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SEX AND THE SEVENTH LETTER! Rachel Maddow talked about sex. Incomparably, we thought of Plato: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 17, 2009

A change in a basic procedure: We were struck by one part of today’s report by Bill Turque—a report which concerns the DC schools’ testing/reporting procedures. We’ll plan to discuss it tomorrow or Monday. For today, just click here. Search on: “Other score-leavening methods included redefining a failing test.”

The atrocity in the room: How much extra will we rubes have to pay to get what everyone else already has? Sorry: To get what everyone else already has—at half the price we’re already paying? We’re not sure what the answer will be. But bowdlerized versions of that question have been in the air all week.

Yesterday, the AP began explaining the $1.5 trillion price tag (over ten years) it had put on the current House health reform bill. (For their explanation, click here.) This morning, the Washington Post leads page one with the CBO’s latest gloom:

MONTGOMERY (7/17/09): Congress's chief budget analyst delivered a devastating assessment yesterday of the health-care proposals drafted by congressional Democrats, fueling an insurrection among fiscal conservatives in the House and pushing negotiators in the Senate to redouble efforts to draw up a new plan that more effectively restrains federal spending.

Under questioning by members of the Senate Budget Committee, Douglas Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, said bills crafted by House leaders and the Senate health committee do not propose "the sort of fundamental changes" necessary to rein in the skyrocketing cost of government health programs, particularly Medicare. On the contrary, Elmendorf said, the measures would pile on an expensive new program to cover the uninsured.

Though President Obama and Democratic leaders have repeatedly pledged to alter the soaring trajectory—or cost curve—of federal health spending, the proposals so far would not meet that goal, Elmendorf said, noting, "The curve is being raised." His remarks suggested that rather than averting a looming fiscal crisis, the measures could make the nation's bleak budget outlook even worse.

Numbers are going to move around, and Elmendorf’s testimony will be read different ways. For ourselves, we’ll just marvel again at our society’s Ongoing Agreement to ignore the atrocity in the room.

What’s the atrocity in the room? It’s the astounding amount of wasted money involved in our current arrangements. Yesterday, the Post referred to “President Obama's ambitious drive to overhaul the nation's $2.3 trillion health-care system.” We don’t offer what follows as a criticism of Obama. But let’s consider what that amazingly large number means:

Let’s assume that our society is currently spending $2.3 trillion per year on health care. Since we’re spending twice as much per person as other developed nations, about $1.15 trillion of that money is essentially “wasted” spending. Some of it goes to pay the middle-class salaries of middle-class people engaged in (useless) paper-shuffling at insurance companies. Some if it goes to doctors who perform useless procedures. Some it goes to insurance and pharmaceutical companies in the form of large profits.

But, in the larger sense, it’s all wasted/misspent. And let’s enjoy a bit of straight talk: That much misspent money is an utter social obscenity. And yet, that remarkable sum rarely gets discussed as we try to figure out how much more we’ll have to pay—to get what everyone else already has. That astounding amount of misspent money thus becomes the atrocity in the room.

It’s isn’t Barack Obama’s fault that this obscenity goes undiscussed. The liberal world has taken part in this gimmicked discussion for many years. But that misused sum does represent a true social atrocity. And alas! When it gets discussed at all, it tends to get discussed in the manner which follows.

Chrystia Freeland (The Financial Times) appeared on last night’s Ed Show. She said more than is normally said:

FREELAND (7/16/09): This president likes to talk about the best being the enemy of the good, and is very much someone who is focused on achieving what is achievable. Having said that, I agree with you that the public option is really essential for true health care reform.

One of the nightmare outcomes that you could have is some sort of reform which is a half measure and ends up making things worse. I think the way you could get to that would be maybe to have coverage extended, but not to have action taken to bring down the costs, which is one of the things that the public option could do.

One of the really the ridiculous things about the American health care system, if you look at it from the outside, is America spends more on health care than other western industrialized countries, significantly more, but actually has equal or, in most cases, worse outcomes. So you should be able to have reform that gives more coverage and costs less money. I think it has to be the target that the president aims for.

Freeland, a Canadian, correctly noted that our system is “really ridiculous” (“if you look at it from the outside”). Well guess what, rubes? The situation Freeland describes remains deeply ridiculous if you look at it from the inside! But almost no one ever does. Freeland herself understates the insanity a tad—and her host, Ed Schultz, moved directly to a different consideration.

