Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Sleep Tight

If our seasonal hysteria for global warming, sharks and wildfire isn’t giving you the Summer Craze you need this year, might I suggest you consider freaking out about bed bugs? All the cool kids are doing it.


Bed bugs are ripe subjects for paranoid obsession. They’re too small to detect and too clever to be caught. They’re courteous enough to administer an anesthetic before they go to work on your body and they’re tough enough to go without food for a year. True to the name, they prefer the bedside buffet, but they’ll happily lodge anywhere: wood floors, carpet, furniture, clothing, even the wiring in your walls. They travel with you between cities, into and out of hotel rooms, on all manner of transportation: cars, busses, subways, trains, planes and so on. Fifty percent of all bed bug bite victims never know they’re being eaten. And once you do know, there’s little you can do to stop them. In short, they’re invisible, omnipresent, clever and patient. Commence freak-out.




Bed bugs present no tangible consequence except irritation. According to my research, the main problem with bed bugs is that they’re fucking creepy. They breed through a process called “traumatic insemination,” which is exactly what it sounds like -- the title of an Eve Sedgwick book. They spread like a disease, but do not act as carriers of disease. A small number of hosts suffer shock, asthma or severe skin rashes, but most victims suffer only itching, if they suffer anything at all. Essentially, then, they’re just ... a thing to be afraid of. Since you can never be sure you don’t have them (double-negative intended), you get to be as afraid as you want to be.

Sounds like the sort of summertime thrill we expect from bullshit movies like Inception (of which more below). Scan your forearm right now. See those two or three imperfections in your skin that you never noticed before? If you are of the right temperament, this is proof positive that you’ve been eaten by bed bugs! Now stare at all the bits of white lint on your sheets and clothing. Keep staring. Don’t they kinda look like … eggs? (NB: do not perform this examination stoned)

Fortunately, there are three guaranteed solutions to a bed bug infestation:

1. Levitation. Bed bugs can’t fly. You can only get bitten if you touch things, go places, or gather with other humans, so … time to break out that Vedanta book you kept on your shelf to seduce hippy girls in college.

2. Become independently wealthy. No, you’re not safe in your posh Union Square condo or Upper East Side mansion. Bed bugs have no class consciousness. But after you become independently wealthy, you can afford to burn everything you own and buy perfect replicas! This is actually the solution proffered by New York City’s public health officials right now, which leads one to wonder if bed bugs have done more to stimulate consumer demand than unemployment benefits.

3. Find a scapegoat. If bed bugs attack first in the venue of our imagination, surely they can be defeated there, too. All paranoid obsessions can be relieved by a good scapegoat. For example, John Stossel of Fox News blames the environmentalists! Turns out the pesticide DDT was great at killing bed bugs, but because it killed a great deal more than that, we stopped using it. Stossel would like us to resume DDT use because he has an itch in his knickers. Presumably, Stossel is aware that napalm is a great decongestant and that rape improves your resting heart rate.

I’m traditional when it comes to scapegoats, so I’ll fall back on the most generic PB&J one we have: Al Qaeda.

Consider: bed bugs are far less frightening if they’ve been deployed by another human. It would be the sort of half-sinister, half-pathetic attack we’ve come to expect from the likes of Captain Firecrotch or the Hatchback Douchebag of Times Square. “One day we will mildly annoy the American Empire! Moo-ha-ha!” So the next time you stay awake at night wondering if a swarm of nano-pests will bleed you while you dream … think about all those other jerks that get under your skin. And then scratch your balls with the refreshing vigor of a new moral imperative.

Or just, you know … be irritated every once in a while.

INCEPTION

Speaking of nocturnal irritations, the movie Inception sucks your imagination the way bed bugs suck your blood. Christopher Nolan’s daisy-chain of migraines has been anointed by critics and crowds as the must-see thriller of 2010 and in these frugal times, it's easy to see why. For $11 you can watch four mediocre action movies smooshed into one ghastly palimpsest. And for another $11 you can buy four Taco Bell entrees and shake them up in your takeout bag.

The story follows Leonardo DiCaprio and an intrepid team of dream hijackers as they dig into the subconscious mind of a rich guy to traumatically inseminate him with an idea. Once dreaming, they induce sub-dreams and sub-sub-dreams and sub-sub-sub-dreams in order to bury the idea so deeply that the rich guy will take it as his own upon waking. This is an intriguing premise that calls to mind Poe’s famous lines:


All that we see or seem,
Is but a dream within a dream.


This would make a fascinating multi-dimensional flick, action or otherwise, but in Nolan’s treatment it looks like a lazy pile of noise, bullets, and blood. By the final stretch, he’s cutting between a van falling slo-mo into a river, some guys dressed in white shooting each other in the snow, and Joseph Gordon Levitt levitating in an elevator car. Oh, and there’s another storyline about Leo’s bitch ex-wife as well as some seaside confrontation with an elderly Ken Wanatanabe wherein Leo stands amidst the roar of a surf-tormented shore.

I can’t remember anything else because my date and I fell asleep halfway through. Why does willful chaos have this narcoleptic effect? Was this a brilliant gambit by Nolan? Last year, Avatar resurrected 3D. This year … Nolan offers an action movie about dream pirates that actually makes you feel like your dreams have been stolen as you doze in the theater. I guess that’s some kind of accomplishment.

The Taco Bell metaphor doesn’t quite capture the thrashing nausea of Inception. If Nolan were a chef, Inception would be a hotdog wrapped in an ├ęclair, dipped in mayonnaise, and sprinkled with crayon shavings. Though I doubt the food critics would ape their arts-section colleagues by praising: "Look how many layers!" Yes, this ingenious combo spares critics the need to sit through several bad movies in a row, so I can understand why they might be grateful in their reviews. And cash-strapped audiences may feel like they’re getting a lot for $11, but surely we don’t need to pay full price just to watch four more previews.

Then again, if the specter of bed bugs gives you insomnia at home, Inception is a great way to stop thinking and catch some shut-eye. Strap in. Sleep tight. Bite me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Open Letter to Ron Rosenbaum

... because I doubt I'll get a response from the man himself.

First, read his Agnostic Manifesto at Slate.

Ahem:

Dear Mr. Rosenbaum,

Rarely have I been so aggravated by an essay whose merits I mostly affirm.

