The irony was just too much to ignore. The morning after I wrote the first draft of this post (Friday), I opened the newspaper to read that two of my friends and Mel King, a legendary Boston community organizer, had been busted for blocking yet another eviction by a greedy bank.
This gave me great pause since I’d written a scathing denunciation of our right-wing jihadists’ ability to blackmail the federal government into a shutdown. A shutdown which meant that more than 800,000 government employees have been unable to work1, 3,200 children have been locked out of Head Start, 2 and 401 national parks have been closed to the public.3
I’d even gone as far as presenting a chart that listed the number of federal employees in each of our states, noting how the congressional jihadists were hurting their own constituents. But after reading the article about my friends, I began to reconsider.
How would I have felt if the Vietnam Anti-War movement had been able to shut the government down? Truth is, I would have felt great, useful, triumphant. But then I realized this country never closes the military. Wouldn’t have then and didn’t now. Realized that shutdowns are programs that help people or build a better country. War, on the other hand, doesn’t sleep.
That’s when it struck me that the government shutdown was more than a byproduct of Tea Party activists, and the underlying philosophy of shutdown politics is not really less government as much as no government. Some of what this shutdown actually provides. A Facebook friend commented to me, “This is a war about what this country is.” I guess I’d say this is a war about what a social compact means.
One side believes that people ought take care of themselves and their families and choose on their own whether to help those in need. I have no doubt that a huge number of people on this side actually do choose to help. They adopt, give money to many different charities, feed the hungry, and live lives that are a testament to their beliefs. They also believe that government is wasteful, runs on pork, misuses their hard-earned money, and interferes with their lives. While they do acknowledge people need some government, say a military, on the social side of the ledger there is no need or place for the feds.
Actually, many progressives agree with some of these points from their own perspective. For example, who does the government really work for? They see the overwhelming support government gives to the rich and powerful, the banks and multi-national corporations, the 1% and it sickens them. And some of them, like my friends, try to shut the government down by committing acts of civil disobedience to stop ugly and unfair foreclosures.
For this side of the division, though, social compact doesn’t leave the wellbeing of others to individual decisions or buy into the notion that it’s every person for themselves. While it agrees that government wastes a huge amount of money, it relies on a federal government to provide jobs for the unemployed, food for the hungry, and yes, healthcare for our people.
That doesn’t mean those of us with the collective view of our social compact rather than the individual uber alles position think governments walk on water. There’s plenty to complain about. We don’t believe that governments have the right to follow us around, intercept our emails, mess with peoples’ personal lives (or bodies) and the list keeps rolling on.
But we do believe it’s a necessary condition to administer a social compact. Without it people would starve, bridges would crumble, and the quality of most peoples’ lives would hit the shitter.
There’s an enormous amount of problems with this government and I certainly haven’t been shy in writing about them—from institutional racism and unnecessary wars, to our governments’ lapdog ass licking to big business and the greed-heads. But unlike the other side of the divide, I’m not willing to flush it away—even with my significant doubts about potential reformation.
Because right now government does feed the hungry, does fund shelters for the homeless and battered woman, does make sure that back alley abortions are a horror of the past, and does provide educational opportunities for those who can’t get them on their own. (And I’m just naming a few. Haven’t even bothered with the really big stuff like the F.D.A, Medical Research Grants, Transportation etc.)
If the day comes when the private sector decides to do all the above and more at the scale needed, then it might be time to shut the government down. But right now it’s nothing but extortion by people who, at their best, actually imagine that more than 300 million people can go it alone. That’s not thought. That’s delusion.
THIS COLUMN IS DEDICATED TO THE LIFE OF NATHAN BRENNER, A MAN WHO TOUCHED THE HEARTS OF MANY—INCLUDING MINE.
Sources: 1. “Federal Government Begins First Shutdown in 17 Years,” Time Swampland, October 1, 2013
2. “Shutdown Closes 3,200 Preschoolers’ Head Start Programs,” The Wall Street Journal, October 2, 2013
3. “National Parks: Shutting Down America’s Best Idea,” National Geographic, October 2, 2013