The Shutdown, and the Sickness at Our Core

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To me, the most ominous feature of this political moment is the fact that most of the American people appear to regard “shutting down the government” as so dangerous, so frightful, so morally detestable, that they will suffer virtually anything, including the horrors of Obamacare, to avert such Days of Doom.

Many of our fellow citizens do not realize, even after 20 years of threats and experiments in this field, that the real effects of the “shutdown” will be minimal. It will mean a short-term lapse of certain “non-essential government services” (there being thousands of such services deemed essential). But I think that most people do realize that. Nevertheless, they are unwilling to part with even a few of the alleged benefits of government, even temporarily, even for an important cause. In other words, they are willing to burden themselves and everyone else with trillions of dollars of debt, to support programs that most of them heartily dislike, at the behest of lawmakers whom they scorn and ridicule, merely to avoid . . . what? Not getting their mail on Saturday? But they probably will get their mail on Saturday.

I know many people who will fight almost to the death to avoid paying for some item they bought that turned out to be defective, but who rant against the Republicans for resisting Obamacare with the only weapons that are available. None of these people happen to be on the government dole, at least in any way that could conceivably be affected by a “government shutdown.” They all have their own, big beefs with government, and do not hesitate to talk about them. Yet this is how they behave.

The usual explanation for such behavior is “cognitive dissonance”: a clash between two attitudes, both of them devoutly held but each in opposition to the other. Yet in cognitive dissonance theory, people try to find some way of reconciling their opposing attitudes, or at least of rationalizing the opposition. That is not happening now. Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

I am afraid that we are witnessing one of those phenomena that signal a deep sickness within a culture, a sickness for which no name or diagnosis appears to be available. You can see it, but you don’t know what it is.

The woodland Indians of North America valued an attitude of grave deliberation, often spending days or weeks in solemn meditation on the right course to take on issues of practical or moral import. Yet their favorite entertainment was the fiendish torture of other human beings, conducted amid scenes of riotous celebration and clinical interest in every detail of suffering. Something, clearly, was amiss — but nobody thought there was, or tried to reconcile the conflict.

Our fellow citizens simply announce their hatred for government and their hatred for anyone who tries to act against government.

When you watch reports of a political demonstration in the Middle East, what do you see? Usually it is a crowd of young men dressed in designer jeans and the latest sneakers, riotously denouncing Western culture and appropriating every possible Western means of communication to advertise their denunciations. Again, one can see the symptoms of some deep internal conflict, but the conflict inspires no reflection among the participants.

I would consider it wrong for someone on welfare, or Social Security, or a government payroll, to advocate strong government, lecture everyone about the virtue of following government orders, and denounce opponents of big government as anarchists. This would, however, be readily understandable, self-consistent, and in its way psychologically healthy: you benefit from big government; therefore, you openly advocate it. But so far, only Harry Reid, a creature from outer space, has done that; only he has called the opponents of big government “anarchists.” Tens of millions of other citizens lament the government and all its works, as if they themselves were anarchists, while simultaneously resenting and denouncing the very idea of “shutting” it.

In this way — this way alone, but it’s an important way — they are sick, and Harry Reid is healthy. There is something very wrong with this picture.

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