I welcome your provocative reversal of the prevailing debate about faith: that atheism is a weaker form of agnosticism, not the other way about. However, your “Agnostic Manifesto” tries to put the New Atheists in their place without presenting any evidence from the source to do so. To the degree that I am sympathetic to your cause, I am aggravated by your rather thuggish line of attack. It seems, at best, disingenuous from a man espousing the virtue of humility.

You imply atheists cannot mean what they say until they acknowledge your something-or-nothing question. As you suggest, this question cannot be answered by logic or reason. But I fail to see how your ability to pose this question debunks atheism as a valid approach to existence. Most atheists, even the shrill New Atheists, are more than happy to engage the question of existence; they just don’t see how this question admits or necessitates the presence of a god. Certainly it admits the possibility of a god, but that’s not the same thing. If you’re saying the New Atheists have degenerated from a reasoned rejection of faith to an active assertion of non-faith, you will get no argument from me. But you won’t yet get an affirmation of agnosticism, either.

I will offer my own answer to your something-from-nothing question in the next paragraph, but indulge me on this line of thought first. We can conceive of an infinite number of possibilities; infinity itself is a pure conception, equally un-provable as a truth or non-truth. In an aside, you say the “are you agnostic about fairies rejoinder is just dumb.” Well, if we discover one day that fairies made something come from nothing, how dumb could the question be? I don’t believe that’s the case and I sense you don’t either, but once you make skepticism your ground of being – once you make nothingness itself the irreducible question – you leave yourself open to other people’s projections. For most people on this planet, that projection is god. Today, existence, ethics and aesthetics remain the only phenomena for which we have sufficient dispute to admit the possibility of god as an answer. But while existence, ethics and aesthetics may be inexhaustible ponderables (forgive the mouthy phrase), that still does not constitute sufficient evidence to compel the atheists from their position. In my experience, it is the atheists who stand ready to ponder such things, while the faithful find the question moot since they already have an answer of their own. Certainly saying “there is no god” does not cut off the larger mystery of being alive. So your rebuke to atheism involves accusing the atheists of an answer they never needed to ask for in the first place. This is why your something-nothing challenge is not just fallacious, but cruel and a little cowardly.

Why is there something rather than nothing? Becuase Nothing was the source and subject of our first conception. You mock Thomas Aquinas for positing a Supreme Being that exists in a timeless, spaceless, causeless realm, but your very question requires a timeless, spaceless, causeless juncture outside existence at which point the option of existence was acted upon. So of course any answer will be unsatisfactory -- whether it appeals to logic, reason or emotion -- because it can only trigger questions of infinitely regressing priority: What came before that? Who did the acting upon? How and why? The question is unanswerable - not because, as Terry Eagleton suggested, we don’t know what Time is, but rather because we can never experience nothingness to validate one answer or another. We can only conceive of nothingness or project ourselves into it.

I’m guessing a Hamlet aficionado like you can see the play on “conception” and “nothing” here. Not for nothing does he punningly call death “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” (thus surpassing any oedipal coordinates for his affliction.) Hamlet’s enduring philosophical insight is that death can never guarantee a reprieve from thinking, feeling and suffering. For Hamlet, the possibility of perpetual, irreversible consciousness is a spur to re-engage with the fussy contingencies of life: to “bear those ills we have.” We can die, but we can never experience death; we can only know it. Once known, death loses its power as a guarantee of anything. Cruel as it is when it takes a loved one, death itself is nothing to fear because, as Hamlet says, the worse fate would be to experience something rather than nothing -- “the dread of something after death.” Which is to say: after thought.

Nothingness – conceptual negation – is the very source from which thinking gets its force and against which reason sharpens its cutting edge. Even if our own death turns out to be nothing more than the omnidirectional dispersal of our constituent carbon atoms, there will be no self apart from that disintegration to suffer it as such for it is that selfsame self that does the disintegrating. This disintegration happens all the time, within the psyche, well before natural death. It was the task of that polymath psychologist Hamlet to bear that disintegration honestly. As Hamlet reminds us, the most we ever know in life is that we may continue to experience consciousness after we die. Religion offers its followers the guarantee of such knowledge and goes further to describe the very content of an after-life: heaven, hell, etc.

What about any of this should make an atheist re-consider the existence of god? Atheism can reject the eager projections of religion without denying the mystery of the rest of waking life. Admittedly, many New Atheists fail to do this, but your manifesto does not yet make the case for agnosticism as a worthy antidote to their hysterical crusade. At most, it loudly announces the problem and surpasses it with a new magnitude of hysteria.

Here I wish you had cited some Neo-Atheist bombast to back up your charges against them. I say this because you are right to point out their smug, Spock-like dismissal of mystery. Dawkins, Dennet, Onfrey, Hitchens and Harris (hereinafter “DDOHH”) have quite a lot invested in the question of god, and have been discharging quite a lot of anger with their escalating reiterations of “There is no god!” Tragically, they seem to think a well-crafted syllogism can undo centuries of emotional attachment and they remain priggishly unconcerned with charting that emotional attachment to its root. Even if god is nothing more than a fictional concept to DDOHH, they still depend on it as the keystone concept for their shaky pons asinorum. At the end of the day, neither the faithful nor the rabidly anti-faithful is likely to be enlightened by the something-from-nothing paradox. Like all good paradoxes, it is a statement posing as a question. You bait your readers for a debate by challenging them to answer it. Since you know it was never a question in the first place, you get to declare victory in advance. Congratulations.

Just know that this is a victory for nihilism, not the radical skepticism to which you aspire. To take your view seriously, we would have to continue doubting the existence of god even after he breached the firmament to give Katie Couric an exclusive interview. Billions of people already have faith based on lesser spectacles than that, so why begrudge the atheists for wanting more evidence in the meantime?

I have no love for the New Atheists. They alternate between a crude materialism and a closed rationalism. My own spiritual journey owes more to the Nietzschean-Freudian strain of atheism. This camp approaches god and existence with more than reason and logic. It attempts to trace thoughts, beliefs and emotions to their root, while maintaining a position of openness and receptivity to the ecstatic mystery of life at the same time. It grants an axiomatic primacy to conflict, not mere skepticism.

As David Hart recently explained in First Things, Nietzsche was not content to reason his way out of faith. It was not enough to disprove god on rational or material grounds; he had to declare his death. (In an attempt to out-aphorize Nietzsche, Christopher Hitchens glides over this distinction: he teases Nietzsche for declaring the death of something that never existed! One then wonders why Hitchens titled his book “God is Not Great” since there was no god whose greatness needed negating, but whatever.) Like Nietzsche, Freud grounded our relationship to god in the dynamic of a larger drama so we could contend with the implications of faith and the horrors of existence in a meaningful way. Or, at least, in a way less superficial than, say, Ayn Rand’s bloodless abstractions (this seems to be the only level at which Sam Harris cares to think).


