quote, and some further thoughts about it, added a new #15 to the (now) 26 reasons why I’m a Whig.

The comforter

The comforter is half-folded over with the upsweep of a snow bank against a house, if you’ll picture my wife’s side of the bed as the house.  Certainly, I am comparing a floor-plan perspective with an elevation, as it were, but you may ignore the rest of this paragraph: it may be worth your time instead to visualize the comforter just so.  She made the bed before she left, and I have not disturbed her side of it except to take her pillow.  She comes back Monday.  The sheets are pink, and the top one entwines with a thin, cotton blanket, the sheet’s yin swirling with the blanket’s yang.  Miles above them, the comforter’s displeasure is a perfect crescent.

I’ll make the bed Monday morning.  My simple sleep seems hardly enough to have messed up the covers to this extent, though I do sleep better with everything shoved to the side except some blanket over one leg.

Things would surprise her were she to return early.  The windows are open though the temperature is in the 80’s.  I have also saved up all of the dishes and housecleaning for Sunday.  I hope I will get it done.

When we’re in bed, my knee lies between her legs like a log dropped on top of an ebbing campfire (the elevation and floor plan again, I’m afraid), and my face is in her chest.  The comforter is full above us, and I stay under until I get too hot.  Then I lie on my back, and our dreams spire like smoke.

There are also clothes scattered around I have not picked up.  Maybe none of this would surprise her.  The man in me wants her, but the boy is a little afraid, as if I had mooned passersby through our window or had pelted them with snowballs from our roof.

This is not an object poem, but it was inspired by Francis Ponge’s object poems and by Robert Bly’s object poems that were themselves inspired by Ponge’s object poems.


On Philosophy in fiction. Roland Barthes puts it this way (as only he could have):

There are those who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the “dominant ideology”; but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text (see the myth of the Woman without a Shadow). The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro. [Emphasis original]

The Pleasure of the Text, page 32.

The one-sided fight for the Founders

Obama has conceded America’s past to his opponents. It may cost him the election.

1. Who built that business?

Here’s the latest example of Obama’s concession.

As political junkies are aware (and attack ads will soon make the rest of America aware), President Obama recently said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Former Governor Romney pounced on Obama’s statement: “This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is something that is so foreign to us that we can’t understand it.”

Obama, of course, was not attacking success but supporting it. He was explaining one aspect of how entrepreneurs become successful – the necessary partnership businesses have with society and government. Obama feels the need to explain it because he wants to make the bigger point that Romney’s go-it-alone policies will hurt entrepreneurs. And, strictly speaking, Obama was referring to roads and bridges, not businesses. Here’s the quote in context:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.

The pundits say that Obama harmed himself by stating his case in such a way that a sentence could be taken out of context and easily misconstrued, and I suppose they’re right.  One of the Washington Post’s political pundits, Aaron Blake, points out that Obama’s remark feeds into the perception of him as a “big-government liberal.”

Obama frequently tries to express an individual’s relationship to society and government. But he is largely wasting his breath. Why? Because he and most other progressive politicians I know have not laid the philosophical groundwork for it.

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On Modern bestsellers: a lack of 18th-century leisure and 19th-century boredom. Having dropped out of Little Dorrit after the first trimester, I am determined to see Bleak House through. I’ve been listening to a delightful audio recording. I woke up on an elliptical machine from a protracted daydream yesterday, though, and found that I had almost entirely lost the thread.

So I just visited CliffsNotes’s web site, where I read this:

In the Snagsbys and their maid Guster, Dickens again shows his penchant for oddity, caricature, and the grotesque. Like other Victorian novelists, Dickens gives far more attention to such minor characters than is demanded by the plot. Such generosity in creation was more acceptable to Dickens’ readers than to today’s. The Victorian age, recall, was less hurried than ours and, in any event, it took more delight in reading. [From the summary of chapter 12.]

