Vaclav Havel, RIP

Complete skepticism is an understandable consequence of discovering that one’s enthusiasms are based on illusion. This skepticism leads to a dehumanization of history — a history drifting somewhere above us, taking its own course, having nothing to do with us, trying to cheat us, destroy us, playing out its cruel jokes.
But history is not something that takes place elsewhere; it takes place here. We all contribute to making it. If bringing back some human dimension to the world depends on anything, it depends on how we acquit ourselves in the here and now…
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

I do not know enough about this good man to eulogize him properly, but I’m glad someone at Esquire dug this piece by out of their archives and front-paged it. Also, Charlie Pierce:

He was always the most interesting of them, those Eastern European patriots who helped change the world in the late 1980’s. A poet, a playwright, a Washington in a leather jacket and jeans, he was under surveillance by the secret police for 20 goddamn years. Upon being elected president of a free Czechoslovakia, he defined what that meant by comparing it to the deadening regime that had been settled upon the country for the previous 45 years:

“We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another,” he said. “We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other.”

That applies to allegedly functioning old democracies as well as brand-new ones, by the way.
He resigned when it became plain that Czechoslovakia would become two nations, and then came back as president of the Czech Republic. He thought even old Communists had civil liberties, too. He loved the Beatles.
In his honor, may I say, as loudly as I can:
Ronald Reagan Did Not Win The Cold War.

Sunday Evening Long Read: “Birthright”

Totally worth your time. From the New Yorker, an excellent article by historian Jill LePore on Planned Parenthood and women’s health care in America over the last hundred years:

… There are, in history, very few straight lines. Still, even on this winding road a turn that has conservative women invoking Susan B. Anthony to attack Planned Parenthood is a hairpin. Margaret Sanger opened that first clinic in Brooklyn four years before the passage of what was called, at the time, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Women had only just got the right to vote when the Equal Rights Amendment, written by Alice Paul, was introduced to Congress: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States.” Revisions were introduced in every session from 1923 to 1971. In 1972, the E.R.A. passed and went to the states for ratification. Its eventual defeat was accomplished by conservatives led by Phyllis Schlafly, who opposed the women’s-rights movement and supported a human-life amendment. Schlafly, not Anthony, is the grandmother of the pro-life movement…
If a fertilized egg has constitutional rights, women cannot have equal rights with men. This, however, is exactly what no one wants to talk about, because it’s complicated, and it’s proved surprisingly easy to use the issue to political advantage. Democrats and Republicans thrust and parry, parry and thrust, in a battle that gives every appearance of having been going on forever, of getting nowhere, and of being unlikely to end anytime soon. That, however, is an illusion. Neither abortion nor birth control is, by nature, a partisan issue, and, from the vantage of history, it’s rather difficult to sort out which position is conservative and which liberal, not least because this debate, which rages at a time when there is no consensus about what makes a person a person, began before an American electorate of white men was able to agree that a woman’s status as a citizen is any different from that of a child.
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Fare You Well, Congressman Frank

(via Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog)
Poor Barney, so many people are saying nice things about him, he’s got to wonder if he accidentally announced his demise rather than his retirement. Per Charles P. Pierce, at Esquire‘s Politics Blog:

He is, as the Irish say, himself alone. He was Jewish, and gay — and open about both of them, eventually — and yet he made his bones in the Hibernian House of Borgia that is the Massachusetts State House. He never liked to campaign. He hated to raise money. But he loved the act and the process of legislating. There was a lot of talk once about the possibility of his becoming the first Jewish Speaker of the House, but his coming out pretty much ended that. (Also, the fact that a male prostitute with whom he was involved wound up running his operation from Frank’s home in Washington, D.C. Like the first three Mrs. Gingriches, Barney occasionally fell for the wrong guy.) More important, he was one of the very few Democrats able to respond properly to the witless sarcasm that passes for conservative debate in the House. He fought them with mockery — “Republicans,” he once famously said, “believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth” — and with a kind of withering excoriation. At the same time, he became so adept at compromise that many of his original liberal supporters were critical of him, and he didn’t treat them any more gently than he did the Republicans.
His announcement at the city hall here was of a piece with his whole career. Asked if he was planning to be a lobbyist, Frank replied, “I will not become a lobbyist, nor will I become a historian.” He has taken Newt Gingrich on as a particular adversary ever since the latter became famous as a bomb-throwing back-bencher and, later, as the leader who knocked Frank into the congressional minority in 1994. Frank’s mastery of the acerbic is almost a perfect foil to Gingrich’s blowfish quasi-intellectualism. Asked to discuss the 2012 GOP presidential primary season, Frank mused, “I did not think I had led a good enough life to be rewarded with Newt Gingrich as the Republican nominee for president…. For example, I would look forward to debating Mr. Gingrich on the Defense of Marriage Act. I think he would be the perfect opponent to debate on that.” When somebody asked him to assess the state of the Republican congressional majority with whom, he said, it has become impossible to work, Frank explained that “half of them think like Michelle Bachmann and the other half are afraid of being primaried by someone who thinks like Michele Bachmann.”
He teased, roughly, a woman from the local Fox affiliate who asked him whether he was involved with the kind of congressional insider trading that was exposed by 60 Minutes a few weeks back. “Where are you from?” he asked and, when she told him, he replied, “Quel surprise,” before explaining that his only investments are in Massachusetts Municipal bonds. And he declined to let the voting public off the hook when discussing the polarized state of the national debate. When someone asked him if there was a “path back to moderation,” Frank shot back immediately: “Yes. It’s called the people who don’t vote in primary elections.”