Faced with your something-nothing challenge, the neo-Atheists will simply maintain that they never believed in god, never had a crisis of faith, and that some transcendent principle of Reason backs up their present disposition. They would be wrong, of course, but your manifesto doesn’t begin to explain why. Again, I agree that the New Atheists are an obnoxious lot. They remain self-righteously mystified that so many other people could be so delusional to disagree with them. For Bill Maher, atheism is just a lazy way to smite the stupid because it spares him the trouble of wondering what, besides stupidity, accounts for their belief. Such an investigation would require more grace and introspection than Maher wants to grant; it would require a return to psychoanalytic-existential inquiry. Only then can we rise above this tired battle between the stupid and the smart.

And this is what most aggravated me about your manifesto: like Maher, you’re just calling your opponents stupid. While I was happy to see you reference Jim Holt, I was irritated to see you reference Errol Morris’s pointless ruminations on anosognosia. Like the Nothing we can never experience, the “unknown unknown” is the void into which we project what we want to be true. We are all beholden to unknown unknowns. I don’t need a five-part column to tell me that. Sometime around age two, it became painfully clear to me that I’m not omniscient and that my growth and fulfillment in this life depended on how I squared my limitations with my desires. The coinage “anosognosia” is meant to be a spur to new knowledge. But in your hands, it ends up being another way to validate what you already knew: that some people are really stupid. After all, anosognosia can only be diagnosed by people who know something (the smart) against people who can’t know something (the stupid). By definition, the stupid anosognosiac cannot be cured of his malady. So anosognosia also provides you the toxic jouissance that comes from damning the irredeemable: ye who cannot be saved from your stupidity. One may as well say that a wounded soldier deserves to die because his blasted hand prevents him from performing his own amputation. To say that stupid people are so stupid they don’t know how stupid they are (i.e., that they are “meta-stupid”) is to give stupid people a meaningless diagnosis and to give smart people a new epithet to express their contempt. This is sesquipedalianism at its finest. How humble!


I have no patience for this petty line of attack, especially when I agree with the attacker. Better to explore why we want something to be true. Why do certain falsehoods keep their grip long after they’ve been exposed? Why do so many New Atheists sound like fascistic cowards stuck in a self-induced autism? As I explain in the following link, better to explore the unknown KNOWN before we judge others from the vantage of the unknown unknown:

http://www.tundratastic.blogspot.com/2010/06/cogito-ergo-boom.html

I write because I agree with you on almost every substantive point; I’m just saddened that there are so few of them. You get to contribute a longer-than-average column once a month at Slate. Surely you have the time and patience to craft something more than a personal screed against other people’s personal screeds (your Shakespeare and Hitler pieces are fantastic). The atheism-agnosticism debate is an important one to have – and I would love to see a bout between you and fellow Slater Hitchens, if he’s up to it these days. But from one Mysterian to another, I have to say this conflict is too important to leave at the level of conceptual gainsaying and nerd bullying.

Sincerely,

Karl Miller

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cogito Ergo BOOM

It started with Donald Rumsfeld's existential poetry:

There are known knowns
Things we know we know
And there are known unknowns
Things we know we don't know
But then there are unknown unknowns
Things we don't know we don't know.

I may be confessing the depth of my unknown unknown ignorance here, but I find it baffling and a little scary that so many people are taken in by Rumsfeld's poem all of the sudden. In an interview with Errol Morris at The New York Times, Cornell sociologist David Dunning credits a recent epiphany to Rummy's closing couplet:

He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.” ... If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know about. Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody’s field of ignorance.

After reading the above, Andrew Sullivan made it one of his Quotes of the Day. Ditto with esteemed Theatrosphere forum Parabasis. Future Pulitzer winner Dan Brooks used unknown unknowns to articulate the vapidity of Ke$sha:

Is the socialist-realist mural Ke$ha would paint if only she were much, much better at painting an unknown unknown, or is it not out there at all?

Call me cocky or stupid, but I already know there are things I don't know I don't know. Somewhere around age two, it became painfully clear to me that I'm not omniscient and that my growth and fulfillment in this life depended on how I square my limitations with my desires. Sure, I need periodic reminders of this. But to expostulate at length on a self-canceling non-thought like "unknown unknowns" strikes me as a fabulous waste of consciouness, not an enhancement thereof. Especially since, as I hope to prove here, Rumsfeld's poem has bigger things to teach us.

Now don't get me wrong: thinking about unknown unknowns is a great meditative exercise. And we can all think of people who are too cocky or stupid to know how cocky or stupid they are. (If we're at all mature, we check in with ourselves to see if that's us.) Perhaps these cocky stupid people will read The New York Times, The Daily Dish, Combat! and Parabasis and be disabused of their cocky stupidity, but I doubt it. Indeed, that rather seems to be the whole point of the Morris/Dunning dialog, the "discovery" everyone can't stop talking about:

Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight. What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise. The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest. There he is with a gun, standing in front of a teller demanding money. Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving. “But I wore the juice,” he said. Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras ... If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.

The burglar suffers from unknown unknowns, he is too stupid to know he's stupid. Ha ha! What a stupid ... guy who ... is stupid. Again, what's the insight here? That stupid people have been known to do stupid things? That ignorance begets ignorance? Certainly that's true as far as it goes (and must be very reassuring to all us smart people mocking him from the outside), but how is this different from saying a hungry man stays hungry because his hunger saps the strengh he needs to get food? Hell, we can play this game all day if you want ...

It takes intelligence to seek intelligence.

How true.

Blue skies are pleasing to the eye on account of their inherent blueness.

Quite so.

You have to spend money to make money.

Which means you have to make money to make money.

Which means oooooooommmmmmmmmm!

