Low Greek and the New Testament

What Jesus MeantThe marketplace Greek of the New Testament — koine (“common denominator”) Greek — is not elegant. When Alexander the Great conquered his huge patchwork quilt of different peoples speaking different languages, the only way the defeated could communicate with Macedonian officers, and with other parts of the empire, was in fumbling attempts at the rulers’ Greek. When the Romans succeeded the Greek imperial forces, they had to use the language in place, not their own Latin. As Cicero said of the Roman empire, “Greek is read in practically every nation, while Latin is hedged within its own narrow confines.”

In koine, as in any pidgin language, niceties tend to be lost. Words are strug together, often without connectives to get across a basic meaning. Most of the gospels are written in this basic language, used equally by Romans like Pilate and by Aramaic speakers like Jesus and his followers. Sentences sometimes fumble clumsily at meaning. “What to me and to you, woman?” says Jesus to this mother (John 2.4). “Nothing to you and to that just man,” says Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27.19). “The law and prophets up to John” (Luke 16.16). “I must be at my father’s” (Luke 2.49) — his father’s what? Commentators quarrel. Definite articles, used according to subtle rules in classical Greek, come and go confusingly in koine: the Lord’s Prayer open with an address to “Our Father in the heavens,” but a little later in the prayer we get “in heaven and on earth.” Tenses shift randomly.

When the meaning is obscure in such a simple language, it is less often because of any sublime meaning conveyed than from mere linguistic clumsiness. Grammar can be muddled, if not neglected altogether. The Book of Revelations is especially ungrammatical — Nietzsche, a trained classicist, said that if God wrote the New Testament, he knew surprisingly little Greek. Except in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the complex sentence structure of classical Greek is rarely evident. We get a simple stringing-on of independent clauses (parataxis) linked repetitively with the boring kai (“and”). Dialogue has no elegant variation. It is a matter of “And X say… And Y says… And X says…”

Most of the words used are common. The infant Jesus is laid in a hay trough (phatne). But translators know that people expect a “biblical English” in the gospels. They make the hay trough more dignified by using a foreign word (French manger, for food) instead of “hay trough.” When Jesus answers Pilate, “So you say,” they try to find a more elegant form of answer — though “So you say” exactly replicates the Greek. Translators try to give more churchiness to the evangelists, to teach them their linguistic manners. Jesus should not say to his mother, “What to me and to you, woman?” So they do not let him. Almost every translation into English tries to hide the “faults” of the new Testament. They straighten out the grammar, make the tenses more uniform, break up the repetitions.

—Garry Wills
What Jesus Meant

Leave a Comment

Filed under Quotations, Reading & Writing, Spiritual/Religious

Rand Paul’s Process Argument All About Policy

Rand PaulDigby wrote a very interesting article yesterday, Power and Process. It follows off a statement of concern from Rand Paul about President Obama’s executive action on immigration. According to Paul, “[T]here are instances in our history where we allow power to gravitate toward one person and that one person then makes decisions that really are egregious.” And his example, “The president issued an executive order. He said to Japanese people ‘we’re going to put you in a camp.’” Rand Paul is a classic subgenius: he is smart enough to be dangerous, in part because he greatly overestimates his intelligence.

Roosevelt wasn’t acting in a vacuum. Congress wanted the internment and passed a law to enforce it. The people wanted the internment. If it had gone for a vote, it would have passed. And when the Supreme Court ruled on the matter, they upheld it. So how exactly would collective action have helped? How was “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” and its mentally retarded brother the House of Representatives going to make this situation better? Digby rightly noted that Paul’s concern here is all about process. So his statement is really vile. The problem with the internment of ethnically Japanese citizens was wrong not because it represented the majority oppressing a minority, but because it wasn’t done the right way.

I realize he didn’t put it that way. He is claiming that when everyone is involved, such things don’t happen. History shows otherwise. Jackson was one of the most popular presidents in history and he oversaw the Trail of Tears and numerous other outrages. The truth of the matter is that like all conservatives, Paul just hates Roosevelt so he wants to put the whole thing on him. Because only Democrats are tyrants. The bottom line is that Paul has the causation wrong. All that was necessary to intern the Japanese-Americans was an executive action because it was hugely popular.

And in the case of Obama today, the executive action was finely crafted. As Greg Sargent noted yesterday, “[I]t shows that the proposal’s legal rationale is tightly circumscribed to reflect that Congressional intent [to relieve humanitarian hardship endured by US citizens].” So the idea that the president is just doing whatever he wants is ridiculous. But that won’t stop the Republicans from screaming about it.

