Well, That’s Good News

Paul Waldman, Republicans’ failure on health care is even greater than they realize:

We wind up with a system made up of 1) people who get coverage from the government and are happy with it; 2) people who get coverage from their employers, and like the coverage but don’t like the cost; 3) a small number of people who pay the full cost of private coverage, which is increasingly unaffordable; and 4) people who are uninsured and wish they could get on a government plan such as Medicare or Medicaid. …

And now Republicans have created the worst of all possible worlds, at least from where they sit. They’ve only made Americans more insecure about their health care, they’ve pushed the Democratic Party to the left, and they’ve brought the arrival of a universal system based on government insurance closer than it ever was. Who says the Trump presidency hasn’t produced important achievements?

Vegas Tenold, The Rise and Fall of the Racist Right: White nationalists entered 2017 on a high. They ended it in disarray:

I embedded with the movement at a time when it was nothing. I bore witness to its unlikely rise to prominence, and to those ugly days in August. It was a bad year, but it also exposed the limitations of the far right as a political force. Unity turned out to be an elusive goal, even for a group of racists, Nazis, and ethno-nationalists. The past year showed us how far the far right could go—too far for most, even if they didn’t really get anywhere at all.

BTW, you may be wondering whether Vegas Tenold is an actual name. I googled him or her, and the answer appears to be yes, it is.

One More Holiday Song

It is undisputed that a man named James Lord Pierpont wrote “Jingle Bells,” but there is some controversy about when he wrote it. Some claim that he penned it in 1850, at a tavern in Medford, Massachusetts. Whether or not that is true, he didn’t publish it until September, 1857, when he was serving as organist and music director of the Unitarian Society of Savannah, Georgia, where his brother John was pastor.

As the country moved toward war, Savannah got too hot for Rev. John Pierpont—whose  abolitionist preaching was not popular—and the minister decamped for the North in 1859. But James married a local girl, and stayed where he was.

Unitarians have a proud heritage, but some, like James, do a poor job detecting the moral arc of the universe. He joined the Confederate Army, and applied his musical talents to such ditties as “Our Battle Flag,” “Strike for the South,” and “We Conquer or Die.”

Earlier on in his career, James had had a bad experience during the California gold rush. Some indication of his questionable character may be found in his song, “The Returned Californian”:

Oh, I’m going far away from my creditors just now,

I ain’t the tin to pay ’em and they’re kicking up a row;

I ain’t one of those lucky ones that works for ‘Uncle Sam,’

There’s no chance for speculation and the mines ain’t worth a (‘d–‘) Copper.

There’s my tailor vowing vengeance and he swears he’ll give me Fitts,

And Sheriff’s running after me with pockets full of writs;

And which ever way I turn, I am sure to meet a dun,

So I guess the best thing I can do, is just to cut and run.

Oh! I wish those ‘tarnel critters that wrote home about the gold

Were in the place the Scriptures say ‘is never very cold;’

For they told about the heaps of dust and lumps so mighty big,

But they never said a single word how hard they were to dig.

So I went up to the mines and I helped to turn a stream,

And got trusted on the strength of that delusive golden dream;

But when we got to digging we found ’twas all a sham,

And we who dam’d the rivers by our creditors were damn’d.

Oh! I’m going far away but I don’t know where I’ll go,

I oughter travel homeward but they’ll laugh at me I know;

For I told ’em when I started I was bound to make a pile,

But if they could only see mine now I rather guess they’d smile.

If of these United States I was the President,

No man that owed another should ever pay a cent;

And he who dunn’d another should be banished far away,

And attention to the pretty girls is all a man should pay.

Readings for Christmas Day, 2017

Adam Gopnik, What Did Jesus Do? Reading and unreading the Gospels.

Even if we make allowances for Mark’s cryptic tracery, the human traits of his Jesus are evident: intelligence, short temper, and an ironic, duelling wit. What seems new about Jesus is not his piety or divine detachment but the humanity of his irritability and impatience. He’s no Buddha. He gets annoyed at the stupidity of his followers, their inability to grasp an obvious point. “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” he asks the hapless disciples. The fine English actor Alec McCowen used to do a one-man show in which he recited Mark, complete, and his Jesus came alive instantly as a familiar human type—the Gandhi-Malcolm-Martin kind of charismatic leader of an oppressed people, with a character that clicks into focus as you begin to dramatize it. He’s verbally spry and even a little shifty. He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, perhaps by design. A story about a vineyard whose ungrateful husbandmen keep killing the servants sent to them is an anti-establishment, even an anti-clerical story, but it isn’t so obvious as to get him in trouble. The suspicious priests keep trying to catch him out in a declaration of anti-Roman sentiment: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not, they ask—that is, do you recognize Roman authority or don’t you? He has a penny brought out, sees the picture of the emperor on it, and, shrugging, says to give to the state everything that rightly belongs to the state. The brilliance of that famous crack is that Jesus turns the question back on the questioner, in mock-innocence. Why, you give the king the king’s things and God God’s. Of course, this leaves open the real question: what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? It’s a tautology designed to evade self-incrimination.