Andrew Sullivan is so taken with unknown unknowns he tries to use the concept to skewer Sarah Palin. The implication being: Sarah's just like the burglar, too stupid to know she's stupid, blissfully unconcerned with the unknown unknowns. And this is where I rebel. Not to defend Sarah Palin, but because we've now abandoned any serious consideration of the unknown unknown (specifically: what it meant to the man who coined the phrase.) Donald Rumsfeld was the High Priest of Corporate Holy War, for crying out loud. His ominous incantations about the unknown unknown could not find a more worthy supplicant than Sarah Palin. Rummy wasn't toking up at a poetry slam when he said those words; he said them at a NATO press conference on the Iraq War. So before we spend another working day in an epistemological tizzy, can we pause to connect Rummy's spooky koan with the historical moment that inspired it? Please? Breaks down like this:

We know Iraq has WMDs.
I know it.
Colin Powell knows it.
George Tenet knows it.
President Bush really knows it.
It is a known known.
Now, we can't seem to find these WMDs.
But at lesat we know we don't know where they are.
It is a known unknown.
And before you ask any more questions ...
Just think of all the WMDs we don't even know we don't know about!
Beware the unknown unknowns!

COGITO ERGO BOOM! DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?

The Zen masters tell us to ponder a tree falling in the forest. Does it make a sound if no one is around to hear it? The Secretary of Defense for the Global War on Terror would like us to ponder all the things we can't even know to be afraid of. Both ponderings are designed to silence the mind. One increases awareness of the inescapable contradictions that animate mortal consciousness ... and the other hypnotizes a terrorized public with the specter of a perpetually unknowable enemy. Infinite Justice indeed.

You can probably see how unblinking vigilance for unknown unknown enemies secures the prime psychological condition for any willing servant to the War on Terror. We will always need bizarre, extra-legal dimensions like Guantanamo so long as the Unknown Unknown is public enemy number one. These fuckers are so fucking evil we don't even know what the fuck to call them or what the fuck to do with them so let's put them in this weird fucking place with no fucking rules where they can just ... FUCK I HATE THEM!

Suddenly pre-emptive war, warrantless wiretapping, terror alert levels, racial profiling and torture make a lot of sense, don't they? If we're as serious about unknown unknows as Rummy wants us to be, we should follow the rest of his advice and strike first, spy on everyone, index our daily fear, lock up strangers and then torture them to find that ticking time bomb I keep hearing (about). For what is the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario but our favorite example of the fearsome unknown unknown? We've never actually encountered one, but it sure is fun to think about, isn't it?

I think Rumsfeld's poem is more noteworthy for what it hides than what it reveals. In his book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Slavoj Zizek identifies a fourth category of knowledge missing from Rummy's pithy Punnett square. And I must confess here that I experienced an epiphany like Dunning's when I read about it. (I must also confess some restless anger at Errol Morris for writing a five-part column that says the same thing so many times without stopping to discuss this missing fourth category of knowledge directly.) Before you look at my diagram below, can you guess what it is and why it might be more important than any unknown unknown you can dream up?


Psychologists call it the subconscious mind, the psyche, the wild stew of forgotten thoughts and feelings that constitute the bulk of our souls ...

THE UNKNOWN KNOWNS

What don't I know that I know? What simmers beneath all my well-charted goals and stated intentions? Am I a lawyer because I love the study of logic and justice? Or am I a lawyer because my parents were lawyers and I need to be richer than they were? Am I looking for WMDs in Iraq? Or am I discharging my boundless aggression from 9/11?

How appropriate that Rumsfeld fails to include this. There's no room or time for introspection in the War on Terror -- that much has been hammered into our heads over the last decade, right? And how disappointing that Sullivan must resort to the empty construction "unknown unknown" to bash Sarah Palin's intelligence for the umpteenth time when Palin's problem isn't her lack of knowledge but rather her refusal to examine her psyche. What spooky unknown might she find within if she did so?

What has all this chin-rubbing about unknown unknowns taught us except that stupid people are so stupid they're, like, meta-stupid? Tragically, for Rummy and Sully alike, contemplation of the unknown unknown hasn't been a spur to new knowledge at all. Quite the opposite: it's just another way to confirm what they already knew. Iraq has WMDs. Palin is a moron. This is all logically sound, of course. But that's the problem: it's no better than logically sound. If it reveals anything new, it's that one can construct an airtight space of self-reinforcing thoughts, fortified by the logos, without ever having to question oneself in the process. Iraq has WMDs. Palin is a moron. How brave to think what you always thought, guys.

We're not learning a damn thing here. We're choosing to forget something else. The Global War on Terror is the largest psychological war yet declared in the history of mankind. It's right there in the title. Whenever we deny this fact, we push it deeper into the realm of the unknown known. It becomes the known we refuse to know. All repressed truths continue to govern our actions and feelings from within: witness our inhuman cruelty, our affection for toture, Guantanamo, ticking time bombs, and so on.

First we called it the War on Terrorism. Then our rage exceeded any nation, ideology or ism we could find, so we changed it to the War on Terror. That's not a lazy elision that makes our war more specific; it's an unconscious generalization that makes our war impossibly big. When intelligent people discuss the War on Terror, they love to point out that:

Terror is a tactic! It's not a country or a culprit! How can we wage war on a tactic? How stupid!

But they're not even half right. Terror is an emotion, people. At the end of the day, we are fighting a war against our own emotions and we will measure our triumph according to how we feel, not what we've done. (Small wonder, then, that our biggest recurring problem is winning the "hearts and minds" of the countries we've invaded.) We are fighting a war within the very territory of the unknown known. By calling terror a tactic without acknowledging that it's a feeling first, we confess that our feelings have already been weaponized. And by fixating on the unknown unknown instead of the unknown known, we bar the door to any investigation of why we keep failing.

Look, I know it's important to be receptive to the unknown unknowns.

GHOST: Swear!
HORATIO: Day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
HAMLET: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Hortio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

When we're not striving to know ourselves and the world, we should meditate on the infinitely unknowable. It's a healthy repose when the ravages of samsara cramp your soul. But we must remember that meditation is the only activity suited to this realm of knowledge. Sociological speculation like Dunning's and military strategy like Rumsfeld's will not benefit from focusing on the unknown unkown. Outside meditaiton, the unknown unknown quickly becomes the void into which we project what we want to be true: stupid people are stupid and evil is everywhere. Now, if only there were a realm of knowledge that let us explore what we want to be true and why ...

All great art stirs up the unknown known and brings it rushing back to the fore. Maybe one day we'll find a way to live through and beyond all this terror so we can see the completion (just not the fulfillment) of Rummy's literary masterpiece, too.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Disaster. Louisiana. Bush. Obama. Go!

Why do I feel like journalism has become a Second City improv game?

Okay, there's a disaster in Louisana and everyone's looking to the President for comfort and action. Your props are the American wetlands, the Gulf of Mexico, and 456,000 barrels of oil. Go!