Digby noted that a big part of Rand Paul’s claim here comes from the fact that he simply wants the government to get nothing done. In this way, he is no different from other conservatives. Boehner’s pleading to allow the legislative process to do its job is just another way of saying, “Let us block anything getting done!” And that is another aspect of Mitch McConnell’s plan to make Obama a one term president: stop everything possible until the Republicans are back in power.

Arguments about process are always arguments about policy. We know that Paul would be much more understanding of executive action if a Republican were in the White House. And he would be entirely in favor of it if he were that Republican. So we should forget about these arguments about the right and wrong way to do things — at least so long as we actually do have democratic institutions that set limits. These process arguments are just a cover for people to argue against policy they don’t like but can’t be seen as attacking. Digby put it well:

I no longer fetishize the legislative process because it’s mostly just kabuki anyway. At this point, I’ll take decent outcomes wherever I can get them and be thankful for it since they happen so rarely.

Roosevelt’s executive action was wrong because the policy was wrong. Obama’s executive action is right because the policy is right.

Afterword

To be clear: the argument here is not that process never matters. It is just that in almost all cases, process arguments are disingenuous. Ultimately, the question is policy.

1 Comment

Filed under Politics

George Eliot

George EliotOn this day in 1819, the great writer Mary Ann Evans was born. You probably known her better as George Eliot. It is often hard to fully appreciate older authors. For example, people often miss much of the social commentary in Jane Austen, who is read as little more than a particularly witty Harlequin romance. And don’t even get me started on Shakespeare, who almost no one gets much out of. But Eliot doesn’t so much have this problem because of her deep characterizations.

Another aspect of this is how she approaches people on the margins of society. That’s especially true in her first three books. The crux of Adam Bede is Hetty’s desperate and foolish behavior leading to the death of her baby and the ramifications of that. The Mill on the Floss if mostly about Maggie’s isolation and the results of it. I’ve never understood why Tom and Maggie have to die at the end of the book. I guess it was the style of the time, but the book is hardly a tragedy. And Maggie’s sins are minor — even by the standards of time.

Both of these books seem to me just a lead up to Eliot’s masterpiece, Silas Marner. Okay, I admit it: I’m just a soft touch who is easily charmed by an infant melting the heart of a miser. But there is so much more in that little book. Above all, it is highly positive but still realistic rendering of community. People can be very messed up, but in a situation like this, I think this is how people behave. Of course, it is still 19th century literature, so we have to have villains like Dunstan Cass and low-born opium addicts like Molly Farren.

I guess I have to stop there because I haven’t read anything else by Eliot. She is also known for her German translations and for her work as a left wing journalist. She also led quite a scandalous life. She rejected Christianity. And she lived in sin with philosopher George Henry Lewes for twenty odd years. And then, at the age of 60, she married John Cross who was twenty years younger than she was. On their honeymoon, he apparently tried to kill himself. And then when they returned, she caught some kind of infection and died a couple of months later. But hell, she lived a hell of a lot longer than the much better behaved Jane Austen and all the Brontë sisters.

Happy birthday George Eliot!

1 Comment

Filed under Birthdays, Reading & Writing

Goodbye to Half of Nichols and May

Nichols and MayAs you have probably heard, Mike Nichols died on Wednesday. Much has been made of his career as a film director. And he did direct some great films. Of particular note to me are: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, and perhaps oddly, Primary Colors. There are a lot of other fine films too. The one film I’ve never really appreciated is the one that people are most impressed with, The Graduate. For its time, it probably was great, but I have found it impossible to integrate it into its time. And I just don’t think it stands up to In Cold Blood, Bonnie and Clyde, or Cool Hand Luke. And that doesn’t even consider films outside the country like Samurai Rebellion, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex, or most especially La Chinoise. But that isn’t to take anything away from Nichols.

What I most remember him for was his sketch comedy work with Elaine May. When I was a teen, I found a whole bunch of records that must have belonged to by parents. It included most especially Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl. And that introduced me to other more edgy acts like Lenny Bruce — and Nichols and May. Of course, I had remembered comedy duos while growing up like Rowan and Martin, Stiller and Meara, and Burns and Schreiber. The two latter groups came out of Second City, just like Nichols and May. But none of them — funny as they were — compared to Nichols and May in terms of brilliance.