In that presentation, Freeland offers a bit of obvious logic. If the US pays twice as much as other nations for similar health care outcomes, “you should be able to have reform that gives more coverage and costs less money” (our emphasis). In the short run, it wouldn’t be easy to accomplish that outcome; any actual “overhaul” of our profoundly ridiculous system would involve economic dislocations. But it’s rare to see anyone make the obvious case Freeland offered last night. When she did, she understated the lunacy a tad—and Schultz moved instantly on.

Classicist Norman O. Brown got very hot in the mid 1960s (click this). In his very hot book, Love’s Body, he described how societies die:

BROWN (1966): I sometimes think I see that societies originate in the discovery of some secret, some mystery; and end in exhaustion when there is no longer any secret, when the mystery has been divulged, that is to say profaned...And so there comes a time—I believe we are in such a time—when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of some new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of all mankind, the power which makes all things new.

We don’t recall what that means any more. But we will say this: Societies die when they can no longer see, or discuss, what is standing right before them. A ludicrous, deeply disordered discussion continues in today’s Post.

SEX AND THE SEVENTH LETTER: We began thinking about Plato’s “Seventh Letter” as we watched Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night. But then, we’d just finished watching Melissa Harris-Lacewell expound during Countdown’s last segment.

In that Seventh Letter (excerpts below), Plato discussed his feelings as his society came apart at the moral/intellectual seams. It was hard to avoid such thoughts Wednesday night as Harris-Lacewell, then Maddow, expounded.

We’re often stunned by Harris-Lacewell, but she took the cake Wednesday night. Our first excerpt will be slightly unfair—though not much. Below, you see how her first answer to Olbermann started. KeithO had asked about—what else?—the latest thrilling sex scandal.

Good God. As Plato might have observed, We’re all Gail Collins now!

OLBERMANN (7/15/09): Senate Republicans have been kind of measured I think in their support of [Senator John] Ensign. Why is it those who want to legislate morality continue to stand by those who commit the very acts that they rail against?

HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think for me the thing that I find sort of most disgusting about this whole moment is the idea that somehow this is a private matter. Right? We should deal with our elected officials only on public matters, but not on private matters.

Marriage is most decidedly not a private matter.

“Marriage is most decidedly not a private matter,” the disgusted Princeton professor insisted. We’re being a little unfair by stopping there. But not much.

The professor engaged in three Q-and-As. In the course of these ruminations:

She repeated her strong declaration on marriage. (“So I really despise the notion that marriage itself is some kind of private matter that we don’t have any business talking about.”)

She said, “I certainly do hope that the young woman who was exploited [by Ensign] will, in fact, come forward and speak openly about it.” The “young woman” in question is 46 years old; Ensign is 51. She and her husband were long-time friends of Ensign and his wife.

She seemed to acknowledge the power of “the titillation factor.” (“Don’t we all kind of want to watch what happens?”) In the process, she said this isn’t the major reason she wants to discuss pols’ marriages.

For us, Harris-Lacewell’s third Q-and-A really did it. By now, KO was asking her to discuss Mark Sanford’s sexy-time antics. (She seemed to think Sanford’s a senator.) But yikes! After opining about Mrs. Sanford’s affairs, Harris-Lacewell discussed her own.

“I loved Jenny Sanford early on,” she enthused. Soon, though, it was TMI (too much information)—in our view, way too much I:

HARRIS-LACEWELL: I have to say, I loved Jenny Sanford early on, because her responses were, you know, “I’m worried about my children. Whatever happens in his political career is his business.” And then, of course, there was a kind of humiliation factor when, you know, Senator [sic] Motormouth just started talking about his soul mate and just, you know, sort of really exploded this.

What I can say is this: You know clearly I hope that the choices that Jenny Sanford is making about her family—which, you know, any of us can understand a woman who’s married and raising her children wanting to put her marriage back together. You know, people make all kinds of choices in marriage.

But that said, I am dating a man who is running for mayor of New Orleans. And part of the reason that I feel comfortable endorsing him politically is because I have such a clear sense of his private morality and his private ethics. And so I’ll just say if you know that the private ethics are messed up, it ought to call into question the public ethics as well.

OLBERMANN: Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton University, great thanks. Take care.

Harris-Lacewell is able to endorse her current boy friend “because I have such a clear sense of his private morality and his private ethics.”

That way lies absolute, screaming madness. There are two words for this: Kenneth Starr.

