Levity on the Right

Among animals, one  has a sense of humor.

— Marianne Moore, The Pangolin

It is always refreshing when folks who are charged with dealing with really serious subject matter bring a note of levity into the proceedings so people don’t get too depressed.  Of course, sometimes the levity may seem out of place but that is a reflection on the observer and not the speaker.  The observer should not take things so seriously.  Two examples were offered last week, one in the United States Supreme Court and the other in a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee.

For the first three days of the week of March 25, 2012,  the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of legislation enacted in 2010 commonly known as “Obamacare”.   Although the Court has many questions to answer in considering the question, the central issue is whether a law that compels individuals to buy health insurance is constitutional.  In 2010, roughly fifty one million Americans were without health insurance.   In 2011, the number had gone up to approximately fifty two million.   Once Obamacare is fully implemented it is anticipated the number of people without health insurance will drop to 26 million.  If that part of the law is unconstitutional questions will arise as to whether other parts of the law, such as requiring insurance companies to insure those with “pre-existing” conditions,  are also unconstitutional. (Houston Tracy can tell you about that.    He was born March 15, 2010 with a defect in his arteries and needed immediate  corrective surgery.   Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas explained to his parents that newborn Houston had a pre-existing condition and was not insured under their policy. After news of Houston’s condition spread around the world and people had time to mock Blue Cross’s crabbed approach,  Blue Cross  added Houston  to his parents’ policy.)  The foregoing shows how terribly serious the discussion in the Supreme Court was and puts in perspective the really funny thing  Justice Tony Scalia said in trying to explain why forcing people to buy health insurance was bad.

Justice Scalia likened requiring people to buy insurance so that more Americans could have health coverage to a requirement that people buy broccoli.  It is unlikely that the Justice was thinking of President George H.W. Bush who famously once said he disliked broccoli.  It was simply a really clever way of getting a few laughs and getting everyone to think that forcing people to buy broccoli was the same as forcing people to buy health care.  It was a really funny comparison and everyone enjoyed the moment of levity it produced. Justice Scalia is reputedly a very funny man and this is just one of those rare moments when we all get to enjoy it.  Justice Scalia was not the only  person to introduce levity into a serious matter.  Representative  Lamar Smith (R-TX) was another.

Just as the Supreme Court hearings were drawing to a close, the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Smith, began an oversight hearing to review the administration’s policy with respect to the detention of undocumented immigrants. He named the hearing  “Holiday on ICE” after the popular ice-skating group of that name that tours the world and features really good  ice skaters.   By picking up that name Rep. Smith showed a whimsical streak not always associated with Republican legislators.  The matter the Judiciary Committee was considering had nothing to do with ice-skating but with immigrants who have often been subject to horrific abuse while in the custody of ICE. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)  Those descriptions of abuse are documented in numerous places including an October 19, 2011 Front Line Report and a 2011 report by the Arizona ACLU.

The hearings coincided with the opening of two new ICE facilities and the issuance of a new detention manual addressing the treatment of detainees.  Lamar Smith, chairman of the Committee  said the manual “reads more like a hospitality guideline for illegal immigrants.”  He also complained that the new facilities were a waste of taxpayer dollars although they were paid for by the company operating them as Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA)pointed out.  She also said she was “deeply disappointed” that her colleagues referred to the Judiciary Committee hearing as a Holiday on Ice.  She said that “immigrants are people who deserve respect by virtue of our common humanity.  They deserve not to be raped.  Not to be tortured, whether through physical or mental abuse or through gross medical neglect.  They deserve not to be shackled when they give birth.”

Rep. Steve King of (R-IA) disagreed saying:  “I can’t think of a more descriptive name for the hearings.  I thought it was right on point. . . . All they need to do to avoid that ‘holiday on ICE’ is put themselves back in the condition they were in before, which is go to their home country.”

The only thing the committee could have done that would have made things more amusing would have been to announce that on a date certain every illegal immigrant in detention would be forced to eat a plate full of broccoli.  That would have been really funny.

Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.

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