Belmont Club

Two Storms, Two Manias

It was a tale of two cities, both racked by storms. Todd Pittman of the Associated Press, wandering among the ruins of typhoon-ravaged Tacloban noticed people playing basketball. “I didn’t know what to think at first when I stumbled upon six teenagers shooting hoops over the weekend in a wrecked neighborhood of Tacloban, a city that Typhoon Haiyan reduced to rubble, bodies and uprooted trees when it slammed into the Philippines Nov. 8.”

They found the hoop in the ruins of their obliterated neighborhood. They propped up the backboard with broken wood beams and rusty nails scavenged from vast mounds of storm-blasted homes. ….

As a foreign correspondent working in the middle of a horrendous disaster zone, I didn’t expect to see people having a good time — or asking me to play ball. I was even more stunned when I learned that the basketball goal was one of the first things this neighborhood rebuilt.

It took a moment for me to realize that it made all the sense in the world….

When a kid with mismatched shoes rolled the grimy, orange-and-yellow basketball my way, I was encouraged to attempt a slam dunk. I opted for free throws instead, and miraculously sank the first two, to immense cheers all around.

My third shot hit the rim, circled twice and rolled the wrong way. The crowd roared a sympathetic “Awwwwwwwwww.” There were a lot of laughs. …

I covered the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, and cannot recall a single laugh. Every nation is resilient in its own way, but there is something different in the Philippines that I have not yet put my finger on. …

Perhaps it has something to do with an expression Filipinos have: “Bahala Na.” It essentially means: Whatever happens, leave it to God.

Pittman’s translation is not quite correct. One of the senses of the phrase bahala na is “snap out of it” — focus on surviving. The almost pathological optimism is a survival adaptation, a kind of anodyne against paralyzing despair. Pittman, perplexed by this behavior consulted Elizabeth Protacio de Castro, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Philippines who explained that “rather than screaming or staring at the wall in a psychiatric ward” the bahala na attitude encouraged one to “do your best, then let it go.”

But if Pittman thought he found odd behavior in Tacloban, what might he have thought of Washington DC where a very different sort of devil-may-care behavior was in evidence? Here was a city in the grip of another storm and behaving just as strangely.

When asked about the catastrophic rollout of Obamacare, Henry Chao, the deputy chief information officer of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services explained that its nonfunction might be due to the fact that much of the system remained to be built. The following exchange occurred between Chao and Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo).

“What portion of the website remained to be created when you launched on October 1st?”

“I don’t have an exact percentage,” said Henry Chao …

“Well, how much do we have to build today?” Gardner pressed.

“Just an approximation, we’re probably sitting somewhere between 60 and 70 percent,” Chao said.

“Sixty to 70 percent that needs to be built still?” Gardner said.

“We still have to build the payment systems to make payments to issuers in January,” the Obamacare official said before adding, “the online application, verification, determination, plan compare, getting enrolled, generating enrollment transaction – that’s 100 percent there.”

“But the entire system is 60 to 70 percent away from being complete,” Gardner said.

“There’s the back office systems, the accounting systems, the payment systems … they still need to be done,” Chao said.

That would explain why the system didn’t work. The president had launched a program with a lot of parts missing and apparently expected to see it function, rather like a producer who opens a movie nationwide with only the trailer completed and expects it to be a box office hit. That it didn’t work seemed to astonish the president, who if Secretary Sebelius is to be believed, only learned of the problem two days after the website was launched by reading the papers.

It is interesting to contrast these two behaviors. The first by subsistence farmers psyching themselves to survive and Obama, a man of grand vision too high above the fray to notice the pesky details. The New York Times noted that the administration exhibited a certain carelessness towards execution. In an article titled “Another Website, Another Problem for Obama” it noted that functionality sometimes eluded him.

WASHINGTON — Some supporters who tried to log in to hear President Obama defend his embattled health care law on Monday night were unable to hear him because the website of the group behind the call, Organizing for Action, failed to work for them….

But many people who logged in said they could not hear anything, with the website reporting “connection failure” over and over again. It was unclear how many people could listen to the call. An official with the group gave a New York Times reporter, who also could not hear anything on the website, a telephone number to call and listen in.

At the same time, a chat board on the website began filling up with messages:

“I can’t hear any audio?”

“Is everyone getting the ‘reconnecting’ message?”

“I did refresh twice — still no sound.”


It was perhaps as well nobody could hear him speak. A weary-sounding Obama told Organizing For Action, which claimed 200,000 people were listening, that “in the first month alone, we’ve seen more than 100 million Americans already successfully enroll in the new insurance plans.”

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The hundred million figure was a gaffe of course, or so we are told, but allowing for a certain amount of hyperbole, not bad for a system that is largely incomplete. Imagine how many people Obamacare could enroll if only it were working.  But the mechanical details were of little interest to the president who explained to a Wall Street Journal forum that the real problem was that Republicans were inhibiting the law’s implementation.

“One of the problems we’ve had is one side of Capitol Hill is invested in failure,” Obama said at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council meeting in Washington. “We obviously are going to have to remarket and rebrand, and that will be challenging in this political environment.”

The president also voiced frustration with the toxic political atmosphere endangering his signature legislative achievement. He said Washington needs to “break through the stubborn cycle of crisis politics and start working together.”

It was almost as if the actual problem was they had hexed him; cursed him with some kind of political voodoo. Nobody reminded the president that before remarketing and rebranding a product, it would help to have a product first because so pedestrian an observation seemed out of place in that mystical plane.  Washington’s behavior was stranger even than bahala na.

Pittman should have realized that bahala na wasn’t  really strange at all, just a univeral human response to crisis.  One recalls the Third Man Factor described by men struggling to survive.  “The Third Man factor or Third Man syndrome refers to the reported situations where an unseen presence such as a “spirit” provides comfort or support during traumatic experiences … Some journalists have related this to the concept of a guardian angel or imaginary friend. Scientific explanations consider this a coping mechanism or an example of bicameralism.”  People in great danger through history have often sensed someone urging them forward even in the face of overwhelming odds.

By contrast, the reckless disregard for facts that characterized Obamacare has completely different roots.  It is not rooted in human nature but is distinctly artificial. It is learned.  Victor Davis Hanson described it as an educated rejection of constructs like “truth” where reality is literally not supposed to matter. It is the terminal phase of latter day post-modern, ultra-leftist, magical thinking.

In this regard, it was understandable that the New York Times characterized the president’s not telling the truth on over 20 occasions as cases of “misspeaking.” Translated, that means he lied but his lies were really true: Misspeaking means that Obama was not sensitive enough to those of us still mired in calcified definitions of true and false. The privileged still cross t’s and dot i’s; their victims have no such luxury.

Earlier, Obama himself had falsely claimed that he had never stated that Americans would not lose either their health insurance or their doctors, and would not pay more for their new coverage (e.g., “If you had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really liked that plan, what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed”). But so what?

Things have looped around. The Marxism and post-modernism taught in our schools and which claim to be rooted in science may have in fact degenerated into a kind of mumbo-jumbo or witchcraft.  But it is now so pervasive we don’t notice it until we get far enough from the Beltway to sense the contrast. Perhaps Euripedes was right: whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.

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