I’m very fond of this following “watercooler” routine. It involves the game show controversy, which you probably know from the film Quiz Show. But it is amazingly fresh because we are still as easily distracted by nonsense as ever. I remember during the OJ trial how people were so wrapped up in that, despite the fact that it had nothing to do with anyone’s life. One line really stands out, “If there was a war tomorrow, I couldn’t think about it.” The reason that the networks didn’t cover Obama’s immigration address last night was because they didn’t want to interrupt the prime time lineup. I mean, just imagine if Grey’s Anatomy had been delayed by a half-hour? Well, I suppose that would have given people something to talk about at the watercooler this morning.

Anyway, it is sad that Mike Nichols is dead. There was really no warning. He just died of a heart attack. He was 83, but that isn’t that old at this point. Still, I’ve always thought that Elaine May was the greater talent. She wrote two of Nichols’ better films, The Birdcage and Primary Colors. She also wrote and directed two comedy classics: Mikey and Nicky and Ishtar. The second film is not only great but an excellent example of how film critics are useless. Check out the review of Rotten Tomatoes and you will see the usual: a bunch of critics who have decided to not like a film and come up with reasons to justify it, “The performances are endearing enough, the pacing is actually quite crisp and there is no shortage of zany silliness in the story. It just never gels.”

Clearly, I will never be able to separate Mike Nichols from Elaine May. And now half of it has died. It’s sad. You really should run out and get The Birdcage for two hours of comedic genius. But I can’t offer you that. But I can offer you something just as good. The following video is from the American Masters series: “Mike Nichols and Elaine May — Take Two.” Well over half of it is just them performing. It’s great fun:

It is sad that Mike Nichols is dead; long live Elaine May!

1 Comment

Filed under Film, TV & Theater

Conservatives Outraged Obama Quoted Bible

Conservative JesusExodus 22:21 tells us, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Or, more accurately, “וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.” But it is important to remember that this seems to be Exodus 22:20 in the Hebrew Bible. I don’t know; it is hard to get my head around, since it is read right to left. Regardless, we know that the Bible tells us this because during his speech last night, Obama told us, “Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.” I just looked it up.

I believe that like all religious books, there is much wisdom in the Bible. But I don’t like it being quoted by our secular politicians. Can you imagine the uproar that would have occurred if our first Catholic president had used the Bible as ostentatiously as every president since Reagan (Not Carter!) has used it? But I don’t blame Obama for using it. It is now what a vocal minority demand. Indeed, as Emily Arrowood reported today, it was only Wednesday that the folks on Fox & Friends complained that Obama wasn’t Christian enough:

On November 19, the hosts promoted a “fiery” online op-ed penned by Chuck Norris, echoing his outrage that Obama had not publicly opposed a local school district’s decision to remove references to religious holidays on the schools’ calendars. The hosts then aired video of former President Ronald Reagan talking about Christmas and his Christian faith, saying, “Chuck Norris’ point was, remember the time when American presidents weren’t afraid to talk about traditional values, as Ronald Reagan did back in 1981.” Hasselbeck remarked that Reagan’s religious rhetoric gave her goosebumps.

As Arrowood noted, Obama throws scripture liberally in his speeches, but conservatives continue to complain. Let’s be honest: Obama can’t win. Conservatives don’t hate him for any real reason. They just hate him because he’s of the wrong party and then they come up with reasons for it. And that was on clear display this morning.

In a rational world, the Fox & Friends folk would be thrilled with Obama for wiping away the dust from his Bible and quoting from everyone’s favorite Red Sea pedestrians. But no. It was a silly idea. What’s the point of even speculating about a rational world? Two days ago they complained that Obama didn’t talk about Christianity and today they thought he talked too much about it. According to Arrowood (no video yet), they were “challenging him to a ‘scripture-showdown’ and claiming it’s ‘repugnant’ for Obama to ‘lecture us on Christian faith.’”

Of course, there is a kind of theological distinction here. This kind of use of the Bible as a moral weapon is generally looked down upon. The only true Christian is one who uses it to push social conservatism and to push Christianity as the One Truth Faith™. This is what is behind the whole War on Christmas™. The war — such as it is — is not about Christians being denied the right to observe the holiday as they see fit. It is rather about Christianity being held up as an earlier passage from Exodus, “You shall have no other gods before me.” That’s the right kind of Christianity — the kind that Chuck Norris practices.

What it is really all about is that conservatives know what Obama was doing: he was rubbing their noses in their favorite book that they never read. He was effectively saying that it is anti-Christian to be against immigration reform. And he’s right! Obama quoted the Old Testament, but he could have as easily quoted Jesus (“I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not” — he meant that as a bad thing!) or even the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor…”).