If this were a comedy revue, would you aim for some subversive Bill Hicks rant about greedy oil companies? Or do you go for the cheap Katrina bitch-slap?

I suppose the comparison was inevitable on account of ... you know ... water being involved. So let's ask it one more time: Is the BP oil rig disaster Obama’s Katrina?

What a fascinating motherfucking question. It brings to mind several others ...

Is an oil rig explosion a recurring natural phenomenon that happens with seasonal regularity?

Did a private corporation cause Katrina in an unregulated rush to tap its wind-power?

Did Obama appoint an unqualified crony to run the response effort?

No, no, and no.

Katrina sank Bush because hurricanes are predicable, common, and natural. The shiny new Homeland Security apparatus was supposed to help us with that kind of threat. It didn’t.

People who think BP’s disaster will sink Obama are more than mistaken or cynical; they are engaging in a grand projection of guilt. We expect all levels of government to mitigate natural disasters and we feel betrayed when they don’t. A devout Reaganite like Peggy Noonan should feel betrayed by the colossal failure of a private corporation like BP. But no, that injury must be strenuously repressed and then superimposed onto Obama. Daddy's only a bad man when he drinks, Peggy. And what makes Daddy drink? Government regulation.

If people are looking for a parallel catastrophe to process the present one, they needn’t look any further than last month’s Goldman Sachs hearings. Then, as now, profit was privatized while responsibility was socialized. The same angry voices that want government to stay out of private business now expect government to promptly wipe the ass of private business when such a business can’t control itself.

Like most liberals, I've been having a grand time watching the Tea Party twist and contort itself to explain their sudden concern for deficit spending. Or their beef with the Civil Rights Act. Or their Medicare-funded, Social Security subsidized crusade against ... federal entitlements. It's been a pleasure, seriously. But I think the bank bailouts were easier to rationalize or repress because Wall Street remains a dark abstraction to most of us. Argue all you want about public-v-private securities and the Community Reinvestment Act and the repayment of Citigroup's loan in T-bills. Nothing about the financial catastrophe has the lingering, viscous stench and stain of an oil spill. Yet they both sprout from the same source.

Pundits have been trying to chart the Tea Party's growth and locus on the political landscape, but I think it's rather obvious, isn't it?

Say you belong to the Republican Party. It's the year 2000 and things are looking great for you. You've got a war on. You've got an unimpeachable Cause blessed by the undeniable horror of 9/11. You've got a faithful conservative President who talks to god, hates private regulation, and believes he can do no wrong. And then wrong things start happening anyway. The war begets more war. No one knows how to memorialize Ground Zero. The market vomits on itself in the absence of regulation. God sends a hurricane to murder more people than 9/11 did and yet god saw fit to spare the sinful French Quarter at the same time. You lose Congress to Nancy Pelosi. Then you lose the White House to an urban, intellectual liberal.

Man, that's an embarrassing story.

I totally understand why you would want to put on a costume and pretend to be someone else for a while.



Your scene's coming up. Got your props?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Political Capital: Civil Rights in the Ownership Society

Rand Paul’s interpretation of the Civil Rights Acts illustrates something about the privileged place money holds in our culture. By taking issue with the parts of the Civil Rights Act that prohibit discrimination in private businesses, Paul is at pains to repeat that he’s not a racist himself. He opposes racist laws like Jim Crow and he would never want a public institution to be racist. He just thinks it’s okay if people want to be racist when they sell things. A “No Blacks” restaurant would be allowed in Paul’s revision of the Civil Rights Act because he sees private commerce as a first amendment issue. The owner of the restaurant is only expressing something by denying a black person service, you see.

The libertarian reverence for money over public action allows Paul to attack the very inhumanity he just made possible. For partisans of Ayn Rand and Rand Paul, the ultimate punishment for such a vile establishment would not be imprisonment or civil trial. No, the ultimate punishment would be that offended white people no longer eat there. Mind you, black people don’t get to choose whether to eat at the restaurant or not – that choice has already been lawfully denied by Paul’s money exemption from the Civil Rights Act. But white people are hereby liberated to be the saviors, for it is their boycott, not the black person’s boycott, which really counts.

You may recall that boycotts played a significant role in the civil rights struggle – but only in places where such a boycott was possible. In Paul’s revision of the Civil Rights Acts, it is the racists who get to wage the boycott and it falls to liberated white people to wage a counter-boycott of any significance. Liberty remains something only white people can confer or concede, not something others can demand as a matter of human right.

By making an exemption for economic behavior, the Tea Party not only has the license to be racist in their economic behavior, they also have a self-congratulatory method for fighting racism. The only problem with this conception of Civil Rights is that it excludes the very people who suffer from the denial of civil rights. Both Paul and members of the far left will continue to invoke charges of racism in all the wrong ways to ensure that the debate remains closed. The real issue is not whether Paul is a racist, but what kinds of racism he would permit in America. Of necessity, this requires a re-examination not just of Paul’s ambitious conflation of the First Amendment, but of what we mean by public/private life and how money unavoidably connects the two.

These are terms that Paul is happy to engage. He wants desperately to contain the Civil Rights debate to the durable binary of government-versus-private individuals and avoid any accusation that he, himself, is a racist. He says the government should never be racist, but private individuals can be racist all they want. This is true insofar as one’s racism remains a thought, a belief, or a spoken/written expression. And one is free to make, buy, sell, or wear a racist T-shirt. But it is not the product or the content of the expression that matters; it is what happens when that product or expression becomes a wounding action. When racism manifests itself in behavior beyond free expression, including economic behavior, it has traversed the boundary of ego-privacy and become a public, inter-subjective action with civic and legal consequences. In other words, it has surrendered the protection of the First Amendment.

You may have noticed that other laws and prohibitions don’t care if you’re breaking the law on your own property or not. Murder used to be legal on private property, but I defy anyone to name a candidate who would advocate for such a faithful exercise of Tea Party logic now (although Arizona’s immigration hysteria gives one pause). We don’t limit the rape statute to public employees; it applies to all of us, everywhere. Paul’s Civil Rights exemption for economic activity doesn’t necessarily make him a racist. Paul just sees money as an extension of his private soul – how else could money be such a privileged medium for expression and such a sublime executor of justice? The tragedy of the Tea Party (white, upper-middle-class men approaching or enjoying retirement) is that it only knows how to spend justice – it has no idea what it takes to earn it.