We’ve long been stunned by Harris-Lacewell’s appearances on the Maddow Show. We thought this session set a new standard. But Maddow herself is now discussing little but sex of an evening. It’s all tricked up with bells and whistles, of courses—often involving Jeff Sharlet’s 2008 book, The Family (more next week). But Maddow is now using vast amounts of time to talk about sexsexsex. Last night, she opened with Pat Buchanan and race. She then moved straight to sexsexsex, offering several impossibly arcane segments about current sex scandals. Quite literally, it was 9:50 before she discussed any other topic. At that time, she finally stopped talking about sexsexsex—and did a short, anniversary segment about Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

We thought of Plato’s Seventh Letter as Maddow talked sexy-time sex Wednesday night. In that text, Plato describes his experience as a young man as the downfall of Athens produced an oligarchic revolution (404 BC). A group called “The Thirty” ascended to power; they began to settle scores. Many years later, Plato described the disgust he had felt, just as Harris-Lacewell described her own disgust Wednesday night. In this translation, we think Professor Desmond Lee has gotten it just about right:

PLATO: The existing constitution, which was subject to widespread criticism, was overthrown...and a committee of Thirty given supreme power. As it happened some of them were friends and relations of mine and they at once invited me to join them, as if it were the natural thing for me to do. My feelings were what were to be expected in a young man: I thought they were going to reform society and rule justly, and so I watched their proceedings with deep interest. I found that they soon made the earlier regime look like a golden age. Among other things they tried to incriminate my old friend Socrates, whom I should not hesitate to call the most upright man then living, by sending him, with others, to arrest a fellow-citizen, and bring him forcibly to execution; Socrates refused, and risked everything rather than make himself a party to their wickedness. When I saw all this, and other things as bad, I was disgusted and withdrew from the wickedness of the times.

The democracy was soon restored, but Socrates was brought to trial on “a monstrous charge.” His execution finished off Plato as well. “The more closely I studied the politicians and the laws and customs of the day, and the older I grew, the more difficult it seemed to me to govern rightly,” he would recall. “Nothing could be done without trustworthy friends and supporters; and these were difficult to come by in an age which had abandoned its traditional moral code but found it impossibly hard to create a new one.”

Plato abandoned his thoughts of a political career, deciding to spend his time dreaming up the perfect republic. (Big mistake. But that’s another story.)

On Wednesday night, we marveled at Harris-Lacewell’s ruminations, then watched Maddow stage her latest sexy-time sex talk. We could feel a vague thought start to play in our brain. Then we had it! The Seventh Letter!

We may review Maddow’s recent work in more detail next week, especially her work about Sharlet’s book. Meanwhile, why is this highly progressive star so immersed in sexy-time sex talk? We have no idea, of course. But last night, when Mr. O said this, we wondered if we had some small part of our answer:

O’REILLY (7/17/09): Finally, big ads running in some newspapers; they prove that Fox News is dominating the cable news industry by a huge margin. “FNC: Ten of the top ten programs!” So congratulations to us! What is really interesting is that our competition has pretty much collapsed, and that is change we can believe in.

MSNBC hasn’t “collapsed.” But on Wednesday night, as Maddow talked sex, 2.5 million were watching Sean Hannity—and 1.1 million were watching her. (For all these data, just click here.) At 11 PM that night, 1.7 million watched O’Reilly’s rerun; 0.5 million watched Maddow’s.

At 8 PM that same evening, 3.3 million watched O’Reilly’s live broadcast. At that same hour, 1.3 million watched Harris-Lacewell evaluate Jenny Sanford’s moves—and discuss why she herself is able to endorse her own current love interest.

Do those numbers help explain why Maddow talked sexy-time sex all last night? We don’t know, but one thing is clear:

You’ll hear about health care reform on her program as soon as some big Republican player gets involved in a sex scandal. Chuck Grassley! Please! Get it on!

We thought of that “Seventh Letter”—who didn’t?—as we watched Maddow Wednesday night. We may offer more detail next week, especially about Sharlet’s book.

Regarding Jeff Sharlet: Sharlet’s fascinating work was widely ignored when he first published—in March 2003, in Harper’s (click here). His work has finally found an audience—thanks to some sexy-time scandals. (His book was published last year.)

Some things simply can’t be ignored. Maddow also devoted big time this week to the state of Iraqi baseball. Channeling Norman Brown, we sometimes think that societies die when “progressives” start acting like this.