But that isn’t the conservative way. They aren’t out there grappling with what is a very difficult book. They aren’t reading, What Jesus Meant. They only think that Christianity is right because they assume it tells them that they are right in whatever they want to do. And they don’t want immigration reform. So Obama is a heretic to quote the Bible when it isn’t in the service of what they know the gay-hating, rifle-wielding, free-market-loving Jesus stood for.

What would Jesus do? Deport them all! For when they were hungry, he said, “Get out of the country you moochers!”

Update (22 November 2014 10:02 am)

The Bible is so repetitive! I quoted Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” But apparently, the president was quoting Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And then there is Exodus 41:53, “You shall not oppress a stranger, do do that voodoo that you do so well, goo goo g’joob!”

Leave a Comment

Filed under Politics, Spiritual/Religious

English Grammar Is Not in Decay

Geoffrey NunbergI do understand why people would have this impression of decay. And I have it too, particularly when I’m surfing the internet or reading a corporate report. But are things really worse than they used to be? Maybe it is just that I’m getting old and cranky. Complaining about English has always been an old man’s game. I say man — curmudgeon is an interesting word: it’s not a word we apply to women; only men can be curmudgeons. It occurs to me that maybe a lot of this stuff was going on when I was younger but I was too busy to notice or too mellow to care. It would be hard to prove it one way or the other. In fact, people complain about the language but they never really document the claims the way they would if they were economic complaints. People don’t say:

The pronoun “whom” was off sharply last quarter as the language was already reeling from a 37% increase in the use of “office” as a verb.

People just assume that everybody knew how to write and spell correctly until things started to fall apart about a generation ago. Partly that’s just the selectivity of literary memory. Whatever becomes of the general run of evil that men do, our bad writing is interred with our bones. So we don’t have to read the popular journalism of earlier generations. Just as our descendants won’t have to read ours. If you ever go to a garage sale, pick up a copy of Collier’s magazine and look at it. And then look at People magazine today. People‘s a much better written magazine than Collier’s was.

—Geoffrey Nunberg
City Club Presents

Leave a Comment

Filed under Quotations, Reading & Writing

Obama’s Executive Action Is a Double Win

Obama HopeMy father’s late girlfriend used to call Obama a communist. I once asked her, “So what would you call Stalin?” I don’t think she fully appreciated my point. But conservatives really should consider it because they are living it right now. Over the past two weeks, the Republicans have been warning the president that if he took executive action on immigration, it would be all out war. It’s kind of like Hitler threatening all out war if the Allies continued to bomb Berlin. How exactly is this going to get worse?

But in addition to this, there is the way that Obama has been presented in all of this. The average Fox News viewer already thinks that Obama is a lawless president who has enacted one law after another that is unconstitutional. (I doubt one in a hundred of these people could explain why these laws are supposedly unconstitutional.) Now Obama has done something that pushes political norms but he is not breaking the law. So what are the Republicans to say? If they were honest, they would say that he was pushing political norms. But they can’t say that because no one would care that the great lawless usurper is simply doing something that past Republican presidents have done, but a little more aggressively. So they will lie and say he is lawless.

And who really cares? In the conservative imagination, Obama is already lawless. Are they going to say that he is double plus lawless? Or are they going to recalibrate and claim that before they were being a bit hyperbolic and that he wasn’t really lawless but now he is? So what?! It really doesn’t matter given that the Fox News viewer already thinks he is the man who brought National Socialism to America.

This morning, John Boehner declared, “We have a broken immigration system and the American people expect us to work together to fix it.” He added, “All year long I have warned the president that by taking unilateral action on matters such as his healthcare law or by threatening action repeatedly on immigration, he was making it impossible to build the trust necessary to work together.” This is “fall down laughing” material. In 2009, Mitch McConnell said that the Republicans’ number one task was to make Obama a one-term president. And they did everything they could to make that happen. Yet they claim that they are the ones who have reason not to trust. It is amazing.

So after Obama’s landslide in 2008, the Republicans wouldn’t work with him. After the Republican landslide in 2010, Obama bargained away everything and the Republicans would not take it. After a solid Democratic win in 2012, the Republicans wouldn’t work at all with the White House. And now that they have control of the entire Congress, we are to believe that the day of bipartisan compromise has arrived? It is shocking in its presumption.

This morning, Jonathan Chait laid out the real result of this move, “Ardent populists are demanding a series of suicidal confrontations, from shutdowns to, potentially, impeachment, as the Party leadership strains desperately to keep them at bay.” And I’m sure that was a big part of Obama’s calculus in this matter. As I discussed yesterday, the Republicans’ “working together” with the president would always be a day away.