MONEY = SPEECH

If you already believe that “money = speech” (or further: that what you spend and buy says more than what you say or how you vote) then it’s an easy leap to the soothing White Man’s Boycott revenge fantasy Paul builds for himself above. But just as corporations became the real beneficiaries of the 13th Amendment, the libertarian/conservative idea that “money = speech” tries to tap the common sanctity that all Americans feel for the First. Such overlaps in ideological reverence are rare in a country as magnificently heterogeneous and dynamic as the United States. We all defend the freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Liberals err on the side of Political Correctness and conservatives err when they confuse expression with consumption. All of us should recoil when such an irreducible freedom is perverted through metaphor to license the cruelties of racist economic discrimination.

A/POLITICAL CAPITAL: IF MONEY = SPEECH, CITIZENS = MONEY

A quick social studies question: what does political capital mean in the United States?

If you just emerged from your Y2K hibernation bunker, you'd probably answer "Washington, DC” or “Juneau, Alaska.” Or “Albany, New York.” Before the 21st century, “political capital” referred to a public place where freely elected citizens gathered to legislate and administer the defense and public welfare of civilization. Today, that phrase connotes a financial, rather than a civic, transaction: political capital is the medium of exchange for change. (This is not an editorial digression; you can probably start to see how this ties into Rand Paul’s argument for a free market approach to Civil Rights.)

I first heard this suspicious phrase in the summer of 2002. George W. Bush still had an approval rating well north of 70% and his administration was just beginning to tune the Skinner Box for eight months of “9/11 = Iraq” programming. That example aside, I found something vile about the phrase itself: the idea being that votes of approval are like a sock full of rusty nickels, to be spent on whatever the bearer pleases. During the nascent debate about Iraq, one pundit used the phrase in the context of an even more offensive piece of Beltway wisdom: "When you have political capital, spend it." But “spending,” in this sense, doesn't mean the validation of those who voted to confer it; it means the bearer can afford to spend the same approval in pursuit of something that might reduce that store of approval at the same time. In other words, when W said he was going to spend his political capital, he wasn’t saying he was about to do what you wanted him to do when you voted to give him political capital; he was saying he felt free enough to spend you.

The second time I heard the phrase was 2004. Bush had been re-elected and he took his mandate as an infusion of still more “political capital.” This time, he quite explicitly told his audience (again: the very pennies and nickels that constituted his political capital) that he intended to spend it/them. As someone who didn’t vote for him, I had no idea what he meant by that. Was he going to spend it AT me? Was he going to spend my tax contribution on something one of his voters wanted? Or was he spending his own voters on something they might not want? Such are the motivations that get hidden by the tidy abstraction of “political capital.”

BUYING = BELIEVING

As Mike Daisey beautifully articulated in The Last Cargo Cult, buying is believing. "I don't buy it," is the phrase we use to dismiss something as unbelievable because it quickly communicates an intimate betrayal of confidence that all good capitalists can understand. Similarly, to own is to be responsible, but not just for what ideas, animals and things one owns. Ownership-as-responsibility also carries a forward imperative: to be a good citizen, you must go out and actively own things. Hence Bush's exhortation to retail therapy in the wake of 9/11, Paul’s insistence that “money is speech,” and the grander proclamations about the "ownership society."

I kid about the Skinner Box because I think the ramp-up to Iraq owes more to this idea of political capital -- a monetized polis -- than it does to media hoodwinkery. Say what you will about the horror of the aughts, but the pranks of Murdoch notwithstanding, ours is, on balance, a more informed public square, less prone to censorship and the top-down manipulation of news and history. It is rather the anti-democratic covenant of political capital that has governed our young century. More than anything, our faith in this abstraction enabled the clean conversion of rage from 9/11 to Iraq. It also explains the rapid ascent of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and the Tea Party Movement. Most importantly, “political capital” is the fulcrum for Rand Paul’s conception of public-v-private life. If buying is believing … and voters are money … and money is speech … then the free market has everything it needs to operate democracy for us and fix civil crimes like discrimination with the dispassionate, unfailing force of … supply and demand, I guess.

So what's the going rate on voting rights? Can enfranchisement be outsourced? Well, according to Rand Paul the going rate for voting rights is whatever you'll pay to advance his campaign and enfranchisement should be outsourced because it will improve the efficiency and flavor of your freedom, provided you can afford it in the first place. If money is protected from civil law, it follows that civil justice can only be achieved with money and that public authority is only a matter of political capital.

OWN YOUR FAILURE

The 2008 meltdown (“crash” doesn’t quite seem to cover it) gave us a sharp, disorienting trauma, from which we can learn a thing or two about the Ownership Society. Is there any dispute that one of 08’s crimes was the use of private ownership as an infinite revenue stream? All you had to do to cash in on the benefits of the Ownership Society … was to own something. Once owned, that magic thing would produce income for you – even before you technically owned it (as any sub-prime profiteer can now tell you). The popular editorial expression was “people using their homes as ATMs.”

The Great Recession has taught us many things about the abstract machinery of cybernetic capitalism, but it also has the potential to teach us something about America’s consumptive ethos. Not just that we’re the fattest nation on earth (one index of growth that continues upward unabated), but that we loudly pride what we consume. Indeed, we stake our civic identity on consumption. As Rand Paul reminds us, we can only fix civil crimes through consumption, not through an assertion of human rights. And so it was with the Great Recession: when it became too hard for bovine America to get off the couch, we learned how to make the couch pay us for staying on it. By signing on the dotted line, we fulfilled a civic duty, cashed in on an economic revolution, and achieved a new magnitude of sloth in one stroke.

Not a bad day’s ownership, hey?

Slavery, you will recall, was a crime of ownership. We could not free the slaves by saying they were free to express freedom, but not free enough to break the private ownership that shackled them. Left to Rand Paul, the Civil War would have been waged by having the North secede from the South. Even if you take the narrow view that the Civil War was motivated by economic concerns or that slavery only ended because people wanted to be paid for their labor, you still have to reject Paul’s conception of a clean public/private boundary enforced by expenditures of cash. Such liberation required a more just redistribution of wealth, yes, but it also required a hard-fought assertion of human rights as rights in and of themselves. We lose sight of this with our lunch-counter example because it involves a prospective black customer, not a black laborer. But the point remains: public/private boundaries cannot be waged by economic action alone and economic action is not exempt from civil law like speech and assembly. Pay someone to murder on your behalf and you're guilty even if your mercenary fails to fulfill his end of the contract. The original sin of American slavery showed us the bloody intersection of who one is and what one owns. It is my contention that Paul’s Civil Rights debate shows us another. What we mean by accepted concepts like “political capital” and “money = speech” will tell us still more.

