Shutdown Finishes; Wreckage Remains
by Stephen Cox | Posted October 27, 2013
Count Stadion, an Austrian diplomat who participated in the Conference of Chatillon (1814), said of those proceedings: “We are playing a comedy which is interesting only because of its platitudes.”
In 1814, even the platitudes of such people as Castlereagh and Caulaincourt (or better, Metternich and Talleyrand) might be interesting. But I hate to think what Stadion would have said about the discourse inspired by our recent governmental “shutdown.” He would have discerned the comedy, but he could hardly have been interested in the platitudes. And he could hardly have been satisfied just to call them that. A platitude is a trite, banal, or insipid expression. (It comes from a French word, “plat,” appropriately meaning “flat.”) Probably he would have added references to language that is obnoxious, ridiculous, and grossly insulting to the thinking mind.
The realm of intelligent discourse is an island of sanity, washed by hot seas of nonsense. During the 20th century, much of this tiny paradise was lost beneath the watery waste. What was once firm ground became swamps of brackish words and sentences, then delusive verbal quicksand, then eerie depths of linguistic degradation. Remaining is a place like a South Pacific atoll, continually endangered not only by the big storms that arise at sea but also by the smallest, silliest gusts of air — such teapot tempests as the “shutdown.” As a geopolitical event, the affair didn’t amount to much, but when the weather calmed, one saw many parts of the territory where common sense and effective communication had been swept away. In their place, the waves had left the kind of refuse that cannot destroy the mind but can certainly make it wish it were not attached to a sense of smell.
Much of the refuse consisted of mean words and cruel. How many times did Harry Reid proclaim, in his undertaker’s voice, that anything the Republicans passed in the House would be dead on arrival in the Senate? How many times did Republicans point to the military veterans who were prevented by a vengeful National Parks establishment from treading the sacred ground of the World War II memorial and refer to them as people who didn’t have a minute to lose — who were, not to put too fine a point on it, just about to die? Their last journey, their final chance, these soldiers we hold in remembrance, the passing of the greatest generation . . .
(By the way, aren’t you tired of hearing that generation stuff? As if senior citizen — with its implication that just because you’re old you’re “senior” in some moral sense — weren’t bad enough, we’re now told that you’re great, indeed the greatest, just because you got to vote for Roosevelt and be drafted into the army. No, I am not expressing ageism: I don’t think that I deserve any respect or recognition, any plaudits for being hip and pioneering, just because I was part of the baby boom.)
Suddenly the faintest of all virtues, the willingness to give up when you’re forced to do so, became the hallmark of leadership.
Many of the hard words were emitted, curiously, by advocates of compromise. Suddenly the faintest of all virtues, the willingness to give up when you’re forced to do so, became the hallmark of leadership. Often, just as curiously, leadership was said to consist of rigorous obedience, mystic devotion, to something called the law of the land. What this appeared to mean was that once some law, such as the Obamacare enactment, gets passed and signed, no one should try to get rid of it, or even delay its implementation. As in the book of Esther, "If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered." The desire to alter a law was pronounced extremism.
That was a big leap. To get there, one needed not only Law and Order but also the New Math. During the shutdown, it pleased the king to ridicule his opponents for acting at the behest of one faction of extreme partisans, in one party, in one part of one branch of government — meaning the Tea Party faction in the House. Immediately, all the king’s servants (otherwise known as partisans) took up the cry. Soon, thanks to a creative use of fractions, the case was made: the vast majority of Americans, all those people who dislike Obamacare, are actually an extreme minority, extreme both in the mathematical and in the ideological sense.
Another interesting use of fractions, or something like them, was the attempt to divide all Americans into extremists and moderates — an easy task, logically, because anything that is not extreme must be not-extreme, or moderate. The fact that “moderate” has no particular meaning, in isolation from such words as “extreme,” might make a thinking person wonder whether the word was particularly useful, even when juxtaposed with other relative terms (e.g., extreme). The fact that people who are paid to talk kept using moderate and extremist day and night, as if they were essential terms of analysis, was further confirmation that talking doesn’t require much thinking.
Americans’ fashionable respect for moderation reminded me of a cartoon that circulated during the Vietnam War. It was a satire of moderate opposition to the war, and it depicted a group of people carrying signs that read “A Little Less Bombing.” In 2013, moderates are people who want, perhaps, a little less government, at some time in the future, but not now, never now. If there’s such a thing as an extremist platitude, it’s the current use of moderate.
And also of extremist. In 2013, extremists, already extreme, became even more so. They (that is, all non-moderates) became domestic enemies or terrorists, people who were pointing a gun at the president’s head.