From a Democratic standpoint, the worst that now happens is that the Republicans do exactly what they were going to do anyway. But that is unlikely. It is far more likely that the crazies in the party will demand all kinds of self-defeating actions. And Chait is right that this will cause whoever becomes the presidential nominee to have to move far to the right on immigration. So what we have is an action that is both good policy and good politics. I can see why the Republicans are unhappy about it.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Politics

René Magritte

René MagritteOn this day in 1898, the great surrealist painter René Magritte was born. When I was younger, I didn’t much care for his art. There were a good too many apples and bowlers and too little of the overwhelming brilliance of Salvador Dalí. But over time, I came to appreciate Magritte’s art. For one thing, he has much less of a clear style than Dalí. And so the genius behind the paintings is clear.

It’s also the case that Magritte didn’t produce that many works. This may be partly because he wasn’t that successful until quite late into his life. In fact, he had a career arc rather like that of Cervantes: producing work throughout his life, but doing many things to support himself. But it is also the case that he tended to have very distinct thoughts behind his work.

By the late 1920s, he was producing very interesting — clearly surrealistic — work. Some of this, such as The Treachery of Images, is over-intellectual. But other works, such as The Empty Mask, seem to be much deeper than Magritte himself was aware of. I think that is important for an explicitly intellectual artist; the work has to be somewhat out of control or it becomes contrived.

Magritte was always interested in the question of what was behind images. We see that as early as The Empty Mask. It is a profound question to consider coming from an artist who is, after all, only interested in the surfaces of things. But in fact, every image is just covering up another and on and on. In the mid-1930s, he looked at this quite explicitly in his two paintings The Human Condition, where a painting rendered inside the painting covers up exactly the reality it displays.

The Human Condition - 1935

He did some other interesting work around this time such as Not to be Reproduced and On the Threshold of Liberty. And then his production slowed way down for a decade because of the war. He produced some good work and experimented a lot with color in ways that he didn’t seem to bother with much at other times. And then in the late 1940s, he seemed to arrive at a fairly dependable style that we know him for as in paintings like The Art of Life.

In the early 1950s, he produced a series of paintings, The Empire of Lights. The concept is simple enough. But it is lovely:

The Empire of Lights - Magritte

Magritte didn’t produce his best known work until shortly before he died, The Son of Man. What Magritte wrote about it could stand as a general description of his entire output:

Well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.

Happy birthday René Magritte!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Birthdays, Visual Arts

The HHS 6% Error Is No Big Deal

We Heart ObamacareWhy is it that whenever discussing Obamacare, I feel like I’m in a fight with a creationist? This was well spoofed in an episode of Futurama, where it really doesn’t matter how many transitional fossils science finds, creationists will always be there to point and say, “Aha! What about the transition between Homo rhodesiensis and Homo sapiens?!” But whereas creationists are largely considered freaks, not welcome on sane television, their closely related cousins the Obamacare denies are considered quite respectable.

Just like the creationists, the Obamacare denialists will always have another reason why the healthcare reform law is evil and unworkable and whatever other pejorative they can come up with. Jonathan Chait pointed this out earlier this year about Reason Magazine‘s Peter Suderman, Libertarian Accidentally Shows How Obamacare Is Succeeding. In the article, Chait chronicled how Suderman would publish an article that claimed Obamacare wasn’t going to work for reason X, only to follow it up with a later article where he admitted that reason X didn’t come to pass, but that Obamacare wouldn’t work because of reason Y. And so on. Chait summed it up with his usual style:

We have gone from learning that the law has failed to cover anybody to learning it would cover a couple million to learning it would cover a few million to learning that it has probably insured fewer than 20 million people halfway through year one. The message of every individual dispatch is a confident prediction of the hated enemy’s demise, yet the terms described in each, taken together, tell the story of retreat. The enemy’s invasion fleet has been destroyed; its huge losses on the field of battle have left it on the brink of surrender; the enemy soldiers will be slaughtered by our brave civilian defenders as they attempt to enter the capital; the resistance will triumph!

This is why the most recent Obamacare outrage is so pathetic. The news is minor, Obamacare Sign-Ups Were Inflated With Dental Plans. The Department of Health and Human Services got screwed up and included 400,000 dental plan sign-ups in their figures for the number of people signing up for Obamacare. So instead of just over 7 million new sign-ups, it will be 6.7 million. This is causing conservatives to complaining the the administration did this on purpose because apparently the 7 million figure is really important to them.