First I nodded in agreement at this reminder, which cannot be overstated. Then I was more impressed: I took in the breath units baked into that last sentence. Those commas, those interruptors and phrases! They all slowed down the sentence, making it a perfect vehicle for its content.

Then I “recalled” something more: I was reading CliffsNotes. As an English teacher, I’ve taken persistent and largely ineffectual steps to discourage students from going to this site. How ironic, how audacious for CliffsNotes to preach to us about slow reading!

Then, after my indignation subsided, more: I, my students’ company commander, who has been boldly overseeing the field in the general cultural retreat, was reading CliffsNotes.

And how was I reading CliffsNotes? (If you’re familiar with Bleak House, you may recognize the Rev. Mr. Chadband’s rhetorical approach, which I instinctively model. The Reverend may put his listeners to sleep, but he really knows how to break down a text.)

And how (rejoining myself, already in progress, if  “progress” is the right word) was I reading CliffsNotes? As an aid to a long and fairly unfocused text. As a means of adopting an unhurried text to my hurried lifestyle. As a means of bridging the centuries. As a way of taking in the entire, sprawling battlefield in my fight to read this text.

Perhaps Roland Barthes would have agreed that I was having my boredom and eating it, too. I like to think so.

This series of realizations happened in a few seconds, but it has made me reconsider my fusillades against online summaries. And for the first time, I wonder if CliffsNotes and its ilk might help my students in conjunction with, and not in place of, a long text.

John field notes 12(b)(1): What the thunder said

‘Now my soul is in turmoil, and what am I to say? “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it was for this that I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.’ A voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing by said it was thunder they heard, while others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus replied, ‘This voice spoke for your sake, not mine.’ (John 12:27 – 30, REB)

Jesus confides in his disciples, shares his inner turmoil with them. Then he sighs, wonders out loud how he should pray, and resolves on a resigned, ejaculatory prayer: “Father, glorify your name.” Just then it thunders.

To encourage him, some of Jesus’ disciples suggest the thunder answers his prayer. “God must be saying, ‘I will,'” Peter says.

“The thunder rolled on too long,” Matthew counters, brightening. He hopes the group’s new mood, brought on by the fortuitous empyrean event, will continue. “I think God is saying, ‘I have glorified it.'”

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The beauty of sex

I stayed up very late over the last two nights finishing James Salter’s 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime. It may be the most beautiful novel I’ve ever read.

It’s about sex. It’s about how sex intersects with human nature inside and outside the sexual relationship. I think its beauty stems from how the sex is depicted, how the relationships are depicted, and how description and atmospherics are used to convey emotional information. (I’ve read that the novel broke ground on how directly a literary novel could address sex. I bet the novel was a pioneer also in its understated and poetic use of description to get across the characters’ emotional states. I recently finished Michael Ondaatje’s 2011 novel The Cat’s Table, and it may owe something to Salter’s sensitive and spare use of description for emotional content.)

Here’s what A Sport and a Pastime answers for me:

  1. How do you write an honest and compelling narrative about sex without seeming clinical, crude, or salacious? What words do you use for specific organs and acts? How specific does a writer need to be to convey a character’s experience and still leave work for the reader’s imagination?
  2. How do you write about what someone begins to mean to you because you will not, yourself, do what he does or that part of what he does that represents, however imperfectly, what the currently most essential part of you wants or needs to do?
  3. How can a narrator report the actions of an actor (that is, a non-writer) and examine, without distracting from the act, what the actor’s acts are doing inside the narrator?

As far as question #3 goes, A Sport and a Pastime beats out one of my favorite novels that also answers the same question, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (And the novels include similar scenes in their denouements (spoiler alert): after the actor dies, the narrator somewhat awkwardly commiserates with the actor’s woman. A feeling of depletion pervades most of the scene.)

A Sport and a Pastime contains not one false note. It’s like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in that respect, and maybe in another: each novel was its respective author’s favorite, probably because it represented to him the fulfillment of writing’s promise and the promise of more.