Faced with the unmistakable failure of the free market in 2008, Conservatives continue to blame the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act for its too-generous expansion of home ownership. And they should, so long as they can square this gripe with their own baleful praise for the Ownership Society. The CRA is a necessary, but not sufficient explanation for the 2008 meltdown. Wall Street (the greatest assemblage of the greatest owners among us) is responsible for exploiting an unstable system and making it radioactive. Who can blame them? They were just riding the same speculative fantasy: that one can make money through the raw force of ownership, alone. Owning a house that only goes up in value is one way to do it. Owning a human being who does your work for free is another. Both represent the utopian promise of the Ownership Society: that one can escape the need to engage in concrete, creative production and consume one’s way to a state of perpetual consumption.

This infantile wish gets its fulfillment in American capitalism and what goes for the American Dream. Pace Ayn Rand, a dollar does not equal a dollar does not equal a dollar. Money has its own laws of gravity. A bum’s penny behaves differently when it is around other pennies. Not just in the sense that new things become affordable, but that the bum has accelerated one small measure closer to utopian escape velocity. With enough pennies, and a low-impact regimen of savings and investment strategies, the bum will no longer need to earn or search for any more pennies. Simply owning them will be enough, for now their magnetic accretion has become a purposive, generative force of its own. The bum has achieved escape velocity and exempted himself from productive employment. He is no longer moored by earthbound contingencies or demands for creative effort. With enough capital, he can glide unobstructed in a space of pure consumerism. He owns … therefore he earns … therefore he spends ... therefore he owns. At no point in this fantasy does the bum produce anything. His value as a devout capitalist American is proved not by what he does or how he votes, but what he withholds and consumes. A closed loop of emotional and libidinal reinforcement has been achieved -- a perpetual motion machine if ever there was one. And within this closed loop, the Reaganite wet dream continues to seduce the national imaginary.

The solution?

First, the ownership society must own its failure:




And second: all of us must remember that civil wrongs require civic action to correct. We are the government, not what we own. Skip to 17:20 to see what I mean:


Sunday, March 07, 2010

Emphasis Yours, Charles Krauthammer

Let's start with his title:

Onward with Obamacare, regardless

Of all the rhetorical gambits from our yearlong health care debate, none is more absurd than the phrase "Obamacare.” The president let Health Care Reform (HCR) sprout on Capital Hill; he didn’t torpedo it down Pennsylvania Avenue like Bill Clinton. Each committee in Congress got to shape the bill on its own while Obama announced deadlines, met with interest groups, mediated debates, held summits, and gave speeches of general advocacy. This makes him the foreman, not the architect, of the project.

By contrast, “Clintoncare” would have been a perfectly fair nickname for the disastrous 1993 HCR bill, but that doesn’t roll off the forked tongue as easily as the assonant iambs of “Obama.” Tactically, the phrase "Obamacare" accomplishes little because most people happen to like the man and most that don’t won’t go in for health care reform anyway. So “Obamacare” scares people already scared by Obama and tries to hide the history of HCR 2010 from the rest of us. Clever.

Syndicated sociopath and retired Dr. Seuss goblin Charles Krauthammer knows a good rhetorical trick when he smells one ...



... and he has a natural flair for compressing a sheaf of memes into one slick screed, so this post gives me a wonderful chance to hit a dozen lies in one shot.

His signature recipe is the Fact Casserole: he packs toxic ingredients under a slimy layer of cheese so the reader-eater never knows what caused the dysentery. If you complain that his argument tastes of cork, urine, haggis and lawn mulch, he will quickly reply, "What do you mean? It has fiber, protein, water, and leafy greens. Four essential nutrients in one dish! Shut the fuck up and eat your casserole.”

So let's plunge a rusty fork into his latest serving:

Among the few Republican suggestions President Obama pretended to incorporate was tort reform. What did he suggest to address the plague of defensive medicine that a Massachusetts Medical Society study showed leads to about 25 percent of doctor referrals, tests and procedures being done for no medical reason? A few ridiculously insignificant demonstration projects amounting to one-half of one-hundredth of 1 percent of the cost of his health-care bill.

Delicious! I love how those cascading clauses and nested prepositions work like a semantic laxative so his argument can glide swiftly down the page and achieve some force of persuasion through sheer inertia, if nothing else. Krauthammer does with speed what Rush Limbaugh does with volume (and VOLUME!). Both men hope you can't remember what was said or written three thoughts prior.

What did he suggest to address the plague of defensive medicine ...?

First, let's celebrate because the "plague” of defensive medicine happens to be one disease for which the 31 million uninsured possess a natural immunity. So this epidemic has been quarantined to the shrinking ranks of people who can afford to stay in the pool.

… a Massachusetts Medical Society study showed leads to about 25 percent of doctor referrals, tests, and medical procedures being done for no medical reason?

Let’s assume the Massachusetts Medical Society is really awesome. Let’s also assume you didn’t click through to read the actual study, which is not so much a study as it is a survey asking doctors to recall how often fear of litigation motivated them to order extra tests and procedures last year. An actual study would follow through to match specific "defensive" items with their final outcomes to see if there really was a valid medical reason after all.

about 25 percent of doctor referrals, tests, and medical procedures

Yes, that comma cluster bomb ("referrals, tests, and medical procedures") includes three of the categories explored in the MMS survey. But if you take the total snapshot, including hospital visits, you get an average of 13%. So Chuck doesn't need to consult a real study to make his case; he's content to fudge the figures of the one he happens to like.

"Defensive medicine" zooms in on one aspect of our massive health care economy, but it does not explain the exponential rise in the cost of the procedures themselves. Americans haven't become exponentially litigious over the years nor have malpractice settlements raised exponentially in cost. 100,000 people die each year from preventable medical errors in the US, of which 4% ever result in litigation. If anything, Americans are less litigious than they could be. Frivolous lawsuits comprise 10% of all malpractice cases and American juries have been consistently good at rejecting them.

Finally, the combined cost of malpractice insurance, litigation, and settlement comes to about 1% of the total health care economy, so capping settlements and restricting litigation will directly affect only a tiny slice of the pie. It bears repeating that this slice isn't getting proportionately bigger. And it simply does not follow that such hairsplitting reform would rein in defensive practices because doctors happen to have a positive incentive to be overcautious that has nothing to do with fear: they get paid for each extra pill and procedure they authorize.