Of course, the critics would have to say that. If they didn’t, they would have to explain why it is that the administration is lying so little. Why not goose the number by a million or two? It doesn’t really matter. Any negative news about Obamacare will be trumped up as proof that the law is evil and unworkable and whatever other pejorative they can come up with.

What I don’t understand is why supporters of the law would pretend that this error was a big deal. Today, the very smart and reasonable Jonathan Cohn wrote, The Government Overstated Obamacare Enrollment by 400,000 People. That’s Inexcusable. Really?! A 6% error that was caught by the government itself only a month after it was made is an “inexcusable” error? This is part of the problem with liberals: we are in such a rush to be so squeaky clean that we push anti-government narratives like this.

An administration screw-up that only affected the monitoring of a program and not the program itself is not an “inexcusable” error. That word should be applied to things like the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. That actually cost human lives. That’s inexcusable! People make mistakes all the time. Other than giving Republicans yet another talking point, the 6% error had no negative consequences.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Politics

Government Shutdown Unlikely to Hurt Republicans

Paul WaldmanPaul Waldman wrote a good article yesterday, How Republicans Are Learning to Love the Shutdown. He isn’t alone: a lot of people have been reporting about the increasing zeal that the Republican Party has for shutting down the government. Right now they are talking about doing it over the president’s expected announcement of executive action on immigration. But it doesn’t much matter; they have increasing zeal for shutdowns, breaching debt ceilings, and impeachment. They’re Republicans!

What no one seems to be discussing is why this is. I’m afraid that this was always going to happen. The only question is whether the Republican leadership can somehow divert this trend. The way it works this is. When the Democrats had complete control in Washington, the Republican position was quite rightly, “So what?! We’re still going to fight you with everything we have.” But when the Republicans gained control of the House, the Republican response was, “We won the last election: now you have to do everything we say!” The leadership had to point out that this was not, in fact, how things worked. The Republicans only won one chamber of Congress. They didn’t have the Senate and they didn’t have the White House.

Now that the Republicans have won both chambers of Congress — but before actually getting into power — the base is again acting out like children, “Can we do everything we want now?!” Although this behavior is typical of conservatives, it doesn’t only affect them. Whenever a court overrules some democratically approved law, people normally complain, “But it’s what the people want!” I have to remind them that 51% of the people might want to enslave the other 49%, but that hardly makes right.

The question now is whether the Republican leadership will be able to quiet the masses. It’s actually kind of hard. When they had the House from 2011-2012, the Republicans didn’t shut down the government. The leadership could rightly argue that if the new Republican Representatives were good little boys (and a tiny smattering of girls), they would have the White House in short order and all their dreams would come true. That’s why we did get the shutdown in 2013. I question whether “We’ll win the White House in 2016!” will be all that compelling an argument.

Right now, the Republicans are making the argument that the last time they shut down the government, it didn’t hurt them. In fact, it might have helped them, by causing liberal and moderate voters to just give up on democracy. These people are forgetting an important point, of course. The 2013 government shutdown hurt the Republicans enormously at the time. But they were saved by the website debacle that was all anyone was talking about as soon as the shutdown was ended. By January, everyone had forgotten about what the Republicans had done and were still thinking that the government couldn’t do anything right, as was clear thanks to the Obamacare website. I don’t think they are going to have that good fortune again.

Just the same, as long as the Republicans don’t shut down the government within three months of the next election, I wonder how much it would matter. The truth is that Americans don’t much pay attention to politics. A September poll found that over 40% of Americans said they didn’t know which party controlled the House and the Senate. And that doesn’t even include the ones who said they knew but were wrong. Although 38% knew that Democrats controlled the Senate, 20% said the Republicans did.

Given all this, it is amazing that Americans blame the Republicans for shutting down the government even at the time. They certainly aren’t going to blame the Republicans a year later. And as I indicated, in the long run, Republicans are probably helped by government shutdowns. It is a great way to push their philosophy that the government is incompetent. That not only increases the number of conservatives who show up to vote, it decreases the number of liberals who bother to vote.

So I won’t be cheering if the Republicans shutdown the government. The harm done to the people of the United States will be for nothing. And the best outcome will be that it will have no effect at all in 2016. And it might result in the people deciding that the way to get things done in Washington is to put the people who have obstructed for the previous eight years into power. Because Americans are just brilliant at that kind of anti-logic.

2 Comments

Filed under Politics