The meaning of terrorist had obviously wandered pretty far from its origins. It used to be a word for people sneaking around planting bombs, or rushing out of the shadows to throw one at an archduke. This is not a role, I believe, that John Boehner was born to play. I can’t see Mitch McConnell running through a shopping mall hunting for Christians to slaughter. Even Ted Cruz, chief target of the administration’s talk about terrorism, isn’t plotting to destroy all ranks and hierarchies; what he wants is to achieve the highest rank in the current political hierarchy. Yet according to the new definition, terrorist means simply “someone who stands in our way.”
Imagine, if you can, George Washington, considering a crossing of the Delaware. “Man up, general!” some soldier shouts; and Washington mans up, and all is well.
To me, that is a sobering thought. It means that I spend virtually all my waking life among terrorists. Someone is always standing in my way. When I want to use the elevator, someone else is using it. When I want to turn into the exit lane, someone else is already driving there. When I’m on a committee, other members are always advocating different proposals from mine, and they get people to vote for them! From my students’ point of view, I myself must be a terrorist; I am always standing in their way of having fun. And that’s exactly what the extremist Republicans tried to do; they tried to stand in the way of the president’s fun. He wanted them to give him money to do as he pleased with it, and those terrorists just weren’t prepared to do so. Until he got his way with accusations of terrorism.
Well, maybe we should all just man up. Now, there’s an expression one didn’t expect to see as a major part of political discourse, but there it was, taking its place with caucuses and continuing resolutions to sway the destiny of the nation. Tea Party types advised the moderate Republicans to man up. Pundits told the president that he needed to man up and restore his leadership profile by imposing a solution to the budget problem. Why man up is not perceived as a piece of gross sexism is beyond my understanding. What is not beyond my understanding is its gross reductionism, its summary of leadership as nothing more than an intense commitment to some football game of the emotions. Imagine, if you can, George Washington, considering a crossing of the Delaware. “Man up, general!” some soldier shouts; and Washington mans up, and all is well. You can’t imagine that? Maybe that’s because it’s unimaginable. You can’t imagine even Millard Fillmore being told to man up.
One might possibly need to man up if one had already been taken hostage by a gang of terrorist Republicans; one might need to man up if one were actually standing with a gun at one’s head. I may be out of step with the rest of America, but I’m not sure that’s what the shutdown amounted to. Even the most obnoxious metaphor ought to bear some relationship to something that’s real; otherwise, I can’t form the obnoxious picture in my mind. So in this case, what is the gun? A threat not to vote for the president’s schemes? Is that a deadly weapon? If so, why did he consistently refuse to negotiate while someone washolding a gun to his head? And is that what terrorists do — threaten to blow your head off, unless you negotiate with them? Can you then simply refuse to negotiate? Evidently you can, because that’s what the president did. Memo to self: next time someone points a gun at you, just refuse to negotiate. That’ll fix ’em.
Ditto the next time someone takes you hostage. All you need to do is just refuse to pay the ransom. We were constantly told that America or the political process or something like that was being held for ransom — but what was the ransom supposed to be? Ordinarily, a ransom is a sack of money delivered to the kidnapers. In this case, however, what the kidnapers wanted was merely their own right not to pay more money to the kidnaped persons, the hostages — the Obama Party and the government it represents.
It’s all very confusing. This thing called government, this thing that was shut down, held hostage, held for ransom — what was it? It wasn’t the people who pass laws and sign them, some of whom were acting as the terrorists or hostage takers, others as the people at whom the terrorists were aiming their guns. All those people kept working on their separate projects. It wasn’t the vast number of essential government employees, who also continued to work, or “work.” And it certainly wasn’t America, as in the Democrats’ interchangeable use of holding the government hostage and holding America hostage. What was shut down, apparently, was the complacent idea that some people, somewhere in this country, were doing humble but appropriate work for the republic, work that, though nonessential, was still important enough to worry about. Probably no one believes that now. The cliché turned out to be true: all these workers were nonessential. The only essential thing about them was the perceived necessity of paying them even when they didn’t even pretend to work — as Congress unanimously agreed to do, when it decided to reimburse them for their nonwork during the shutdown. Asked whom among them might be dispensed with by a grateful but bankrupt nation, both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner failed to identify a single cuttable employee.
So the government will keep “working,” and you and I will have to keep paying it to work as it does, forever. I, for one, regard that as an extreme situation. I, for one, feel that we have been taken hostage — with not just one but two bands of pirates engaged in looting us. But here the kidnaping analogy breaks down. It’s becoming obvious that no ransom will free us from these brigands. We tried paying them to go away, and they didn’t.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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