But now that Chucky’s tapeworm of a question has been extracted, how does he answer it? What, exactly, did Obama suggest and what is in the current bill?

A few ridiculously insignificant demonstration projects amounting to one-half of one-hundredth of 1 percent of the cost of his health-care bill.

Again, let’s celebrate that the “ridiculously insignificant” comprises a ridiculously insignificant portion of the cost.

Man, this casserole is terrible. And such small portions.

So Chucky puts his cherry-picked 25 percent MMS figure side by side with the price of the stuff in the bill that would investigate tort reform (.005 percent) and he uses another mouthy sentence to highlight the contrast. The implication being: defensive medicine costs 25% so why does HCR devote only .005% of its budget to fixing that?

Well, you don't need Ezra Klein to tell you that tort reform is a matter of law, not resources. Which is why that reform has its place in the present legislation, just not the price tag. Comparing the two doesn't make any sense. It's like using a word count to prove that Cordelia isn't all that important to the plot of King Lear. "Well if she's so important, where are all her lines?! Clearly Oswald is the pivotal role, as evidenced by this chart." Something tells me George F. Will has already written that somewhere.

The preponderance of the bill is devoted to expanding coverage through subsidies to participate in the private market and other rules that simply outlaw inhuman health discrimination (e.g. pre-existing conditions). Funny enough, this bill resembles a roadmap to health reform outlined by Chuck last summer, but now that it’s actually here, his advocacy has vanished. Maybe it was all a brilliant trap. Or maybe Chuck is about as trustworthy on this issue as Joe Lieberman – the man who favored expanding Medicare until he found out other people were, too.

Chuck goes on to rebut an argument Obama has made several times: that people oppose the whole bill, but everyone likes the individual components, so what gives?

Allow me to demystify. Imagine a bill granting every American a free federally delivered ice cream every Sunday morning. Provision 2: steak on Monday, also home delivered. Provision 3: a dozen red roses every Tuesday. You get the idea. Would each individual provision be popular in the polls? Of course.

Well ... no. But this is just a cute analogy, right? He's not really comparing insulin shots to ice cream or cancer screening to steak, is he?

However (life is a vale of howevers) suppose these provisions were bundled into a bill that also spelled out how the goodies are to be paid for and managed -- say, half a trillion dollars in new taxes, half a trillion in Medicare cuts (cuts not to keep Medicare solvent but to pay for the ice cream, steak and flowers), 118 new boards and commissions to administer the bounty-giving, and government regulation dictating, for example, how your steak is to be cooked. How do you think this would poll?

Holy fuck, it's not an analogy. He’s serious. $500 billion for ice cream and steak? Cut Medicare to buy cut flowers? You're going to tell me how to cook my free steak that's not really free and that killed my grandma because she couldn't get Medicare so she ran out of Lipitor which she needs because of all the steak you gave her for free each Monday?

I don’t feel demystified at all; I feel like my brain is going to puke.

What is he really saying except that people want things but don’t want to pay for them? Does that make people stupid or Obama stupid for reminding people why they voted for him? Again, his sprint to create a glossy metaphor burns precious calories he desperately needs to form a coherent thought. He seems happy that people are opposed to HCR, but apparently people are too stupid to know why they oppose it? People like what the bill does, just not what the bill costs?

I'm not sure either is true. But I wouldn't know because Chuck doesn't even bother to follow his own metaphorical setup to a metaphorical conclusion. He just sorta lets it collapse, saying, in effect, "Want some free steak? PSYCH! Your grandma's dead!"

So let me try. Ahem:

Imagine a system where you get to choose someone to go to Washington. This special person will write laws and distribute money to provide for the general welfare so you don't have to. If you don't like how this person behaved on your behalf, you could fire them. Would this be popular? Of course.

Now imagine a system where every flippin' jackass in the country gets to do the same thing you just did above. Turns out your special person has to work with 534 other special people who all think they're special and want different special things. They never agree. And you rarely get what you want from them. Would this be popular?

Everyone hates Congress, but Congress has an 90% incumbency rate -- please explain that with a culinary metaphor, Chuck. You can’t call a national plebiscite just because the polls gave you a flattering snapshot yesterday. Oh, hell, let’s try it anyway! If for no other reason than to hear what revolting metaphor Chuck will serve up to explain why the persistently popular public option cannot be trusted to the public.

He ends with a swipe at reconciliation:

The man who vowed to undo Washington's devious and wicked ways has directed the Congress to ram Obamacare through, by one vote if necessary, under the parliamentary device of "budget reconciliation." The man who ran as a post-partisan is determined to remake a sixth of the U.S. economy despite the absence of support from a single Republican in either house, the first time anything of this size and scope has been enacted by pure party-line vote.

Hasn't someone told him HCR already passed both chambers of Congress? I'm pretty sure Fox and the National Review covered that. But heck, that was months ago. If he doesn't remember that, he probably doesn't remember that George W. Bush used budget reconciliation to give $1 trillion to rich people in 2001. President Obama wants to use reconciliation to give $1 trillion to the rest of us now. Wherever did he get the nerve? Did Obama win some sort of contest last year? Some contest that Bush didn't exactly have under his belt when he "rammed through" his first year spending spree?

Okay, so Chuck can't remember what happened nine years ago or three months ago. Does he at least remember what happened three weeks ago -- when he defended the filibuster because it was making things difficult for the president? “The system worked,” he wrote. “Barack Obama's two signature initiatives -- cap-and-trade and health-care reform -- lie in ruins.” But now that Obama has instructed Pelosi and Reid to wrap things up using the same system that worked so well three weeks ago (and three months ago, and nine years ago), Chuck accuses him of “ram[ming] through Obamacare” using a "device” that smacks of the “devious and wicked” ways of the past.

I give up. I know politicians have to pretend they're always right, but Krauthammer is a clever man, repeatedly cited as the lone intellectual voice in the American Right. If he doesn't do better, he should at least know better. His tantrums are embarrassing, transparent abuses of language and thought. His problem with Obama exceeds any political, intellectual, or emotional coordinates I can discern. His fixation on Obama borders on the pathological. And his prose disintegrates when you try to honor him by thinking about it. Speaking of ...

"Budget reconciliation" is exactly what it sounds like -- a process of balancing the budget differences between the Senate and the House. It limits what can be changed at this late stage, but that's the point. Chucky seems to think it entitles him to obliterate the whole thing and that anything less is an affront to civilization.

"Ram it through?" No, the bill has passed. It’s just time to take it out of the oven.