About 60 years ago – probably as a bar mitzvah gift – I received a big book titled “A Treasury of Jewish Humor.” One of the stories in it comes back to me now as an accurate depiction of the incoherent approach sadly taken by so many Congressional Republicans toward the role of government and its place in our society.
In general, they profess to dislike it intensely. And not content with spending so much energy on denouncing government, weeks ago they decided to take the ultimate step of demonstrating their opposition to it by shutting ours down.
In the relevant story in the book, there is another object that the protagonist of the story finds so distasteful that it induces irrational behavior: kreplach.
For those who insist that our national dialogue be conducted entirely in English, I will translate. Kreplach is a food that consists of chopped meat encased in a small envelope of dough. (As a demonstration of the universal elements that run through otherwise diverse cultures, this food is also known as ravioli or wonton.)
The story is about a mother who approaches a wise rabbi, lamenting that her young son, to use an expression that she probably did not, “freaks out” when he see kreplach. “Bring him to me,” the rabbi intones – rabbis in these stories almost always intone.
The mother obediently does so, and the rabbi takes the boy into his kitchen. Step by step, he prepares the scary food. First he rolls out the dough and asks the boy if this troubles him. “No” is the answer. Then the rabbi forms the dough into a square with a place for an insertion. “Is this a problem?” he asks. “No” comes the answer. Next the rabbi takes a bowl of chopped meat, spoons out a portion, and a third time asks if this is disturbing. “No” comes the answer for the third time.
“Ah-ha,” the rabbi says. Rabbis in this book also say “ah-ha” a lot. He puts the meat into the dough square and folds it over. Triumphantly, he holds it out to the boy, confident he has assuaged his fears.
“Ugh,” the boy shouts, “I hate it.”
Substitute Republicans for the boy and the government for kreplach and you have the government shutdown. Many Republicans – and certainly those who are calling the shots in the U.S. House today – recoil at the notion of government. But like the boy in the story, their displeasure at the whole does not seem logically to fit with their enthusiasm for its parts.
Thus, over the past weeks, we saw House Republicans alternate their denunciations of government in general with praise for its activities in particular, as they brought forward a series of bills to reinstate one at a time the government functions they shut down entirely, while blaming the president because the agencies they refused to fund do not have the money needed to function.
Logically, the concept of a whole that is smaller than the sum of its parts makes no sense. For the boy in the story and the Republicans in the House, it apparently has a logic that most of the rest of us do not appreciate.
I have had difficulty understanding why my former colleague John Boehner, who heretofore practiced a rational form of conservatism, is the enabler of this particular right-wing phobia. It is possible that he had also been given a copy of this book in his youth – though presumably not at a bar bitzvah – and understands the deep irrationality of many of his colleagues enough to dissuade him from trying to play the part of the rabbi.
To give the tea party members their due, it may be that on one level – sadly not a very conscious one – they understand that most people do not share their ability simultaneously to despise government while appreciating most of what it actually does piece-by-piece. This would explain why they are so determined to strangle the Affordable Care Act in its infancy.
Instinctively, they understand that if the law continues in effect – as it will despite their antics – members of the public who like being able to buy health care at an affordable rate; who are grateful for not being denied health insurance because they are sick; and who think that family values support letting offspring remain on their parents’ health insurance plan longer than is now allowed will not only resist future attempts to take these things away from them, but might in some cases decide that a process that has been the means for providing them – working together with government – isn’t so bad after all.
In short, at some level they are trying to destroy this advance in health care policy because of the greatest fear any politician must confront: that their political opponents will at some point be able to remind them of their unfulfilled predictions of doom, and say the worst thing an elected official can hear from her opponents: “I told you so.”
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.