Sam Spade Gambles with the Filibuster

Bogart, Greenstreet in "The Maltese Falcon"

Bogart, Greenstreet in “The Maltese Falcon”

The GOP’s unprecedented use of the filibuster over the past four years may be rendering the Senate dysfunctional, but in recent days it has resulted in a couple of choice literary quotations. As a literature professor, I find this to be a (microscopically small) silver lining.

Senator Rand Paul made pretty good use of the concluding scene of Alice in Wonderland during the early moments of his 13-hour filibuster of the John Brennan nomination for CIA head. And Jonathan Bernstein of The Washington Post niftily applies a passage from Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon when examining the possible consequences of GOP obstructionism.

Let’s start with Bernstein. In the Washington Post’s “PostPartisan” column he talks about how the GOP’s continual and indiscriminate abuse of the filibuster—60 votes are now needed for practically everything—could come back to bite them. Bernstein notes that effective use of the filibuster calls for “delicate judgement,” a phrase applied by Maltese Falcon villain Kasper Gutman. That’s because there are two competing pressures at work:

The basic story of filibuster reform is very simple. Senators from the majority party are always torn between their preference for individual influence (and, perhaps, their concerns about party goals in the future when they’re in the minority) on the one hand, and their concerns about enacting the party agenda on the other hand. The first of those pushes them to retain the filibuster; the latter, to curtail or eliminate it.

The trick for the minority party is then to use the filibuster as much as possible without tipping that balance of incentives.

Bernstein compares the situation to Gutman grilling Sam Spade about the whereabouts of the legendary falcon. I suppose Bernstein sees Spade as the GOP here, pushing his luck, while Gutman is the Democratic Party, supposedly in control of the situation but facing an obdurate foe. Spade has cards to play, just as the GOP does, but if he pushes things too much, Gutman could get caught up in his emotions and kill him. Of course, he would then lose the falcon, but Spade would be dead. The opening questions in the following dialogue are Spade’s:

“If you kill me, how are you going to get the bird? If I know you can’t afford to kill me till you have it, how are you going to scare me into giving it to you?”

Gutman cocked his head to the left and considered these questions. His eyes twinkled between puckered lids. Presently he gave his genial answer: “Well, sir, there are other means of persuasion besides killing and threatening to kill.”

“Sure,” Spade agreed, “but they’re not much good unless the threat of death is behind them to hold the victim down. See what I mean? If you try anything I don’t like I won’t stand for it. I’ll make it a matter of your having to call it off or kill me, knowing you can’t afford to kill me.”

”I see what you mean.” Gutman chuckled. “That is an attitude, sir, that calls for the most delicate judgment on both sides, because, as you know, sir, men are likely to forget in the heat of action where their best interest lies, and let their emotions carry them away.”

Spade too was all smiling blandness. “That’s the trick, from my side,” he said, “to make my play strong enough that it ties you up, but yet not make you mad enough to bump me off against your better judgment.”

Gutman said fondly: “By Gad, sir, you are a character!”

In the case of the Senate, the Republicans may not be using delicate judgment, which could lead the Democrats to become so exasperated that they would severely curtail or even “bump off” the filibuster rule. All they need is 51 votes to do so and they have 55.

Of course, one shouldn’t bet against Spade. Which means that, even if the GOP continues to use the filibuster to “tie up” practically every judicial appointment, cabinet nomination, and legislative bill, they may still get away with it. After all, they have so far.

Now to Rand Paul, who decided to take the manly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibuster route as opposed to the cowardly abstention filibuster route. I find Paul one of the more paranoid and incoherent senators but I’ll give him props for this. I’m also glad that someone is challenging America’s drone program.

His use of Lewis Carroll’s work is also pretty good. I’ve used the Alice books a number of times over the past four years to capture the insanity of the GOP’s lunatic fringe (see below) so it’s startling to see a card-carrying member of said fringe now quoting it:

I rise today for the principle. The principle is one that as Americans we have fought long and hard for and to give up on that principle, to give up on the bill of rights, to give up on the Fifth Amendment protection that says that no person shall be held without due process, that no person shall be held for a capital offense without being indicted. This is a precious American tradition and something we should not give up on easily. They say Lewis Carroll is fiction. Alice never fell down a rabbit hole and the White Queen’s caustic judgments are not really a threat to your security. Or has America the beautiful become Alice’s wonderland? “No, no, said the queen. “Sentence first; verdict afterwards.” “Stuff and nonsense,” Alice said, widely – loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!” “Hold your tongue,” said the queen, turning purple. “I won’t,” said Alice. “Release the drones,” said the Queen, as she shouted at the top of her voice.

Lewis Carroll is fiction, right? When I asked the President, can you kill an American on American soil, it should have been an easy answer. It’s an easy question. It should have been a resounding and unequivocal, “no.” The President’s response? He hasn’t killed anyone yet. We’re supposed to be comforted by that.

I give Paul a pass for mistaking the White Queen in Alice through the Looking Glass for the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. I applaud him for upholding the principle of habeas corpus, although I’ll note that it was the Bush/Cheney administration rather than the Obama administration that regularly violated this principle. But yes, American drone strikes ordered by Obama have killed three American Muslims in Yemen. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards” fits the situation pretty well. I like Paul comparing himself to a heroic Alice standing up to the administration’s judicial contortions.

The problem is that Paul is letting his paranoia about Obama infect the passage. Obama has not been threatening GOP members who refuse to hold their tongues, nor is he threatening to release massive drone attacks–like hounds–on the American public. Paul’s characterization of the president as a Queen of Hearts is the latest instance of Obama derangement that we have been witnessing these past four years. I was not surprised to see Paul’s speech move on from Alice to Hitler analogies.

Still, it was nice to see literature invoked in our national discourse.


Previous posts applying Lewis Carroll to American politics:

Medicare Politics and Gullible Oysters

Romney and Ryan’s Gently Smiling Jaws

Mitt Romney and Looking Glass Politics

The Presidential Candidates in Wonderland

Rightwing Rewrites Reality

Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and Medi(s)care

Believing 6 Impossibilities before Breakfast

It’s Been a Mad Tea Party

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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