The Washington Post, in its position as the paper of record for a company town where the controlling industry is politics, measured his value to that industry:

Frank mastered the subject matter. This is rare, probably increasingly rare, in the modern Congress. Frank mastered complicated subjects, particularly in the realm of financial regulatory reform. The work he did on what became the Dodd-Frank bill, one of the most substantial pieces of legislation passed in many years, made him an expert “on subjects I never wanted to know about,” as he once joked. He knew about housing policy, and took a lonely position for many years in favor of more federal aid for rental housing, when the fashion was to favor homeownership for all, or nearly all, Americans. Some people, Frank argued, shouldn’t own; for them, renting is fine.
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It’s time

I have a soft spot in my heart for Australia, and I have spent a lot of time there over the years.

Usually I was visiting to check on my mining investments. I got into uranium on the ground floor after a particularly drunken weekend with the Roosevelts in early 1939. Once Eleanor had a couple of my special gimlets under her belt, you could get anything out of her (and I mean anything). It was a very lucrative couple of days.

I’ve also visited in a more professional capacity. After I had assisted in resettling Harold Holt into his new life as a Thai ladyboy, I got a bit of a reputation in the service for being able to speak Australian, and so I was sent there several times for fieldwork. For a few years in the 60s, it felt like we were overthrowing a new Prime Minister every year or so.

In between, I fell in love with Australia a little bit. What can I tell you? It’s a nation of burly footballers in short shorts whose idea of a big weekend is to not stop from the weekend before, and whose idea of moderation is to have a bit of a spew so more beer fits in. It makes decent wine and you can have good e and an ounce of dope delivered to your hotel room within an hour of your plane landing. It has hopping rats and tree bears and more things to make fur coats out of than you can poke a dead dingo at. What’s not to love?

Happily, there is a sanity still to their political discourse that has long been missing in these United States – if indeed it ever existed. It even extends (on occasion) to their legislatures – a right that hasn’t gone full nutcase and which sometimes recalls the old meanings of the words “conservative” and “liberal”, a centre that is actually in the centre, and a left that even gets to have a say in running the country every now and then.

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Republicans find their voice: turns out, it’s whiny

The New York Time interviewed some US elected officials and their boss, Grover Norquist. It’s worth a read because it’s really pretty funny:

The first dissenter:

Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah has signed a pledge never to raise taxes. He signed another pledge too, one that made it nearly impossible to vote for a bill to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. But right before that vote over the summer, in a meeting with scores of his Republican colleagues, he stood up and proclaimed that he would never sign another pledge.

It spreads, and goes public:

On Tuesday, Representative Frank R. Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, took to the House floor for a rare excoriation of the anti-tax activist Grover G. Norquist and his strictly worded pledge, which has been signed by almost the entire Republican caucus as well as a few Democrats.

A day later, Senator John Thune of South Dakota suggested that anti-tax pledges ought to be revisited, because they can be interpreted too broadly in closing loopholes or eliminating tax deductions. “We shouldn’t be bound by something that could be interpreted different ways if what we’re trying to accomplish is broad-based tax reform,” he said.

John Thune just got around to reading the pledge he signed, apparently. I love that he’s offered to negotiate terms, unlike the rabble-raisers in the House. Very senatorial of him. I guess he and Norquist meet, and Norquist tells the Senator from…wherever what modifications or revisions he, Norquist, will accept.

Mr. Norquist, who heads the group Americans for Tax Reform, uses his pledge, which began in 1986 with the endorsement of President Reagan, as a litmus test for candidates on taxes. Known as the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, it makes candidates and incumbents “bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases.” Hundreds of Republicans have signed it, including all six on the bipartisan Congressional deficit reduction committee.

Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, who also signed it, said in an interview: “I’ve signed more pledges than I should have over the years. All of us ought to be somewhat reluctant to make these pledges. I think people who have been here longer do fewer.”

In other words, chumps sign pledges, which leads us to the Men Who Would Be President:

To be sure, the majority of Republican lawmakers are not running away from Mr. Norquist. All the Republican presidential candidates other than Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, have gotten on board.

Mr. Norquist said that those who raise questions about the pledge often do not understand it. “The pledge specifically says you can eliminate tax deductions if you bring rates down at same time,” he said. “The people who say that the pledge would get in the way of tax reform, well their point is they want a tax increase.”

The pledge specifically says…can’t you just hear the snotty tone as he says that?

Since “those who are now raising questions about the pledge” are the spineless morons who signed one, Grover Norquist is telling us that conservative lawmakers, including at least one Senator, signed a pledge that they didn’t understand.