Kundera and the Debt Ceiling

Cody Walker
October 16, 2013
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This evening, as the House Republicans again failed to offer a bill that would reopen the government and extend the Treasury’s debt limit, I found myself turning to Milan Kundera for explanation. Here’s a joke (or parable, maybe) from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

In Wenceslaus Square, in Prague, a guy is throwing up. Another guy comes up to him, pulls a long face, shakes his head, and says, “I know just what you mean.”

For some, the sickening threat of a default is a sign of the nation’s health. Or at least the Tea Party’s health. Here’s Ted Cruz, speaking several days ago at the Values Voters Summit: “None of us knows what is going to happen in this Obamacare fight right now. In my view the House of Representatives needs to keep doing what it’s doing, which is standing strong!”

But as John McCain said earlier today, “Republicans have to understand we have lost this battle, as I predicted weeks ago, that we would not be able to win because we were demanding something that was not achievable.”

Why does the prospect of expanded health insurance coverage terrify some lawmakers? Are they afraid that the program will prove a success, and that the success will increase the popularity of the party behind it? Tea Party hard-liners desperately want to turn back the calendar: to 2010 (when the Affordable Care Act was moving its way through the Senate and House); to 1773 (when three shiploads of tea were thrown into the Boston Harbor, and when things were less than ideal for non-whites and women). In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Kundera tries to define litost, “an untranslatable Czech word.” His best attempt: “Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.” Later in the chapter, he writes:

I saw a slogan written on the walls of a town: “We don’t want compromise, we want victory!” You must understand, by then there was no more than a choice among several varieties of defeat, but this town rejected compromise and wanted victory! That was litost talking! A man possessed by it takes revenge through his own annihilation.


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