Jesus’ morality has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness. His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic. When he makes that complaint about the prophet having no honor in his own home town, or says exasperatedly that there is no point in lighting a candle unless you intend to put it in a candlestick, his voice carries a disdain for the props of piety that still feels startling. And so with the tale of the boy who wastes his inheritance but gets a feast from his father, while his dutiful brother doesn’t; or the one about the weeping whore who is worthier than her good, prim onlookers; or about the passionate Mary who is better than her hardworking sister Martha. There is a wild gaiety about Jesus’ moral teachings that still leaps off the page. He is informal in a new way, too, that remains unusual among prophets. MacCulloch points out that he continually addresses God as “Abba,” Father, or even Dad, and that the expression translated in the King James Version as a solemn “Verily I say unto you” is actually a quirky Aramaic throat-clearer, like Dr. Johnson’s “Depend upon it, Sir.”

Some of the sayings do have, in their contempt for material prosperity, the ring of Greek Cynic philosophy, but there is also something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ morality that makes it fresh and strange even now. Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes on the ground while his fellow-Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of an adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the honor of throwing the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn’t sinned himself? Is there a more compressed and charming religious exhortation than the one in the Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus merrily recommends to his disciples, “Be passersby”? Too much fussing about place and home and ritual, and even about where, exactly, you’re going to live, is unnecessary: be wanderers, dharma bums.

This social radicalism still shines through—not a programmatic radicalism of national revolution but one of Kerouac-like satori-seeking-on-the-road. And the social radicalism is highly social. The sharpest opposition in the Gospels, the scholar and former priest John Dominic Crossan points out in his illuminating books—“The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” is the best known—is between John the Faster and Jesus the Feaster. Jesus eats and drinks with whores and highwaymen, turns water into wine, and, finally, in one way or another, establishes a mystical union at a feast through its humble instruments of bread and wine.

The table is his altar in every sense. Crossan, the co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, makes a persuasive case that Jesus’ fressing was perhaps the most radical element in his life—that his table manners pointed the way to his heavenly morals. Crossan sees Jesus living within a Mediterranean Jewish peasant culture, a culture of clan and cohort, in which who eats with whom defines who stands where and why. So the way Jesus repeatedly violates the rules on eating, on “commensality,” would have shocked his contemporaries. He dines with people of a different social rank, which would have shocked most Romans, and with people of different tribal allegiance, which would have shocked most Jews. The most forceful of his sayings, still shocking to any pious Jew or Muslim, is “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean.” Jesus isn’t a hedonist or an epicurean, but he clearly isn’t an ascetic, either: he feeds the multitudes rather than instructing them how to go without. He’s interested in saving people living normal lives, buying and selling what they can, rather than in retreating into the company of those who have already arrived at a moral conclusion about themselves.

And Now a Message from Jesus

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.*

*Matthew 25:41-46, via Daily Kos.

And Now, A Message from the Next President of the United States

THE PRESIDENT: Mike, would you like to say a few words?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate it Mr. President. As I told you last night, shortly after the Senate vote — I know I speak on behalf of the entire Cabinet and of millions of Americans when I say, congratulations and thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you for seeing, through the course of this year, an agenda that truly is restoring this country. You described it very well, Mr. President. From the outset of this administration, we’ve been rebuilding our military, putting the safety and security of the American people first.

You’ve restored American credibility on the world stage. We’re standing with our allies. We’re standing up to our enemies.

But you promised economic renewal at home. You said we could make this economy great again, and you promised to roll back regulations, and you’ve signed more bills rolling back federal red tape than any President in American history. You’ve unleashed American energy. You’ve spurred an optimism in this country that’s setting records.

But you promised the American people in that campaign a year ago that you would deliver historic tax cuts, and it would be a “middle-class miracle.” And in just a short period of time, that promise will be fulfilled.

And I just — I’m deeply humbled, as your Vice President, to be able to be here. Because of your leadership, Mr. President, and because of the strong support of the leadership in the Congress of the United States, you’re delivering on that middle-class miracle.

You’ve actually got the Congress to do, as you said, what they couldn’t do with ANWR for 40 years. You got the Congress to do, with tax cuts for working families and American businesses, what they haven’t been able to do for 31 years. And you got Congress to do what they couldn’t do for seven years, in repealing the individual mandate in Obamacare.

I know you would have me also acknowledge the people around this table, Mr. President. I want to thank the leaders in Congress once again for their partnership in this. I want to thank your outstanding team, your Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, for Gary Cohn, for Ivanka Trump, for your great legislative team — all the members of this Cabinet who partnered to drive your vision forward over the past six months after you laid out that vision for tax reform.

But mostly, Mr. President, I’ll end where I began and just tell you, I want to thank you, Mr. President. I want to thank you for speaking on behalf of and fighting every day for the forgotten men and women of America. Because of your determination, because of your leadership, the forgotten men and women of America are forgotten no more. And we are making America great again.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mike. That’s very nice. I appreciate that.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mr. President, and God bless you.