I spent a good deal of time yesterday tuned in to the Baucus Committee hearings leading up to the vote to report out the version of health care reform drafted and negotiated by the members of the committee. As I watched the grim, twitching faces of the visibly distressed Republicans casting their futile "nay" votes, I thought again of the many ways in which modern societies have managed to sublimate the blood lust of battle. Many commentators have observed that the language of early modern science, with its talk of "putting nature to the question" [i.e., torturing it to force it to reveal its secrets], draws on a much older and darker discourse. Mathematicians, the meekest and least martial of academics, routinely speak of "forcing an argument through" or "compelling a conclusion." The covert mayhem of chess was brought forcibly to my attention by my son Patrick when he was nine or ten. Patrick was a chess prodigy, and went on to become a very famous International Grandmaster, twice winning the U. S. Chess Championship. [You can look him up on Wikipedia.] One day, when he was still a little boy, we were driving by a cemetary on the road between our home and the university where I taught. Patrick asked me what the building-like structures were, and I explained that they were mausoleums or tombs. People erected them to hold the coffins of the departed, and then sometimes put little statues on top to commemorate them. Patrick mulled over this bit of information for a mile or two and then said, with that unselfconscious excitement that only children and artists can manage, "I know what would be a good mausoleum for you, Daddy!" I gripped the steering wheel so tightly I thought I might bend it, and replied in as measured a voice as I could muster, "Oh, yes. What would that be, Patrick?" "Well," he explained, clearly warming to the idea, "it would be laid out like a chess board and the white king would be turned over on its side, showing it had been defeated." Not for nothing did the Germans originally call chess "vatermorder."
As the clerk of the committee called the role, I reveled in the discomfort of the Republicans, mentally slamming each vote home like another nail in their collective coffin. There is still a long way to go before Obama has his little signing ceremony, and it is still unclear just what the final bill will contain. But none of that could diminish the sadistic pleasure I felt as Orrin Hatch, Jon Kyle, John Ensign and the rest were forced to sit there silently and see their efforts at destruction turned into ashes. Winning really beats losing every time.