It is the wisdom of the crocodiles, that shed tears when they would devour.

Francis Bacon[1]

Well, after shutting the Government down and alienating lots of folks, House Republicans seem to have caught a break. If you recall, the great shut-down was motivated in large part by their fervent desire to destroy the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act[2] once and for all. [For convenience, we’re going to call this the Affordable Care Act from now on.] The notion was that the Republicans’ last, best chance to do away with Affordable Care was to paralyze the Government before that Act could be set in motion. Republicans would hold all federal programs ransom until the Democrats agreed to disarm their new health initiative[3].

The shut-down failed on that score. Apparently Congress had already appropriated enough money to keep Affordable Care rolling along, even though no new funding was authorized. And, lots of other federal programs, many of them popular, were threatened by the Republicans’ evident desire to defund everything possible until they got their way. Some folks, even some Republicans, began to conclude that the ideologues in control of that party weren’t really on the side of ordinary people.

But here the Democrats, ever-conscious of their duty to help maintain our two-party political system, stepped in to redress the balance. At bottom the Affordable Care Act created a federally sponsored insurance program. People covered by the Act had to participate, and were to buy their insurance through a brand-new web portal. It was all very high-tech, and government sponsored, but it didn’t work. In fact, it was a near total flop for a month or so.[4]

The Democrats had fielded a mandatory health program; told covered citizens they would be punished for not participating; and then made it impossible for them to do so because the software was broken! Republicans were jubilant. You see, they said, the Government can’t do anything right! These things should be left to the private sector. Why did the system fail, and who’s responsible? And it’s terrible that people are being denied health care after it’s been promised.

Today the web portal works, more or less. People are able to sign up, although not yet at the rate originally projected by the Administration. And, in spite of what ideologues on the Right have to say, the Government doesn’t always mess up its programs. We ask the Government to do lots of things on our behalf that its people do capably and well. Government fights epidemics, forest fires, and foreign wars; it does basic research in medicine and the sciences, provides emergency relief from natural disasters, runs our space program, enforces our laws and so forth. These are a few of its essential functions, and any who want to face an armed and dangerous world without them are foolish indeed.

Why did the new health care system fail? How great was the failure, how many problems remain, and when will they all be fixed? These are all good questions and our Congress, including the House Republicans, no doubt will devote quite a bit of its time next year to finding the answers. We even have some theories here at Elemental Zoo Two which no doubt we’ll bring up at some point. But for now we’ll await further developments. Media pundits ought to do the same.

So what about this new sympathy that the Right has developed for the people who should but right now can’t get health coverage under the Affordable Care Act? Has the Right had a change of heart? Does it truly want the Government to help the uninsured?

Here’s where we talk about crocodile tears. It’s an old expression, you know; as far as I can tell, it’s been in the English language for over 400 years, possibly much longer. Scholars in England knew of crocodiles even in the 1500s, and reported that when hungry those very odd beasts cried like humans in trouble, so that other humans flocked to the rescue and provided a tasty dinner for the reptiles. “In this river we saw many Crocodilis … His nature was ever when hee would have his prey, to cry and sobbe like a Christian body, to provoke them to come to him, and then hee snatcheth at them.”[5] Robert Burton, a famous 17th Century author, confirmed the story, saying that crocodiles did far more than cry to attract human prey. To their tears they added “sobs, fiery sighs and sorrowful countenance, pale colour, [and] leanness.”[6]

Of course, today we know that crocodiles don’t really do these things, or most of them, although they will eat humans if any are available. Nevertheless, the expression crocodile tears remains in the English language, and is generally taken to mean a “false or insincere display of emotion such as a hypocrite crying fake tears of grief.” [7] But frankly, I don’t think the modern definition does full justice to the context, i.e., to the actual relationship between crocodiles and humans. In a nutshell, crocodiles are predators, and humans are prey. If you miss that basic fact, you’ve missed the point of the story.

So are the ideologues of the Republican Party shedding crocodile tears when they cry for the people who have problems signing up under the Affordable Care Act? Well, that does sound a bit hypocritical. After all, just two months ago Republicans were trying to abolish the whole thing, so that nobody would get any benefits. The mantra was “People should pay for their health care, not have it subsidized by the Government!”

But is the new Republican position worse than hypocrisy? Is it actively malign? You’ll have to determine that for yourselves, but if you want some help, take a look at another really old author, Edmund Spenser, who also discussed the tears of the crocodile. He wrote:

“A cruel, crafty crocodile, Which in false grief hiding his harmful guile, Doth weep full sore, and sheddeth tender tears.”[8]

Personally, I think there’s more than mere hypocrisy in the new Republican position. In reality they still want to abolish the Affordable Care Act, but that’s not possible right now. But elections are coming next year, and if they win a few seats in the Senate and keep their majority in the House, they can do the job after that. In the meantime, all they need to do is cry about the problems with the Act, without trying to fix them. That might win the Republicans enough votes in the Congress to finally destroy the whole thing.

Anyway, that’s what I think and if it’s their intent, it looks like “harmful guile” to me. You be the judge. But no matter what, be sure to take a First Aid Kit to the voting booth next year. To treat crocodile bites, don’t you know?

[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (6th Edition) (Oxford, 2004) (hereafter cited as ODQ at __) at Bacon, p. 46, n. 3. This is from Essays (1625) and, more specifically, from Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self.

[2] For those of you who want to know, that’s Pub. Law No. 111-148 (March 23, 2010), 124 Stat. 119 – 1025. You can get a [free] copy from the Government Printing Office at

[3] For a discussion of earlier Conservative efforts to block this statute, see the blog of 09/29/2013, Words, available at

[4] See Forbes, Sheffield, ObamaCare Flop Contrasts Sharply With Bush’s Medicare Overhaul (11/19/2013), available at

[5] Our trusty old Oxford English Dictionary gives this example. See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (1971) (hereafter, 1971 OED at __) at Crocodile, p. 1184, note 2.

[6] See ODQ at Burton, p. 174, n. 15. This is from Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-1651), a somewhat long but wonderful book.

[7] This is the Wikipedia definition. See

[8] See ODQ at Spenser, p. 751, n. 18. This is from the Faerie Queen (1596).